Skip Navigation

Home Blogs Contextualizing Education Partnerships in the Pacific Region

Contextualizing Education Partnerships in the Pacific Region

Pacific | April 21, 2023

The terms, "research" and "evidence," are now commonly used in education spaces thanks, in part, to the movement toward evidence-based initiatives. Educators' decisions to develop or adopt an education initiative are increasingly driven by examining the evidence base for what works for students. This movement has been fueled by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which encourages state and local education agencies to prioritize interventions, practices, programs, and policies that are evidence-based.1

However, determining "what works" for student populations and contexts underrepresented in the body of education research, and determining the best methods for implementing continuous improvement, are persisting challenges.2, 3 Building on the improvement efforts from the evidence-based movement includes refocusing the lens of research from what works to identifying how, why, and for whom an intervention or initiative works.4

Implementing an evidence-based initiative requires an understanding of the core components of the initiative and investigating how they might be contextualized to serve the goals and needs of the local context. It therefore requires expertise of content and methodology (of the evidence base), as well as expertise of practice and context. Recent approaches to research–practice partnerships (referred to as "partnerships" in this blog) lend themselves to focusing on the questions of how, why, and for whom by providing a structure that brings together a diversity of expertise and are structured in a manner that shifts power relations in research activities to ensure all participants have decision-making power.5

The Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) program has prioritized working in partnership as the mechanism for educational change, particularly through supporting educators in understanding the evidence base related to an identified need, identifying what works in addressing that need, and partnering with educators to consider best approaches for contextualizing education initiatives to meet local needs. The RELs accomplish this by providing training, coaching, and technical support, engaging in applied research and development projects, and disseminating research and evidence that have been co-developed in partnership with educators so that findings and activities can reach a broad audience.

The concept and structure of REL Pacific partnerships

In the 2022–27 REL cycle, the high-priority themes across the REL Pacific partnerships include: culturally responsive and sustaining education, teacher effectiveness, and math and literacy instruction.

The REL Pacific region includes three independent nations (the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau), three U.S. territories (American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam), and one U.S. state ( Hawaiʻi). Histories of colonization and modern sovereignty movements have shaped what education looks like in the U.S.-affiliated Pacific, and education system leaders continue to navigate the complexities of implementing U.S. education reform initiatives in Pacific island contexts.6, 7, 8 REL Pacific is honored to serve as a resource for these entities as they exercise their educational sovereignty and state/local system authority to pursue the education initiatives that are of the highest priority for improving students' education experiences. In the 2022–27 REL cycle, the high-priority themes across the REL Pacific partnerships include: culturally responsive and sustaining education, teacher effectiveness, and math and literacy instruction.

The image of the pandanus tree below illustrates the concept and structure of REL Pacific's partnerships with education stakeholders. Pandanus tectorius, a native tree that grows throughout the region, holds cultural significance for many Pacific peoples. The pandanus is one of the most useful trees because all parts of the plant can be used—for example, the leaves for weaving mats, baskets, clothing items, and sails; the trunks for canoes or houses; the fruit for food or lei; and the roots for medicine.9,10 See here for some examples of the tree's uses in Micronesia and Hawaiʻi. The familiarity and the utility of the pandanus tree across the Pacific islands makes this tree an ideal metaphor of REL Pacific partnerships.

  • Core partners as the roots of REL Pacific partnerships: The aerial roots of the pandanus are visible above ground and are a solid structure that props up the tree; additionally, these roots serve as the mechanism for nutrients to reach the whole tree. The core partners of a partnership are a small group of system leaders and their identified key stakeholders, along with a REL Pacific partnership lead, who meet regularly to advise, inform, and provide direction for the growth of the partnership.
  • Project teams as the branches: While the core partners serve as the advisors and direction-setters of the partnerships, the project teams are the ones who work to design and implement the projects. The project teams vary within and across partnerships—some stakeholders and REL staff support multiple projects in one partnership, but the key aspect is that project teams have individual project goals, which are informed by the broader goals of the partnership.
  • Leaf clusters as project types: The REL program categorizes types of work into (1) training, coaching, and technical support, (2) applied research, and (3) dissemination. Partnerships have two or all three types of projects, with teams who are working in tandem together to produce the desired fruits, or outcomes, of the partnership.
  • The fruit as the partnership outcomes: The core partners share their high-leverage needs and the desired outcomes of the partnership. This then helps the teams plan the projects to produce the desired fruit. Partnership outcomes may fall into several categories: (1) sustained, systemic organizational change, (2) improved educator effectiveness, and (3) improved academic outcomes.
REL Pacific Partnerships diagram

An example: The FSM Partnership to Improve Teacher Effectiveness by Developing and Implementing an Evidence-Based, Culturally Responsive Model for Instruction

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) includes four individual states—Pohnpei, Chuuk, Kosrae, and Yap—made up of various islands and atolls spread across 1,740 miles. Within each state, there are distinct cultures and languages, and state population size varies greatly (learn more about the FSM in this infographic). To address opportunities to improve student outcomes across all education sectors, FSM education leaders are focused on improving academic outcomes through three focal areas: building teacher capacity, supporting schools to meet accreditation standards, and bridging the gap between the languages students use in and outside of the classroom. FSM education leaders believe the identification of instructional models may provide an opportunity to dialogue about these focal areas and discuss possibilities for system-wide change to address them. Specifically, leaders aim to develop an instructional model that reflects and sustains students' and teachers' rich cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

The roots. With the three focal areas in mind, the FSM national core partners—who include the secretary of the National Department of Education (DOE) and the directors of the four state DOEs—collaborated with REL Pacific to create a multi-year scope of work that begins the process of identifying instructional models for the Pohnpei and Kosrae state DOEs. Because the instructional model projects are being piloted in two states, the partnership structure also includes a core partnership team that is based in each state department of education.

The branches and leaves. Three proposed training and coaching projects with REL Pacific focus on the development and piloting of a state-specific instructional model and best practices for systemic change, which will support the implementation of the instructional models, as well as any future district initiatives. The planned dissemination projects to complement these training/coaching projects include two infographics on instructional models and systemic change. These will support training and coaching participants as they apply the concepts to current and future work.

The fruit. The partnership's long-term goals include:

  • Core partners consistently promote collaborative and equitable decision making.
  • The partnership's work contributes to change in National Department of Education and state DOE norms, culture, and routines related to the use of research and evidence to make systemic change through identification and implementation of state-specific instructional models.
  • The instructional model has been adopted across all classrooms in selected pilot schools.
  • Demonstrated increase(s) in teacher outcomes, such as more consistent use of evidence-based instructional practices that support higher levels of student achievement.

Like the resilient pandanus tree, the partnership work in FSM is ever-evolving and adapts to meet current demands of the environment.

Like the resilient pandanus tree, the partnership work in FSM is ever-evolving and adapts to meet current demands of the environment. In some cases, this may mean adjusting expectations of the goals of the projects or the long-term goals of the partnership. But the partnership structure with core partners, project teams, and complementary projects that are all focused on shared outcomes encourages equitable decision making and honoring of expertise across the education sectors.

More information about the FSM partnership can be found on the partnership page.

1 Read more about the ESSA tiers of evidence on the WWC website and in this REL Midwest handout.

2 Slavin, R. E. (2016). Evidence-based reform in education: Which evidence counts? Educational Researcher, 37, 47–50.

3 Yurkofsky, M. M., Peterson, A. J., Mehta, J. D., Horwitz-Willis, R., & Frumin, K. M. (2020). Research on continuous improvement: Exploring the complexities of managing educational change. Review of Research in Education, 44(1), 403–433.

4 Soldner, M. (2020). "The how" of "what works:" The importance of core components in education research (NCEE Blog). National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

5 Farrell, C. C., Penuel, W. R., Coburn, C. E., Daniel, J., & Steup, L. (2021). Research-practice partnerships in education: The state of the field. William T. Grant Foundation.

6 Kupferman, D. W. (2013). Disassembling and decolonizing school in the Pacific: A genealogy from Micronesia. New York, NY: Springer.

7 Hauʻofa, E. (1994). Our sea of islands. The Contemporary Pacific, 148–161.

8 Crocombe, R., & Meleisea, M. (1989). Higher education in the Pacific Islands: Spheres of influence, trends, and developments. International Journal of Educational Development, 9(3), 163–173.

9 Thomson, L. A., Englberger, L., Guarino, L., Thaman, R. R., & Elevitch, C. R. (2006). Pandanus tectorius (pandanus). Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry, 28.

10 Gallaher, T. (2014). The past and future of hala (pandanus tectorius) in Hawaiʻi. In L. Keawe, M. MacDowell, & C. K. Dewhurst (Eds.), ʻIke ulana lau hala: The vitality and vibrancy of lau hala weaving traditions in Hawaiʻi (pp. 94–112). University of Hawaiʻi Press.


Katie Gao

Meagan Taylor

Marisa Crowder

Connect with REL Pacific