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Tarsi Dunlop's picture
Tarsi Dunlop is Program and Operations Manager for Learning First Alliance. During her three years supporting public education and associations at the Alliance, she gained a deep appreciation for the...
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State Education Agencies Are Not in the Dark Ages

Ask practitioners and administrations on the ground in the education system about state education agencies (SEAs), and you may encounter skepticism. SEAs need not be considered antiquated bodies, as they are the heart of leadership in a states education system. SEAs monitor compliance and accountability, but they also provide support for policy design and implementation. These entities are well positioned to use high quality research in policy and practice, but there is variation in efficacy and capacity for doing so among states; an understanding of how SEAs use research provides useful insights when it comes to best practices.

Earlier this month at an event hosted by the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), Dr. Margaret Goertz, from the University of Pennsylvania, presented research she conducted with colleagues and published through The Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) on how staff in SEAs access, interpret and use research in their work. The study also examined the ways external organizations and partners support the dissemination of research within agencies. The study, funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, looked at three SEAs, collecting data using interviews, surveys, and document review.

The reports findings, as presented at the AYPF event, have policy implications to increase the efficacy and function of state SEAs as relates to the use of research:

1. SEA staff actively sought and were receptive to research ideas. Their search was broad, reaching across the SEA and outside to external sources of research.
2. 70% of SEA staff searched internally when seeking research on school improvement. This search reached across SEA offices, reflecting the cross-divisional work of school improvement (SI) work.
3. Some SEA staff reached out to a broad array of external organizations for research information on school improvement. These external organizations provided expertise and human capital; translated, synthesized and packaged research; provided access to ready-made or adaptable tools; and validated that actions were in step with research and/or practices of other states
4. Broad research networks, with many singular connections to knowledge sources, facilitated the flow of new ideas. But a set of influential SEA staff (and offices) incorporated research into school improvement strategies
5. Research-based knowledge (RBK) informed the design of SI frameworks, indicators, strategies, tools and other forms of SI assistance. SEA staff valued RBK designed for use, and RBK was usually coupled with practitioner knowledge as well as evidence based knowledge, in the design/refinement of policies and practices.

This data reveals that SEA staffers do collaborate across offices and that they seek out research internally and from external sources to inform their recommendations and implementation. This is especially true when it comes to school improvement. The final finding is of particular note; SEA staff sought RBK designed for use, coupled with practitioner knowledge, to help design and refine policies and practices. Too often, policy-makers perhaps anxious to deliver results fail to engage professional educators. SEAs are responsible for the execution of policy; therefore they want to ensure that it will succeed. It seems logical that they would want policy to be grounded in research but contain components that ensure it is actionable. Sound research, with fidelity in implementation, has a high chance of being good public policy.

One example of how SEAs use research in their work comes from Massachusetts. Carrie Conaway from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spoke about the adoption of educator evaluation in the Commonwealth. A task force met for eight months before making recommendations to the board. They determined that evaluation should: promote growth and development of leaders and teachers; place student learning at the center, as measured by multiple measures; recognize excellence in teaching and leading; set a high bar for professional teaching status and shorten timelines for improvement. They used research from the start, particularly in determining how to include educator impact on student learning in the evaluation system.

Research suggested that student impact matters, but determining the percent that it should count in the evaluation was a different question. Given the state assessment system covered only certain subjects and grade levels, they had data that was only relevant for 20 percent of educators. They needed a whole new assessment system to ensure fair evaluation for all educators. Finally, student feedback according to the Measuring Effective Teaching (MET) Study is an accurate reflection of teacher effectiveness, and so Massachusetts is the only state where student feedback is a formal part of the evaluation process. National and state specific research helped shape a complex and rigorous evaluation system that emphasizes improvement and student achievement.

States use of research requires additional attention, especially as education professionals work to implement new policies surrounding Common Core, education technology in the classroom, ESEA waiver requirements, teacher evaluation systems and many other changes in the pipeline. Research networks internal and external clearly support the flow of ideas but the networks must exist, and SEAs need support to find and use research and evidence in policy-making. Putting policies into practice is an art; it requires a goal, an understanding of the system, and an ability to apply lessons and results from studies and research to real life. Though this is hard, often thankless work, SEAs have shown leadership in our collective effort to strengthen student achievement and our public schools.

This content was originally published by Tarsi Dunlop on Learning First Alliance's blog and is posted here with permission.