Regional Educational Laboratories can be Engines for Educational Improvement
It’s an exciting time to be engaged in promoting data-driven decision making in education. Education is more important than it has ever been, not only for economic success but also for effective citizenship. This means schools must be better than they have ever been. And dramatic improvements in school performance will require data-driven decision making at all levels of the system, from classrooms on up.
“Data driven” has become a catchphrase in education, but the execution often falls short of the ideal. Educators and policymakers are too often drowning in data rather than driven by data. Effective data-driven decision making requires that the data provided to educators be relevant—useful to the decision maker—and diagnostic—informative for the decision at hand.
Too often, decision makers receive data that fall short on one or both of these characteristics. As a state official, it isn’t enough to know a school’s proficiency level in reading and math; you need to know how much the school is improving student outcomes to distinguish the school’s effect from the effect of students’ families. As a high school principal, it isn’t enough to know whether your former students are succeeding in college; you need to know how to better prepare the students you are serving today. As a classroom teacher, it isn’t enough to know what your value-added score is; you need to know how to teach better.
The 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) sponsored by the Institute for Education Sciences represent the U.S. Department of Education’s largest investment in promoting data-driven decision making by educators and policymakers across the country. The RELs are tasked with assisting state and local educators and policymakers in interpreting, conducting, and applying research; they seek to achieve this by providing technical support, conducting applied research, and disseminating research findings. As the new operator of REL Mid-Atlantic, Mathematica (along with WestEd and other partners) is working with stakeholders in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia to develop capacity for data-driven decision making.
Over the next five years, REL Mid-Atlantic staff will work side-by-side with policymakers and educators in the region to address their most urgent needs for research, analysis, and the development of analytic capacity. For example, we can support states in developing and understanding new measures of students’ social and emotional learning or survey-based measures of school climate that could be used not only to gain a richer understanding of student and school performance but also to meet the new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). We can work with district officials and regional employers to more fully understand the skills needed for successful careers and the curricula needed to develop those skills. And we can assist states and districts in identifying evidence-based interventions that have been shown to improve student outcomes (thereby addressing another of ESSA’s expectations).
In sum, our laboratory will promote effective data-driven decision making across the mid-Atlantic region, with the longer-term aim of helping the region’s schools become better than they have ever been. I believe that education could be on the cusp of dramatic improvements in productivity, and—with no offense intended for my colleagues at the other regional labs—I’m hoping the mid-Atlantic region will lead the way. A little healthy competition is always a good thing, right?