Are We Doing Enough to Build the Evidence and Learning Systems That Will Improve State Practices?

This is the seventh post in our eight-part blog series on using research evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Check back every week for the latest installment. Also, be sure to sign up for our March 7 webinar, ESSA and Research Evidence: Opportunities and Challenges for States.

Nate Schwartz

As we debate how best to make use of research evidence to improve educational practice, we need to recognize the challenge that comes from our multi-layered system of educational authority. Part of the difficulty lies in determining where to place our energy in building bridges between research and practice. Should we be focused on transmitting research directly into the hands of teachers? School and district leaders? State policymakers?


There is no single answer, but in my role as the leader of the Tennessee Department of Education’s research and strategy office, I’d argue that state departments increasingly serve as a crucial point of intersection in this discussion. As standards-based reforms – including test-based accountability for districts, schools, and sometimes teachers – have taken hold across the U.S., the level of state influence on classroom-level practices has grown substantially.


At the same time, the state’s authority and responsibility around improving the use of research evidence is actually made up of two fairly distinct roles. State departments work to ensure that districts are using high quality research to inform their actions – they authorize improvement plans and enforce compliance with federal regulations – but they also make a series of crucial programmatic decisions that have long-ranging implications for student educational outcomes. To this end, departments need better evidence with which to make their own policy decisions.

As state departments across the country create plans for the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the focus has been squarely on the former role. ESSA provisions require that all school improvement plans approved by states must include evidence-based interventions drawn from the top three levels of a four-tiered system. Making sense of this language and determining how to ensure compliance is a challenge, and there are productive and important discussions taking place across the country about how to draw upon a broad range of evidence to promote strong district and school practices.

Yet I worry that we are not talking enough about the research that directly informs state departments and other state-level policymakers on their own practices.

In Tennessee, programs and requirements set directly by the state are significantly changing the experiences of nearly one million students across 1800 schools. Over the last several years, our state department has led the statewide implementation of an annual educator evaluation system, Response to Instruction and Intervention, a network of almost three hundred reading coaches, and a state-run school district that manages some of our lowest performing schools. The hyperlinks in the previous sentence lead to research reports that Tennessee has released on these initiatives. If we are not constantly learning from these ambitious efforts and using them to inform our work, we are fundamentally failing in our responsibility to our schools and our students. Equally importantly, if states across the country don’t have access to this learning – for example, if policymakers in Kentucky or Massachusetts or North Dakota can’t call upon research about Tennessee’s reading coach network as they debate their own improvement strategies, and vice versa – we have missed a vital opportunity.

I have heard little of this conversation at the national level. If we were focused on helping states continue to improve their practice through research, we would more often ask whether we are sufficiently funding state-level R&D efforts. We would hear greater excitement about the promise of the new federal Education Innovation and Research grants and the research-practitioner partnership grants offered by the Institute of Education Sciences. We would spend more time examining the Regional Education Laboratory (REL) structure and the degree to which these programs are conducting and disseminating research that directly improves state practice. We would hear greater consternation about the fact that a significant number of state departments do not actually have their own research offices.

Because our state has not felt a national push to build up our research capacity, our efforts have been mostly homegrown. Over the past several years, I have been lucky enough to serve in a department of education that has placed an enormous priority on learning and improvement. My colleagues across the state have spent considerable time engaging on the question – with guidance from a few states such as Massachusetts that do this work particularly well – of what it would look like to build out a continuous improvement arm at the state level.

Our strategy depends on two major elements.

First, we have put together a research team within our department of education that regularly analyzes department data across a host of measures to inform immediate action and priorities. Over time, this team has come to play a major role in department strategic planning efforts, with members serving as leaders in the strategic planning and stock take process and active participants in all of the department’s major initiatives.

Second, we have teamed up with Vanderbilt University to launch a new organization named the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA). TERA aims to systematically produce research to help direct the state’s long term improvement efforts. The organization – one of the first state-level research-practice partnerships based on the model pioneered by the Chicago Consortium on School Research – represents a break with the more traditional model of state research.

When we started these efforts in Tennessee, we took a more conventional approach to research partnership and turned to academic researchers at Vanderbilt and across the country to work with us to develop a deep understanding of our programs and practices. Initially, this strategy felt feasible, but as our portfolio of research grew, the day-to-day demands associated with all of these research partners grew increasingly unmanageable. More importantly, we started to learn less and less from each individual project. We had five to ten researchers all seeking to understand aspects of our teacher evaluation system, but no one was thinking about how these different projects fit together or how the different findings might help us to refine our statewide theory of action around teacher improvement.

Through TERA, we hope to build a new model. Within a handful of major research strands – areas such as “Driving improvement in low-performing schools” and “Reimagining state support for professional learning” – the organization will organize researchers across the country to undertake multiple studies of Tennessee efforts and develop a comprehensive understanding of the problem. Over time, we hope to generate a shared conceptual framework and a set of practical findings and recommendations that will direct Tennessee efforts in these areas and simultaneously inform other state’s strategies. Because the organization is closely partnered with the state department but independent and housed within a highly respected research university, it will be sheltered from some political turbulence and thus more likely to endure across leadership turnover at the statehouse and the department of education.

While we are only in year one of the organization, we see enormous potential in the work that is taking place, and we believe it can provide a possible model for other state learning systems. At the same time, we continue to hope that the discussions about evidence-use under ESSA eventually translate into a broader national discussion about ways that states can increasingly build a strong evidence base for their work, and we look forward to taking part.

Nate Schwartz is the Chief Research and Strategy Officer for the Tennessee Department of Education.


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