This is the third in a series of three blog posts written by students in the Urban Education Policy program cohort who completed research projects in the summer 0f 2017. 

About the Series | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | UEP |

Part 3: Rhode Island Department of Education: Resources for School Transformation 

Biying Zheng, Alyssa Fatal, Tong Tong, and Erica Prenda

Biying Zheng, Alyssa Fatal, Tong Tong, and Erica Prenda are master’s degree candidates in the UEP program. 

1627 Krystafer Redden [RIDE], Tong Tong, Alyssa Fatal, Biying Zheng, Gerardo Garcia, Erica Prenda, and Cali Cornell [RIDE]

Moving from the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into the era of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), policymakers and school leaders have implemented a range of different policies and reform measures, all for the same goal: to improve the quality of schools and to boost students’ educational performance. After drafting its state ESSA plan in spring 2017, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), turned to Brown’s Urban Education Policy (UEP) program last summer for help with creating a set of resources for school improvement. Local school leaders, in a survey about ESSA that was sent out to the public, had identified a need for such a toolkit.

Working with RIDE’s Office of College and Career readiness to develop a school improvement toolkit – the RIDE Resource Hub – our UEP summer practicum team had a chance to understand the work and the challenges of real-world education policy implementation. Our research question was: How can we provide useful and non-prescriptive information to further the efforts of educators in the field to achieve ambitious school improvement goals? School-level administrators and practitioners usually do not have time to read through hundreds of pages of research reports to sift out useful strategies and applicable concepts. The goal was to help schools not only identify problems, but also build the capacity to fix them. 

To create our toolkit, we used a mixed-method approach. We reviewed RIDE surveys of state and local education stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, school administrators, community members, policy-makers, and others) on what they would find most useful for school improvement. Some of the technical assistance strategies and useful resources mentioned most often were:

  •  facilitation of partnerships between schools and districts and organizations with a track record of implementing effective evidence-based practices 

  •  help building sustainability plans 

  •  vetting of professional learning providers 

  •  tools for needs assessment 

  •  research on school improvement strategies 

We gathered resources and screened them for evidence-based best practices, including strategies, case studies, assessment rubrics, and other pieces. We looked through state and local education agency websites. Alaska provided a framework that scored high on user-friendliness. Dallas ISD, whose teacher toolkit served as a model for the organization of the RIDE PDF-based Hub, provided a well-organized set of resources for teachers, grouped by portfolios that covered all areas of teacher improvement, such as marking rubrics and general tips. We then organized and synthesized the best practices in ways that would allow policy-makers to easily absorb and access the relevant information. We also gathered feedback on the draft Hub from a focus group of state and local education leaders.

Challenges

We faced multiple constraints – financial, lack of human capital, resources, and access – which reflected the limitation and scarcity of available resources in public education in the United States. In addressing these constraints, we learned valuable lessons about the importance of innovation and commitment. For example, we were not provided with computer programming manpower or support to create a web-based toolkit, nor with the finances to develop a website devoted to our findings. We had to work within this constraint to come up with ways to best visually represent this RIDE Resource Hub. We thought through a list of options, such as a Google site or a Microsoft Word document, for making the product sustainable, user-friendly, and easy to distribute, without operating a website. In the end we went with a hyperlinked PDF, which balanced feasibility and user-friendliness.

We discovered that information is not easy to access on state department of education websites. One lesson of our RIDE project and, later, a project on a special education decentralization strategy with the Providence Public School District, is that best practices in education tend to be kept in silos. Institutions considering a new policy initiative often seek examples of implementation – whether successful or not ¬– from other school districts and states. Both success and failure serve as useful reference on implementing the policy in practice. 

Implementation is often not documented, especially for those efforts that fail to meet expectations. Often, successful strategies are not shared publically due to competitive pressures for one institution to outcompete others and win a grant. For example, under the Race to The Top initiative of the Obama Administration, states competed against each other to gain the funding. As a result, excellent practices are not shared as frequently as they should be.

The Final Product

The final products – the Resource Hub, a presentation, and a research report – were presented to RIDE and to the UEP program in August 2017. The Hub is a printable booklet that provides a summary of the available resources pre-screened by UEP students, ready to use as guide of transformation for the LEAs. There are five sections. The Hub was mainly organized according to the three tenets of RIDE’s Office of College and Career Readiness and the Office of Innovation: personalization, multiple pathways, and graduation by proficiency. Based on focus group feedback, we added two more sections: school improvement and school support partners. Under each section, there are assessment rubrics for school improvement, evidence-based practices, and research reports explaining what type of interventions work under which situations. 

We integrated the user-friendliness of the Alaska and Dallas model by hyperlinking the contents page, the individual sections, and the resources, and related pages within the Hub. Currently, the Resource Hub resides with the Office of College and Career Readiness at RIDE. A member of our summer research team stayed on throughout the semester in fall to improve the tool-kit prototype and push for continuous development.

Implications

Reflecting on the purpose of our work, we identified several aspects of the RIDE project that could be of value to other states.  

  •  Modeling community-oriented education policy. By replacing the top-down approach that often prevails in educational reform, the RIDE Resource Hub can provide a national model for community-oriented school improvement policy that aims to provide support instead of directives. 

  •  Empowering local leaders. The school leaders’ and practitioners’ needs were incorporated in all aspects of the project: from the conception of the guiding research questions to the rationale behind the structural framework and the data collection and analysis. The portfolio of case studies of evidence-based best practices and the vetted school support partners all serve as tools to empower local school leaders. 

  •  Modeling behavior for other state education offices. The RIDE Division of College and Career Readiness sees its role as a partner with local educators. Rather than dictating one-size-fits-all solutions, the division seeks to provide local schools and districts with customized support for their improvement efforts that takes local contexts into account. Other divisions at RIDE might emulate this approach.  

  •  Impact on UEP’s future education policy leaders. In conducting this project, the UEP research team learned to put on the lens of a community-oriented policy-maker. We kept in mind the various case studies learned in the UEP program of the successes and failures of educational reform across the country. 

 We envision a future where policy-making puts community and local agencies at the center. We hope that the effort we have invested in this non-prescriptive Resource Hub can be a useful reference for school leaders, as part of a wider ecosystem of community-centered policy-making, and for urban education reform efforts around the country.