Virtual School Meanderings

April 3, 2015

REL Midwest Research Update: Early Childhood Education Research Alliance

Another item from Tuesday’s inbox…

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Alliance Goal
To bring together early childhood stakeholders in the region to create a shared research agenda that will ultimately improve the lives of young children (birth through age 8).
Message From the Alliance LeadAnn-Marie FariaWelcome to Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest’s Early Childhood Education Research Alliance (ECERA) newsletter for 2015. I am pleased to share with you an update on the important work of ECERA on behalf of our members from the seven REL Midwest states.

Our work in the alliance brings together early childhood stakeholders in the region to create a shared research agenda that will ultimately improve the lives of young children (birth through age 8). With projects examining how to rate early childhood program quality and support improvement efforts via Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRISs), as well as projects focused on how to integrate early childhood education data systems, we support each state’s efforts to increase access to the highest quality early care and education.

As Plato said, “The beginning is the most important part of the work,” and ECERA is dedicated to supporting and informing educators, researchers, policymakers, families, and children to help every child have the best possible beginning. We invite you to take a peek at our work as we look forward to a busy year together! — Ann-Marie Faria, Ph.D.

REL Midwest Study Analyzes How Changes in One Quality Rating and Improvement System Resulted in New Ratings for Programs Statewide

Examining Ratings and Dimensions of Quality in an Early Childhood Education Quality Rating and Improvement System CoverA recent study released by REL Midwest, Examining Ratings and Dimensions of Quality in an Early Childhood Education Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), found that small changes in how Michigan calculates quality ratings under its QRIS, Great Start to Quality, altered ratings levels for early childhood education (ECE) programs across the state.

Using data on more than 2,300 early childhood education programs, this study documents the original and revised calculation approaches used in Michigan’s QRIS and compares quality ratings under the two approaches. It also explores ratings using a total score approach that calculates program ratings based on overall points, removing the requirement for programs to earn points in set domains.

Highlights from the study include:

  • Almost 75 percent of participating ECE programs self-rated at either the lowest or highest quality level.
  • Self-assessment ratings and independent observations of quality in Michigan’s QRIS were not significantly correlated, suggesting that they measure different aspects of quality (e.g., structural and process quality).
  • As Michigan changed its QRIS calculation approach, programs in general rated higher under the revised calculation approach.
  • If the state used a simple total-score calculation approach, ratings would be nearly identical to those under the revised calculation approach. This finding suggests a simpler approach may be appealing to Michigan and other states.

Michigan developed Great Start to Quality in the early 2000s and rolled out the system statewide in 2012. More than 2,000 programs participated in the QRIS by the end of that year. In 2013, Michigan revised its approach to calculating ratings as Great Start to Quality expanded.

This report is the culmination of a collaboration between the state of Michigan and REL Midwest that began in ECERA’s first year. Richard Lower and Lisa Brewer-Walraven from the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Early Learning, provided guidance on the project.

To read the full report, go to

Video: Essential Elements of Successful Collaborative ResearchScreen shoot of videoAnn-Marie Faria, ECERA’s alliance lead, is featured in REL Midwest’s new video about the essential elements of collaborative research. Please view the full video on the REL Midwest YouTube channel:

Meet the Researcher

Laura HawkinsonSince 2012, Laura Hawkinson, Ph.D., has been working with ECERA to define, measure, implement, and evaluate elements of quality in the context of today’s early childhood education system. Hawkinson has particular expertise in QRIS and serves on the steering committee of INQUIRE, a national consortium of QRIS researchers.

Hawkinson has spent more than 10 years conducting policy-relevant early childhood education research, but her interest in early childhood started in the classroom. Right after she graduated from high school, Hawkinson was an assistant toddler teacher in the Salvation Army’s Our Place Child Care program for homeless families. This experience sparked her interest in early childhood education policy. Since then, Hawkinson’s education and career have remained focused on early childhood education research in diverse settings including Head Start, state prekindergarten, and child care programs.

As an ECERA researcher, Hawkinson served as Co-Principal Investigator on a project to develop a survey of quality improvement activities among programs participating in the Iowa Quality Rating System (QRS). REL Midwest partnered with the Iowa QRS Oversight Committee to develop the survey and helped prepare them to implement the survey by conducting a workshop on survey methods best practices and providing other technical assistance. Impressively, the survey response rate was 65 percent.

Hawkinson is now Principal Investigator on a research study, planned in close partnership with the Iowa QRS Oversight Committee, that will describe how programs in the Iowa QRS approach quality improvement. The study will also examine the relationship between quality improvement activities and changes in QRS ratings over time.

Hawkinson says the alliance structure helps researchers and practitioners navigate from “big picture” research questions to actionable projects. In addition, Hawkinson says her experience with ECERA has affected her work outside of the alliance.

“I try to involve stakeholders throughout the research process and make sure they understand the research findings,” she says. “This approach helps us translate complicated technical results into something that’s meaningful.”

Early Childhood Education Resources and Events


  • For answers to common questions about QRISs and to learn more about the QRISs operating in the United States and its territories, consult the QRIS Compendium . The compendium exists “to promote thoughtful design, analysis and ongoing improvement in early care and education systems building.” The compendium presents QRIS profiles by state and enables users to compare QRIS data in different states by generating customized data reports.
  • Information about how states are incorporating curriculum requirements into their QRISs is available in the response from REL Northeast & Islands to a reference desk requeston the topic.
  • Coming soon is a response to a REL Midwest reference desk request regarding which aspects of QRIS are most aligned with improved student outcomes. Visit the REL Midwest website to see answers to past reference desk requests.


Contact Us
Please contact us for more information
about any of the items in this newsletter
or to speak to a member of our staff.
We look forward to hearing from you.
REL Midwest at American Institutes for Research
Early Childhood Education Research Alliance
1120 East Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486

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February 2, 2015

Just Released: Online Course Use in Iowa and Wisconsin Public High Schools

From Thursday’s inbox this past week…

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Read the brand-new report from REL Midwest, Online Course Use in Iowa and Wisconsin Public High Schools: The Results of Two Statewide Surveys

Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest, in partnership with its Virtual Education Research Alliance, developed a survey to describe online course use in Iowa and Wisconsin’s brick-and-mortar public high schools during the 2012–13 school year. Recognizing the potential value of this information to inform policy and program planning, the Iowa Department of Education and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction collaborated with REL Midwest to conduct the study. Results indicate that the primary uses of online courses in both states were to provide students with opportunities for credit recovery and core requirement completion for courses covering the primary academic subjects. Schools cited concerns about the educational experiences of students taking online courses, including the lack of teacher training in Iowa and online course quality in Wisconsin.

Across the United States, schools’ use of online courses for their students is increasing rapidly (Picciano & Seaman, 2009; Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2013). Schools are obtaining online courses from a multitude of sources to achieve a variety of educational goals, and have diverse policies and practices in place for monitoring student progress and success (Queen & Lewis, 2011). Because few states track or report student participation in online learning in a formal way, members of the Virtual Education Research Alliance identified the need for a survey tool to collect this information.Researchers analyzed survey data collected from 117 schools in Iowa and 96 schools in Wisconsin to produce statewide estimates of online course use. Download the full report:


Picciano, A., & Seaman, J. (2009). K–12 online learning: A 2008 follow-up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved from

Queen, B., & Lewis, L. (2011). Distance education courses for public elementary and secondary school students: 2009–10 (NCES 2012-008). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw. L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2013). Keeping pace with K–12 online & blended learning: An annual review of policy and practice. Evergreen, CO: Evergreen Education Group.

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January 20, 2015

In Pursuit of Reliable Data: Using Surveys in Early Childhood Research

From today’s inbox…

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The recordings of REL Midwest’s survey methods workshopIn Pursuit of Reliable Data: Using Surveys in Early Childhood Research are now available online.

Hosted by REL Midwest with its Early Childhood Education Research Alliance, this Web-based workshop was designed to improve the capacity of stakeholders across the state of Iowa to conduct applied, survey-based research in early childhood education. High-quality survey research is essential for understanding a state’s early educational context and can reveal important opportunities for innovation.

The webinar sessions featured Ann-Marie Faria, Ph.D., and Laura Hawkinson, Ph.D., at American Institutes for Research, and were facilitated by Leslie Scott, Ph.D. The sessions drew from best practices, as identified by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, and relevant literature. Session 1 focused on planning for a survey, using existing items, writing new items, and field testing surveys. Session 2 focused on sampling, data collection methods, and maximizing response rates.

We hope you can use these recordings to gain a foundation in survey research methods or to brush up on your skills. If you have questions about the survey methods workshop or REL Midwest’s work in early childhood, please reach out to Ann-Marie Faria at or (202) 403-5356.

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December 19, 2014

REL Midwest Research Update Newsletter Winter 2014

From Tuesday’s inbox…  Note the REL Appalachia report on Online and Distance Learning in Southwest Tennessee: Implementation and Challenges at the bottom.

To view this email as a web page, go here.
Midwest Regional Educational Laboratory at American Institutes for Research

Research Update

Winter 2014–2015
Vol. 3, No. 4

Grade school children in hallWelcome

Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest is one of 10 RELs funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and is administered by American Institutes for Research (AIR). Each edition of REL Midwest’sResearch Update brings you news of how our scope of work is unfolding in your state and across the region, offers information about resources available from the REL program and other research and technical assistance providers, and highlights important topics within education research. In this issue, we continue to show how research influences practice and policy—with examples from our School Turnaround Research Alliance and our Making Connections events.


Our Work
REL Midwest’s Research Alliances: Making an Impact

Bridging Research and Practice: REL MidwestMaking Connections Events

News, Events, and Activities
Learn about people, organizations, and issues in the region.

Resources to Explore

Contact Us
REL Midwest
1120 East Diehl Road
Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486
Follow REL Midwest onTwitter.

Our Work

Making an Impact: School Turnaround in Michigan

Education leaders in Michigan want to know more about how schools with risk factors for low student achievement are performing better than expected. With the help of REL Midwest and our School Turnaround Research Alliance, Michigan is reconsidering how it identifies schools that are “beating the odds” and learning more about the characteristics that set these schools apart.

Since fall 2010, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) has used two statistical approaches to identify schools statewide that, despite having risk factors for low student achievement such as high poverty rates, are performing at higher levels than expected. The first approach compares the predicted performance of each school with its actual performance. The second approach compares the performance of each school with the performance levels of the 29 demographically most similar schools in the state. Based on these approaches, schools can be designated as Beating the Odds schools and receive special recognition from MDE.

The School Turnaround Research Alliance at REL Midwest—which comprises education stakeholders across Michigan, including representatives from MDE—focused on learning more about schools that are performing better than anticipated. In the first year of the School Turnaround Research Alliance, researchers conducted empirical analyses of MDE’s current statistical approaches to identifying Beating the Odds schools.

REL Midwest researchers found that identification of Beating the Odds schools can vary because of decisions made in statistical approaches, and fewer than expected Michigan schools are being consistently identified as Beating the Odds schools in part because of those differences.

MDE’s knowledge of these findings has inspired the department to rethink its Beating the Odds identification policies. Because the different statistical approaches used may identify different schools as Beating the Odds schools, MDE is considering the practical implications for districts and schools that are misidentified. MDE also is considering how the sample used to identify Beating the Odds schools might be changed to improve the accuracy of its statistical approaches. With the help of REL Midwest, the School Turnaround Research Alliance is empowering MDE to improve its Beating the Odds initiative and continue recognizing the exceptional work of schools and districts in Michigan.

At the same time, members of the School Turnaround Research Alliance who work at MDE also are interested in learning more about possible instructional and organizational differences between Beating the Odds schools and demographically similar non–Beating the Odds schools. Knowing what sets Beating the Odds schools apart from other schools with similar demographic characteristics is important as state officials consider actions to sustain Beating the Odds school performance and improve the operations of low-performing schools statewide.

To further this work, REL Midwest is analyzing the results of a Beating the Odds survey administered to Beating the Odds schools and comparison schools. The analysis of survey results will enable the School Turnaround Research Alliance to identify differences between Beating the Odds schools and non–Beating the Odds schools. In particular, the survey will help the alliance identify the instructional and organizational practices that the research literature suggests are associated with Beating the Odds schools, including effective leadership, a challenging curriculum with a focus on literacy, significant professional development opportunities, a positive school culture, and ongoing data use to inform instructional decisions.

MDE, in collaboration with REL Midwest, is finding evidence-based ways to improve student achievement in schools across Michigan. Check our website, or follow us onTwitter , for further updates from the School Turnaround Research Alliance.

Making Connections: Building Partnerships for Improvement in Education

REL Midwest recently brought together experts in collaborative research from the William T. Grant Foundation, AIR, the Education Development Center, and Toledo Public Schools for the Making Connections public television event “Building Partnerships for Improvement in Education. ” Panelists discussed collaborative research approaches and their effect on education, highlighting the shifting dynamics between research and practice. They also covered current education initiatives that use collaborative partnerships to improve research, practice, and policy in the interest of schools, students, and communities at large.

Vivian Tseng, Ph.D., vice president of programs at the William T. Grant Foundation, kicked off the conversation with insights into the current gap between research and practice and the structures needed to build successful partnerships. It is not a simple process whereby research “facts” are passed from researchers to decision makers, according to Dr. Tseng. Researchers and practitioners need to build two-way streets that foster engagement, joint research agendas, and shared commitments. Dr. Tseng asserts that effective research-practice partnerships should ultimately build the capacity of researchers and districts to produce more useful work and translate these research findings into practical improvements in education.

The event also featured stories, recommendations, and takeaways from researchers and practitioners involved in collaborative partnerships. Panelists included Mindee O’Cummings, Ph.D., principal researcher at AIR, and Laurie Kruszynski, data coordinator at Scott High School of Toledo Public Schools, both from REL Midwest’sDropout Prevention Research Alliance. Dr. O’Cummings and Kruszynski shared their challenges and successes instituting trust, collaboration, and co-ownership to improve student outcomes in the district. Julie Riordan, Ph.D., director of research at REL Northeast and Islands, discussed how these partnerships affect the ongoing development of the researchers themselves. Carrie Scholz, Ph.D., senior researcher at AIR, examined how invested stakeholders beyond researchers and practitioners can play a role in collaborative partnerships, with specific examples at the local level.

Following the taping, the panelists answered questions from audience members in a large-group discussion and in an informal meet-and-greet session. WTTW Chicago Public Media will air the panel discussion and question-and-answer session onFebruary 20 at 7:00 p.m. Please visit the REL Midwest website to view the video archive after the broadcast.

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News, Events, and Activities

  • A new REL Midwest study, The Utility of Teacher and Student Surveys in Principal Evaluations: An Empirical Investigation, examined whether student and teacher surveys contribute relevant information on principal performance. Using data from one midsize urban district in the Midwest, REL Midwest investigated whether adding student and teacher survey measures to existing measures increased the power of a principal evaluation model to explain across-school variance in student achievement. The study found that two survey-based measures—classroom instructional environment and instructional leadership—contribute new information on the link between principals and student achievement. This information will help district superintendents, principals, and other district leaders understand the quality and utility of these surveys and make informed decisions on whether and how to include them in principal evaluations. The report also demonstrates a process for evaluating measures that are candidates for inclusion in evaluation models.
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Resources to Explore

  • Creating a Content Strategy for Mobile Devices in the Classroom, a new resource from the Center on Innovations in Learning , aims to help teachers, curriculum and technology specialists, and administrators answer the fundamental question of “Now what?” when mobile devices arrive at school.
  • To understand which students with disabilities are at greatest risk of leaving school without a diploma, REL West examined the rates at which Utah students with different types of disabilities moved to other schools, dropped out, or graduated compared with all students with disabilities and with general education students. As a group, Utah students with disabilities had poorer outcomes than their general education classmates, but outcomes varied by disability category. By examining this variation within the population of students with disabilities, this study can inform decisions about which students with disabilities most need interventions, suggest refinements to state and district data systems, and suggest areas in need of further research.School Mobility, Dropout, and Graduation Rates Across Student Disability Categories in Utah was released in November 2014.
  • Evaluation of Teacher Preparation Programs: Key Considerations and Methodological Issues, a recent REL Central webinar, provided an overview of efforts to evaluate teacher preparation programs. Presenters included Robert Floden, Ph.D., associate dean for research at Michigan State University, who drew from a recent National Academy of Education report, The Evaluation of Teacher Preparation Programs: Purposes, Methods, and Policy Options . The webinar is archived online.
  • A new report from REL Appalachia sheds light on online and distance learning in rural areas. Online and Distance Learning in Southwest Tennessee: Implementation and Challenges was intended to help district leaders from the Southwest Tennessee Rural Education Cooperative (SWTREC), a coalition of superintendents from 12 districts (half of which are rural) surrounding Memphis, gauge the supply and demand for online and distance learning courses in their region. The report includes the survey that was administered to SWTREC members, which may be adapted and used by coalitions of schools and districts interested in sharing access to online and distance learning courses with one another.
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Contact Us

For more information about any of the items in this newsletter or to speak with a member of our staff, please contact us by telephone (866-730-6735) or e-mail ( We look forward to hearing from you.

REL Midwest at American Institutes for Research
1120 East Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486

This material was prepared under Contract ED-IES-12-C-0004 by Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest, administered by American Institutes for Research. The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. This publication is in the public domain. Authorization to reproduce in whole or in part for educational purposes is granted.
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November 26, 2014

REL Midwest Virtual Education Research Alliance Webinar – Dec 4, 2:30-4pm CT

From yesterday’s inbox…

Hi everyone!

We wanted to share another webinar opportunity with you that is being hosted by the REL Midwest and its Virtual Education Research Alliance. Please see registration link and additional information about the webinar below.

Navigating the Challenges of Online Credit Recovery: Lessons from a Rigorous Research Study

Thursday, December 4, 2014
2:30 p.m.4:00 p.m. CT



REL Midwest and its Virtual Education Research Alliance will host a webinar that will describe the findings from the first rigorous research study examining the effectiveness of online Algebra I for credit recovery, relative to standard face-to-face versions of the course for helping at-risk ninth-grade students get back on track toward graduation.

The event will feature a presentation by Jessica Heppen, Ph.D. and Kirk Walters, Ph.D. of American Institutes for Research who will describe the findings from the study, Efficacy of Online Credit Recovery in Algebra I for At-Risk Ninth Graders. The event will also feature a discussion from Michele Nickels of Wisconsin Virtual School and Cale Roe of Iowa Learning Online about the issues schools and educators should address when considering the use of online courses for credit recovery. This event is designed to address the U.S. Department of Education’s priority areas of effective teachers and principals; and college readiness, access, and completion.

Pamela Jacobs, Ph.D., Senior Technical Assistance Consultant, American Institutes of Research
Peggy Clements, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, Education Development Center
Jessica Heppen, Ph.D., Managing Researcher, American Institutes of Research
Kirk Walters, Ph.D., Principal Researcher, American Institutes of Research
Michele Nickels, Director, Wisconsin Virtual School
Cale Roe, Student Services Consultant, Iowa Learning Online

Hope to see you there!

Thanks, and enjoy your day!


Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute
Facebook: /mvlrinstitute
Twitter: @MVLRI_MVU
Webinar Series:

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