When Educators’ Needs Exceed the Research Base

(Repost of a December 2021, post on the REL Appalachia Blog. REL AP serves educators in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to support use of data and evidence to improve academic outcomes for students.)

June 7, 2022 | By Rebecca Schmidt, CJ Park, Laura Kassner

Figure 1. A search of ProQuest’s Education Database and the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) website returned 1,777 unique studies; only 65 focused on nonacademic interventions with the relevant populations and outcomes, and only eight studies met WWC standards and had positive effects on postsecondary outcomes.

3-tier diagram showing data from ProQuest’s Database and WWC

Note: PS is postsecondary.
Source: Author’s review of literature identified using ProQuest’s Education Database and the WWC website between June and December 2018.

Discovering a gap

“What does the research say?” Educators ask and are asked this question frequently. Appropriately, professionals are encouraged to look to the evidence base when they encounter a problem of practice. Rigorously designed experimental and quasi-experimental studies can provide educators the strongest evidence of what works to solve their problem. But what if strong evidence doesn’t exist to address a need? This blog details one such case and explains how REL Appalachia worked with experts to identify practical solutions and move the research forward.

Partners in rural eastern Kentucky noticed that academically prepared youth in their region did not always attend college despite being accepted, or they often dropped out if they did attend. These partners asked for support from REL Appalachia to identify strategies with moderate or strong evidence of success in improving postsecondary transitions in rural, high-poverty communities like their own. REL Appalachia conducted a systematic evidence review and identified only five interventions (across eight rigorous studies) that had evidence of positive effects on students’ postsecondary outcomes, only one of which showed success in rural, high-poverty communities. Just one intervention. So while there are interventions to try, our rural Kentucky partners would be selecting and implementing without the benefit of rigorous evidence of the interventions’ effectiveness to guide them.

Seeking insights

Given these lean findings, REL Appalachia assembled a webinar panel to share panel members’ expertise on the barriers to conducting rigorous research in rural settings and, more importantly, generate strategies to address those barriers.

Expert Panelists Assembled by REL Appalachia

Panelists shared their experiences supporting rural education and championing rural research. They contextualized the federal emphasis, via the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), on rigorous research. When using federal funds for school and district interventions, ESSA requires evidence of those interventions’ effectiveness, to maximize the chances that students will benefit. Due to the lack of rural-specific research, panelists noted that rural educators are often forced to use evidence-based practices designed for urban or suburban settings. Rural educators typically adapt these interventions to align with local strengths and available resources, and then hope for the best. Panelists further shared that these experiences, while challenging, can be an asset because the process of adapting interventions helps produce education leaders who are flexible, out-of-the-box thinkers. Panelists emphasized the unique strengths of rural communities, such as their close relationships and experience adapting programs to their context, which can be leveraged to improve the quality of research.

Rural research challenges and strategies

Following the presentations, webinar participants and panelists engaged in a rich discussion—all bringing their own expertise as researchers, rural practitioners, and policy leaders. The discussion focused on the challenges to conducting research in rural settings and the strategies to address those challenges. Participants and panelists emphasized the strengths and unique aspects of rural contexts, urging researchers to view challenges as an opportunity for richer and stronger research. Below is a summary of the key takeaways from the discussion.

Key take-away Challenges Strategies for researchers
Rural districts may not typically collaborate with neighboring districts. Rural areas may have a history of self-reliance and independence.

Culture and educational goals may vary, even between nearby districts.

Connect districts around a common vision or goal.

Build buy-in for an intervention and study before implementation begins.

Work to understand the local context before implementing or evaluating new programs.

Rural districts may not have infrastructure to participate in large experimental or quasi-experimental studies. If rural districts are not able to join a partnership or receive data collection support, they may not have the necessary staff or data readily available to carry out large impact studies. Gather local implementation and outcomes data for progress monitoring, while building capacity for more rigorous evaluations.

Identify correlational, descriptive or qualitative research that can support rural stakeholders in gathering early information on programs and policies.

Allocate resources to support data collection, cross-district collaboration, and other avenues for implementing rigorous research.

Rural school leaders have varied and complex roles. In small districts, school leaders often wear multiple hats and have competing demands on their time. Design study plans that account for this complexity and the limits it places on participants’ time to be involved in research.

Leverage rural school leaders’ knowledge of the system as a strength, in order to collect richer and more complex information and improve program implementation.

Rural areas are diverse and have unique features. Rural areas vary in their proximity to an urban center or an institute of higher education, in the strength of their economy or main industry, in their racial and socioeconomic makeup, and in many other characteristics. Take the time to understand the unique context of each rural community.

Consider whether multiple rural communities should be combined in an analysis or if that would mask important differences between them.

Rural stakeholders may have limited experience with research studies because of the challenges of conducting rural research. Rural communites may be anxious that the research will be done TO rather than WITH them. Build meaningful relationships with stakeholders and identify their specific needs.

Collaborate with local stakeholders to ensure they feel like partners in the research.

Build capacity for school leaders to use research. For example, the Evidence-based Intervention Training for Education program (EBITE) guides district leaders through cycles of continuous improvement and trains them to identify interventions with evidence of positive impacts in communities similar to their own.

Call to action

In light of what panelists and participants shared during the webinar, REL Appalachia staff suggest ways that diverse stakeholders can leverage the key takeaways to improve the availability of rigorous rural education impact studies:

  • Policymakers and program developers can design initiatives, policies and interventions that account for the strengths and challenges of working in rural communities.
  • Researchers can design rural-focused studies, proposing strategic solutions to challenges in conducting research in rural settings when responding to grants and requests for proposals. Embrace new ways of working with educators and communities that builds their capacity to do rigorous research in partnership.
  • Funders can offset the higher costs of conducting rigorous rural research by incorporating suggested strategies for researchers in the table above as part of their requirements for grants or requests for proposals.
  • Rural educators can start conversations to seek out partnerships and collaboration opportunities with researchers and other districts; and pursue study opportunities that can further the goals of their school or district.
  • Everyone can keep the conversation about the need for more rigorous research in rural communities going to ensure this receives the attention it deserves.

Resources for ongoing learning

Topics: Rural Transition to postsecondary