This post is part of Coffee and Conversation, a monthly interview series that highlights impactful, interesting work affecting Tennessee education. The Executive Director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA), Erin O’Hara joined us to talk about her organization’s unique role in Tennessee education, upcoming research, and the connection between innovation and research.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA) develop as an organization?

Erin O’Hara: The Tennessee Education Research Alliance comes out of a previous partnership between the state Department of Education and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. Within Race to the Top, we were doing so many things in Tennessee that weren’t happening in other states – annual teacher evaluation, the Achievement School District, compensation – and we thought it would make sense to do some research on that work.

When Race to the Top started dialing down, we started thinking about how do we could make this a permanent organization. There was a decision between Peabody and the department to invest in this work to make it sustainable.

Your website says “Tennessee Education Research Alliance measures its success not simply by the number of academic papers published, but by the extent to which its work changes the way educators and policymakers think and act.” How do you promote your research so you ensure that happens? What kind of impact has your research had on education stakeholders so far?

EO: We have an advisory council of which SCORE is a member. We have people who have influence on state policy and the ability to reach a whole lot of people we are not able to reach. We get their feedback, and then we ask them about how to message it in ways people can really understand. One of the other things we do is to synthesize research across studies. Which is not something that gets done in the education research in an informal way. 

In terms of impact so far – Jason Grissom did a piece on the school leaders’ licensure assessment. The state was asking if we should increase the cut score. As it turns out, if you increase the cut score, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t predict quality. But if you increase the cut score, you’ll end up with a less diverse workforce. So the state said we’re not going to change the cut score.

The other big example is the work that Gary Henry, Ron Zimmer, and Josh Glazer have done around the Achievement School District. I think that work has informed the state’s work with the district and the future of turnaround work under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act].

How did TERA select its four areas of focus?

EO: We design our work in concert with the Department of Education. These four areas were issues that were a big deal to the department and were issues that researchers at Vanderbilt were interested in. Right now, literacy, turnaround, professional learning, and labor markets seem like the sweet spots between what the state wants help with and what the researchers are passionate about.

In a recent study on teacher retention in iZone and the ASD, TERA research found that the iZone did a better job of retaining teachers. Why do you think that is?

EO: This isn’t tested so I wouldn’t want to say this is the reason – but there’s a theory in that paper that says the way Shelby County thought about compensation might have had an impact on retaining teachers. It’s been hard for the ASD, who has a number of different operators, to do cross-learning across the district. But, we’re going to keep looking.

What’s the relationship between research and innovation? Do you see a connection conceptually?

EO: Research is often behind the innovation that needs to happen. When you’re in those positions and you’re a policymaker, educator you face major decision every day in policy and practice. You have to figure out what to do next and you have to make those decisions immediately. People would like to be making decisions on high-quality evidence, but it’s not always there.

We’d like to do more to test an innovation. It takes a lot of forethought. It’s not easy for districts and schools to say “do this over here, but not over here,” so you can learn how and if it works. Research can help people innovate. If anyone who reads this blog has an idea they’d like to test – they should get in touch with me, especially if that idea is in TERA’s areas of interest.

But yes, research can come behind and say this did or didn’t work. What’s hard are questions on turnaround because in a lot of ways the work educators are going to do is going to be ahead of the research, but we are trying to deliver thoughts and finding in real time.

What is your morning beverage of choice? Is it always chai?

EO: It’s not always chai! Now, it’s basically any tea. But sometimes it’s fun to have a chai.

As Executive Director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA), Erin O’Hara sets the strategic direction for the research partnership and guides the work of creating useful, timely, and high-quality practice focused research to inform Tennessee’s school improvement efforts. Prior to her role at TERA, Erin created and led the division of Data and Research as an Assistant Commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Education and managed the department’s work in accountability, assessment, data quality, and research. Erin has a Master of Public Policy from Peabody College and completed a Bachelor of Government and African/African American Studies at the University of Virginia.