Knowledge to Action. That was the theme of this year’s American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting. The conference brought approximately 14,000 education researchers and policy experts to San Antonio, Texas, late last month to share the latest findings on what works—and what needs to be done—in improving educational outcomes for all students. The conference subtheme, Achieving the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity, made plain that effective education policies and practices must rely on using the knowledge generated by strong research. Policy experts on SCORE’s team attended the conference and share these reflections on what they learned—and how we can act on that knowledge here in Tennessee.

Director of Policy and Research Kyle Southern

I was most struck over the weekend by a panel discussion entitled, Strategic Pathways for Improving Access to Higher Education. To frame the discussion, Commissioner Raymund Paredes of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board provided a long list of data on the stark gaps between the skills and knowledge students need to succeed in college-level work and the skills and knowledge the state’s schools provide them through high school. Commissioner Paredes made clear the consequences of watering down standards, not expecting the highest levels of achievement from all students—particularly those from low-income backgrounds and students of color. The consequences include low college completion rates and a citizenry not prepared for productive, healthy adulthoods.

Still, although 26 percent of Texas ACT test-takers score at college-ready levels across all four of the exam’s subject areas, only 20 percent of Tennessee test-takers do. (This rate includes both public and private high school graduates. The public school only rate for Tennessee is 17 percent.) Commissioner Paredes spoke of the challenges of strengthening partnerships across the K-12 and higher education sectors. As someone who thinks a lot about the ultimate goal of getting more students ready to succeed in college and life beyond high school, the commissioner’s remarks made clear to me again that the work we are doing in Tennessee is the right work—insisting on high expectations for all students, pushing for greater equity to empower all teachers and students, and driving collaboration that has real, positive effects on student achievement. This work requires us, as a state, to put what we know from research and experience into action on behalf of Tennessee’s future.

Policy and Research Analyst Indira Dammu

One of the sessions I attended at AERA was titled, Rethinking Accountability: Early Research on California’s CORE Waiver Districts. The CORE (or California Office to Reform Education) districts are a collaborative between eight of California’s largest school districts: Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Santa Ana. Together, these districts serve more than one million students. I was interested in this session because, in 2013, the CORE districts received an unprecedented waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to set up their own accountability system outside of the state of California’s.

Sixty percent of the CORE districts’ accountability system is based on students’ academic performance—including achievement, growth, and graduation rates. The remaining 40 percent—also known as the Social-Emotional and Culture-Climate Domain—includes chronic absenteeism, suspension/expulsion rates, climate surveys, and social/emotional skills. In many ways, this “index” approach to school accountability was one of the intended goals of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

During the session, researchers and district officials from Fresno shared findings and discussed implications for future work on school accountability. I was especially interested in research presented by Martin West from Harvard University. His team used survey responses of more than 250,000 students in grades 3-12 to determine whether social-emotional skills could predict academic and behavioral outcomes.

West and his team found that self-management and growth mindset were most predictive of English language arts and math performance of students. These data show the effects that “non-academic” indicators such as social and emotional learning can have on student learning. However, since research about social and emotional learning skills is still emerging, it seems too early to hold schools accountable for developing these skills. Despite issues with the use of social and emotional learning skills, I do think that the CORE districts offer an interesting approach to measuring schools using a variety of indicators.

Whether addressing the holistic needs of students or ensuring they have access to the rigorous courses they need to prepare for success beyond high school, the most powerful research shared during AERA could readily translate into action—both to improve policies and practices. Only research-informed action can help make good on the promise of equal educational opportunity for all students.