Mixing Research and Policy To Brighten Prospects for Students


August 21, 2014


Terri Akey
Terri Akey, Co-Director of Center for Research, Evaluation, and Assessment

Alaska has low rates of high school graduation compared to the national average, and schools are often hard-pressed to support students at risk of dropping out or who have dropped out, especially in remote areas. For those students who do make it to college, upwards of 50 percent enrolling in the University of Alaska system must take developmental education courses before they can begin college-level work.

The Alaska State Policy Research Alliance (ASPRA), a project of REL Northwest, works to help address these challenges through research, data-driven changes to policy, and collaboration among many different stakeholders.

“The state has made a renewed commitment to make sure students are career- and college- ready,” says REL Northwest’s Terri Akey who heads the alliance. “To meet that goal, there needs to be policy in place to support coordination and collaboration and better use of evidence throughout the school system.”

So much of what goes into policy is based on a whim or an agenda, but to really serve kids, you need to use data based on the kids. —Terri Akey

ASPRA supports decisionmakers by helping them develop models to evaluate policy on college and career readiness, collaboratively generating questions for them to consider, and providing guidance in the use of data. Data use presents a particular challenge in that policymakers gather data from a wide range of sources, from school districts to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “We assist them in gathering clean, high-quality data and help them make sense of it,” Akey says.

Another way ASPRA provides support is by conducting studies that show patterns and help inform decisionmaking, for example, on supporting young Alaskans’ pathways after high school broken down by various demographics.

“This the favorite work that I do,” Akey says. “I enjoy working with a diverse group of stakeholders and collaborating on an education problem. We won’t see a change if we can’t get on the same page.”

With school gearing up to start (or started already), we are taking a moment to reflect on the difference our work can make in a series of articles. We kicked off last week with Steve Fleischman writing a Northwest Matters blog post on the crisis of inequality and yesterday, with a look at one of our technical assistance projects aimed at turning around underperforming Oregon schools. Our next installment will look at how our capacity-building work with nonprofits addresses similiar issues as schools.