The Value of Data and Evidence to a Network of Educational Service Districts


February 10, 2015


The authors wrote this post on behalf of the Association of Educational Service Districts Network (AESD Network).

In Washington state and around the country, educational service agencies—or ESDs, as they are known in our state—play an important role in delivering professional development, financial, and administrative services that school districts might not be able to provide efficiently on their own. The work of the Washington ESD Network has become even more critical in recent years, helped by our alliance with Education Northwest and its Regional Educational Laboratory: REL Northwest.

Our statewide network started almost 10 years ago, made up of nine ESDs that serve more than a million students. In the beginning, the ESDs were pretty independent. We worked well together, but frankly, we were also very competitive. In some cases, we were actually vying against one another for the same state and federal grants.

Our relationship with REL Northwest came at an opportune time. With the realization that we could be better together, the nine ESDs moved past competition and, smartly, into a more far more collaborative mode. And, in the few years since, we became one of the delivery systems of choice for policymakers.

Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction—as well as the legislature—began approaching us to implement programs and initiatives such as emerging national standards in math and science, as well as a new a teacher-principal evaluation system. This was a new responsibility, and with it came increased accountability to meet the legislature’s demand for high-quality and consistent services. The statewide spotlight was turned brightly upon us, and REL Northwest was able to help.

Working together in a research-practice partnership, the REL Northwest team gave us deeper knowledge about assessment, how to gather and utilize quality data, and the best ways to report our findings back to the legislature. They helped us think about data in much more effective ways and guided us in asking critical questions, such as: What constitutes high-quality delivery, and what does research tell us about it? They also helped us look at the ESD Network through a systems lens and use that perspective to reach clarity and coherence in our work. There’s nothing like the perspective of an outsider with a deep research base to help you think about how to better operate as a system.

In addition, REL Northwest has supported us in evaluating the quality of the professional development that ESD coordinators in math, science, and English language arts provide to Washington teachers. Not only is REL Northwest helping us think about the design and structure of the professional development we offer, they’re also assisting us as we collect better data on the coordinators’ impact. They conducted briefings on the best practices of professional development, completed a literature review, and helped us craft research questions (for example, how many hours of professional development does it take to impact teacher practice?). This is critical, as we need to demonstrate to the legislature that what we are doing has an impact on teacher practice and student learning.

The study REL Northwest conducted, Coordination of Instructional Services by Washington State’s Educational Service Districts, has received national attention and provoked questions locally about the services we offer. The study included a survey of ESD leadership teams that asked for perceptions about our services, detailed where funding for services comes from, and identified which services are most highly funded. Moving forward, we are using this information to better coordinate services and determine which services to prioritize.

As a network, we are doing the good work we’ve always done but now with a more effective, clear, and aligned systems lens, a research base, and a data-collection process to prove that what we are doing works. Everyone will agree that we have not yet fully arrived at the ultimate systems approach, but with REL Northwest’s assistance we’ve made great progress in getting there.

Download the REL Northwest study, Coordination of Instructional Services by Washington State’s Educational Service Districts.