Collaboration to Strengthen Performance

The Acelero Learning and MDRC Research-Practice Partnership

Two preschool-aged children play with crayons
By Maya Goldberg, Meghan McCormick

Collaborations between education practitioners and researchers—commonly described as research-practice partnerships (RPPs)—are a promising strategy for strengthening the field of early childhood education (ECE). RPPs are designed to help practitioners and researchers use data to improve practices in areas such as professional development for teachers, family engagement, and improving access to high-quality pre-K programs. RPPs in early learning are currently underway with educational agencies across the country. But typically, much of the work happens behind the scenes and isn’t widely shared with other practitioners and researchers who could benefit from lessons learned.

This issue focus looks at an RPP between MDRC and Head Start provider Acelero Learning that began in 2021. The RPP was designed to help the partners better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students in Head Start and to identify the key features in pre-K learning environments that encourage gains in academic and cognitive skills prior to kindergarten. This post describes the shared objectives of the two organizations, how the partners have collaborated to identify these objectives, and how their example may be useful to other researchers and ECE practitioners interested in undertaking an RPP.

The MDRC and Acelero Learning RPP

Acelero Learning is a division of Acelero, Inc., a Head Start grantee. It operates dozens of early learning centers serving children in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada. The organization has been recognized for its high-quality programs that implement curricula to enhance school readiness supported by teacher training, coaching, and data-informed decision-making. Acelero Learning has a long history of partnering with researchers to use data to both monitor students’ progress and to strengthen program services. One of the earliest such partnerships was in 2011–2012 with the National Institute for Early Education Research; it centered on an evaluation of students’ learning in language and math. In 2021, Acelero Learning expanded its group of research partners to include MDRC.

Shared Objectives and Research Activities

One shared goal of the MDRC‒Acelero Learning partnership is to identify research opportunities that directly address Acelero Learning’s objectives and that can help MDRC researchers build rigorous evidence about children’s early learning experiences and development that will benefit the broader field of ECE. The partners use an iterative approach to identify research questions for the project. For example, Acelero Learning was interested in comparing a classroom observation tool created and used by its program with similar instruments to understand whether its observation tool predicts children’s learning. As the team investigated the classroom observation tool, additional research questions emerged, such as how to leverage limited variation in the assessment and how to improve the assessment in future fielding. MDRC and Acelero Learning also developed a research plan aligned with the research questions that involved primary data collection via direct assessments to capture a range of children’s skills and educator surveys on the instructional environment in their classrooms. These data were considered in tandem with existing administrative data such as attendance and student and family demographic information. In addition, staff members at both organizations reviewed studies from other early learning programs and systems. This process helped the partners identify measures that could be compared with earlier studies of Acelero Learning as well as with national studies of Head Start in pre-pandemic settings. Together, the partners designed a plan to sample centers, classrooms, and students for a study investigating how children’s skills develop during their participation in Head Start; this could yield generalizable results and allow for subgroup comparisons.

Members of Acelero Learning’s leadership team communicated directly with staff members at their centers to describe the research activities and to prepare the centers for what the data collection would entail. With support from MDRC, Acelero Learning then hired assessors to collect data on students and classrooms, and the partners teamed up to train these new staff members and to ensure that the data would be collected systematically and reliably across settings. Acelero Learning took the lead to monitor data collection, supervising field staff and sharing data regularly with MDRC to review and process for analysis. To ensure that the data gathered for the project could be used to support adjustments to instruction, MDRC processed and analyzed it quickly to produce reports for teachers describing their students’ learning gains. Further reports have included summary memos for Acelero Learning staff that illustrate the properties of novel measures of literacy and math skills developed by the organization, including the tools’ associations with established measures.

Taken together, Acelero Learning and MDRC collectively invested in processes to support high-quality data collection. Both groups have prioritized sharing information back with practitioners in the field and providing support to help teachers and leaders at Head Start programs understand their data, reflect on it, and use it to strengthen their future practice.

Creating an Effective Partnership

Although the MDRC‒Acelero Learning RPP is just starting its third year, there is already evidence of the partnership’s success. For example, both organizations have fully committed to the RPP: Team representatives attend meetings twice a month and maintain regular communications with each other. The organizations assess challenges as partners and collectively determine how to move forward with activities to achieve target research goals. Acelero Learning and MDRC’s open communication allows for efficient problem-solving when challenges arise. For example, when assessors needed more time to collect assessments, Acelero Learning quickly conveyed that to the MDRC team. (Acelero Learning was developing its capacity to conduct child assessment collection within a tight time frame.) MDRC provided guidance and support based on the team’s prior experience with student assessment data collection and was also able to adapt its workplan accordingly. Having this type of communication also ensures that MDRC receives regular feedback that can be quickly integrated into research products that are immediately useful for Acelero Learning programs and staff members.

In addition, the size of the research teams (fewer than five people per team at each organization) facilitates the close collaboration and nimbleness of the partners and helps speed up decision-making.

If You Are Considering an RPP

RPPs are long-term projects—typically running for three years or more—so it is critical to find the right partner and to invest the time needed to make the collaboration as strong as possible. Each member of the MDRC‒Acelero Learning team brings a different area of expertise and skill to the partnership, for example. Team members from Acelero Learning are intimately familiar with the schools, teachers, and students, as well as with the data collected by the program, and have a vision of how they want the program to grow. With this deep programmatic knowledge, Acelero Learning can ensure that MDRC understands the important facets of the program and that the research is aligned with program goals. The MDRC team brings a depth and breadth of experience from its years conducting research in the ECE field. With this expertise, MDRC brings high-quality research practices that have been successfully implemented in other contexts to the partnership with Acelero Learning. Additionally, the MDRC‒Acelero Learning team assigns roles and responsibilities in a structured manner through task assignments and detailed workplans for each goal in the RPP. This process supports both transparency and accountability.

To be sure, there have been times when MDRC’s findings have not aligned with the team’s stated goals, expectations, or hypotheses. It is critical for RPPs to interpret and learn from unexpected findings, rather than shying away from them. As in the earlier example, Acelero Learning’s classroom observation tool did not predict gains in children’s skills because it did not capture variation in classroom practices as expected. However, the MDRC team took the opportunity to identify ways to improve the assessment, drawing on its experience with other classroom observation tools. This was a chance to examine how classroom practices were being measured, whether there are other practices that could be more important and are not being considered, and to conduct further research on this topic.

MDRC and Acelero Learning also consider how current findings can be building blocks for future work. Such discourse is critical to establishing a lasting RPP that is continuously focused on answering timely questions for the benefit of the practice partners and the broader field.

Future Plans for the MDRC-Acelero Learning RPP

MDRC and Acelero Learning plan to disseminate findings from their RPP over the next year. The topics include examining growth in children’s skills during their time enrolled in Acelero Learning; evaluating the psychometric properties of measures used to assess classroom quality in Acelero Learning settings; and exploring how different subgroups of students, such as dual-language learners or students from single-parent households, learn and develop during their Head Start experience.

Document Details

Publication Type
Issue Focus
November 2023
Goldberg, Maya and Meghan McCormick. 2023. “Collaboration to Strengthen Performance.” New York: MDRC.