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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

How Can We Identify the Most Pressing Problems in Postsecondary Readiness and Success?

By Urban Education Contributor — September 03, 2018 4 min read

This week we are hearing from REL Northwest (@relnw), which is located at Education Northwest (@educationnw). This post is by David Stevens, Manager of Research, Evaluation, & Assessment at Education Northwest.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective.

When the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP) decided to hold its annual conference in Portland, Oregon—where Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest is based—it seemed like a great opportunity to collaborate on a pre-conference event for several reasons.

First, as the lead of the cross-REL working group on postsecondary readiness and success, REL Northwest is charged with convening our colleagues at the nine other RELs and other researchers working nationally on these issues.

Second, both the RELs and the research-practice partnerships (RPPs) in NNERPP share a guiding principle of working collaboratively in long-term partnerships with a variety of stakeholders to produce useful evidence for improvement.

Third, through a little investigation, we identified colleagues in key place-based RPPs across the country who are also working on issues related to postsecondary education. While the RPPs and the RELs in our working group are each building a knowledge base around postsecondary issues, there has been a lack of systematic, collective sharing and building of knowledge across these entities.

Aiming to get a better understanding of the overlap in problems of practice related to postsecondary readiness and success, we realized that new channels of communication would need to be built. For this reason, in addition to the others mentioned, the joint REL Northwest-NNERPP convening was born.

On July 11, 2018, more than 30 participants convened to co-develop a current, comprehensive scan of postsecondary issues emerging across the country, with an emphasis on practitioner-identified needs and interests. Participants included eight Oregon education leaders, representatives from nine RELs, a representative from the College Completion Network, and practitioners and researchers from RPPs based in Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The mission for the convening: Build our collective capacity to articulate problems that can inform our research work.

What’s the Problem?

In education, we rarely get a chance to just sit and think about the problems we tackle in our improvement work—our tendency is to hurry up and begin fixing them (which is understandable, given their urgency).

However, clearly identifying the specific challenges that concern us is an important part of the improvement process.

Accordingly, one of the objectives of the joint convening was to carve out space for participants to practice articulating problem statements and refine those statements with colleagues.

To bring a shared focus to the process, we introduced the group to the concept of “practitioner-oriented problem (POP) statements:" POP statements identify a specific and particular concern about a regularly occurring, high-variation outcome in terms that reflect practitioners’ or students’ experiences.

Put another way, we wanted to take our concerns from general, high-level ideas (e.g., “College is too expensive”) to tangible and clear issues that could drive action (e.g., “Many high school students who want to attend college do not fill out the FAFSA”).

What We Learned

Problem identification is tricky work. During reflection time, our group identified several questions about the process:


  • What is the right grain size? Creating a focused POP statement can help identify tangible issues to tackle. But if it is too narrowly articulated, when are you at risk of losing sight of your larger goals
  • When are you finished with your statement? Although POP statements help clarify your thinking, they can also raise additional questions about what matters for improving outcomes. Exploring new questions leads to new insights—which, in turn, can prompt significant revisions to your original statement.
  • Whose problem is it? Depending on whose perspective you take, descriptions of the “real” problem can vary greatly. Who are all the people you need to consult when developing your POP statement?

What’s Next?

We are excited to continue the work we started in July, and we look forward to continuing to partner with NNERPP as we move forward.

We anticipate that the participants’ POP statements will be a jumping-off point for a more formal and detailed scan, which will build the foundation for future applied research work.

In addition, we plan to incorporate the questions raised during the joint convening to improve our guidance for creating useful POP statements.

Ultimately, we hope participants can use the work they did at the event to build on existing efforts to increase postsecondary readiness and success for students in their city or region—and across the country.

Previous blog posts by Education Northwest:

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.