Seeking Balance in the Provision of Technical Assistance

Insights from the National Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety

by Stephani L. Wrabel, Susan Bush-Mecenas, Ashley Woo

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Research Questions

  1. How do technical assistance recipients combine and manage various sources of support for social and emotional learning (SEL) and school safety?
  2. How does CISELSS's provision of resources, support, and technical assistance balance competing pressures and meet changing contextual demands?

The U.S. Department of Education funds various types of technical assistance centers with the goal of providing the expertise and resources needed by state education agencies (SEAs), regional education agencies, and local education agencies (LEAs) to effectively implement federal education programs. Given the complexity of technical assistance for both providers and recipients, understanding technical assistance provision requires a deeper and more nuanced examination of (1) how recipients use, combine, align, and manage sources of support and (2) how providers design, adjust, and coordinate the support provided directly and in collaboration.

The purpose of this report is to provide policymakers and technical assistance providers and recipients with an analysis of how a federally funded technical assistance center balances competing pressures amid unexpected challenges so that it can address the needs of its clients and fulfill its charge. The authors examine the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety (CISELSS)'s first three years of operation. They explore how CISELSS balanced competing pressures and the influence of shifting contextual conditions in the provision of technical assistance to SEAs and LEAs and offer insights about CISELSS's early implementation that might help guide efforts to continuously improve its provision of supports.

Key Findings

  • Technical assistance recipients combine support from several providers to meet their needs. CISELSS played an important role in coordinating with other providers in the technical assistance ecosystem to ensure that the supports received were cohesive across providers, and CISELSS filled a niche in the technical assistance ecosystem by aligning SEL and school safety in its technical assistance.
  • CISELSS embraced a broad conceptualization of SEL and school safety, setting the stage for the provision of support on a wide array of topics. This breadth of coverage required CISELSS to leverage expertise within and external to the organization and resulted in some challenges for CISELSS (e.g., establishing a recognized brand in the ecosystem).
  • CISELSS acted responsively to current events and flexibly adjusted its technical assistance to meet recipients' needs. However, flexibility in the absence of an established structure and organizational identity appeared to contribute to a lack of clarity for support recipients and other organizations in the ecosystem.
  • CISELSS leveraged collaboration with external partner organizations (i.e., partnership) and direct service provision (i.e., ownership) to efficiently provide more-comprehensive support for SEAs and LEAs.
  • Contextual conditions such as the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic and a period of historic racial reckoning shifted CISELSS's context and shaped the balance of the technical assistance that it provided.

Recommendations

  • Ensure coherence of support, across providers, to SEAs and LEAs.
  • Formalize technical assistance offerings to provide clarity of available supports to potential support recipients and partner organizations.
  • Engage in regular strategic planning to ensure CISELSS's portfolio is coherent and aligned with its goals and charge.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by WestEd and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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