History of IRRE
Dr. James Connell, IRRE’s co-founder and current president, was an original member of the Human Motivation Research Group at the University of Rochester. Started in 1981 by Dr. Edward Deci, IRRE’s first board chairman, this Research Group has generated the highest quality research on sources of engagement and disaffection in a wide array of human activity. A central focus has been the study of developmental, motivational and organizational factors that contribute to young people’s educational success – where success is defined not only as educational advancement but a sustained and vital engagement in the learning process.
IRRE began in 1989 at the University of Rochester, led by Dr. Connell and Dr. Louisa Pierson. With the support of a Faculty Scholar award from the William T. Grant Foundation, they brought educators from a single urban elementary school to the university to examine what research on student motivation revealed about flaws in the existing structure of schools and their impact on student motivation and how strengthening relationships between adults (at home and at school) and students could result in stronger academic engagement and performance. The promising results from this project led to an expansion to middle and high schools and to the development of the “critical features” of First Things First, IRRE’s seminal initiative, all funded by a three-year grant from the William T. Grant Foundation.
In 1995, Dr. Connell, Anne Kubisch (IRRE’s second board chairman) and their colleagues completed their first edited volume on the “theory of change” approach to planning and evaluating comprehensive community initiatives. Dr. Connell was invited to Kansas City (Missouri and Kansas) to conduct a Roundtable sponsored by the Ewing and Marion Kauffman Foundation, where the theory of change approach was first applied to education reform. Shortly thereafter, Jan Nevin joined IRRE as its first Director of Administration and Finance, and Dr. Adena Klem came on board as the first Research Associate.
This Roundtable led to a partnership with the Kauffman Foundation and the Kansas City Kansas School District that was to last almost a decade. This partnership resulted in the first district-wide, single-model, comprehensive school reform in the nation – where the critical features of First Things First were implemented in 30+ elementary, middle and high schools in this urban community over a five-year period. The results were dramatic: two independent, longitudinal evaluations by MDRC and Youth Development Strategies, Inc. reported major gains district-wide in achievement scores, attendance, graduation rates and student engagement.
IRRE’s success of its partnership with Kansas City, Kansas led to significant investments from the US Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the expansion of First Things First to districts nationwide, including both rural and urban districts. Laurie Levin joined IRRE as its first Executive Director, as did Susan Bloom, of Bloom Associates, to manage this expansion. Dr. Connell continued to act as an advisor to national foundations and state and federal agencies on education reform and youth development issues, He collaborated with these partners to develop theories of change to guide their investments in education, community change and youth development. In the youth development work, IRRE began a 20-year relationship with Dr. Michelle Gambone at Youth Development Strategies, Inc.
Dr. Julie Broom, IRRE’s second Executive Director, began her leadership and guidance of IRRE’s work on improving instruction during this period as did the current Director of Instructional Supports, Dr. Anissa Collins. Throughout this period, IRRE’s research staff were developing metrics and methodologies for assessing both the implementation and outcomes of the First Things First program – some of which have been adopted by other national research projects and some that are still in use by IRRE today. Dr. William Moore also joined IRRE as its Director of Research.
In 2008, IRRE’s research partners from four universities received the first federal grant of its size to study instructional improvement in high schools using a School Randomized Trials (SRT) design. Led by Dr. Julie Broom, this project represented a departure from IRRE’s exclusive implementation of the comprehensive First Things First model toward a tighter focus on the instructional elements of the program. Every Classroom Every Day resulted in positive impacts on math achievement in a two-year intervention with 10 comprehensive high schools serving economically disadvantaged students. This successful model – now called Curriculum and Instructional Benchmarking (CIB) – was further refined and expanded to all subject areas and grade levels and is the centerpiece of IRRE’s Teaching, Leading and Learning division.
In 2011, IRRE’s longstanding work on measuring education quality became the Measuring What Matters (MWM) division and IRRE began a partnership with the Skillman Foundation in Detroit. This partnership started with an analytic review of the foundation’s ongoing 10-year, $120M investment in six Detroit neighborhoods to improve the lives of children and youth living there. This work has since evolved into a thriving partnership with theories of change and new metrics being developed for multiple strands of this initiative – education, safety and youth development. Steve Amstutz, former principal of one of IRRE’s partner high schools and current Director of the MWM division, joined IRRE at this time.
Since 2011, IRRE has developed partnerships with several state departments of education as well as other private foundations with major investments in children and youth outcomes in economically disadvantaged urban and rural communities. Several of IRRE’s current tools and processes have been developed and refined as part of these partnerships – including IRRE’s approach to analyzing student data. IRRE’s Teaching, Leading and Learning division, now under the leadership of Dr. Anissa Collins and Cynthia Moore-Hollinshed, continues to partner with urban and rural school districts to implement Curriculum and Instructional Benchmarking, Effective Practices in the Classroom and Leadership to Improve Instruction.
IRRE is currently working with several rural school districts in Oregon and with scale-up partners, such as the Oakland Intermediate School District in Michigan, to build their capacity to take IRRE’s evidence-proven approaches to larger numbers of schools and districts.