Author: Alison Murawski

A Message from RFA’s Executive Director

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

After 11 years as Executive Director of Research for Action (RFA), I have decided to step down in mid-December.  While this is a planned transition that has been in the works for months, it is still bittersweet to leave an organization that has been my professional home for so long.

Since 2009, I have had the privilege to lead this extraordinary organization through a period of exponential growth in both size and impact.  Today, RFA deploys its deep P-16 education expertise and strong research capacity to produce timely, accessible, and actionable research and analysis for local, state and national audiences.  The work of my talented colleagues is used by practitioners, policymakers, the philanthropic community, the media, and the advocacy community to inform debates and decisions across the education spectrum.  And while RFA has stayed true to its mission to serve Philadelphia, we have also expanded our focus to include a robust portfolio of statewide and national projects.  I am perhaps most proud that amidst growth and change, RFA has maintained and sharpened its focus on educational inequity of all kinds and has become notably more effective in using research as a tool to address it.

Interim Leadership

I leave RFA in the able hands of a committed Board of Directors and a strong and experienced leadership team with whom I have been working closely to ensure a smooth transition.  Dr. Kate Callahan will serve as RFA’s Interim Executive Director while RFA conducts a national search for a permanent Executive Director. Dr. Callahan is an accomplished mixed-methods researcher whose work is informed by substantial direct experience in both the K-12 and postsecondary sectors; she has been at RFA for over a decade, including several years as RFA’s Chief Research Officer.  She has been instrumental in ensuring that every research project in RFA’s expansive portfolio is robust, nuanced, and aligned to the information needs of our stakeholders.  She has also worked shoulder to shoulder with me as we tackled a broad range of strategic decisions.

Dr. Callahan will be supported by CFO Meena Wolverton and COO/Director of Communications Alison Murawski who are both seasoned professionals with a strong track record of ensuring RFA’s fiscal and administrative health.

Looking Ahead

RFA is remarkably well-positioned to begin this next chapter.  By building on its strong record of success, the organization will continue to make substantial contributions to ensuring that our education systems are more equitable, effective, and accessible.

It has been my distinct pleasure to partner with so many of you to confront some of the most challenging and important educational issues of our time.  My last day as RFA’s Executive Director will be December 11th. But as its biggest fan, I will continue to support and promote RFA as it enters its next chapter.

Many thanks for your support of RFA and of me.



Kate Shaw
Executive Director

Improving Equity in College Completion: RFA & CLASP Join Forces on Outcomes-Based Funding

Philadelphia-based Research for Action (RFA) and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) have embarked on a unique partnership to work with six states to better understand their approaches to rewarding public colleges and universities for both increasing student success and reducing equity gaps through outcomes-based funding (OBF). Based on their analysis, the two groups will create an OBF Equity Toolkit that can be used by states to ensure their policies do not leave the most vulnerable students behind.

“Many states have adopted some form of outcomes-based funding, and while results have been mixed, there is increasing evidence that, over time and if done right, these policies can increase college attainment,” said David Socolow, Director of CLASP’s Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success. “But we have to ensure that all students–especially under-represented communities of color, and students who are adult, low-income, or part-time–are not adversely affected.”

By combining both research and on-the-ground support for states and institutions, the partnership between RFA and CLASP is a practical, results-oriented approach designed to identify how colleges and universities can ensure equitable student outcomes, and build the capacity of the field to use state dollars as an incentive for effective, equitable postsecondary completion policies.

“Many states already recognize the need to address equity concerns, and have refined their OBF policies to spur institutions to ensure strong outcomes for disadvantaged populations,” said Kate Shaw, Executive Director of RFA. “Yet approaches vary significantly, and there is no clear road map for what might work best, given variation in student populations, state governance structures, and institutional mission, capacity and funding levels. While equity goals in OBF policy probably can’t be met by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, we hope the OBF Equity Toolkit will provide states with a menu of strong options.”

This work is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We are grateful for the opportunity to embark on this important work with RFA,” said Olivia Golden, Executive Director of CLASP. “This partnership combines CLASP’s postsecondary policy and advocacy expertise with RFA’s research skills and nuanced understanding of OBF policy to work toward our shared goal of improving opportunity and outcomes for underserved students.”

Dr. Ruth Neild to Join Research for Action

Research for Action (RFA) is pleased and proud to announce that Dr. Ruth Curran Neild will be joining the organization to serve as Director of its Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC). PERC, an initiative of RFA launched with a grant from the William Penn Foundation in 2014, is an innovative research-practice partnership serving Philadelphia’s public education sector.

Dr. Neild currently serves as the Delegated Director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in the U.S. Department of Education. Since joining the agency in 2011, Neild has instituted a wide range of reforms that have strengthened the utility and accessibility of highly rigorous educational research. Under her leadership, the Regional Educational Laboratory program introduced researcher-practice partnerships that have served as laboratories of innovation for knowledge utilization. She has also greatly improved the utility of federal educational research databases and launched a new IES website.

Neild’s appointment is a homecoming of sorts, notes Kate Shaw, RFA’s Executive Director. “Ruth has deep roots in Philadelphia. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she also served on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education. Using Philadelphia as a laboratory for much of her research, she has published extensively on topics such as the importance of early warning systems for high school dropout, career and technical education, and small schools. Moreover, a multi-year collaboration with RFA led to a series of seminal reports on the importance of recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in Philadelphia. We are excited to welcome her back to RFA, and to Philadelphia.”

“I am thrilled to be returning to Philadelphia,” said Neild. “My early experience at RFA showed me the importance of thinking creatively about strategies that bridge research and practice, and significantly influenced my work at IES,” she noted. “The Philadelphia Education Research Consortium provides me with an important opportunity to expand my vision for knowledge utilization by creating a national model for how rigorous, place-based research can best serve the needs of those on the front lines of public education.”

RFA is an independent, nonprofit education research organization with more than two decades of experience in utilizing research as a tool to improve access to high-quality education for disadvantaged students. With a staff of over 30, RFA retains its historic commitment to Philadelphia, while also engaging in a wide range of K-16 education research across the region and nation. Dr. Neild will join RFA on January 17, 2017.

For inquiries, please contact Kate Shaw at 267-295-7770.

RFA Releases New Policy Brief on Early Childhood Education

Policymakers are recognizing that Pennsylvania has fallen behind in providing equitable access to high quality early childhood education. Gov. Tom Wolf ran on a campaign promise of universal pre-k access and proposed an unprecedented budget increase for early childhood programs in 2016. In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney has made pre-k a cornerstone of his education agenda and successfully lobbied City Council to pass a soda tax to fund it.

But not all early childhood education is created equal. As policymakers push for expanded access, they must also ensure that Pennsylvania’s “Quality Ratings and Improvement System” (QRIS) defines and measures quality in a meaningful and rigorous way, and provides adequate support to early childhood education providers. To this end, the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) has embarked on an effort to refine Keystone STARS, the state’s QRIS for early childhood education.

In this brief, RFA explores existing research on the “quality characteristics” of early childhood education programs that improve child outcomes, outlines ways in which the state’s QRIS can be refined to better evaluate and promote these quality characteristics, and highlights important policy considerations for local and state leaders seeking to expand access to quality early learning programs.

Click here to read the brief.

RFA Presentations Featured at AERA 2016

Research for Action will once again make a strong showing at the American Educational Research Association (AERA)’s Annual Meeting. Check out our sessions, described below.




12:25-1:55 pm
Convention Center, Level One, Room 158 A
What Does “Fair” Mean to Students?
Dr. Katrina Morrison will present her paper examining ninth grade students’ perceptions of fairness and unfairness with regards to their school’s discipline policy.
2:15-3:45 pm
Convention Center, Level Two, Exhibit Hall D – Section B
The Launch of the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC): Lessons From the First Year of Implementation
Drs. Rosemary Hughes and Brittan Hallar will speak about their experience helping to launch PERC and the process by which PERC selected and executed its first research project: an in-depth analysis of how best to apply the emerging concepts of Blended Learning to Philadelphia school contexts.




8:15-9:45 am
Convention Center, Level Two, Exhibit Hall D – Section D
Career and Technical Education in Juvenile Justice Facilities: A Study of the Pennsylvania Academic Career and Technical Training Network
Roger Chu will be presenting a study, co-authored with Dr. Tracey Hartmann, in a roundtable session on juvenile justice facilities that have agreed to raise the quality of the educational services they provide by using Career and Technical Training as a key component of their educational program.
10:35am-12:05 pm
Convention Center, Level One, Room 102 A
Outcomes-Based Funding in Postsecondary Education: An Expanded Analysis of Effects in Three States
RFA’s Director of Quantitative Research, Dr. Daniel Long, and Senior Associate, Dr. Kate Callahan, will be presenting a study examining whether the different versions of outcomes-based funding policies in Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee had an impact on student outcomes.
2:45-4:15 pm
Convention Center, Level Two, Room 207 B
The Unique Role of Non-University Research Centers in the Study of Educational Equity
In this AERA Presidential Session, RFA’s Executive Director, Dr. Kate Shaw, will participate as a panelist discussing the critical role that organizations can play in bringing rigorous social science methodology to one of education’s most intractable problems.

RFA’s Kate Shaw Testifies at Phila. City Council

RFA’s executive director, Kate Shaw, delivered testimony on February 18, 2016 to the Philadelphia City Council hearing on the impact of state budget cuts on the city’s schools. RFA shared statewide data collected in collaboration with PASA and PASBO on the ways in which districts across PA have responded to decreased state investment and rising mandated costs. Research tells us that these impacts have been felt most in high-poverty districts like Philadelphia.

You can read RFA’s testimony here, and learn more about our statewide survey in the most recent PASA-PASBO Report on School District Budgets here.

Research for Action Appoints David Lapp as Director of Policy Research

Research for Action is excited to announce the appointment of David Lapp as its new Director of Policy Research. For the past seven years David has served as a Staff Attorney at the Education Law Center, where he represented dozens of families on a variety of education law issues and led a range of efforts to address inequity in education policy at the local, state and national levels. David brings particular expertise in school finance, student discipline, special education, school governance, and charter school law.

“By bringing an attorney of David’s stature to RFA, we begin an important new chapter in RFA’s policy research capacity,” said Executive Director Kate Shaw. “David’s strong track record of providing insightful, effective legal analysis on issues of central importance to Pennsylvania’s public schools will allow us to continue to strengthen our efforts to use rigorous research as a tool to ensure that all children have access to high quality education.”

David has devoted his career to education and child justice. Prior to obtaining his law degree from Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, David served as a middle and high school social studies teacher at two Philadelphia charter schools. He has also taught GED and Adult Basic Education in Philadelphia schools and libraries and previously coordinated programming at an emergency youth shelter.

“I am thrilled to be joining RFA,” said David. “I look forward to combining my knowledge of education law with the deep research expertise of RFA’s talented staff.”

David Lapp’s appointment at RFA begins on March 29th. For more information, please contact Kate Shaw at

RFA Community Schools Op-Ed Published in Philadelphia Public School Notebook

Mayor Kenney’s first major policy announcement centered on plans to develop 25 community schools across Philadelphia, but the transition from school to comprehensive community hub requires a significant shift in mission and practice. RFA’s Mark Duffy and Della Jenkins explore what local policy-makers can learn from the experiences of other districts that have invested in the community schools approach with varying results.  Published today in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, the op-ed focuses on the importance of inclusive planning, shared goals, and transparent metrics for the success of the community school model. Read more here.

RFA’s Kate Shaw Presents at the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia with Otis Hackney

RFA’s Executive Director, Kate Shaw, was a guest speaker at the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia’s Education Funders Roundtable last Tuesday, February 9, 2016. She discussed the research on community schools, including key findings and insights from RFA’s recently published policy brief, “Community Schools in Practice: Research on Implementation and Impact.”

Kate was joined by Otis Hackney, Chief Education Officer for the Mayor’s Office of Philadelphia, who spoke about the City’s key education-related initiatives, including their strategy for creating 25 community schools.

RFA Commentary Featured in Education Week

Despite lackluster results from the “Recovery” and “Achievement” school districts in Louisiana and Tennessee, both Pennsylvania and Georgia are poised to adopt sweeping school turnaround plans modeled in their image. RFA’s Kate Shaw and Adam Schott co-authored an op-ed on the topic in last Thursday’s print edition of Education Week, featured today on their homepage, with researchers from the Southern Education Foundation. In it, RFA makes the case that lawmakers should be wary of punitive, one-size-fits-all state takeovers and instead prioritize promising community-schools models and research-based strategies, such as extended-day learning, site-based health services, and quality early education to boost student achievement in underfunded and underperforming districts. Read more here.

RFA Releases Policy Brief on Community Schools

Community schools are receiving increased attention in Pennsylvania and across the country as policymakers and practitioners strive to address the effects of poverty on academic performance, and provide more comprehensive supports for traditionally-underserved populations.

Earlier this month, the long-awaited and bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), maintained the three largest federal funding streams available to support extended day services or implementation of community school models. And, for the first time, low-income districts were encouraged to use Title I funds for integrated student supports and enhanced community partnerships.

Closer to home, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s inaugural address highlighted community schools and called on the “private sector and non-profit partners to come together” to expand the model citywide.

While many advocates and education leaders tout the promise of community schools, skepticism remains–in part because the model is difficult to implement and sustain, and supporting research is mainly limited to comprehensive, long-running models.

As city and state lawmakers debate the shape and scale of future community school initiatives, RFA is pleased to provide analysis of the existing research on both comprehensive models and common elements, such as expanded day learning opportunities and health supports.

Click here to explore the full brief, including case studies, policy considerations, and lessons learned, and check out RFA’s commentary in last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer.

RFA Op-Ed Featured in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With Congress poised to enact a large-scale revision to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, states will soon have more flexibility in rating, measuring and intervening in schools based on student test scores. RFA researchers Mark Duffy, Della Jenkins, and Adam Schott penned an op-ed that appeared in the Sunday, December 6 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which they make the case that state lawmakers should seize this opportunity to make meaningful, research-based reforms to performance-based accountability. Read more here.

RFA Named 2016-17 Barra Award Recipient

RFA learned this week that it is the recipient of a prestigious Barra Award from the Philadelphia-based Barra Foundation. According to the foundation, this two-year grant “rewards exemplary nonprofit organizations that demonstrate leadership, performance, and adaptability.” RFA is honored to be recognized along with a cadre of other highly-accomplished and diverse organizations. We look forward to working with the Barra Foundation to continue to provide timely research and analysis in support of a more adequate, equitable education for all students.

Dr. Rosemary Hughes Appointed Director of PERC

Dr. Rosemary Hughes, an experienced educational researcher with deep roots in Philadelphia public education, has been named Director of the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC). Hughes brings high-level research experience that spans the School District of Philadelphia as well as the city’s charter and non-profit sectors.

“Rosemary’s combination of skills and experience is a wonderful match for this position,” said Kate Shaw, Executive Director of Research for Action and PERC’s founding director. “Her knowledge of how to use research to support and improve Philadelphia’s public schools will be invaluable to PERC.”

Launched with a three-year grant from the William Penn Foundation, PERC is an innovative partnership between Research for Action, an independent research organization that serves as PERC’s organizational home; the School District of Philadelphia; the city’s charter school sector; and researchers from Temple, Drexel, and the University of Pennsylvania. These cross-sector partnerships are a defining characteristic of PERC.

Melanie Harris, Chief Information Officer of the School District of Philadelphia, said, “I am thrilled to have Rosemary at the helm of PERC.” Dr. Nancy Songer, Distinguished University Professor and Dean of Drexel’s School of Education, echoed this sentiment: “Drexel is excited about its partnership with PERC, and I look forward to working with Rosemary.”

“I am extremely excited to continue to build upon the successes of PERC,” said Hughes. “Through close collaboration with educational leaders across the city, we will continue to build capacity for connecting research to tangible implications for practice.”
Since its inception in August 2014, PERC has published a series of briefs on Blended Learning, and has launched several new research projects, including a study of English Language Learners in the city’s public schools.