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Region 8 CC Spotlight: Caitlin Howley

Two students reading from books.

A Note from the Co-Director

Transition is an important part of education, and so it is for the Region 8 Comprehensive Center (CC) this spring. Our long-time Co-Director Kandace Jones is relocating westward and moving on to new career opportunities. From her work at the U.S. Department of Education to her leadership role with Region 8 CC, she has brought a strong focus to topics such as equitable education and lifelong learning—specialties that have proven especially valuable during the past 10 years. We celebrate her work and wish her well going forward!  We also are excited to announce the appointment of our new Co-Director, Dr. Caitlin Howley, to join me in continuing to lead the Region 8 CC. For nearly 25 years, Dr. Howley has provided technical assistance, program evaluation, and applied research services to improve the lives of young people and the effectiveness of programs that serve them. She is deeply familiar with technical assistance and capacity building, having served previously as director of the Appalachian Regional Comprehensive Center. Please take a moment to read more about her biography and priorities in the blog below. With Dr. Howley on board, we look forward to continuing the center’s work to deliver high-quality services to educators in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.

--Thomas (T.J.) Horwood, Region 8 CC Co-Director


For more than two decades, Dr. Caitlin Howley has played leadership roles in rural education, equity, college access and success, and capacity building. As a Director for ICF’s Child Welfare and Education practice, she has led evaluations of STEM and postsecondary access programs while helping to build the evaluation capacity of practitioners. She also has a long history of support for the Comprehensive Centers program. She served as director and associate director through two iterations of the Appalachian Regional Comprehensive Center between 2006 and 2019 and provided evaluation services to the Region IV Comprehensive Center in the early 2000s. Based in southeast Ohio, she recently provided technical assistance to two Region 8 Comprehensive Center (CC) initiatives. A sociologist of education by training, Dr. Howley earned a Ph.D. and master’s degree from Temple University. In the responses below, she provides background and insights on her past work and her priorities for the Region 8 CC.

Question: How did you get interested in education technical assistance and capacity building?

Caitlin: I’d say it was largely by accident! I started my career as an education researcher and program evaluator. I have so many questions about how things work that research felt like a natural fit. I became curious about capacity building when I was evaluating several technical assistance projects earlier in my career. The projects struck me as difficult in interesting ways—they often tried to address problems for which there were no clear answers with many competing interests and participants. These projects addressed issues that organizational theorist Russell Ackoff called “messes,” which he differentiated from puzzles and problems. Puzzles are pretty straightforward—we aim to complete them to match the picture on the box and there’s only one way the pieces fit together. Problems are a bit different, but they have one correct answer with multiple ways to get there. Think about solving equations: there’s a right answer, but you can solve them through various paths. But messes? It’s not clear if there are correct answers to a mess, nor is it apparent how to get to a workable answer. Messes are complex, and reasonable people can disagree about how the mess came to be and how to solve it. This kind of work seemed complex and challenging, and it scared me a bit.  

But then I tried my hand at capacity building and discovered it’s a real privilege to help people find answers to their most pressing issues. Each team we serve needs to devise solutions based on many considerations, from what the evidence suggests to what families want for their children, from what needs to happen now to what the future seems to hold. Our job is to help them sort all that out so they can pursue important goals in ways that make sense for them. It’s immensely satisfying.

Question: What education topics are you most passionate about today? 

Caitlin: All my work is motivated by a sense that education has the potential to liberate people. It can light them up with enthusiasm for ideas and connections. It can help them use knowledge and clear thinking throughout their lives and enable them to question and change what’s unfair in their lives. What education should not do—but which it so often has done—is reproduce inequality. What I really care about is helping educators, families, and young people figure out how to try things in new ways to make sure everyone has access to the experiences, resources, and caretaking that we all need as human beings in a complex world.

Question: What are your priorities and goals for the Region 8 Comprehensive Center?  

Caitlin: My top priority is to help the Region 8 Comprehensive Center team continue to provide high-quality, deeply engaged support for the difficult work that SEAs and LEAs do. We need to keep working on behalf of our state partner teams, bringing the most useful resources and insights and the most sensitive, state-of-the-art facilitation skills. I’d like educators in the region to know that we’re here as partners, sounding boards, coaches, co-developers, knowledge and relationship brokers, and implementation specialists. Ultimately, we’re a resource to help them reach their goals.

Question: The last two years have brought many issues to the forefront, including equity, students’ social-emotional health, and remote learning. In what ways do you think K-12 education will change in the next five years? 

Caitlin: One thing I expect to see is increasing acknowledgement that education is just one system among many that intersect in children’s lives, and that the problems education leaders face are so complex and interdependent that solutions must engage all of these other systems. You can see it in the ways educators are now embedding social and emotional learning into their practice, or in the way schools are partnering with an array of human service providers to offer support on their campuses.

I also anticipate that we will see continued tension and conflict around the purpose of education and who gets to decide this. Education is inherently about values, goals, and aspirations for our children, so debate about what to teach is inevitable. But I hope that the emotional pitch of the debate eases and that educators, families, and communities find ways to engage in constructive negotiation and decision making.

Question: What else would you like educators in Region 8 to know about you?   

Caitlin: I co-edited a book in 2021 with the Comprehensive Center network’s amazing Dr. Sam Redding and four brilliant young scholars. Cultivating Rural Education: A People-Focused Approach for States summarizes what we know from research about rural places, dynamics, and education issues, including information on some of the coolest education efforts undertaken by rural communities. It also outlines a process that state and local entities can use to learn more about their rural constituencies, so they can craft responsive policies and programs for rural schools and districts. If this is work you’d like to pursue, the Region 8 CC would be delighted to help!