Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

An IES-funded “Must Read” on Writing and Reading Disabilities

A paper based on an IES-funded grant has been recognized as a “must read” by the Council for Learning Disabilities.

IES-funded researcher, Stephen Hooper, and his colleagues were recently recognized by the Council for their paper: Writing disabilities and reading disabilities in elementary school students: Rates of co-occurrence and cognitive burden (PDF). The paper was written by Lara-Jeane Costa, Crystal Edwards, and Dr. Hooper and published in Learning Disability Quarterly. Every year, the Council for Learning Disabilities acknowledges outstanding work published in its journals and selected this paper as one of two Must Read pieces for 2016. The authors will present on the paper at the Council's annual conference in San Antonio this week (October 13-14, 2016).

This paper was funded through a grant from the National Center for Education Research (NCER) to examine written language development and writing problems, and the efficacy of an intervention aimed at improving early writing skills. The results of the paper found that the rate of students with both writing and reading disabilities increased from first to fourth grade and these students showed lower ability in language, fine motor skills and memory compared with students with neither disability or only a writing disability.  

The team continues their IES-funded work by looking at the efficacy of the Self-Regulated Strategy Development intervention on struggling middle school writers’ academic outcomes.

Written by Becky McGill-Wilkinson, Education Research Analyst, NCER

Enhancing Reading Instruction for Children with Down Syndrome

In February, President Obama named two Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grantees as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Christopher Lemons (Peabody College of Vanderbilt University) and Cynthia Puranik (Georgia State University) were honored in Washington, DC at a White House ceremony this past May, along with 103 other recipients of the award.

Dr. Lemons and Dr. Puranik have recently completed an IES-funded project, Enhancing Reading Instruction for Children with Down Syndrome: A Behavioral Phenotypic Approach. They served as the Co-Principal Investigators of this study to develop an intervention for improving reading for children with Down syndrome (DS). The intervention is a supplemental, 16-week reading curriculum that incorporates critical components of early reading (e.g., vocabulary, decoding skills, fluency) and has been adapted and modified to align with the Down syndrome behavioral phenotype—a set of characteristics commonly shared by children with the syndrome. The characteristics of focus for this intervention include the ability to process visual information and challenges with auditory and expressive language, using working and short-term memory, and motivation. Kim Sprague, program officer in the National Center for Special Education Research, spoke with Dr. Lemons (pictured right) about the project and next steps.   

Why do we need this reading intervention?

Over the last decade, research has demonstrated that students with DS can do better in school than we ever imagined in the past. The purpose of our intervention is to increase reading outcomes by adapting instruction that targets phonological awareness and phonics so that it is more closely aligned with the Down syndrome behavioral phenotype in an attempt to make the instruction more effective for children with Down syndrome.

What is the purpose of studying phenotype?

This is something I am often asked. We were looking for ideas to improve reading interventions for students with DS and there is evidence in the literature base that students with DS have a heightened probability of sharing certain characteristics—a behavioral phenotype. So we sought to develop an intervention based on this specific phenotype and our goal was to determine whether adapting instruction for a group who share common features may hold promise.

What was the intervention that was implemented for children?

Through the iterative process for this development grant, we experimented with applying several adaptations to evidence-based phonological awareness and phonics instruction. Our primary adaptation was to teach students a key word for each letter sound. We selected words that students were likely to know—like “dog.” In each lesson, we focused on three letter sounds paired with a picture and taught the student to match the picture to the printed word. We then used this word-picture pair to support the other components of the lesson that were focused on phonological awareness, alphabetic principle, decoding and scaffolding working memory. We worked with the paraprofessionals and teachers to train and support their implementation of the developed intervention.

What were the study results? 

We have learned that our intervention is effective at increasing reading outcomes for many students with DS who enter the program at the lowest reading levels. These children appear to have benefited from our adaptations. This said, there were some children with DS who needed additional individualization, so special education teachers need to understand how to provide this type of ongoing adaptation. Also, we demonstrated that many students’ who had already “broken the code”—students who already understand and can apply the alphabetic principle—didn’t need adapted instruction. They benefited from the standard version of the phonics intervention.

What are the next steps based on this work?

We still have a lot of work to do. I think we have had success in helping students improve phonological awareness and decoding skills. We need to more strongly focus on comprehension. So, how do we provide assistance to help them answer who, what, where, and when questions? How can we support students’ abilities in interpreting the meaning of texts independently? And, more specifically for students with DS, we need a better understanding of the variability that exists related to characteristics associated with the phenotype. We need stronger empirical work to explore potential aptitude-by-treatment effects that may result from this line of work and continue to explore interventions that are feasible and effective.

For reading instruction provided to students with DS, ensuring that paraprofessionals are appropriately trained and supported to deliver the reading intervention as well as to adapt to the individual needs of the student is critical. Doing so may offer the greatest hope to improve outcomes because paraprofessionals are often able to provide one-on-one instruction more frequently than the special education teacher. During the study, special education teachers and paraprofessionals were willing to provide one-on-one instructional time to participating students for four or five days per week. However, most of the teachers indicated that they would not be able to maintain this level of intensity after the study was over.

We are beginning work to explore how to better support teachers of students with intellectual disabilities as they implement data-based individualization, or DBI, as a method to enhance reading outcomes. We think this approach holds promise. Readers of your blog can learn more about this approach at the National Center on Intensive Intervention at

Wendy Wei, a program assistant in the National Center for Education Research, and Diane Mechner, who worked as an IES intern, contributed to this blog post.

Pinning Down the Use of Research in Education

There are plenty of great ideas to be found on Pinterest: recipes for no-bake, allergen-friendly cookies; tips for taking better photos; and suggestions for great vacation spots in Greece. Lots of teachers use Pinterest as a way to share classroom ideas and engaging lessons. But where do teachers, education leaders and decision makers turn when they need evidence-based instructional practices that may work to help struggling readers, or want to use research to address other educational challenges?

Since 2014, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) has funded two National Research and Development Centers on Knowledge Utilization in an effort to find out. They are well on their way to answering questions about how and why teachers and schools use—or do not use—research in their decision making. They are also exploring ways the research community can increase interest in and actual use of research-based practices.

We are beginning to see the first results of their efforts to answer two key questions. First, are educators and schools using education research in their decision making, and if they aren’t, why not? The second question is: If educators are not using evidence as a part of their work, what can the research community do to make it more likely they will?

The National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) was awarded to the University of Colorado Boulder and is led by Principal Investigator Bill Penuel (University of Colorado Boulder), and Co-Principal Investigators Derek Briggs (University of Colorado Boulder), Jon Fullerton (Harvard University), Heather Hill (Harvard University), Cynthia Coburn (Northwestern University), and Jim Spillane (Northwestern University).

NCRPP has recently released their first technical report which covers the descriptive results from their nationally-representative survey of school and district leaders. Results from the report show that school and district leaders do use research evidence for activities such as designing professional development, expanding their understanding of specific issues, or convincing others to agree with a particular point of view on an education issue. Instrumental uses of research, when district leaders apply research to guide or inform a specific decision, were most commonly reported. Overall, school and district leaders were positive about the relevance and value of research for practice. When asked to report what specific piece of research was most useful, school and district leaders named books, policy reports, and peer-reviewed journal articles. You can get more information on the center's website, They are also very active on Twitter.

The Center for Research Use in Education (CRUE) was awarded to the University of Delaware and is led by Principal Investigator Henry May (University of Delaware), and Co-Principal Investigator Liz Farley-Ripple (University of Delaware). This team is currently working on drafting their measures of research use, which will include a set of surveys for researchers and another set for practitioners. They are especially interested in understanding which factors contribute to deep engagement with research evidence, and how gaps in perceptions and values between researchers and practitioners may be associated with frequency of deep research use. You can learn more about the work of CRUE on their website, and follow them on Twitter

While the Centers were tasked with tapping into use of research evidence specifically, both are interested in understanding all sources of evidence that practitioners use, whether it’s from peer-reviewed research articles, the What Works Clearinghouse, a friend at another school, or even Pinterest. There is certainly a wealth of research evidence to support specific instructional practices and programs, and these two Centers will begin to provide answers to questions about how teachers and leaders are using this research.

So, it’s possible that, down the road, Pinterest will become a great place for homemade, toxic-free finger paint and evidence-based practices for improving education.

Written by Becky McGill-Wilkinson, NCER Program Officer for the Knowledge Utilization Research and Development Centers

Awards to Accelerate Research in Education Technology

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), in partnership with the Small Business Administration (SBA), has made awards to two U.S.-based accelerators – organizations that provide support to technology developers and researchers in the development and launch of new innovations. They are among 68 awards made under SBA’s 2016 Growth Accelerator Fund Competition

The $50,000, one-year awards are designed to support accelerators in building the capacity of education technology small businesses to conduct research in the development and evaluation of new innovative products.

The Role of Accelerators in Education

Accelerators fill an important role in the fast-growing, education technology ecosystem by offering a “one-stop shop” for small businesses looking to advance their research and development, and commercialization processes. For example, accelerators assist with idea formation and market analysis, software development, licensing and copyright planning, networking, manufacturing, raising investment funds, and getting the products tested by schools.

However, not many education accelerators provide assistance to developers in conducting rigorous and relevant education research. Because start-ups typically do not employ or partner with education researchers, many new technologies are often not iteratively developed and refined based on feedback from students and teachers or evaluated for promise or efficacy in improving education outcomes. The lack of research-based information often leaves school practitioners without the information they need to guide decision making on whether to adopt a new intervention.

To help strengthen these areas, the U.S. Department of Education/IES partnered with SBA to create a new topic in this year’s Growth Accelerator Fund Competition—Education Technology Research. This topic called for applications from accelerators with plans to support developers in conducting education research, including research to inform concept idea development, research to test prototypes and inform refinements, and pilot studies to evaluate the promise and efficacy of fully developed technologies. Applications were reviewed by a panel of expert judges. The two awards were made to the following accelerators:

  • Virginia-based Jefferson Education, which will build a foundation for a national education researcher database to connect entrepreneurial developers to a qualified education research partners. The database will facilitate the creation of partnerships to carry out a wide range of research studies, from case studies to inform the development of a new intervention to experimentally designed studies of the education outcomes of fully developed technology interventions.
  • California-based New Schools Ignite/WestED Research Partnership, which will create a website with free resources and information on the role of different forms of research across the lifespan of a technology intervention, training and assistance in research methods, and with opportunities to conduct research in education settings. The funding will also be used develop data collection and analysis systems to help entrepreneurs understand the impact and effectiveness of the technologies housed within the accelerator.

Along with building the research capacity of developers, the awardees will disseminate information to developers about IES programs that fund research, development and evaluation, including the ED/IES Small Business Innovation Research program and the IES Research Grants Programs in Education Technology for Education and Special Education.

For more information about how IES is supporting the development of education technology, visit the IES website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Recognizing Our Outstanding Predoctoral Fellows

Each year, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recognizes an outstanding fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. For the first time, IES has selected joint recipients for the 2015 award: Meghan McCormick and Eric Taylor. They will receive their awards and present their research at the annual IES Principal Investigators meeting in Washington, D.C. in December 2016.

Meghan completed her Ph.D. in Applied Psychology at New York University and wrote her dissertation on the efficacy of INSIGHTS, a social emotional learning intervention aimed at improving low-income urban students’ academic achievement. She is currently a research associate at MDRC. Eric completed his PhD in the Economics of Education from Stanford University and wrote his dissertation on the contributions of the quality and quantity of classroom instruction to student learning. Eric is currently an assistant professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

We asked Meghan and Eric how participating in an IES predoctoral training program helped their development as researchers.  For more information about the IES predoctoral training program, visit our website.

Meghan McCormick

Having the opportunity to be part of the IES Predoctoral Training Program helped me to develop a set of theoretical, quantitative, and practical skills that I would not have had the opportunity to develop otherwise. 

I was drawn to attend NYU (New York University) for my doctoral studies specifically because the school of education at NYU offered the (IES) predoctoral training program, in addition to hosting a core set of faculty with research interests very much aligned with my own. In my first year of graduate school, I quickly became aware that being a part of the IES program allowed me the freedom to study with an interdisciplinary set of scholars who could support multiple components of my training through a diverse set of experiences.

For example, in my work with Elise Cappella, Erin O’Connor, and Sandee McClowry, I was able to learn about the logistics of implementing a cluster-randomized trial across a broad set of schools, and conducting impact analyses to evaluate the efficacy of one social-emotional learning program called INSIGHTS. My experience working with Jim Kemple and Lori Nathanson at the Research Alliance for New York City schools showed me how to use research in a way that was responsive to the needs and goals of education policy makers. Quantitative coursework with Jennifer Hill and Sharon Weinberg helped me to apply rigorous quantitative methods to the data that were collected in schools, and to think concretely about the implications of research design for my future work. Coursework with developmental psychologists conducting policy-relevant research, such as Pamela Morris and Larry Aber, helped me to apply comprehensive theoretical framing when examining research questions of interest, and interpreting results. In addition, I have always been primarily interested in conducting interdisciplinary research that is responsive to policy and practice. My dissertation research grew out of my interest in learning about interdisciplinary methods for causal inference and applying them to research questions I had about how, for whom, and under what circumstances the social-emotional learning program I helped to evaluate effected outcomes for low-income students.

Most importantly, perhaps, having been part of the IES program’s collaborative and interdisciplinary community helped me to identify the type of research I wanted to do after finishing graduate school. Primarily, I knew that I wanted to conduct policy-relevant research, using the most rigorous quantitative methods available, with a team of researchers coming from different backgrounds. This realization led me to work at MDRC, where I have been working with JoAnn Hsueh and other colleagues to apply my skills from the predoctoral training program in new research design work that is responsive to critical policy questions in early education policy and practice right now. I feel prepared for this new work given the opportunities that the IES program afforded me across the last five years. 

Eric Taylor

I would emphasize two benefits. First, the IES program at Stanford helped me create and strengthen professional relationships with other education researchers and practitioners. Those relationships provided important opportunities to learn skills in ways that could not happen in the classroom but also complemented the excellent classroom instruction. The new relationships were diverse: other graduate students in different disciplines, Stanford faculty and faculty at other institutions, and, critically, practitioners and policy makers. For example, supported by my fellowship, I joined faculty at (the University of) Michigan and Columbia (University) working with the DC Public Schools to improve teacher applicant screening and hiring.

Second, those relationships combined with the financial support of the fellowship made it possible to work on new and timely research projects. During my time as an IES predoc, with collaborators at Brown, we started a researcher-practitioner partnership with colleges at the Tennessee Department of Education. The resulting work has taught me much about the day-to-day realities of school policy making and management, and how research can and cannot help. The partnership with Tennessee also grew into a five-year grant from IES, which began last year, to study state policy and teacher development through evaluation.

In short, I am certain my career is much further along today than it would have been without the IES predoc fellowship.

By Katina Stapleton, Education Research Analyst, National Center for Education Research