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2011 National Board for Education Sciences Annual Report
National Center for Education Research (NCER)

The National Center for Education Research (NCER) supports rigorous research that contributes to the solution of significant education problems in the United States.

Program Highlights

New Research and Research Training Grants

  FY 2010 FY 2011
Applications received and reviewed 994 903
New research and research training awards 110 90
Total award amount $309 million* $139 million

* The FY 2010 awards included $113 million in Reading for Understanding awards.

The new FY 2011 awards cover a wide range of topics including research on mathematics and science education, behavioral interventions, early learning, English learners, education technology, teacher effectiveness, and school accountability. Below are four examples of new projects.

  • Mathematical equivalence is an important concept in children's development of algebraic thinking. Although decades of research have shown that children struggle to understand this fundamental concept, researchers have yet to develop an intervention that produces mastery-level understanding. University of Notre Dame researchers are building on the success of their previous IES award to develop and pilot-test a comprehensive intervention to help elementary school children achieve mastery-level understanding of mathematical equivalence.
  • With about 70 percent of fourth and eighth grade English learners scoring below the Basic level on the NAEP reading assessment in 2009, identifying effective approaches for teaching English to students who enter the school system with limited English skills remains a challenge. Researchers at the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin will evaluate the effectiveness of a first-grade supplemental reading intervention for English language learners with reading difficulties when it is implemented under routine practice conditions.
  • Young adolescents' vulnerability to a range of academic, behavioral, and social problems associated with poor school adjustment can make the transition to middle school challenging. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are evaluating the efficacy of an intervention intended to support adolescents' successful transition to middle school in urban schools. This work is an extension of earlier research supported by IES to develop the intervention and evaluate its efficacy in rural schools.
  • Very little is known about the effectiveness of education programs for gifted students. A collaborative effort between the University of California at Berkeley and Broward County Public Schools will evaluate the impact of the district's gifted education program on student achievement. The team will assess the effect of gifted education in early elementary grades on subsequent academic achievement and the impact of universal screening for gifted students (a strategy adopted to correct for the under-representation of Black and Hispanic students) on the size and composition of the gifted population.

In addition, NCER awarded funding for a new research and development center on postsecondary education. The National Center on Postsecondary Education and Employment will analyze state and national longitudinal data to identify the employment and earnings benefits of specific postsecondary educational pathways and awards. It will also examine the institutional programs and public policies that are associated with postsecondary completion and employment and earnings outcomes. The Center will analyze outcomes for a full range of undergraduate degrees and pathways but will focus on occupationally oriented educational pathways leading to credentials, particularly at the sub-baccalaureate level.

Activities of the National Research and Development (R&D) Centers

  • At the fourth annual conference of the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, policy analysts and education researchers discussed the extent to which Race to the Top reforms matter for student achievement, teacher quality, and effective schools.
  • At its 2010 conference, the National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education brought together early childhood researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to discuss the implementation and evaluation of teacher professional development interventions for early childhood educators.
  • At its annual conference, the National Center for Performance Incentives released findings from its three-year evaluation of the impact on student achievement of teacher pay for performance. For this three-year evaluation, middle school math teachers were randomly assigned to a treatment or control group with treatment teachers eligible for bonuses of up to $15,000 per year based on student test score gains. The primary finding was that rewarding teachers with bonus pay, in the absence of other support programs, did not raise student test scores.

Reading for Understanding

NCER launched the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative last year to develop effective approaches for improving and assessing reading comprehension. All five intervention teams have been developing curriculum materials for their grade spans. Four of the five teams have completed initial versions of their curriculum materials, and two of the teams have completed teaching trials, in which classroom teachers have implemented these initial versions, and been engaged in the ongoing revision of these materials. The fifth team has completed a detailed mapping of learning trajectories in literature, history, and science, which is informing development of their secondary curricula intended to support comprehension. Simultaneously, teams are gathering cross-sectional and longitudinal data which will enable mapping of the development of cognitive, linguistic, and reading skills from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. Analysis of these data will be complete by the fall of 2011 and will feed directly into the revision of the intervention materials. Across the teams, cognitive researchers are examining how linguistic features of the learner and of the instructional texts shape observed learning outcomes. Finally, the assessment team has completed a draft assessment framework and is exploring the costs and benefits of different item formats that can be used to assess comprehension of complex texts.

Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)

Through the SBIR program, NCER provides awards of up to $1.05 million to small businesses and their partners for the full-scale development of products that facilitate student learning and teacher efficiency, or for tools to improve education research. One measure of program success is commercialization of products developed under program auspices. In September 2010, Measured Progress, a New Hampshire-based not-for-profit specializing in the development of state- and district-level assessments, acquired Nimble Assessment Systems, a two-time recipient of SBIR awards. Measured Progress will incorporate Nimble Assessments Systems' computer-based testing tools—NimbleTools and NimblePad systems—into its product line.

Another SBIR awardee, Polyhedron Learning Media, Inc., developed a web-based virtual physics laboratory for use in introductory college physics courses. In a pilot study of the technology, students in introductory-level physics classes were randomly assigned to the virtual lab or to a traditional hands-on lab. Results suggest that students in the virtual labs are able to learn as much as students in the hands-on lab. In 2010, Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning signed a contract with Polyhedron for exclusive rights to distribute Virtual Physics Lab to colleges, universities, and Advanced Placement high school physics programs.

Quantum Simulations, another SBIR recipient, has developed a suite of web-based artificial intelligence (AI) tutors and assessments for chemistry and math education that serve students at the kindergarten through adult levels. The AI tutors support learning through an interactive process that poses questions, analyzes the students' answers, provides feedback, and adjusts to the student's level while answering the student's questions. Quantum has commercialized its tutors through direct sales, as well as distribution partnerships with textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Research Findings

Studies completed by NCER researchers in 2010–11 include:

Evaluation of Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program NCER's Evaluation of State and Local Education Programs and Policies program supports the evaluation of programs and policies that states or districts have implemented. Under this program, a team of researchers at Vanderbilt University is evaluating the impact of Tennessee's voluntary pre-kindergarten program on the school readiness of economically disadvantaged children and their subsequent academic performance. The project includes two studies. One is a randomized controlled trial of oversubscribed programs, which assign the limited available places in the program by lottery. The second study is a regression discontinuity study comparing children who are eligible for the program based on their age at the cut-off date to children who have to wait a year because they just missed the cut-off date. The data show substantial improvements on school readiness outcomes for children who have access to the state pre-kindergarten program.2

Early Childhood Education Research conducted by the National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education indicates that many young children who are at risk for school failure attend classrooms of mediocre quality that do not maximize children's learning to the extent found in high-quality classrooms. For example, analyses of state-funded pre-kindergarten programs in 11 states with mature programs indicated that just over half the school day was spent on learning activities.3 Children in early childhood classrooms may participate in very few of the types of interactions that are associated with improved school readiness.4

Perceptual Learning A team at the University of California, Los Angeles decided to exploit the potential of perceptual learning by developing computer-delivered modules, in which, for example, students are asked in 30-minute practice sessions to match multiple instances of different representations of the same equation (e.g., matching a number sentence to the correct word problem or graph). Students are asked only to identify the representations that are equivalent but not to solve the equations. This repeated exposure to examples, with feedback to the student regarding whether his or her match is correct, draws upon the human capacity to seek out structure. In an experiment with high school students, the perceptual learning module was found to substantially improve students' performance on mapping the relations between word problems, equations, and graphs.5

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2 Lipsey, M.L., Farran, D., Hofer, K., Bilbrey, C., & Dong, N. (March, 2011). The effects of the Tennessee voluntary pre-kindergarten program: Initial results. Presented at the annual meetings of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.
3 Early, D.M., Iruka, I.U., Ritchie, S., Barbarin, O., Winn, D., Crawford, G.M., Pianta, R.C. (2009). How do pre-kindergarteners spend their time? Gender, ethnicity, and income as predictors of experiences in pre-kindergarten classrooms. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25 (2), 177–193.
4 Early et al. (2009); Mashburn, A.J., Pianta, R.C., Hamre, B.K., Downer, J.T., Barbarin, O.A., Bryant, D.& Early, D.M. (2008). Measures of classroom quality in prekindergarten and children’s development of academic, language, and social skills. Child Development, 79(3), 732–749.
5 Kellman, P.J., Massey, C.M., & Son, J.Y. (2010). Perceptual learning modules in mathematics: Enhancing students’ pattern recognition, structure extraction, and fluency. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2, 285–305; Kellman, P.J., Massey, C.M., Roth, Z., Burke, T., Zucker, J., Saw, A., Aguero, K.E., & Wise, J.A. (2008). Perceptual learning and the technology of expertise: Studies in fraction learning and algebra. Learning Technologies and Cognition: Special Issue of Pragmatics and Cognition, 16, 356–405.