IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Catching Up with Former NCSER Fellows: Experiences and Advice for Early Career Researchers

Since 2008, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) has supported postdoctoral training programs to prepare fellows in conducting early intervention and special education research that addresses issues that are important to infants, toddlers, children, and youth with or at risk for disabilities, their families, practitioners, and policymakers. As part of our Spotlight on IES Training Programs series, we reached out to a few former NCSER fellows who are now principal investigators (PIs) on IES grants to ask about their current research projects, how the NCSER fellowship prepared them for those projects, roadblocks they faced in applying for research funding, and advice for early career researchers interested in applying for IES funding. Below is what they had to say.

Angel Fettig, University of Washington

My NCSER postdoctoral position at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill provided the opportunities and resources to prepare me to be the researcher I am today. Through my postdoctoral position, I had the opportunity to work on multiple NCSER-funded projects and got a solid understanding of the day-to-day activities of large research grants. I also received resources and supports to attend trainings and hone my research skills. Most importantly, I was surrounded by a community of researchers and mentors who are committed to promoting the use of rigorous research methodologies to build on evidence-based practices. Since the completion of my postdoctoral position, I have engaged in continuous learning around innovative research methodologies and apply them in my research grant applications. My current research, including the NCSER project I lead, focuses on equipping educators and parents with evidence-based practices to support young children’s social and emotional development and reduce challenging behaviors. I strongly believe that social emotional development is critical in ensuring the success of young children with and at risk for disabilities as they enter schools, and adults who interact with them play a crucial role in fostering this development. My advice for early career researchers is to find good mentors and colleagues who are interested in similar topics, craft an idea that addresses the current needs, design a study with rigorous and innovative research methodologies, and then just apply for funding! You can’t score a goal if you don’t take a shot!

Paulo Graziano, Florida International University

My NCSER postdoctoral position at Florida International University provided me with specialized training in evidence-based assessments and interventions for children with disruptive behavior disorders. In combination with my background in developmental psychopathology, this training allowed me to find gaps in the research on how to best prepare preschoolers with disruptive behavior disorders for school entry, which led me to apply for additional IES grants. The NCSER project that I was awarded in 2012 entailed iteratively developing and testing a summer treatment program targeting pre-kindergarteners with disruptive behavior. As part of the project, we learned which curriculum, length, and level of parental involvement was needed to optimize children's academic, behavioral, and social-emotional growth during kindergarten. I was fortunate enough to get this award while still finishing up my postdoctoral fellowship, which was tremendously helpful in obtaining a faculty position and continuing my work at the same institution. One roadblock I faced applying for funding was obtaining permission from my university to apply for a grant as the PI while still a postdoc and responding to reviewers who thought that a postdoc should not be a PI. However, I overcame both roadblocks with the support of my postdoc mentor. This initial IES grant and my NCSER postdoc training were essential for launching my career and establishing a translational line of research that integrates developmental and neuroscience research to inform the treatment of disruptive behavior disorders. This integrated line of research has also allowed me to successfully receive funding from other agencies including the National Institutes of Health. I would highly encourage early career researchers to develop solid relationships with their community's school system. Forming a partnership is critical towards submitting a project for funding that will not only be implemented with high fidelity but that will be well received and maintained/adopted by stakeholders once the grant ends.

Dwight Irvin, University of Kansas

My NCSER postdoctoral fellowship at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at the University of Kansas focused on response to intervention in early childhood. With support and guidance from my mentors, Charles Greenwood and Judith Carta, I was afforded an opportunity to assist on multiple IES projects that allowed me to engage in planning, problem-solving, technology design/development, and statistical analysis. Importantly, I learned how an idea becomes a proposal, a funded grant, and is implemented to meet the proposed deliverables. During my postdoc, I formulated my own line of research and collected pilot data for future proposal development. It’s these experiences that I feel were most beneficial in preparing me for my current work and research. In our current NCSER project, we aim to validate a tool, the Classroom Code for Interactive Recording of Children's Learning Environments (CIRCLE) (Version 2.0), to assist preschool teachers in adjusting their instruction for young children at risk of not being ready for kindergarten. CIRCLE is a digital, live classroom observation system that assesses teacher and child behavior within multiple learning contexts. Our goal is to learn under what conditions and for whom intentional instruction is effectively promoting children’s literacy engagement and school readiness outcomes. Applying for research funding is always a formidable task. A big challenge is just being an early career investigator and lacking a reputation that convinces reviewers the work is feasible and worth funding. Another is learning how to write a proposal that is absent of fatal flaws and not viewed as too “ambitious.” My advice for early career researchers is to surround yourself with colleagues who value mentoring and have a history of funding. Find a way to involve yourself in developing a proposal even if it is not your own work and find a role on it even if it is not as an investigator. It is best not to expect success on an initial proposal submission, rather look at getting a panel review as a win. And lastly, find ways to collect and include meaningful pilot data to incorporate into a proposal as evidence that it is worth the investment.

This blog was written by Alice Bravo, virtual intern for IES and doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Washington, and Katie Taylor, program officer for NCSER’s postdoctoral training program.

New International Data Identify “Resilient” Students in Financial Literacy

NCES recently released the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 assessment of financial literacy. This assessment measured 15-year-old students’ knowledge and understanding of financial concepts, products, and risks and their ability to apply that knowledge to real-life situations. It found that, on average, U.S. students performed similarly to their peers across the 12 other participating Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. 

The assessment also found that 12 percent of U.S. students performed at the highest level of proficiency (level 5). Performance at this level indicates that students can apply their understanding of financial terms and concepts to analyze complex financial products, solve nonroutine financial problems, and describe potential outcomes of financial decisions in the big picture.[1] The U.S. percentage was again similar to the OECD average.

However, this analysis also identified a group of students who might be considered “resilient.” In education research, resilience is defined as the ability to perform well academically despite coming from the disadvantaged backgrounds that have more commonly been associated with lower performance.

High-performing students came from across the spectrum of school poverty levels, as measured by the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL).[2] In particular, 7 percent of high-performing students in financial literacy came from the highest poverty schools (figure 1).


Figure 1. Percentage distribution of U.S. 15-year-olds in public schools scoring below level 2 and at level 5 of proficiency on the PISA financial literacy scale, by percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) at their school: 2018

NOTE: Data for percentage of students eligible for FRPL were available for public schools only. An individual student’s level of poverty may vary within schools. Detail may not sum to totals due to rounding.

SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2018.


It is these 7 percent of students who could be considered “resilient” and may be of interest for further study. For example, research could identify if there are factors that are associated with their high performance when compared to their lower performing peers in similar schools. Research on academically resilient students that used eighth-grade data from TIMSS found, for example, that having high educational aspirations increased the likelihood that students with few home education resources performed at or above the TIMSS Intermediate international benchmark in mathematics.[3] Experiencing less bullying also increased this likelihood.

Examining the “resilient” PISA financial literacy students more closely could also determine the extent to which their individual backgrounds are related to performance. This would be of interest because, even within high-poverty schools, students’ individual circumstances may vary. 

Patterns in Other PISA Subjects

There are similar subsets of “resilient” students in the other PISA 2018 subjects (table 1). Eight percent of high performers in reading were from the highest poverty schools, as were 5 percent of high performers in mathematics and 7 percent of high performers in science.


Table 1. Percentage of U.S. 15-year-olds in public schools scoring at or above level 5 of proficiency, by PISA subject and their schools’ free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) status: 2018

[Standard errors appear in parentheses]

NOTE: Results are scaled separately; thus, percentages cannot be compared across subjects. Level 5 is the highest level of proficiency in financial literacy; levels 5 and 6 are the highest levels of proficiency in the other PISA subjects. Data for students eligible for FRPL were available for public schools only.

SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2018.


For more information on the PISA 2018 results in financial literacy and other subjects, visit the NCES International Activities website. To create customized data and charts using PISA and other international assessment data, use the International Data Explorer.

 

By Maria Stephens, AIR


[2] Data for students eligible for FRPL are available for public schools only.

[3] Students at the Intermediate international benchmark can apply basic mathematical knowledge in a variety of situations, and those above this benchmark can do so in increasingly complex situations and, at the highest end, reason with information, draw conclusions, make generalizations, and solve linear equations.