IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Observations Matter: Listening to and Learning from English Learners in Secondary Mathematics Classrooms

April is National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month and Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month. We asked Drs. Haiwen Chu and Leslie Hamburger, secondary mathematics researchers at the IES-funded National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners (EL R&D Center), to share how classroom observations are critical to analyzing and improving learning opportunities for English learners.

Could you tell us about your IES-funded project?

Haiwen: As part of the EL R&D Center portfolio of work, we developed RAMPUP, or Reimagining and Amplifying Mathematics Participation, Understanding, and Practices. RAMPUP is a summer bridge course for rising ninth graders. The three-week course is designed to challenge and support English learners to learn ambitious mathematics and generative language simultaneously. We will conduct a pilot study during summer 2024, with preliminary findings in fall 2024.

 

What motivated you to do this work?

Haiwen: English learners are frequently denied opportunities to engage in conceptually rich mathematics learning. We want to transform these patterns of low challenge and low support by offering a summer enrichment course that focuses on cross-cutting concepts uniting algebra, geometry, and statistics. We also designed active and engaged participation to be central to the development of ideas and practices in mathematics. English learners learn by talking and interacting with one another in ways that are both sustained and reciprocal.

Leslie: In addition, we wanted to offer broader approaches to developing language with English learners. As we have refined the summer program, we have explicitly built in meaningful opportunities for English learners to grow in their ability to describe, argue, and explain critical mathematics concepts in English This language development happens simultaneously with the development of conceptual understanding.

What have you observed among English learners so far in RAMPUP study classrooms?

Leslie: Over the past two summers, I have observed RAMPUP in two districts for two weeks total. The classrooms reflect America’s wide diversity, including refugee newcomers and students who were entirely educated in the United States. I was able to see both teachers facilitating and students learning. I observed how students developed diverse approaches to solving problems.

Through talk, students built upon each other’s ideas, offered details, and expanded descriptions of data distributions. Over time, their descriptions of data became more precise, as they attended to similarities and differences and developed labels. I also observed how teachers assisted students by giving hints without telling them what to do.

Haiwen: As we observed, we wanted to understand how English learners engaged in the activities we had designed, as well as how their conceptual understandings and language developed simultaneously. I have spent two summers immersed in three districts over seven weeks with diverse students as they developed relationships, deep understandings, and language practices.

I was honestly surprised by the complex relationships between how students wrote and the development of their ideas and language. Sometimes, students wrote to collect their thoughts, which they then shared orally with others, to collectively compose a common way to describe a pattern. Other times, writing was a way to reflect and give each other feedback on what was working well and how peers could improve their work. Writing was also multi-representational as students incorporated diagrams, tables, and other representations as they wrote.

From closely observing students as they wrote, I also gained valuable insight into how they think. For example, they often looked back at their past work and then went on to write, stretching their understanding.

Why are your observations important to your project?

Haiwen: RAMPUP is an iterative design and development project: our observations were driven by descriptive questions (how students learned) and improvement questions (how to refine activities and materials). By observing each summer what worked well for students, and what fell flat, we have been able to iteratively improve the flow and sequencing of activities.

We have learned that observations matter most when they directly inform broader, ongoing efforts at quality learning.

Now, in our final phase, we are working to incorporate educative examples of what quality interactions looked and sounded like to enhance the teacher materials. Beyond the shorter episodes confined within a class period, we are also describing patterns of growth over time, including vignettes and portfolios of sample student work.

Leslie: Indeed, I think that wisdom comes both in practice and learning by looking back on practice. Our observations will enable teachers to better anticipate what approaches their students might take. Our educative materials will offer teachers a variety of real-life approaches that actual students similar to their own may take. This deep pedagogical knowledge includes knowing when, if, and how to intervene to give the just-right hints.

We will also soon finalize choices for how teachers can introduce activities, give instructions, and model processes. Having observed marvelous teaching moves—such as when a teacher created a literal “fishbowl” to model an activity (gathering students around a focal group to observe their talk and annotations), I am convinced we will be able to provide teachers with purposeful, flexible, and powerful choices to implement RAMPUP with quality and excellence.


To access research-based tools developed by the National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners to help teachers design deeper and more meaningful mathematics learning for all students, particularly those still learning English, see How to Engage English Learners in Mathematics: Q&A with Dr. Haiwen Chu.

To receive regular updates and findings from the Center, as well as webinar and conference opportunities, subscribe to Where the Evidence Leads newsletter.

This blog was produced by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), program officer for the Policies, Practices, and Programs to Support English Learners portfolio at NCER.

How IES-Funded Research Infrastructure is Supporting Math Education Research

Every April, we observe Mathematics and Statistics Awareness month to increase public understanding of math and stats and to celebrate the unique role that math and stats play in solving critical real-world problems. In that spirit, we want to share some exciting progress that SEERNet has made in supporting math education research over the past three years.

In 2021, IES established SEERNet, a network of platform developers, researchers, and education stakeholders, to create and expand the capacity of digital learning platforms (DLPs) to enable equity-focused and rigorous education research at scale. Since then, SEERNet has made significant progress, and we are starting to see examples of how researchers can use this new research infrastructure.

Recently, IES held two rounds of a competition to identify research teams to join SEERNet to conduct a study or series of studies using one of the five DLPs within the SEERNet network. Two research teams joined the network from the first round, and the second round of applications are now under review. We want to highlight the two research teams that joined SEERNet and the important questions about math education that they are addressing.

  • Now I See It: Supporting Flexible Problem Solving in Mathematics through Perceptual Scaffolding in ASSISTments – Dr. Avery Closser and her team are working with the E-Trials/ASSISTments team. ASSISTments is a free tool to support math learning, which has been used by over 1 million students and 30,000 teachers across the nation. IES has supported its development and efficacy since 2003. E-Trials is the tool that researchers can use to develop studies to be implemented within ASSISTments. The research team’s studies are designed to test whether perceptual scaffolding in mathematics notation (for example, using color to highlight key terms such as the inverse operators in an expression) leads learners to pause and notice structural patterns and ultimately practice more flexible and efficient problem solving. This project will yield evidence on how, when, and for whom perceptual scaffolding works to inform classroom practice, which has implications for the development of materials for digital learning platforms.
  • Investigating the Impact of Metacognitive Supports on Students' Mathematics Knowledge and Motivation in MATHia – Dr. Cristina Zepeda and her team are working with the Upgrade/MATHia team. MATHia is an adaptive software program used in middle and high schools across the country. UpGrade is an open-source A/B testing platform that facilitates randomized experiments within educational software, including MATHia. The research team will conduct a series of studies focused on supporting students’ metacognitive skills, which are essential for learning in mathematics but not typically integrated into instruction. The studies will seek to identify supports that can be implemented during mathematics learning in MATHia that improve metacognition, mathematics knowledge, and motivation in middle school.

Both research teams are conducting studies that will have clear implications for curriculum design within DLPs focused on math instruction for K-12 students. The value of conducting these studies through existing DLPs rather than through individual researcher-designed tools and methods includes—

  1. Time and cost savings – Without the need to create materials from scratch, the research teams can immediately get to work on the specific instructional features they intend to test. Additionally, since the intervention and pre/post assessments can be administered through the online tool, the need to travel to study sites is reduced.
  2. Access to large sample sizes – Studies like the ones described above are frequently administered in laboratory settings or in a handful of schools. Since over 100k students use these DLPs, there is the potential to recruit a larger and more diverse sample of students for studies. This provides more opportunities to study what works for whom under what conditions.
  3. Tighter feedback loops between developers and researchers – Because the research teams need to work directly with the platform developers to administer their studies, the studies need to be designed in ways that will work within the platform and with the platform content. This ensures their relevance to the platform and means that the platform developers will be knowledgeable about what is being tested. They will be interested to hear the study’s findings and likely to use that information to inform future design decisions.

We look forward to seeing how other education researchers take advantage of this new research infrastructure. For math education researchers in particular, we hope these two example projects inspire you to consider how you might use a DLP in the future to address critical questions for math education.


This blog was written by Erin Higgins (Erin.Higgins@ed.gov), Program Officer, Accelerate, Transform, Scale Initiative.

 

Improving Student Communication through Paraeducator and Teacher Training

In honor of Developmental Disabilities Month, NCSER would like to highlight research that supports young children with complex communication needs. Many children with disabilities, including those with autism and other developmental disabilities, may be described as having complex communication needs because they are unable to use speech to meet their needs in daily interactions. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems provide such individuals a way to communicate that does not require vocal speech. Examples include low-tech systems like manual signs or picture cards and high-tech systems like electronic speech generating devices. For non-speaking children, access to AAC is critical for expressing their needs and wants, developing relationships, and participating in academic instruction. In school settings, paraeducators work frequently with students to support their communication needs.

With a NCSER-funded grant, Dr. Sarah Douglas (Michigan State University) has been developing and piloting an online training program, the POWR System, for paraeducators and their supervising teachers to improve communication skills of children with complex communication needs. We recently caught up with Dr. Douglas to learn more about the POWR System, what led her to conduct this research, and future directions.

What inspired you to conduct this research?

Headshot of Dr. Sarah Douglas

My exposure to children who use AAC began when I was a child myself. In elementary school, a new school was built in my neighborhood. Unlike other schools during the late 80s and early 90s, this school had special education rooms at the center of the school. Each time I went to various activities around school, the children were visible. The teacher in the classroom for children with extensive support needs, Mrs. Smith, was an advocate for inclusion and socialization for her students so each of the children spent time in general education classrooms. She began inviting general education students to spend recess in her classroom playing games and cooking with students. I took her up on this offer and got to interact with them while they used their AAC. I learned that communication could come in many forms—not just through speech. These early experiences led me to become a special education teacher supporting children with complex communication needs. In that class I worked with a lot of paraeducators. When I pursued my PhD, I focused on paraeducators and AAC. My dissertation topic laid the foundation for this NCSER grant project. During my dissertation I implemented an intervention to teach paraeducators how to best support children who use AAC. So, I guess you could say this has been something I’ve been working on for decades. 😊

What do the results from your research say about communication outcomes for young children with complex communication needs? What are the outcomes for educators that support student communication?

We’ve learned so much from this work. Findings from our study indicate that, for children who use AAC, the kinds of support and communication opportunities that paraprofessionals provide really matter. Providing meaningful, motivating opportunities to communicate is critical for young children who use AAC. One of our studies highlighted that young children who use AAC are most likely to respond after being provided with a choice or a question. These results suggest that certain types of supports make it more clear to young children that a response from them is expected. We also learned that waiting for them to communicate is critical. Generally, 5-7 seconds is sufficient wait time, but for children who have motor challenges more time is likely necessary. Also, paraeducators modeling the use of an AAC device can be really supportive, as our research found that children were more likely to communicate after a model of AAC by paraeducators. We all need models when we are learning new skills and children who use AAC are no different. We also learned that most paraeducators we worked with were very responsive to child communication, so teachers should continue to support and encourage that. Teachers can provide great supervision and support to paraeducators as they implement AAC strategies.

Based on these results, what are the implications for practice and policy?

Districts could do more to support teachers in knowing how to oversee and provide feedback to paraeducators. Not all teachers were comfortable with this role at first. We also feel strongly that, based on this work, more team members should be involved in interventions focused on AAC strategies. Perhaps the teacher and paraeducator are the main implementers, but speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and district level personnel have important roles in supporting this work and should also be involved in understanding these interventions and guiding implementation.

What are the next steps in your research on AAC for children with developmental disabilities?

We continue to do a lot of work to know how to best support child communication through communication partners such as siblings, parents, SLPs, teachers, and paraeducators. We recently obtained a new grant from IES to develop a professional development and training intervention for school-based SLPs to support family member implementation of communication strategies with children who use AAC. We are really excited about this project. It is only the first year, but we already have most of the intervention developed and are conducting focus groups with SLPs and family members to get feedback and make revisions.

How can educators find more information about the POWR system and implementing augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems in their classrooms?

The intervention is available and can be accessed by reaching out to me at sdouglas@msu.edu.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am just so grateful for the early experiences I had that led me to this important work and excited to support all the children, families, and educational teams.

A special thanks to Dr. Douglas and the POWR research team for all their hard work supporting communication for students using AAC. We look forward to seeing the impact your current project will have on the field!

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at NCSER and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University. Emily Weaver, NCSER PO, monitors a portfolio of grants that covers both paraeducators and students with autism.

Meeting the Moment: The Role of Evidence-Based Practice in Innovation and Improvement

On March 5, 2024, the U.S. Department of Education convened state education agency (SEA) leaders and their teams to an event called “Meeting the Moment: How State Leaders are Using Innovation for Impact.” As part of this meeting, my colleagues and I presented IES initiatives that support the use of evidence-based practices in states and districts. Below are my remarks that introduce this important work.

Thank you – and good morning, everyone. It truly is a privilege to be with you today.

If you don’t know IES, we are the Department’s independent research, statistics, and evaluation office. Perhaps many of you know us better by two of our signature programs: the What Works Clearinghouse and the Regional Educational Labs.

I’m excited to be here to learn alongside each of you as you share the good work your states are doing.

In just a few minutes, we’re going to hear from my IES colleagues about work they’re doing, and resources they’re creating, on improving teaching and learning. I’m hopeful that you’ll see they can be used across many of the initiatives you’re pioneering.

As you might imagine, coming from an outfit named IES, what they’ll be sharing falls into the category of “evidence-based practices.” That is, practices that high-quality research has shown improved student outcomes in the past, or at the very least has suggested are likely to do so in the future.

Before they do, I want to talk briefly about evidence-based practice more generally. In this cone of silence that is a ballroom filled with 250 people, I’m going to offer one statement that might be a little provocative, and then I’m going to make an ask of each of you.

Here’s the provocative bit: Increasingly, I worry that “evidence-based practice” is becoming a buzzword. And that, like many buzzwords, people are translating it into “yada, yada, yada” when they hear the phrase. Or, worse, the phrase “evidence-based practice” is evoking skepticism such that people dismiss the concept when they hear it. Often, this is paired with concerns that the available evidence is misaligned to what educators and policymakers most need, or that it doesn’t feel like a fit to their context.  

Unfortunately, not leaning into high-quality evidence is, I think, a huge risk for us all.

It’s my absolute belief that, as a nation, we will not reach the goal of every student having the opportunity to achieve their full potential and then realizing that potential, and we will not ensure that every educator has the preparation and support to do their best work and then see that work done, without a sustained commitment to evidence-based practice. Without a commitment to supporting high-quality evidence use for the long-haul and a commitment to learn from that use by building high-quality evidence.

Absent a belief in, the use of, and efforts to sustain evidence-based practice, I do not believe we will “meet the moment” or “raise the bar” as the Secretary has just challenged us to do.  

This brings me to my ask of you. Here it is: use the high-quality evidence like that which my colleagues are about to show you to ground your initiatives, to support the professional development of the educators in your state, and to make smart policy. Indeed, I know many of you already are.

But as you do expect, dare I say demand (in a collegial way), more and better from the process of evidence building and use so that it is truly meeting your needs and the needs of the districts and communities you serve. You can do so in at least five ways:

  • Expect that you should be a full partner in the process of identifying the issues around which you need more evidence;
  • Expect that as we build new evidence we do so together, and with the authentic engagement of the communities that we hope to benefit;
  • Expect that, together, we find ways to make meaning of what we’re learning, and then communicating those learnings, in ways that aren’t just “right” when viewed through the lens of rigorous research but also “rich” in terms of the depth of content and the nuance needed by those who we expect to use that evidence;
  • Expect that we’re collaborating to place what we’ve learned into the hands of educators, policymakers, and those who support them ... and in ways they can most effectively use those learnings; and finally
  • Expect that you will be able to get the assistance you need implementing and sustaining evidence-based practices—and, if you’re willing, get assistance building evidence about your own programs.

I believe unfailingly in the potential of evidence-based practice, and of our work together, to transform students’ lives. As a leader of evidence builders, let me say we will expect these same five things of ourselves in service of that belief becoming a reality. We would welcome accountability from you, as users of that evidence, as we move forward.

With that, let me cede the floor to my colleagues. Thank you again for the opportunity to be here.

Have questions about these remarks? Please email me at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.

Celebrating the ECLS-K:2024: Providing Key National Data on Our Country’s Youngest Learners

It’s time to celebrate!

This spring, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2023–24 (ECLS-K:2024) is wrapping up its first school year of data collection with tens of thousands of children in hundreds of schools across the nation. You may not know this, but NCES is congressionally mandated to collect data on early childhood. We meet that charge by conducting ECLS program studies like the ECLS-K:2024 that follow children through the early elementary grades. Earlier studies looked at children in the kindergarten classes of 1998–99 and 2010–11. We also conducted a study, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), that followed children from birth through kindergarten entry.

As the newest ECLS program study, the ECLS-K:2024 will collect data from both students and adults in these students’ lives (e.g., parents, teachers, school administrators) to help us better understand how different factors at home and at school relate to children’s development and learning. In fact, the ECLS-K:2024 allows us to provide data not only on the children in the cohort but also on kindergarten teachers and the schools that educate kindergartners.

What we at NCES think is worthy of celebrating is that the ECLS-K:2024—like other ECLS program studies,

  • provides the statistics policymakers need to make data-driven decisions to improve education for all;
  • contributes data that researchers need to answer today’s most pressing questions related to early childhood and early childhood education; and
  • allows us to produce resources for parents, families, teachers, and schools to better inform the public at large about children’s education and development.

Although smaller-scale studies can answer numerous questions about education and development, the ECLS-K:2024 allows us to provide answers at a national level. For example, you may know that children arrive to kindergarten with different skills and abilities, but have you ever wondered how those skills and abilities vary for children who come from different areas of the country? How they vary for children who attended prekindergarten programs versus those who did not? How they vary for children who come from families of different income levels? The national data from the ECLS-K:2024 allow us to dive into these—and other—issues.

The ECLS-K:2024 is unique in that it’s the first of our early childhood studies to provide data on a cohort of students who experienced the coronavirus pandemic. How did the pandemic affect these children’s early development and how did it change the schooling they receive? By comparing the experiences of the ECLS-K:2024 cohort to those of children who were in kindergarten nearly 15 and 25 years ago, we’ll be able to answer these questions.

What’s more, the ECLS-K:2024 will provide information on a variety of topics not fully examined in previous national early childhood studies. The study is including new items on families’ kindergarten selection and choice; availability and use of home computers and other digital devices; parent-teacher association/organization contributions to classrooms; equitable school practices; and a myriad of other constructs.

Earlier ECLS program studies have had a huge impact on our understanding of child development and early education, with hundreds of research publications produced using their data (on topics such as academic skills and school performance; family activities that promote learning; and children’s socioemotional development, physical health, and well-being). ECLS data have also been referenced in media outlets and in federal and state congressional reports. With the launch of the ECLS-K:2024, we cannot wait to see the impact of research using the new data.

Want to learn more? 

Plus, be on the lookout late this spring for the next ECLS blog post celebrating the ECLS-K:2024, which will highlight children in the study. Future blog posts will focus on parents and families and on teachers and schools. Stay tuned!

 

By Jill McCarroll and Korrie Johnson, NCES