IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Highlights from the Building Strength in Numbers Briefings

By Caroline Ebanks, NCER Program Officer

Young children’s knowledge and understanding of mathematics concepts and their ability to think and apply those concepts in their daily lives are important predictors of early and ongoing school achievement. On Thursday, September 24th and Friday, September 25th, three IES-funded researchers – Dr. Prentice Starkey from WestEd, Dr. Douglas Clements from the University of Denver, and Dr. Hiro Yoshikawa from New York University – came to Washington, D.C. to highlight findings and policy and practice implications from the Institute’s investment in early math research since 2002. They described efficacious early math interventions that have narrowed the achievement gap, improved the pedagogical knowledge and instructional practices of early childhood educators, and changed policy and practice in early childhood programs.  The briefings were arranged for legislative staff on Capitol Hill and officials in the Department of Education by the Friends of IES, a coalition of research organizations that is working to raise the visibility of IES-funded studies.   

 

  • Dr. Starkey shared his findings about how using the Pre-K Mathematics curriculum with three- and four-year-old children can close the socio-economic gap in math achievement. Findings from two studies awarded in 2002 and 2005 found that the Pre-K Mathematics curriculum had significant, positive impacts on children’s mathematics knowledge, understanding of verbal directions, and persistence in completing a task. The positive impacts of that pre-kindergarten program led Dr. Starkey and his team to test whether receiving two years of math instruction at ages three and four would close the SES-related achievement gap that is often present at kindergarten entry.  The team found that for children who received two years of the intervention, the SES-related gap in mathematical knowledge was closed at the end of preschool but re-opened in kindergarten, suggesting that students need additional math instruction in kindergarten to support early gains. The key message from Dr. Starkey’s presentation is that it is possible to narrow or close the early math achievement gap and help young children succeed in school.
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  • Dr. Clements presented findings from three IES-funded studies of the Building Blocks curriculum and the Technology-enhanced, Research-based, Instruction, Assessment, and Professional Development (TRIAD) implementation model. In a 2005 scale-up study, Dr. Clements and colleagues found that the intervention had a significant impact on the mathematical knowledge of children at the end of prekindergarten; and that sustained effects at the end of kindergarten were only seen for children whose kindergarten teachers had received support to provide follow-through instruction for the students during the kindergarten year.  Their most recent study showed that effects were maintained in later grades, especially for African-American children. These findings suggest that pre-k effects don’t fade out, but that elementary schools need to do more to build on children’s entry level skills so as to support their ongoing learning and achievement during the elementary school years.  Reflecting the strong evidence base supporting the Building Blocks curriculum, both Boston Public Schools and New York City are using the Building Blocks curriculum in their preschool classrooms.  Takeaways from Dr. Clements include:
    • a strong professional development model is critical for the implementation of an efficacious curriculum;
    • follow through, building on children’s prior knowledge and skills in the early elementary grades, is essential, especially for children from at-risk backgrounds; and
    • fadeout is not the only option. It is possible to sustain implementation of an intervention over time and maintain effects with follow through.

     

  • Dr. Yoshikawa described findings from a 2009 IES-funded evaluation study of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) implementation of two efficacious interventions in public prekindergarten classrooms. One of the two interventions was the Building Blocks mathematics curriculum. The school district provided training and ongoing coaching support to teachers to implement the two interventions. The BPS pre-k program had a significant, positive impact on children’s language, literacy, math, and executive function skills (defined as working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility).  All children benefitted from the BPS program, but impacts were larger for children from lower-income families and Latino children. From this study, Dr. Yoshikawa and colleagues learned that a large school district can adopt a program, implement it with fidelity and observe meaningful, positive impacts on a range of academic and social behavioral indicators of children’s school readiness skills.  In current IES-funded work, this team is examining long-term impacts of the BPS program on children’s school achievement in elementary school.

 

These examples of the Institute’s investment in early math research highlight the role of IES in funding research to improve children’s learning and achievement, and inform early childhood policy and practice. The research has had lasting consequences for the students who participated in the programs and is influencing policy and practice. For example, New York City has adopted the Building Blocks curriculum and the Pre-K Mathematics curriculum is being implemented in prekindergarten classrooms across the state of California.  Additional information about these studies can be found in the What Works Clearinghouse intervention reports for the Building Blocks and Pre-K Mathematics interventions.


Questions? Comments? Please email us at IESResearch@ed.gov.

NCSER Celebrates Down Syndrome Awareness Month

By Kristen Rhoads, Education Program Specialist, Office of Special Education Programs

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month – a time to celebrate what makes individuals with Down syndrome wonderful.  
 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Down syndrome occurs in 1 out of approximately every 700 births, with about 6000 babies born with Down syndrome in the United States each year. It is a lifelong, genetic disorder caused by a full or partial third copy of the 21st chromosome.  Individuals with Down syndrome typically demonstrate profiles of relative strengths in visuospatial processing,  social skills, and receptive language and needs for support in many areas including expressive language, motor, and cognitive skills.  They may also have other health-related issues, including most commonly: hearing loss, ear infections, sleep apnea, eye diseases, and heart defects. With services, supports, and high expectations for performance, many individuals with Down syndrome earn high school diplomas, participate in post-secondary education, live independently, and become valuable contributors to society.  
 
In celebration of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, we asked Dr. Stephen Camarata, Professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at Vanderbilt University, for his thoughts on educating children with Down syndrome and potential directions for research. Dr. Camarata is the Co-Investigator for a NCSER-funded grant to evaluate the efficacy of interventions designed to produce speech accuracy and comprehensibility of elementary school students with Down syndrome.

What should families keep in mind when their child is initially diagnosed with Down syndrome?

In our Down Syndrome Clinic here at Vanderbilt University, there is an initial "burst" of medical activity when the family first learns that their child has Down syndrome. Families spend time making sure that the child’s basic health needs are met and have a lot of appointments doing imaging, surgery, and so on. Then, the family settles in as the Down syndrome unfolds. The child’s development –talking and communication, education, and behavior - all become immediate and long term foci.

Are there common misconceptions about individuals with Down syndrome?

A BIG problem is that there is a myth of a learning shelf life or a mythical critical period for learning.  All too often this means that educators quit trying to teach academic skills to people with Down syndrome when they reach the age of 10 or 12. Tragically, this can mean pushing children through custodial care with minimal academic content instruction until they "age out" of educational support.
 
Another important consideration that I sometimes see is that people have low expectations and, therefore, underestimate the learning abilities of a child with Down syndrome. In a sense, they set the bar "too low” or do not provide meaningful learning opportunities. Therefore, educators may inadvertently prevent a child with Down syndrome from reaching his or her potential. Down syndrome is highly variable, so it is important to provide multiple types of opportunities and let the child show you how much and how fast he or she can learn.

Are there areas of research or practice that you think require more attention?

With regard to key research areas, my own recommendations are to:

  1. Examine further the benefits of inclusion – for both a child with Down syndrome and his or her peers
  2. Develop and evaluate interventions or strategies that improve communication, speech, language, social and literacy skills, especially reading comprehension.
  3. Investigate learning in adolescence and develop and evaluate interventions that optimize academic and transition outcomes in middle school and beyond.
  4. Examine strategies to improve parent and family support. All of the terrific things that we have learned for training parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders may also work for families that include a child with Down syndrome.  More research in this area is needed. 

Visit our website, for more information about the research that NCSER funds.

Questions? Comments? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov.

Behind the degree: Direct measures of cognitive skills or reports of highest degree earned

By Heidi Silver-Pacuilla

Categories of educational attainment – or highest degree earned – are often used in social science research as an indicator of a person’s knowledge and skills. This measure is objective and readily available, easily understood by survey respondents as well as by consumers of research and survey data, strongly tied to policies (such as those promoting high school graduation and college completion rates), and widely used in the labor market by employers. Moreover, strong connections between educational attainment and positive life outcomes, such as employment, earnings, health, and civic engagement, are well established.

Yet, this measure is an imprecise indicator of the amount of knowledge and skills an individual acquired during the years of education it took to complete the degree. It also masks variation across individuals and programs of study. In addition, adults continue to acquire skills and knowledge from a variety of sources and activities over their lifetimes after completing a degree, while on the job or through employer-sponsored training, continuing education, family and household management, hobbies and interests, etc. Adults also lose fluency with skills that are not put to regular use.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey[i] provides direct measures of working-age adults’ cognitive skills based on their performance on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving tasks set in real-life contexts. Performance is reported on a scale of 1-5 for literacy and numeracy and a scale of 1-3 for problem solving. It pairs these measures with a background questionnaire that asks about the use of skills at work and in daily life, work history, and other social, behavioral, and demographic indicators.


Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC literacy scale, by highest level of educational attainment: 2012Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC literacy scale, by highest level of educational attainment: 2012

# Rounds to zero
NOTE: Percentages of adults age 16 to 65 by highest level of educational attainment appear in parentheses. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2012.


The direct measures of cognitive skills offer researchers the ability to study actual skills rather than only using attainment of a particular degree as a general indicator of skills, and to investigate how those assessed skills relate to behaviors and life outcomes. To illustrate how directly measured skills and educational attainment are not always aligned, we can compare direct performance to highest degrees earned. In the United States, of all adults who have attained only a high school degree, 20% performed in the lowest levels (Level 1 and Below Level 1) of literacy, while 7% of adults with an associate’s degree and 5% of those with a bachelor’s degree performed at this level. At the same time, the results showed that 6% of adults with no more than a high school diploma, 14% with only an associate’s degree, and 24% with a bachelor’s degree have very high literacy skills, at Level 4 or 5 on the same scale. See the full range of educational attainment and skill performance in literacy in the chart above.

Findings such as this can help inform policy, interventions, and communication strategies to better meet the needs of the recipients.

To read more about direct measures versus educational attainment, see Chapter 8 of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills – Reader's Companion.


[i] The PIAAC survey is coordinated internationally by the OECD. NCES implements PIAAC in the United States. Results were first released in October 2013 with data from 23 countries. It is a household survey administered by trained data collectors to a nationally-representative sample of adults, ages 16 through 65, in each country, in the official language(s), and in most cases, in respondents’ homes on a laptop computer.

In the United States, the survey was first administered in 2012 and additional results, based on an expanded sample, will be released in 2015-2016. To learn more about the U.S. administration and reporting of the survey, as well as related data tools, see https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/.  

Announcing the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS): Redesigning a key data collection effort

By Amy Ho and Chelsea Owens

Teachers and principals form the foundation of the educational process, but there are not a lot of nationally representative, federal data on the characteristics and experiences of these key staff. The Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) has historically been one of the few federal data collections in this area. Since 1987, SASS has provided important data to researchers, policymakers, and leaders in education to help answer critical questions about schools, teachers, principals, and students, including:

  • How well prepared and supported are new teachers?
  • What do principals consider as their most important goal?
  • Have the characteristics of the principal and teacher workforces changed over time?

As one of the few large scale data collection efforts that directly surveys teachers and principals about their own experiences, SASS has historically served as the nation’s primary data source for information on topics such as teachers’ and principals’ demographic characteristics, teachers’ attitudes about teaching and school conditions, teachers’ qualifications, and teachers’ experiences with intimidation or violence in schools.

While the information obtained from SASS has been an important contribution to our knowledge of the experiences of teachers and principals, changes to the structure of teaching and the desire to better align multiple data collection efforts led NCES to revise the existing SASS instrument. Therefore, NCES launched a redesign of this data collection effort. The new survey, the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS) includes updated features such as revised questions that can address pressing topics in the field (e.g., use of technology in the classroom, teacher and principal evaluations, etc.).

The NTPS will be administered for the first time this coming school year (2015-16) and will be conducted every two years in order to provide timely data. There are four main components of the NTPS: School Questionnaire, Principal Questionnaire, Teacher Listing Form, and Teacher Questionnaire. In late August, NCES sent out the first questionnaires to a sample of American schools. A school selected to participate in the NTPS will represent thousands of other schools in the nation.

The School Questionnaire asks about length of the school day, how difficult it is to fill vacancies at the school, and community-service graduation requirements. The Principal Questionnaire asks questions on parent/guardian involvement, how often problems such as bullying and gang activities occur, how teachers and principals are evaluated, and principals’ top goals. The Teacher Questionnaire includes questions involving teacher satisfaction, use of instructional software in the classroom, teacher perceptions of autonomy, and experiences during teachers’ first year of teaching.

The participation of teachers, principals, and other staff in the 2015-16 NTPS will greatly help policymakers and leaders in education improve schools for our students, teachers, and principals by looking at the current status of these issues.  In the United States, the needs and challenges facing each school are sometimes vastly different, but the NTPS data can provide information for meeting these needs.

For more information on NTPS, please visit: http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/ntps/overview.asp.

 

IES Honors Statistician Nathan VanHoudnos as Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow

By Phill Gagne and Katina Stapleton, NCER Program Officers

Each year, IES recognizes an outstanding fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. The 2014 winner, Dr. Nathan VanHoudnos completed his Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University and wrote his dissertation on the efficacy of the Hedges Correction for unmodeled clustering. Nathan is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University. In this blog, Nathan provides insights on becoming an education researcher and on research study design. 

How did you become interested in education research?

I was born into it. Before he retired, my father was the Director of Research for the Illinois Education Association. Additionally, my grandparents on my mother's side were both teachers. 

 

As a statistician, how do you explain the relevance of your research to education practitioners and policy-makers?

I appeal to the crucial role biostatisticians play in the progress of medical research. Doctors and medical researchers are able to devote their entire intellectual capacity towards the development of new treatments, while biostatisticians are able to think deeply about both how to test these treatments empirically and how to combine the results of many such studies into actionable recommendations for practitioners and policy makers.  I aim to be the education sciences analogue of a biostatistician. Specifically, someone whose career success is decided on (i) the technical merits of the new methodology I have developed and (ii) the usefulness of my new methodology to the field. 

Your research on the Hedges correction suggests that many education researchers mis-specify their analyses for clustered designs. What advice would you give researchers on selecting the right analyses for clustered designs? 

My advice is to focus on the design of the study. If the design is wrong, then the analysis that matches the design will fail, and it is likely that no re-analysis of the collected data will be able to recover from the initial mistake. For example, a common design error is randomizing teachers to experimental conditions, but then assuming that how the school registrar assigned students to classes was equivalent to the experimenter randomizing students to classes. This assumption is false. Registrar based student assignment is a kind of group based, or clustered, random assignment. If this error is not caught at the design stage, the study will necessarily be under powered because the sample size calculations will be off. If the error is not caught at the publication stage, the hypothesis test for the treatment effect will be anti-conservative, i.e. even if the treatment effect is truly zero, the test statistic is still likely to be (incorrectly!) statistically significant. The error will, however, be caught if the What Works Clearinghouse decides to review the study. Their application of the Hedges correction, however, will not fix the design problem. The corrected test statistic will, at best, have low power, just like a re-analysis of the data would. At worst, the corrected test statistic can have nearly zero power. There is no escape from a design error. 


To give a bit of further, perhaps self-serving advice, I would also suggest engaging your local statistician as a collaborator. People like me are always looking to get involved in substantively interesting projects, especially if we can get involved at the planning stage of the project. Additionally, this division of labor is often better for everyone: the statistician gets to focus on interesting methodological challenges and the education researcher gets to focus on the substantive portion of the research. 

How has being an IES predoc and now an IES postdoc helped your development as a researcher?

This is a bit like the joke where one fish asks another "How is the water today?" The other fish responds "What's water?" 

I came to Carnegie Mellon for the joint Ph.D. in Statistics and Public Policy, in part, because the IES predoc program there, the Program for Interdisciplinary Education Research (PIER), would both fund me to become and train me to become an education researcher. The PIER program shaped my entire graduate career. David Klahr (PIER Director) gave me grounding in the education sciences. Brian Junker (PIER Steering committee) taught me how to be both methodologically rigorous and yet still accessible to applied researchers. Sharon Carver (PIER co-Director), who runs the CMU lab school, built in a formal reflection process for the "Field Base Experience" portion of our PIER training. That essay, was, perhaps, the most cathartic thing I have ever written in that it helped to set me on my career path as a statistician who aims to focus on education research. Joel Greenhouse (affiliated PIER faculty), who is himself a biostatistician, chaired my thesis committee. It was his example that refined the direction of my career: I wish to be the education sciences analogue of a biostatistician. 

The IES postdoc program at Northwestern University, where I am advised by Larry Hedges, has been very different. Postdoctoral training is necessarily quite different from graduate school. One thread is common, however, the methodology I develop must be useful to applied education researchers. Larry is, as one might suppose, quite good at focusing my attention on where I need to make technical improvements to my work, but also how I might better communicate my technical results and make them accessible to applied researchers. After only a year at Northwestern, I have grown considerably in both my technical and communication skills.

What career advice would you give to young researchers?

Pick good mentors and heed their advice. To the extent that I am successful, I credit the advice and training of my mentors at Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern. 


Comments? Questions? Please write to us at IESResearch@ed.gov.