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Institute of Education Sciences

NCER’s Investments in Education Research Networks to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery Network Lead Spotlight: Dr. Susan Therriault, RESTART Network

We hope you enjoyed yesterday’s network lead spotlight! Today, we would like to introduce Dr. Susan Therriault, director, K–12 Systemic Improvement Portfolio at the American Institute for Research. Dr. Therriault’s network, the PreK-12 Research on Education Strategies to Advance Recovery and Turnaround (RESTART) Network, aims to coordinate activities across research teams and provides national leadership on learning acceleration and recovery from pandemic-induced learning loss, sharing findings from the network with education agencies across the United States. Happy reading!

 

NCER: What are the mission and goals of the PreK–12 RESTART (Research on Education Strategies to Advance Recovery and Turnaround) Network? 

Dr. Therriault: The PreK–12 RESTART Network is an opportunity to develop a coherent and connected research community that speaks directly to the needs of policymakers, leaders, and practitioners. The network focuses on identifying and disseminating evidence-based strategies aligned with the needs of policymakers, leaders, and educators who are serving and supporting accelerated student recovery efforts. This requires the network to identify critical needs of the field and support the research community in developing coherent and coordinated research strategies that build evidence for practices that ensure student recovery—especially among students who have disproportionately struggled in the pandemic context. The PreK–12 RESTART Network will achieve this by need sensing, synthesizing evidence, and building a community that makes meaningful connections between the research community and policymakers, leaders, and educators.

NCER: Why is the PreK–12 RESTART Network important to you? 

Dr. Therriault: The PreK–12 RESTART Network is important to me because, as a researcher, I have watched how the pandemic and subsequent aftershocks of the pandemic have created disruptions to our lives and our public pre-K to 12 education system. The pandemic created fragmentation and division as communities responded and supported individuals in a context marked by social distance and separation. While there are many common challenges across communities, limited social connection affected our ability to share evidence-based solutions and to equitably address the needs of all members of our communities, especially those communities most adversely impacted by COVID-19, including Black and Latinx communities and those marked by poverty and housing and food insecurity.

NCER: How do you think the PreK–12 RESTART Network will impact the pre-K to 12 community?

Dr. Therriault: The PreK–12 RESTART Network is an opportunity to develop a coherent and connected research community that speaks directly to the needs of policymakers, leaders, and practitioners. The key differentiator of the network is that it is purposefully designed to assess needs and engage the research community in providing insight and building evidence for solutions to address those needs.

The network has an important role to play in drawing researchers together to develop measurement solutions and build consensus for approaches to conducting and making meaning of research so that it informs the field. These solutions will be shared with the field to create a more coherent research agenda informed by needs.

The network will ensure that policymakers, leaders, and educators are able to easily access network evidence syntheses and research-team findings through multiple communication formats. Information will be shared through actionable guidance and recommendations purposefully designed for these audiences. A combination of strategies will ensure accessibility. These include digital tools and dashboards that school leaders can easily use to adapt to their circumstances and access to evidence-based strategies by offering recorded webinars, tutorials, videos, and other learning formats.

NCER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about recovery in pre-K to 12 education? 

Dr. Therriault: The magnitude of the challenge of pandemic recovery in the pre-K to 12 education system is vast and will require new ways of approaching education and support for students. In turn, with the investment of American Rescue Plan funds in schools, this will likely lead to evidence-based innovation and deeper understanding of how to design an education system, district, and school to meet student needs.

The needs of students are varied and highly connected to the experience during the pandemic and after the pandemic; thus, family and community factors are highly relevant and critical to understanding student needs and strategies to address these needs. Recently released NAEP scores provide evidence of the variation and suggest more-significant losses in mathematics and English language arts for students living in low-income households compared to their peers who are not. Further, students living in low-income households were more likely to report not having a place to do work or access to a computer or adequate uninterrupted time compared to their peers. These are critical factors in a remote and even a hybrid learning environment. These differences in experience exacerbate differences in outcomes during the pandemic.

NCER: What are some of the biggest challenges to recovery in pre-K to 12 education? 

Dr. Therriault: The amount of need among students and their families and the fatigued pre-K to 12 education system workforce are the biggest challenges to recovery. Adding to this challenge is the focus on expanding learning time through summer school or longer school days in an effort to accelerate learning. This requires teachers and leaders at a time when, like many of us, they are experiencing burnout.

Finally, we know that most students suffered learning loss and more during the pandemic. Supporting students emotionally as well as academically is necessary for recovery. While many schools have provided emotional support to students prior to the pandemic, the current need is far greater than schools have experienced. This will require extensive outreach to community support and services and additional interventions.

NCER: What are some effective ways to translate education research into practice so that your work will have a direct impact on states, districts, and schools? 

Dr. Therriault: There are several ways we plan to support the translation of research to practice through the PreK12 RESTART Network. These include:

  • Understanding and sharing needs of the field.
    • Conducting needs assessments of the field to examine the evolving needs and share these with the research community.
  • Identifying, sharing, and amplifying evidence-based strategies that respond to the needs of the field.
    • Exploring existing and emerging research to identify evidence-based strategies and interventions that align evidence syntheses with the needs of the field.
    • Providing actionable guidance and recommendations that can be easily implemented across different schools and are customized based on need.
    • Creating digital tools that school leaders and educators can use to adapt to their circumstance.
  • Building a coherent and coordinated research community focused on pandemic recovery research.
    • Connecting and building consensus among researchers through convenings and solutions working groups that address challenges to conducting research in the pandemic context.
    • Empowering research teams to build studies that align with needs in the field through meaningful connections with policymakers, leaders, educators, and other members of the research community.
    • Supporting engagement and preparation of early-career researchers through trainings and networking opportunities.

NCER: What are some barriers to the uptake of the research outcomes by these organizations?

Dr. Therriault: One of the critical barriers to uptake is timing. States, districts, and schools cannot wait for findings and results—they must act to support the students they have in their classrooms right now. The syntheses and reviews of prior research will help point educators in the direction of interventions and other supports that have a strong evidence base. The researchers participating in the RESTART Network will be supported in rapidly sharing and disseminating findings over the course of their studies to inform decision-making about how best to help students’ academic recovery.


Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Susan Therriault! We hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know NCER’s network leads throughout our grantee spotlight series. Let us know your thoughts on the series on Twitter at @IESResearch.

NCER’s Investments in Education Research Networks to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery Network Lead Spotlight: Dr. Thomas Brock, ARCC Network

We hope you enjoyed the first NCER network lead spotlight! Today, we would like to introduce Dr. Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center. Dr. Brock’s network, the Accelerating Recovery in Community Colleges (ARCC) Network, aims to provide timely, actionable research from the pandemic that policymakers and practitioners can use to help community colleges recover from the challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Happy reading!

NCER: What are the mission and goals of the Accelerating Recovery in Community Colleges Network?

Dr. Brock: The primary goal of the ARCC Network is to provide timely, actionable research that policymakers and practitioners can use to help community colleges recover from the challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. These include steep drops in enrollment—particularly for students of color and male students—and learning losses associated with illness, stress, and challenges of online learning.

 

NCER: Why is the ARCC Network important to you?

Dr. Brock: The ARCC Network is important because community colleges are important. They enroll about one-third of all undergraduate college students in the U.S., including many who are from low-income backgrounds and the first in their families to attend college. The nation needs strong community colleges to help students advance educationally and economically. The nation also needs community colleges to prepare workers and support the economy in essential fields such as health care, information technology, construction trades, and manufacturing.

NCER: I understand that you had a central role in establishing the research networks grant program at IES. What is your view of a research network, and how does it differ from a traditional education research project?

Dr. Brock: There is an old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With the research networks, IES intends to generate a body of work on a critical education problem or issue that is more impactful than an individual research project is likely to generate. This is because members of a research network come together regularly to discuss their ideas, tackle common methodological challenges, share data collection tools, and make sense of their emerging findings. They think about how to distill, align, and communicate research results from the early stages rather than as an afterthought. This benefits policymakers and practitioners, who look to researchers for insights and guidance. It also benefits the research community by building consensus on what has been learned and what new questions need to be addressed.

NCER: How do you think the ARCC Network will impact our nation’s community colleges?

Dr. Brock: Our hope is that the ARCC Network will help policymakers to be attentive to the needs of community colleges and shed light on the populations and places that need the most help. We also hope that the network will help identify promising policies and practices to promote rapid recovery.

NCER: What are some of the biggest challenges to recovery in community colleges?

Dr. Brock: Community colleges are largely funded based on enrollment. To date, the decline in enrollment has not led to too much reduction in academic programs or services because of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), authorized by Congress. HEERF funding ends after the 2022–23 academic year. If enrollments do not rebound quickly, community colleges will have to make significant cuts. This could lead to a downward spiral in which even fewer students enroll or persist, because they do not find the courses or services that they need.

Another challenge to recovery is learning loss. We know from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that there have been declines in reading and math achievement in K–12 schools during the pandemic. As these students mature and enter postsecondary education, they may be less well prepared for college-level work. Community colleges have made significant reforms to developmental education programs in recent years but will need to do more to ensure entering students succeed in college-level courses and make progress toward their academic and career goals.

Finally, we know that the pandemic has taken a severe toll on physical and mental health. Community colleges will need to find ways to reduce stress and promote wellness for everyone in their campus community–students, faculty, and staff.

NCER: What are some effective ways to translate education research into practice so that your work will have a direct impact on states and community college systems? What are some barriers to uptake of research outcomes by these organizations?

Dr. Brock: The ARCC Network will actively disseminate the research findings produced by individual research teams and by our national scan of community college enrollments and recovery practices. We will build a website that functions as an information hub for the most recent enrollment trends and reliable evidence on recovery strategies. We will conduct interactive workshops and webinars for state and local community college leaders and staff who are interested in learning from and adapting research-based practices to support pandemic recovery. We will use our connections with national organizations, like the American Association of Community Colleges and Achieving the Dream, and social media to ensure we reach a broad audience.

NCER: Are there some generalizable tools or lessons learned that are likely to come out of this network project that you think will benefit the education research community as a whole?

Dr. Brock: Yes. One area of focus for ARCC researchers, for example, is how to design and deliver effective online learning. Prior to the pandemic, most research on online learning in community colleges indicated it was not as effective as in-person instruction, but many colleges have upped their game with improved technology and better training and support for faculty who teach online. We have also seen from the pandemic that online learning benefits some students who might not otherwise attend community college, including students who live far from campus (especially in rural areas) or who are juggling demands of work and parenting. We hope to reframe the research debate so that it is less about online versus in-person instruction and more about how to provide online instruction most effectively to students who prefer this modality. We expect the lessons and tools from the ARCC Network will be broadly relevant to community colleges and may be adapted to other education sectors.


Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Thomas Brock! Come back tomorrow for our final grantee spotlight!  

NCER’s Investments in Education Research Networks to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery Network Lead Spotlight: Dr. Rebecca Griffiths, LEARN Network

Welcome to the first installment of the NCER research network leads spotlight series! With funding from the American Rescue Plan (ARP), NCER has invested in research grants that will generate information about accelerating learning that is useful, usable, and used. The awardees, who are members of these new research networks, are addressing the urgent challenges faced by schools as they support students’, teachers’, and school districts’ recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Today, we’ll take you through our conversation with Dr. Rebecca Griffiths, senior principal education reporter at SRI International, and hear about the Leveraging Evidence to Accelerate Recovery Nationwide Network (LEARN Network).

 

NCER: What are some of the biggest challenges facing education systems, teachers, and learners post-COVID, and what are some ways that education researchers can help to target solutions to those challenges?

Dr. Rebecca Griffiths: The biggest challenges facing education systems, teachers, and learners post-COVID are not new, for the most part; rather, they are long-standing problems and inequities that have worsened. To put a finer point on it: while all students lost ground academically, students from underserved and underresourced communities were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, further exacerbating existing academic disadvantages. 

For education researchers hoping to support COVID recovery by introducing evidence-based programs and practices, timing is an issue. Designing a new curriculum or intervention typically takes years of development and testing, and we (as a country) don’t have that luxury. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. What we can do is focus attention on solutions that already have proven effectiveness, which means making sure that educators know they exist and have support for implementing them. Some adaptation may be needed given the urgency of the current circumstances. For example, if the number of students reading two years below grade level jumped from a handful to a large share, teachers will need a different way to meet that need. So an intervention or online tutoring system may need to be adapted to serve many more kids. 

There are a few implications here for researchers who develop products such as curriculums and interventions that are intended to impact student learning:  

  1. We should be thinking about how our products and interventions can be adapted to meet needs with greater urgency at a larger scale. This may mean that the implementation process needs to be simplified, streamlined, or reconfigured to support new participants (such as parent tutors) in the educational process.  
  2. We should ensure that the products and interventions we provide fit with the needs, environments, and decision-making processes of educators. Gold-standard efficacy studies will not make a solution attractive to users if the solution doesn’t address a high-priority need, is overly difficult and expensive to implement, or doesn’t fit the criteria of various stakeholders who have a say in selecting products and interventions for their schools. We need to attend to the user environment, which we can do by ensuring the communities we aim to serve have a voice in designing solutions. 
  3. We can do a much better job with how we typically disseminate information about evidence-based products. “Dissemination” sounds a bit like dropping a bunch of leaflets out of an airplane, but actually requires a much more energetic stance than this word implies. Effective dissemination integrates at least four activities that commercial providers typically undertake to get their solutions out into the world: building interest in and awareness of a solution (marketing); persuading people that a solution is the best choice for their needs and that they should dedicate resources to it (sales); making sure that people have access to a solution (distribution); and making sure that people have the support they need to implement a solution with integrity (customer support). Those of us who develop educational products and interventions need to think beyond journal publications and academic conferences if we want to reach a meaningful share of our target users. Of course, not all researchers have the capacity or desire to undertake these activities, and in these cases, we might consider alternate pathways to scale, such as licensing our intellectual creations to others (e.g., curriculum publishers or entrepreneurs) who are equipped and appropriately motivated to take these steps.

NCER: What is your view of a research network, and how does it differ from a traditional education research project?

Dr. Griffiths: A research network seeks to amplify the impact of its members so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and to generate lessons learned for a broader community. We can do this by identifying promising strategies and shared challenges within the network, facilitating a learning community to share expertise and experience among network members in service of overcoming those challenges, and then documenting these processes and successes to share with the broader field. 

NCER: What are the specific goals for this network, and how does it support the goals of the ARP?

Dr. Griffiths: The LEARN Network (which stands for Leveraging Evidence to Accelerate Recovery Nationwide) is led by SRI and includes four teams of researchers focused on scaling existing EBPs in K–8 literacy or mathematics: Targeted Reading Instruction  (TRI) for students in K–3, integrating  for students in grades 2–6, Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS)  Reading to improve learning for underrepresented student groups, and an adaptation of the Strategic Adolescent Reading Intervention (STARI) for underserved middle-grade students.

The network has two related goals. One is to adapt and scale adoption of evidence-based practices and products that can help educators address the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning, particularly for students who were disproportionately harmed. Of our four product teams, three are focused on K–8 literacy, especially supporting students who are reading below grade level, and the fourth is focused on an intervention for fifth-grade math. As the 2022 NAEP scores showed, early math and literacy are critical areas in which we need to help students make up lost ground. As network lead, SRI will help these projects prepare for scaling.

Longer term, the LEARN Network will provide a model, tools, and resources to inform the development and adoption of educational innovations. These resources will help education researchers ensure that their innovations are designed from the ground up with the potential to achieve impact at scale for students. They will also help practitioners and policymakers know what to consider when investing in educational innovations.

NCER: How do you envision this network working to reach those goals? What’s the value added for building this network relative to a set of independent research teams?

Dr. Griffiths: In the LEARN Network, SRI is assembling and deploying a pool of scaling, equity, and research experts to accelerate progress. The product teams are experts in their respective fields of literacy and math education, which we can augment with a more demand-driven perspective of their research products. We can take them through a structured process of investigating stakeholders’ needs, aligning products and practices to educators’ environments and selection criteria, and developing effective dissemination strategies. SRI brings unique expertise to this task, given our history of transitioning inventions from laboratories to market.

We are also assembling a group of external advisors with networks and expertise in rural and small-town schools, state educational systems, ed-tech investing and entrepreneurship, and implementation science.

Through the LEARN Network, product teams have access to a rich set of perspectives and expertise that would be impractical to build for individual projects.        

In addition, SRI will conduct some original research to advance our understanding of how educators and educational agencies select and adopt products and interventions. We know these processes are confounding to many researchers, in part because they vary so much by school, district, and state. At the same time, we believe we can help our network and the broader research community by shedding some light on a few key questions, such as how these processes may differ by product type (e.g., complete curriculum vs. supplementary resources), district characteristics (e.g., size, locale), and other key factors. Our research will also explore current barriers or challenges to identifying EBPs aligned with their contexts and students’ needs and explore what resources or tools would make it easier to do so.

Last, the product teams include seasoned researchers with decades of experience developing and disseminating evidence-based practices and products. They bring valuable perspectives from these experiences, and they are also investigating some similar questions about how educators discover and decide what tools to use. As network lead, we aim to create spaces and facilitate conversations so that all the teams can learn from each other.

NCER: What approaches do you propose to use to cultivate a meaningful connection among the research teams in the network? What are some challenges in bringing independent research teams together like this?

Dr. Griffiths: Our aim is to be very responsive to what the product teams tell us they want help with, while encouraging them to aim high with their scaling goals. In education research, we often think of scaling in terms of growing implementation from a few schools to a few dozen schools. What if we reframed our perspective to consider “reach”? As in, What share of the nation’s 100,000 public schools, or a particular population of students, are we reaching? That really shifts how we think about what kind of organizational infrastructure or strategic choices are needed to have a meaningful impact. 

Our purpose as network lead is to help network members be successful, and to do that, we know that we need to demonstrate our ability to add value. The product teams all have ambitious goals and tight timelines, and we are mindful of that. Fortunately, the product teams were already aware of the Invent-Apply-Transition framework that SRI pioneered and saw how it could be helpful to them. In order to support meaningful connections among the teams, we are facilitating regular cross-team meetings, each focused on a particular challenge (for example, stakeholder mapping, product-user fit, dissemination strategies). In these working sessions we will draw upon expertise residing in the product teams, in SRI’s education division and our unit that is focused on transitioning inventions to market, and among our external advisors. We anticipate that these will be rich, generative sessions that will provide the product teams (and SRI) with new insights about pathways to scale.

NCER: Are there some generalizable tools or lessons learned that are likely to come out of this network project that you think will benefit the education research community as a whole?

Dr. Griffiths: As I mentioned, we are drawing heavily from SRI’s Invent-Apply-Transition framework to guide product teams through the process of preparing to scale. As we do this, we are developing tools and resources specifically for scaling education products that will be accessible to a broader community of researchers who aspire to have a wide-reaching impact. We also expect to learn some things through our work with the product teams that we can share through briefs and presentations. In addition, we are considering how we might design engagements for a broader community of researchers that allow for more-interactive sharing of tools, resources, and lessons. Stay tuned!


Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Rebecca Griffiths! Come back tomorrow for our next network lead spotlight!  

 

Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane

Today, we’re highlighting Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane, Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. Dr. Lane’s research aims to analyze existing data to determine how internalizing and externalizing behavior patterns, as well as referrals for special education eligibility, may have shifted over time with the pandemic. Moreover, the project will test Recognize. Relax. Record. (RRR), which is an intervention designed to reduce symptoms of anxiety, increase engagement, maximize learning recovery, and improve academic outcomes for students with and at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. 

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.___________________________________________________________________________________

National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER):How would you describe your research project in a sentence?  

Headshot of Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane:* We will determine shifts over time in internalizing behavior patterns and we will test an intervention, Recognize. Relax. Record. designed as part of Project ENHANCE (network grant), to meet this charge. 

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Given the educational complexities of the COVID era, many students are expected to exhibit elevated levels of internalizing issues (e.g., anxious feelings), which may impede learning as teachers strive to maximize student engagement to facilitate learning and well-being. It is critical to examine how the prevalence of internalizing symptoms has shifted during the pandemic. Furthermore, in anticipation that prevalence has increased, it is vital teachers have effective and feasible interventions to support these students rather than rely on potentially scarce, resource-intensive external sources. We have the data to determine shifts in internalizing behavior patterns and we have developed and propose to test an intervention, RRR, to meet this charge. 

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: We will determine shifts in internalizing behavior patterns since the pandemic. In addition, we will conduct a series of studies to determine the efficacy and feasibility of RRR in helping students manage anxious feelings and increasing academic engagement, ultimately facilitating students’ academic and social and emotional well-being during recovery from the pandemic. 

“As a classroom teacher, I wanted to make sure all students–including students with the most severe emotional and behavioral disorders–could be welcomed and included in general education settings in such a way that special and general education teachers felt confident in meeting these students’ multiple needs.”

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education?   

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: As a classroom teacher, I wanted to make sure all students–including students with the most severe emotional and behavioral disorders–could be welcomed and included in general education settings in such a way that special and general education teachers felt confident in meeting these students’ multiple needs. Also, I was very concerned that students with internalizing behavior patterns were often overlooked because their behavior challenges did not capture teacher attention. This led to our collective work: designing, implementing, and evaluating Comprehensive, Integrated, Three-tiered (Ci3T) models of prevention to (a) prevent the development of learning and behavior challenges and (b) respond to existing challenges, with an emphasis on systematic screening. 

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: As a mother and a researcher, detecting and supporting students with internalizing behaviors are key priorities. As we navigate through the pandemic, our team is highly committed to the educators we serve so that they have feasible, effective interventions that support students with internalizing behaviors to engage in instruction and empower all teachers with the tools to meet students’ multiple needs. 

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: As part of Project ENGAGE, we will determine how internalizing behavior patterns have shifted since the pandemic and we will empower teachers with practical, effective Tier 2 strategies that can be integrated into academic instruction to help students manage anxious feelings, enhance engagement, and facilitate learning and well-being. The resulting intervention will be able to be used by a range of students and teachers to support students with the tools needed to recognize and manage anxious feelings, while optimizing engagement during instruction. Furthermore, this intervention is designed to support teacher well-being by being a practical, efficient, and effective intervention that can be embedded into daily instructional activities. 

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Project ENGAGE was designed with recovery from the pandemic in mind. Aim 1 addresses the need for schools to understand shifts that have occurred in internalizing behavior patterns. Aim 2 addresses the need for educators to have effective interventions at Tier 2 for students experiencing elevated levels of anxious feelings that impede educational engagement and thus attainment.

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: While there are a host of challenges, one particular concern is the accurate detection of elevated risk for both major categories of behavior disorders of childhood: internalizing and externalizing behaviors. It is critical the field support educators in the (a) selection and installation of systematic screening tools that can effectively and efficiently identify preK-12 students at the first sign of concern and (b) design of practical, effective strategies that can be used by all educators to maximize engagement and support social and emotional well-being. For some school systems, free access tools such as the Student Risk Screening Scale for Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors (SRSS-IE; Drummond, 1994; Lane & Menzies, 2009) are the only option. Further, as we detect students who are experiencing elevated levels of internalizing concerns, it is vital for educators to have access to feasible, evidence-based practices to support these students at initial signs of concern.  

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: It is possible–and feasible–to detect and support students with internalizing and externalizing behaviors at the first sign of concern. Systematic screening is a gift to students, families, and teachers. 

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Districts and schools across the United States are increasingly exploring and adopting integrated tiered systems such as Ci3T models of prevention. These integrated systems provide a systematic structure for educators to collaborate and meet students’ multiple needs (academic, behavioral, and social and emotional well-being) in a coherent and wholistic manner. Furthermore, the emphasis on using data, like systematic screening to detect students with both externalizing and internalizing behavioral concerns, provides a basis for educators to provide supports in an equitable and proactive manner. There is also evidence to suggest Ci3T models may facilitate teacher well-being as they promote efficiency, collaboration, and ongoing professional learning to enhance teachers’ sense of efficacy and reduce burnout as they go about their vital work of meeting students’ multiple needs.   

 NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Our ultimate goals: 

  1. Accurate detection of students with internalizing and externalizing behaviors at the first sign of concern. 
  2. High-quality, on-demand professional learning resources to support the design, implementation, and evaluation of Ci3T models of prevention to address students’ academic, behavioral, and social and emotional well-being needs in an integrated fashion. 

*Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane’s answers include input from Project ENGAGE Co-Principal Investigators. 

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane! We hope you’ve enjoyed our NCSER Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education grantee spotlight blog series. Keep following the blog for more exciting news from IES.

 

Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Dr. Michael Hebert

Today, we want to highlight Dr. Michael Hebert, associate professor at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Hebert’s work will evaluate the Workshop on Reading Development Strategies (WORDS), a comprehensive professional development program for teachers designed to support implementation of Tier 2 intensive interventions in reading for students with or at risk for reading disabilities in grades K–3. Please find below the inspiring story of our grantee! 

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER): How would you describe your research project in a sentence?   

Headshot of Dr. Michael Hebert

Dr. Michael Hebert: Workshop on Reading Development Strategies (WORDS) is designed to accelerate reading development for students with disabilities following the COVID-19 pandemic, and we will test the impacts of WORDS in kindergarten through grade 3. 

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: As a director of a university reading center that suspended in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was forced to figure out how to do what most other educational institutions also had to do: pivot. Students with reading disabilities didn’t suddenly have fewer needs, and our preservice teachers still required training in how to meet the needs of those students. We pivoted to virtual instruction.  

Like most schools and programs, we had some successes and challenges. It became obvious quickly that we had particular difficulty delivering virtual instruction to students with disabilities. Our preservice teachers sometimes had difficulty figuring out how to make appropriate accommodations, assessing students’ needs, or sustaining their attention. On at least one occasion, a lesson ended when a student with an emotional and behavioral need simply shut their laptop. 

Two teacher surveys I conducted with Jessica Namkung and Marc Goodrich reinforced that students with disabilities were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers reported covering less content and having difficulties making appropriate accommodations. Some of our Nebraska partner schools also reported 10–12% increases in the number of students falling below cut scores in reading across grade levels. It was clear that schools needed support to increase instructional opportunities and accelerate reading growth for students with and at risk for disabilities.  

As it happened, I was already working on the WORDS project with the state of Nebraska, with a focus on the science of reading. We were seeing early promise for the program to accelerate reading improvements for students with disabilities. Those early successes inspired my team to develop an IES grant proposal to test whether the WORDS project could be adapted to accelerate pandemic recovery for students with reading difficulties and disabilities. We are especially focused on impacting schools in rural and remote areas that may have had particular difficulty providing students with access to reading instructional opportunities during the pandemic.  

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research?  

Dr. Michael Hebert: We hope to see impacts on reading skills and overall reading achievement for children. We’re specifically expecting to see improvements on foundational reading skill outcomes (for example, letter naming fluency and phonological awareness), word-reading and decoding skills, and reading fluency outcomes. We’re focused on outcomes that have practical significance to Nebraska schools and drive a lot of school decisions, including reading assessments mandated by Nebraska state law and annual state assessments. We also hope to see a reduction in the overall number of students identified with reading difficulties and disabilities. 

“Although there may have been no way to prepare for the pandemic, we can’t let a generation of students with reading difficulties fail because of our lack of preparation. We have a responsibility to learn quickly how to meet their needs and accelerate their learning.

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: When I was a reading specialist, my charge was to identify why individual children had reading difficulties and design ways to help them become successful readers. I became very interested in distinguishing students with opportunity gaps from those that faced barriers due to disabilities. These groups sometimes have different instructional needs. I found it especially appealing to design specific instructional plans for students and help them grow.  

One tool that I found particularly adaptable and effective for many of my students with disabilities was writing. Writing gave students another way to engage in the content and practice skills, and through this, I noticed more rapid reading gains for students with learning disabilities. It was really exciting. I remember talking with Steve Graham and Karen Harris about it at a conference around that time. They helped me understand that I needed more evidence for it than my gut hunches. They also convinced me that research evidence was the key. Now that I reflect on it, I’m pretty sure they tricked me into going to graduate school. The rest is history.  

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Michael Hebert: My first teaching job after college was in a third-grade classroom on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I quickly learned that my teacher-prep program hadn’t prepared me well enough to teach reading to a classroom of 100% English learners (ELs), some of whom missed large amounts of school. (I got my credential in New Hampshire, where the EL population was very small.) However, it wouldn’t have been acceptable for me to fail to do my job for those kids and blame my lack of preparation. Needless to say, I had to work very hard that year to learn quickly and meet their needs. I’ve been inspired to better prepare myself and other teachers to teach reading to different populations ever since.  

 The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools remind me of that first year of my career. Teachers were unprepared. We didn’t know the best ways to teach foundational reading and writing skills in virtual and hybrid contexts. Kids missed a lot of school and instruction. Although there may have been no way to prepare for the pandemic, we can’t let a generation of students with reading difficulties fail because of our lack of preparation. We have a responsibility to learn quickly how to meet their needs and accelerate their learning. 

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: Targeted interventions focused on specific skills have been a staple of special education. Those types of interventions will continue to be important and indispensable for meeting individual student needs. However, the WORDS project is a larger-scale intervention that focuses on improving several parts of the system at once—including curricular foci, teacher instruction, multitiered systems of support, and school use of assessment data—while not losing sight of the need to meet students’ individual needs. The aim is to relieve pressure on the special education system while also improving interventions for students with disabilities.

To do this, the WORDS project includes ongoing professional development on the science of reading, individualized teacher coaching, leadership development, after-school instruction for students with reading difficulties, and assessment support for schools. We work with schools over a 2-year period. (We can’t make large-scale improvements with a day or two of professional development.) WORDS focuses on continuous improvement and includes individualized consultation for schools that can be adapted for their specific needs (e.g., curricular adoption or intervention-material choices). If effective, this could provide a model for other states to develop similar multicomponent, large-scale intervention programs and impact how we approach improving special education outcomes.  

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic? 

Dr. Michael Hebert: We know that one project can’t address all of the challenges related to the pandemic. Therefore, the focus of our program is to address the challenges of accelerating reading development for students with and at risk for disabilities. To do that, the WORDS project floods the system with a multicomponent approach to improving reading instruction in schools and a focus on effective reading practices identified through reading science. By intensifying intervention through after-school tutoring, improving core instructional and assessment practices, and providing schools with support to adapt to students’ needs, the WORDS project is aimed at developing the capacity of schools and teachers. The goal is to develop the appropriate conditions for accelerating reading improvement. Our project includes a series of regression discontinuity designs that allow us to provide regular, rapid feedback to the schools in the project. This will allow schools to make additional instructional adjustments and decisions quickly. We also report our results regularly to the Nebraska State Department of Education so that they can make decisions about whether to implement the program in other schools.

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: Identifying school and teacher partners is one of the biggest challenges. Shortages of teachers, substitutes, and paraprofessionals are straining the system at a time when many teachers are still stressed and tired from the unique challenges of the pandemic. Schools are also cognizant of the need to make the most of their instructional and professional development time to meet the needs of students who missed instructional opportunities during the pandemic. Because of that, schools are less willing to take on research partnerships. They’re (understandably) being careful about any research partnerships they take on. They are protecting their teachers and seem less willing to participate in projects that require significant amounts of instructional time. Therefore, it is incumbent upon special education researchers to design research studies in ways that relieve some of the pressure on schools, provide schools with data that helps them make decisions in the short term, and are responsive to the needs of schools and teachers. There are many critical research questions around students with disabilities that need to be studied. We need to make sure we’re carefully listening to schools and stakeholders about their needs in order to foster research partnerships that can help us address those questions. 

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: Many disabilities are invisible. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish students with disabilities from students who have lacked learning opportunities. Both groups may perform similarly on assessments. However, the academic needs of those two groups are likely to be different. Students with disabilities may have difficulty learning due to their disability; simply giving them more learning opportunities will not always be sufficient without other accommodations. The good news is that we know a lot about how to provide appropriate accommodations and adjust instruction based on students’ disabilities and needs. In many cases, providing the right intervention and accommodations can make all of the difference. Therefore, it is important to be careful when assessing students and identifying students with disabilities (especially invisible disabilities) so that we can appropriately meet their needs. 

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Michael Hebert: I’m very excited about the collaborative research training grants that have recently been awarded by the Office of Special Education Research. We need to continue to develop talented new researchers to continue to push the field forward. I’m particularly excited about projects involving multiple institutions collaborating to provide students with varied experiences and research opportunities. This kind of training has the potential to expose doctoral students to varied methods, experts, research projects, and special education issues across multiple states. Some examples include: 

  • The Leaders Investigating Mathematics Evidence (LIME) program collaboration among the University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University, and University of Missouri
  • RISE Scholars Network (Research Interventions in Special Education) collaboration between the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, Texas A&M University, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

I can’t wait to see what these scholars do. 

NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: We have short- and long-term goals. In the short term, we’re focused on implementation and carrying out our study with the highest degree of rigor and care. Our goals are to carry out a great study, impact teachers and kids, and conduct a strong cost analysis to help people understand the cost required for this type of work. That essentially leads me to our long-term goal: sustainability. Although this is a pandemic recovery grant, we hope the WORDS project can become a model for improving reading outcomes for students with and at risk for disabilities even in nonpandemic times. To do that, we need to consider ways to make the project sustainable. We’ve already built some mechanisms into the WORDS project for this. For example, we have a leadership training program included within the WORDS project, which aims to identify and cultivate reading-teacher leaders in schools across the state. By cultivating leadership opportunities for talented personnel in the schools, we accomplish a few things. First, we make schools less reliant on outside support. Second, we foster institutional knowledge that can help during times of teacher turnover, administrator turnover, or changes to curriculum. Third, we build a network of teachers and experts across the state that can support neighboring school districts and colleagues. This further makes Nebraska schools less reliant on expensive outside experts.  

Another way we’re hoping to foster sustainability is through the after-school tutoring component of WORDS. Although there are personnel costs to tutoring, investment in the extra instruction may help some students exit intervention, relieving pressure on reading specialists, special education teachers, and paraprofessionals during the school day. If that works, schools may be able to reallocate resources to other students with and at risk for disability or intensify instruction for those students. Anyway, you get the idea…sustainability is an important goal for us moving forward. 

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Michael Hebert! Come back tomorrow for our next grantee spotlight!