IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Leveraging Diversity of Academic Disciplines and Cultural Experiences to Advance Education Research

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we asked researcher Mingyu Feng, a senior research associate at WestED, to discuss her career journey. Dr. Feng serves as principal investigator of the IES-funded ASSISTments and MathSpring efficacy studies, which examine the effects of intelligent tutoring systems, data-driven instruction, and formative assessment on student learning outcomes.

How did you become interested in a career in education research? How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

When I first came from China to the United States to pursue a PhD in computer science, I wasn’t thinking of having a career in education research. My goal was to become a computer scientist who plays with algorithms and codes every day. Then, I was surprised to learn how many U.S. students trailed their peers academically in a highly developed country like America. The 2002 NAEP data indicated that only 30% of 8th graders were at or above the proficient level in reading or math. My first thought when I saw that statistic was, “There must be a way to help these students.”

I pursued a PhD in intelligent tutoring systems at Worcester Polytechnic Institute out of a desire to leverage technology to boost student learning. An intelligent tutoring system (ITS) is a computer system that aims to automatically provide immediate and customized instruction, feedback, or intervention to learners. Building ITSs requires a highly interdisciplinary field, where computer technology intersects with artificial intelligence, data mining, learning sciences, cognitive sciences, and education. As a graduate student, I developed systems and analyzed student learning data. I built upon my prior math knowledge from studying engineering and taught myself statistical modeling and learned about experimental design methods. I was also fortunate to be able to visit classrooms and work directly with educators and students to understand how critical it is for a student to receive needed support and for a computer system to be effectively integrated into an educator’s classroom routine. This experience inspired me to pursue a career in applied education research. Since then, my research career has focused on the development and research of education technologies and conducting rigorous evaluations of their impact on learning or practices in authentic education settings.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?

As a first-generation immigrant, I haven’t directly experienced the U.S. K-12 and college education system and was initially less familiar with U.S. policies and practices. I asked a lot of “naïve” questions—What’s the difference between a public school and a charter school? How does a district decide the adoption of a supplemental program or a core curriculum? Does 5th grade belong to elementary school or middle school? Does a teacher or a school have discretion regarding instructional practices? It was a long and steep learning curve, but I found connecting directly with students, educators, administrators, and policymakers to be beneficial for learning about the education system. Listening to their needs, observing classrooms, and discussing research and findings in a meaningful way with practitioners provided me with the context and inspiration I needed as a researcher. When I saw an exhausted teacher running around to put out fires in the classroom, or a frustrated student staring at the computer screen, I knew there was still a long way for us edtech developers and researchers to go.

I also recognized that my cultural background and resulting perspective on education could be both a challenge and an asset. In many East and Southeast Asian cultures, Confucian ideals such as respect for elders, deferred gratification, and discipline are strong influences. Traditionally, Asian parents teach their children to value educational achievement, respect authority, feel responsibility for relatives, and show self-control. These perspectives were infused in my upbringing and influenced my approach to understanding education in the United States where diverse cultures thrive. I worked to gain perspective-taking skills to understand situations from other positions, to consider other beliefs, experiences, and viewpoints.

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?

Early exposure to research and opportunities can be quite helpful. My doctoral training expanded my view of career options beyond academia and helped me see the value of applied research and the impact research can have on practices.

Recently, IES has advocated specifically for inclusion of emerging scholars from underrepresented groups in RFAs and during the reviewing process. That’s a great way to support scholars from these groups. Just for fun, I skimmed the list of 1,500 PIs of IES funded grants and found about 50 first or last names resembling Asian names. With acknowledgement of this less-than-rigorous approach, this very rough estimate of 3-4% suggests there are not a whole lot of IES PIs with Asian heritage. Therefore, I really appreciate the increased attention and encouragement IES has given to addressing underrepresentation in the education research community and would love to meet more scholars like me at the PI meetings.

In addition, I’d encourage project directors to think more creatively when considering institutional partnerships, building a staff team, or forming an advisory board. By including collaborators or advisors from underrepresented groups, the team benefits from the breadth of talent, perspectives, and skills that arise from diversity.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?

My first piece of advice is to be confident and brave. Believe in yourself and in the value you bring to the table. Sometimes, this means stretching outside your comfort zone or persevering towards a goal you are passionate about. In Chinese culture, modesty is viewed as a virtue. I’ve always been told “modesty helps one go forward” and “silence is golden.” Yet, I’d encourage emerging scholars from minoritized groups to put their best selves forward and display their pride. 

My second piece of advice is to find someone you trust, a mentor or an advisor, who will show you how to navigate the field and provide guidance for your academic and career advancement. A great mentor can show you your strengths and weaknesses, encourage and advocate for you, and support your growth by creating opportunities and connecting you with collaborators. For someone from underrepresented groups, I found it is best to have someone who can speak up for you when you are not present in the room.


Mingyu Feng is a senior research associate with WestEd’s Learning and Technology team. She leads large-scale grants focused on leveraging education technologies to transform science and mathematics instruction to improve student learning.

Produced by Wai Chow (Wai-Ying.Chow@ed.gov), program officer for the Effective Instruction grant program within the National Center for Education Research.

Asian Voices in Education Research: Perspectives from Predoctoral Fellows Na Lor and Helen Lee

The IES Predoctoral Training Programs prepare doctoral students to conduct high-quality education research that advances knowledge within the field of education sciences and addresses issues important to education policymakers and practitioners. In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Appreciation Month, we asked two predoctoral scholars who are embarking on their careers as education researchers to share their career journeys, perspectives on diversity and equity in education research, and advice for emerging scholars from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in pursuing careers in education research. Here is what they shared with us.

 

Na Lor (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is currently a PhD candidate in educational leadership and policy analysis where she is studying inequity in higher education from a cultural perspective.

How did you become interested in a career in education research? How have your background experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

I view education institutions as important sites of knowledge transmission with infinite potential for addressing inequity. In addition, my background as a Hmong refugee and a first-generation scholar from a low-income family informs my scholarship and career interests. My positive and negative experiences growing up in predominantly White spaces also shape the way in which I see the world. Meanwhile, my time spent living abroad and working in the non-profit sector further influence my ideals of improving the human condition. With my training through IES, I look forward to conducting education research with a focus on higher education in collaboration with local schools and colleges to better serve students and families from underserved communities.  

In your area of research, what do you see as the most critical areas of need to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

I see ethnic studies, culturally sustaining pedagogies, and experiential learning in postsecondary education as core areas in need of improvement to provide relevant education for an ever-diverse student body. Likewise, I see community college transfer pathways as crucial for addressing and advancing equity. 

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups who are pursuing a career in education research?

Chase your burning questions relentlessly and continuously strengthen your methodological toolkit. Embrace who you are and rely on your lived experience and ways of knowing as fundamental assets that contribute to knowledge formation and the research process. 

 

Helen Lee (University of Chicago) is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development where she is studying the impact of racial dialogue and ethnic community engagement on the identity and agency development of Asian American youth.

How did you become interested in a career in education research? How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

I first considered a career in education research while completing my Master’s in educational leadership and policy at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. I had entered my program in need of a break after working as a classroom teacher, organizer, and community educator in Detroit for five years. During my program, I had the opportunity to reflect on and contextualize my experiences in and around public education. It was also during my program that I first came across scholarship that aligned to my values and spoke to my experiences as a teacher in under-resourced communities and as a first-generation college graduate.

Taking classes with Dr. Carla O’Connor and Dr. Alford Young, working with Dr. Camille Wilson, and engaging with scholarship that counters deficit notions of people of color was a critical turning point for me. The work of these scholars motivated me to pursue a path in education research. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to meet other scholars who conduct community-based and action-oriented research in service of social justice movements. These interactions, along with the opportunities to collaborate with and learn from youth and educators over the years, has sustained my interest in education research and strengthened my commitment to conducting research that promotes more equitable educational policies and practice.

In your area of research, what do you see as the most critical areas of need to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

My current research examines the racial socialization experiences of Asian American youth in relation to their sociopolitical development. This work is motivated by my own experiences as an Asian American, my work with Chinese and Asian American-serving community organizations, and a recognition that Asian American communities are often overlooked in conversations about racism due to pervasive stereotypes.

Education research must be better attuned to the history and current manifestations of racism. That is, research should not only consider the consequences of systemic racism on the educational experiences and outcomes of marginalized communities but also challenge and change these conditions. I believe there is a critical need for scholarship that reimagines and transforms the education system into a more just and humanizing one.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups who are pursuing a career in education research?

I would provide the following advice:

  • Clarify what your purpose isthe reason why you are engaged in this work. This will help guide the opportunities you pursue or pass on and connect you to the people who can support your development toward these goals. Your purpose will also serve as a beacon to guide you in times of uncertainty.
  • Seek out mentorship from scholars whose work inspires your own. Mentorship may come from other students as well as from those outside of academia. It may stem from collaborations in which you participate or simply through one-time interactions.
  • Be attuned to your strengths and your areas of growth and nurture both accordingly. In retrospect, I could have done a better job of recognizing my own assets and engaging in diverse writing opportunities to strengthen my ability to communicate research across audiences.
  • Continuously put your ideas and research in conversation with the ideas and research of others. This enables growth in important ways—it can open you up to new perspectives and questions as well as strengthen your inquiry and understanding of your findings.
  • Engage in exercises that nurture your creativity and imagination and participate in spaces that sustain your passion for education research. A more just and humanizing education system requires us to think beyond our current realities and to engage in long-term efforts.      

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. For Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month blog series, we are focusing on AAPI researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of AAPI students.

Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and training program officer for the National Center for Education Research.

Understanding the Co-Development of Language and Behavior Disorders in the Context of an Early Career Grant

The Early Career Development and Mentoring Program in Special Education provides support for investigators in the early stages of their academic careers to conduct an integrated research and career development plan focused on learners with or at risk for disabilities. Dr. Jason Chow is an assistant professor of special education at the University of Maryland, College Park and principal investigator of a current Early Career grant funded by NCSER. Dr. Chow’s research focuses on the comorbidity of language and behavior disorders in school-age children as well as teacher and related service provider training in behavior management. We recently caught up with Dr. Chow to learn more about his career, the experiences that have shaped it, and the lessons he’s learned from the Early Career grant. This is what he shared with us.

How did your experiences shape your interest in a career in special education?

Photo of Jason Chow

I first became interested in education when I started substituting for paraprofessionals in special education programs over winter and summer breaks in college, which I really enjoyed. That experience, along with a class I took in my senior year on disability in the media and popular culture, got me interested in the field of special education. After I graduated, I ended up applying for a full-time position as a paraprofessional in a program supporting high schoolers with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD).

My experiences as a paraprofessional definitely shaped my career path. As a substitute paraprofessional in college, I was surprised that my job was to support students with the most intensive needs even though I had the least amount of classroom training. That made me recognize the need for research-based training and supports for related service providers and got me interested in different factors that contribute to decision making in school systems. Another memorable experience occurred when I was working in the support program for students with EBD. All our students had the accommodation to be able to come to our room at any time of the day as needed for a check in or a break. I was alarmed by how often students needed a break because of things teachers said or did to upset them or make them feel singled out. I was also coaching several sports at the time and saw first-hand how a strong, positive relationships with the players were vital. These experiences got me interested in teacher-student relationships, how important positive interactions and experiences can be, and the need for general education teachers to receive training on working with students with disabilities. Ultimately, my work as a paraprofessional supporting kids with EBD also helped shape my interest in determining how language and communication can facilitate prosocial development, which led to my Early Career grant.

What are the goals of your NCSER Early Career grant?

My project focuses on better understanding the co-development of language and behavior in children at risk for language disorders, behavior disorders, or both in early elementary school. Many studies have examined the concurrent and developmental relations between language and behavior, but they are typically done using extant datasets. The goal of this project was to conduct a prospective study aimed at measuring both constructs in several different ways (such as direct observations, interviews, and teacher report) to provide a more robust analysis of how each of these constructs and assessment types are related over time. This type of research could inform the types of interventions provided to children with EBD and, more specifically, the need to address language impairments alongside behavior to improve academic outcomes for these learners.

How has the Early Career grant helped your development as a researcher?

This project has taught me a lot about the realities of doing school-based research and managing a grant. First, I have learned a great deal about budgeting. For example, I proposed to recruit a sample based on a power analysis I conducted for the grant application. But in my original budget, I did not consider that I would need to screen about triple the number of children I estimated in order to enroll my planned sample. I have also learned a lot about hiring, human resources, procurement, and university policies that are directly and indirectly involved in process of conducting research. Also, like many others, my project was impacted by pandemic-related school closures, and I have learned how to be flexible under unpredictable circumstances. More specifically, we had intended to determine how developmental trajectories of language and behavior were associated with academic outcomes, but we lost our outcome assessment timepoint due to the pandemic. Fortunately, we are working collaboratively with our partner schools to use district-level data to approximate some of these intended analyses. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to learn and develop my skills in the context of a training grant.

What advice would you give to other early career researchers, including those who may be interested in applying for an Early Career grant?

Reach out to other early career grantees and ask for their proposals. (I am happy to share mine!) Just be aware that the RFA has changed over time—including a substantial increase in funds—so the more recent proposals the better. Also, in terms of setting up a strong mentorship team for your career development plan, reach out to the people whom you see as the best to support your career development (no matter how busy you think they are or if you think they are too senior). In talking with other folks, I’ve learned that generally people are very willing to support the next generation of researchers!

This interview blog is part of a larger IES blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in the education sciences. It was produced by Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov), program officer for the Early Career Development and Mentoring program at the National Center for Special Education Research.

Do Underrepresented Students Benefit From Gifted Programs?

Recent studies of gifted and talented programs indicate that the extent and quality of services available to gifted students vary from state to state, district to district, and even from school to school within school districts. In a project titled “Are Gifted Programs Beneficial to Underserved Students?” (PI: William Darity, Duke University), IES-funded researchers are examining the variability of Black and Hispanic students’ access to gifted programs in North Carolina and the potential impact of participation in these gifted programs on Black and Hispanic student outcomes. In this interview blog, we asked co-PIs Malik Henfield and Kristen Stephens to discuss the motivation for their study and preliminary findings.

What motivated your team to study the outcomes of Black and Hispanic students in gifted programs?

The disproportionality between the representation of white students and students of color in gifted education programs is both persistent and pervasive. For decades, we’ve both been working with teachers and school counselors seeking to increase the number of students of color in gifted education programs, but what happens once these students are placed in these programs? We know very little about the educational, social, and emotional impact that participation (or non-participation) has on students. Gifted education programs are widely believed to provide the best educational opportunity for students, but given the impacts race and socioeconomic status have on student success factors, this may not be a sound assumption. In fact, there is negligible (and often contradictory) published research that explores whether gifted programs contribute to beneficial academic and social-emotional outcomes for the underserved students who participate in them. Resolving this question will have tremendous implications for future gifted education policies.

Please tell us about your study. What have you learned so far?

With funding from IES, researchers from Duke University and Loyola University Chicago are collaborating to describe how gifted education policies in North Carolina are interpreted, implemented, and monitored at the state, district, and school levels. We are also estimating how these policies are related to Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students’ academic and social-emotional outcomes. We hope our examination of individual student characteristics, sociocultural contexts, and environmental factors will help improve the ways school systems identify and serve gifted students from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Although preliminary, there are several interesting findings from our study. Our analysis of district-level gifted education plans highlights promising equity practices (for example, using local norms to determine gifted program eligibility) as well as potential equity inhibitors (for example, relying predominantly on teacher referral). Our secondary data analysis reveals that the majority of school districts do not have equitable representation of Black and Hispanic students in gifted programs. Disproportionality was calculated using the Relative Difference in Composition Index (RDCI). The RDCI represents the difference between a group’s composition in gifted education programs and their composition across the school district expressed as a discrepancy percentage.

What’s Next?

In North Carolina, districts are allowed to interpret state policy and implement programs and support services in ways they deem appropriate. Our next step is to conduct an in-depth qualitative exploration of variations in policy within and across North Carolina school districts. In these forthcoming analyses, we will be looking only at youth identified as underserved along the racial/ethnic minority dimension. In each district, we plan to interview four distinct groups to better understand their greatest assets, needs, challenges, and resources they would find most valuable to facilitate successful academic and social-emotional outcomes: (1) high-achieving underserved students identified as gifted, (2) high-achieving underserved students not identified as gifted, (3) teachers, and (4) school counselors.

For example, we are interested in learning—

  • How educators interpret identification processes from policies
  • How educators perceive recruitment and retention processes and their role in them
  • How ethnic minority students identified as gifted perceive recruitment and retention processes
  • How ethnic minority students not selected for participation in gifted education programming perceive the recruitment process
  • How both student groups make sense of their racial identity

We will then combine what we learned from studies 1-3 (using secondary data) with Study 4 (research in schools) and share the results with policymakers, educators, and the research community.

What advice would you like to share with other researchers who are studying access to gifted programs?

There are three recommendations we would like to share:

  • Investigate instructional interventions that impact short- and long-term academic and social-emotional outcomes for gifted students. The field of gifted education has spent significant time and resources attempting to determine the best methods for identifying gifted students across all racial/ethnic groups. Nonetheless, disparities in representation still exist, and this hyper-focus on identification has come at the expense of increasing our understanding of what types of interventions work, for whom, and under what conditions.
  • Conduct more localized research studies. Since gifted education programs are largely de-centralized, there is considerable variance in how policies are created and implemented across states, districts, and schools. For example, eligibility criteria for participation in gifted programs can differ significantly across school systems.  In NC, “cut score” percentages on achievement and aptitude tests can range from the 85th to the 99th percentile. This makes it difficult to generalize research findings across contexts when participant samples aren’t adequately comparable. 
  • Extend beyond the identification question and consider both generalizability and transferability when designing the research methodology. For generalizability, this entails carefully selecting the sample population and the methods for developing causal models. For transferability, this means providing a detailed account of the ecosystem in which the research is taking place so that practitioners can see the utility of the findings and recommendations within their own contexts. Mixed methods studies would certainly help bridge the relationship between the two. 

 


Dr. Malik S. Henfield is a full professor and founding dean of the Institute for Racial Justice at Loyola University Chicago. His scholarship situates Black students' lived experiences in a broader ecological milieu to critically explore how their personal, social, academic, and career success is impeded and enhanced by school, family, and community contexts. His work to date has focused heavily on the experiences of Black students formally identified as gifted/high achieving.

Dr. Kristen R. Stephens is an associate professor of the Practice in the Program in Education at Duke University. She studies legal and policy issues related to gifted education at the federal, state, and local levels--particularly around how such policies contribute to beneficial academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes for traditionally underserved gifted students.

This interview blog is part of a larger IES blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in the education sciences. It was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. For more information about the study, please contact the program officer, Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov).

 

The 2022 IES PI Meeting: Advancing Equity & Inclusion in the Education Sciences

On January 25-27, 2022, NCER and NCSER hosted  our first Principal Investigators (PI) Meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world as we know it. Even though we were hopeful and eager to connect with our grantees in person, given the continuing uncertainties due to COVID-19, we opted for our very first fully virtual PI meeting, and we are pleased to say it was a success on many fronts!

Our co-chairs, Brian Boyd (University of Kansas), and Doré LaForett (Child Trends and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) were instrumental in the success of this meeting. They helped identify the meeting theme: Advancing Equity & Inclusion in the Education Sciences, suggested sessions (including the plenaries) that addressed the theme,  recommended strategies to encourage networking and engagement, and participated in two great sessions focused on Engaging in Anti-racist, Culturally Responsive Research Practices and the Importance of Identifying English Learners in Education Research Studies.

Here are a few highlights:

The meeting kicked off with a welcome from the Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, followed by IES Director Mark Schneider’s opening remarks. Secretary Cardona reaffirmed the importance and need for high-quality education research to identify, measure, and address disparities in education opportunities and outcomes. Director Schneider spoke about improving the infrastructure of the education sciences and ways that IES will continue to encourage investigators to incorporate the SEER principles going forward. He also revealed a ninth SEER principle focused on equity, calling on researchers to “address inequities in societal resources and outcomes.” See a recap of his talk here.

This year’s theme was threaded throughout the meeting, emphasizing the importance and complexity of advancing equity and inclusion in the education sciences. The opening plenary speakers began the meeting with advice on how to center equity and inclusion in education research; the Commissioners provided updates on how NCER and NCSER are working to address diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; sessions focused on challenges and potential solutions for doing research with an equity lens; and the closing plenary discussed how to plan for diversity in education research.   

Deep conversations occurred around meaningful and relevant topic areas. Over three days, we had nearly 900 attendees going in and out of virtual rooms (with very few technology glitches—no small feat!) participating in discussions around four main topic areas:

  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA)—Sessions included discussions of centering equity in education research
  • COVID-19 Pandemic—Sessions included lessons learned from COVID-19 research pivots and considerations for research during COVID-19 and recovery
  • Methods & Measurement—Sessions included information on innovations in statistical methods, data collection tools, and scaling evidence-based practices
  • Results from IES Research—Sessions included highlights of findings from several IES-funded grants and Research and Development centers

See the agenda for a complete list of this year’s sessions.

Finally, although we weren’t able to be in the same physical room, one of the real benefits of this virtual meeting was the ability to record the sessions. IES continues to encourage the dissemination of IES-supported research to a wider audience, and we want to do our part by making the recordings from the sessions publicly available. We hope you enjoy watching the incredibly valuable and thought-provoking presentations and discussions and share widely with your networks.

 

 

Thanks to our attendees for their participation. Your engagement made this year’s meeting a true success. We are already looking forward to next year’s meeting!

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for how to continue the conversation around DEIA, please do not hesitate to contact NCER Commissioner Liz Albro (Elizabeth.Albro@ed.gov) or NCSER Commissioner Joan McLaughlin (Joan.McLauglin@ed.gov). We look forward to hearing from you.