IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

New IES Grantee Focuses on Improving Adult Literacy

In her first IES grant, Dr. Elizabeth Tighe (Georgia State University) is taking expertise honed in both an NCER predoctoral fellowship and PIAAC methods training program to help further adult literacy research. Her earlier work includes developing assessments for adults with low literacy, leveraging statistical approaches to understand these adults’ abilities and difficulties, and using eye-tracking paradigms to explore their ability to self-monitor during reading. 

Program officer, Meredith Larson, interviewed Dr. Tighe about her previous work and new grant.

What is your general area of research, and why is it important?

I focus on adult struggling readers, which comprises roughly 36 million (1 in 6) adults in the U.S. Only a fraction of these adults enroll in adult education programs, which are plagued by insufficient funding, high teacher turnover rates, and a lack of research-based instructional practices and curricula. By better understanding these adults’ strengths and deficits and how best to measure their skills, I aim to inform and improve adult education programs.

What could people do with your research?

My research could directly inform how we help adults become stronger readers, and this can improve educational outcomes, such as GED attainment. I am working towards building better assessments for adult education practitioner and researcher use. My longer-term goal is to design a curriculum to teach morphology (e.g., prefixes and suffixes) and use this to improve adults’ vocabulary and reading comprehension.

What are you trying to learn through your new IES project?

For this grant, I’m using the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a large-scale, international assessment of adult literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills, to create risk profiles of adults with low literacy skills. This sort of information could move us closer to being able to individualize instruction in adult education programs to match the needs of specific learners.

We will use PIAAC data to explore how demographic characteristics (age, race/ethnicity, educational background, employment status) and malleable factors (enjoyment of learning, frequency of computer use, reading and writing behaviors at home and at work) influence low literacy performance.

Further, we are examining whether risk factors differ by whether someone has a high school diploma and whether someone has participated in education or training recently. We will also explore whether reading components and literacy skills are predictive of low-skilled adults’ numeracy skills.

Our findings could have important implications for understanding risk factors and predictors of low literacy as well as low numeracy. As stated previously, 1 in 6 U.S. adults have low literacy skills and nearly 1 in 3 have low numeracy skills. For GED attainment, adults must demonstrate proficiency in both of these areas (along with science, social studies, and writing knowledge). It’s important to have targeted, individualized instruction for these adults because they may have time or resource barriers.

How did this particular research project arise?

I first learned about PIAAC at a summer institute. I was intrigued, in particular, because PIAAC is the first assessment of this size to include a reading component supplement for lower-skilled adults.

I recently attended a 3-day NCER/ETS PIAAC training workshop, which allowed me to work with PIAAC data and network with others. This workshop influenced my decision to apply for an IES grant. I felt that a 2-year grant using extant data would be a great way to combine my interests regarding individual differences in adults’ component skills and get my feet wet with IES as a new investigator. I am excited to bridge my interests and grow as a researcher by learning and working alongside two experts (Drs. Yaacov Petscher and John Sabatini) in the larger reading and education field!

Supporting Early Career Researchers

An important part of the mission at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is to support the work of scholars who are early in their independent research careers. An example of that commitment can be seen in the latest round of grants from the National Center for Education Research (NCER), which includes eight grants being led by early career scholars.  These principal investigators are all individuals who began their independent research careers within the last five years.

Under the Education Research Grants competition, there are four NCER-funded grants that were awarded to early career scholars.

Abigail Gray, Senior Research Specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was an IES predoctoral fellow, is now leading a grant to study the efficacy of Zoology One, an integrated science and literacy intervention for kindergarten students. At the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Assistant Professor Stephen Becker is examining the academic, social, and emotional problems experienced by children with sluggish cognitive tempo—specific attention-related symptoms such as excessive daydreaming, mental confusion, and slowed thinking or behavior. 

       

(From l to r: Abigail Gray, Stephen Becker, Shaun Dougherty, and Sonia Cabell)

Shaun Dougherty, Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut, is looking at whether attending a high school in the Connecticut Technical High School System has an impact on achievement, high school graduation, and college enrollment. And Sonia Cabell, a Research Scientist from the University of Virginia, is leading a team that will study the efficacy of the Core Knowledge Language Arts Listening and Learning intervention for children in kindergarten through second grade. This program is designed to guide teachers in their reading out loud to their students in classrooms.

NCER awarded another set of Early Career grants through its Statistics and Research Methodology in Education grant program. This year, NCER made three awards under this competition.

      

(From l to r: Chun Wang, James Pustejovsky​, Nathan VanHoudnos, and Benjamin Castleman)

Finally, Benjamin Castleman, Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, is leading a team in the Scalable Strategies to Support College Completion Network. Research Networks involve a number of research teams working together to address a critical education problem or issue. Castleman’s team will examine whether text messages that provide personalized information will help students at open- and broad-access enrollment institutions to complete their degrees.

Written by Becky McGill-Wilkinson, Education Research Analyst, NCER

IES Grantees Receive Award for Early Career Scientists and Engineers

By Dana Tofig, Director of Communications, IES

President Obama has named two Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grantees as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. This is the highest honor given by the U.S. Government to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Christopher Lemons, of Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, and Cynthia Puranik, of Georgia State University, will be honored at a White House ceremony in the spring, along with 103 other recipients of the award. They were nominated for the award by the leadership of IES and the recipients were announced Thursday.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. According to a White House statement, “the awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.”

Lemons and Puranik have both served as principal investigators for IES’ National Center for Education Research and National Center for Special Education Research.  Among the IES-funded research they have conducted together are “Enhancing Reading Instruction for Children with Down Syndrome: A Behavioral Phenotypic Approach” and “Peer Assisted Writing Strategies.”

Dr. Puranik, who was at the University of Pittsburgh when she was nominated, is currently an associate professor of Communications Sciences and Disorders in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is also an affiliate faculty for the Research on the Challenges of Acquiring Language and Literacy Initiative at Georgia State. In addition to the IES-funded research above, Dr. Puranik, was also the Principal Investigator for grant that sought to develop a test of emergent writing skills.

Dr. Lemons is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University and a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville. He is also co-director of the National Center for Leadership on Intensive Intervention, a senior advisor for the National Center on Intensive Intervention, and serves on the board of a number of scholarly journals, including his work as associate editor for the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.  

Investing in Scholars: NCSER Early Career Development Awardee Michael Hebert

By Liz Berke, NCSER Intern and Kristen Rhoads, NCSER Program Officer

Welcome to the last installment of our three-part series featuring the Principal Investigators of the inaugural NCSER Early Career Development and Mentoring grants.  To round the series out, we are featuring the work of Dr. Michael Hebert from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Hebert is a former reading specialist in California.

Dr. Hebert is being mentored by Ron Nelson, also from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  In his Early Career project, Dr. Hebert is working to improve reading comprehension in the content areas for children with or at risk for learning disabilities.  His intervention Structures, takes place in small groups led by a teacher, and focuses on helping students understand text structure to enhance reading comprehension. 

 

We had the chance to interview Dr. Hebert and he gave us his insights on the challenges of being a young researcher.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face as a young researcher? How do you hope this award will help you overcome those challenges?

This is a tough question to answer because I don’t know whether I am aware of all of the challenges I will face.  There are a lot of challenges (big and small) that I will not be aware of until they come up for the first time.  Sometimes these things have to do with the rules and regulations of my university with regard to budgeting or post award support, while others may be challenges to working with student research assistants.  This grant has been great for helping me identify the challenges of funded research projects and learn to work with entities like the Office of Sponsored Programs at my university.  Let’s face it, if I didn’t have these funds now, I wouldn’t learn to navigate these challenges until later in my career.  

Additionally, I find that it is simply a challenge to get research off the ground as an early career researcher.  Establishing relationships with schools, planning studies, establishing systems for collecting and analyzing data, and other tasks take time.  Although some of these things are probably a challenge for all researchers, people who are more established in their careers might already have a lot of strategies and systems in place.  This grant has given me some personnel resources that help with some of the more basic tasks, essentially creating more of the most valuable resource we have… time.

What advice would you give to young researchers? 

First, apply for the IES Early Career Grant award, of course.  It is an excellent way to get started in your research program, while allowing you to develop some additional skills at the same time.  The development aspect of the grant really forces you to focus on some skill areas that may not be your strong suit.  Second, take advantage of every resource you can at your university.  If you can find graduate assistant support or even undergraduate support, hire them even if you aren’t sure what you will do with them yet.   You’ll be surprised how much you can find for them to do.  Even if you have to spend some time training them, the return is worth it. Also, it is really rewarding to share what you know with the next generation of potential researchers.

What is your favorite aspect of working with your mentor?

Working with my mentor has been invaluable.  We work together on aspects of the grant multiple days each week, and sometimes on a daily basis.  We’re almost partners in the research, and he has challenged some of my ideas, while I have been able to challenge some of his, as well.  This type of working relationship has really been a collaboration of sorts, and given me good experience working together with a colleague on projects.   I’ve also had the opportunity to co-mentor one of his doctoral students, which is a nice way to learn.  

What made you decide to apply to for the early career development and mentoring award? 

The Request for Applications for this award came out while I was completing my dissertation, so I actually decided to apply before I started working at my university.  It seemed like the perfect fit, as I was not doing a postdoctoral position, but felt that I needed mentorship in my first position.  I had a research mentor in mind at the university and he agreed to mentor me, so it made the decision to apply very easy.  There were a lot of changes in my life at the time, including moving and starting a new position as an Assistant Professor, so I didn’t have much time to think it over.  That said, I wouldn’t go back and do anything differently.  

Questions? Comments? Please send us an email IESResearch@ed.gov.

Investing in Scholars: NCSER Early Career Development Awardee Jennifer Ledford

Featuring Jennifer Ledford, Vanderbilt University

By Liz Berke, NCSER Intern and Kristen Rhoads, NCSER Program Officer

Welcome to our second blog post featuring the Principal Investigators of the inaugural NCSER Early Career Development and Mentoring program grants.  This week we are excited to feature the work of Dr. Jennifer Ledford from Vanderbilt University and former Special Education teacher from Georgia.

Picture of Jennifer Ledford, Vanderbilt University

Dr. Ledford is being mentored by Dr. Joseph Wehby (Vanderbilt University), Dr. David Gast (University of Georgia) and Dr. Kevin Ayres (University of Georgia).  In her IES-funded project, she is further developing and testing a small-group intervention designed to improve the academic and social skills of children with autism.  Dr. Ledford is using single case designs to study whether the intervention improves child outcomes and teachers can effectively implement it. 

We had the chance to sit down with Dr. Ledford and ask her about the challenges she faces as well as get advice from her for others like her who are early in their research careers.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face as a young researcher? How do you hope this award will help you overcome those challenges?

Early career research in education is hard for numerous reasons—not yet having established relationships with teachers and schools, relative inexperience with balancing research with other tasks (i.e., teaching, advising, service), and, of course, lack of funding. The early career award actually helps in all of these areas. It is much easier to establish relationships with schools when you are an early career researcher if you have a well-considered and funded series of studies and if you’ve aligned yourself well with more advanced researchers. In addition, the funding potentially allows you to reduce time spent on teaching and other activities, so that you have additional time to contribute to research efforts. Funding student support has been especially crucial in running my complex single case studies that require considerable personnel resources. Finally, the mentorship and training associated with grant have provided a flexible but structured framework for improving my ability to conduct high-quality research.

What advice would you give to young researchers?

I’m not sure I feel ready to give advice to fellow early career investigators! I think taking advantage of the knowledge of senior researchers has been key for me—both in my official mentee role and just in the day-to-day conduct of research outside of this grant.  

What is your favorite aspect of working with your mentors?

It is great to have a structured and focused mentoring program—it makes it easy to forge a relationship and to continue working with your mentor over time. Without this structure, I think it may have been easy to let the mentoring take a back seat to other responsibilities. It’s great to have an excuse to meet with and learn from experienced and invested leaders in the field.

What made you decide to apply to for the early career development and mentoring award? Is there anything you wish you had known before you applied?

When I read the RFA for the new competition, I think my first thought was probably something like “I might actually be competitive for this grant!” The training and mentoring components and competition with other early career investigators makes it a less daunting prospect.  While I was applying, I wish I had realized and taken advantage of the potential value of the Program Officer during the application process and the tremendous benefit of asking for input from colleagues. 

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