IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Promoting Equitable and Sustainable Behavioral Interventions in Early Childhood

The Postdoctoral Research Training Program in Special Education and Early Intervention is designed to prepare scientists to conduct rigorous, practice-relevant research to advance the fields of special education and early intervention. Dr. Jun Ai recently completed an IES postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Kansas and is currently an assistant research professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her research focuses on the implementation of early childhood behavioral interventions, particularly for young learners with disabilities and those from minoritized communities. We recently caught up with Dr. Ai to learn more about her career, the experiences that have shaped it, and how her work addresses equity and inclusion in early intervention. This is what she shared with us.

How did you begin your career journey as an education researcher?

My research focuses on the equitable and sustainable implementation of early childhood positive behavioral interventions and supports (EC-PBIS) to promote the social-emotional and behavioral health of all children, especially those with disabilities and/or from minoritized groups. Before starting my PhD program, I was a special education teacher working with students with autism spectrum disorders in China. That’s when I learned about applied behavioral science and PBIS. I decided to become a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) during my doctoral studies at the University of Kansas. Through my BCBA practicum, I worked with young children with disabilities and challenging behaviors in self-contained settings.

Meanwhile, I was also supervising pre-service teachers and behavioral analysts working in inclusive early care and education settings where behavior issues were addressed through multi-tiered EC-PBIS. These experiences deepened my interest in EC-PBIS and led me to research how to prepare professionals to use multi-tiered EC-PBIS to promote foundational social-emotional competence and prevent challenging behaviors for all children, regardless of their abilities or forms of diversity. Most importantly, I study how equitable and sustainable implementation of EC-PBIS can reduce racial disciplinary disparities to eventually eliminate suspension and expulsion in early care and education. Through my dissertation and NCSER-funded postdoctoral fellowship at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at the University of Kansas, I led multiple independent research projects in these areas. With the support from my mentors, Judith Carta, Kathryn Bigelow, and Jay Buzhardt, I also had the opportunity to work on several NCSER-funded projects that address issues in EC-PBIS and the implementation of evidence-based practices.

What is the most rewarding part of your research?

Currently, I serve on the Iowa state leadership team of EC-PBIS and continue to expand my scholarship on EC-PBIS implementation through my research and teaching capacities. The most rewarding part of my work has been gaining expertise in a variety of research methodologies, especially mixed-methods research. Mixed-methods research allows me to carry out rigorous quantitative intervention and test hypotheses while also hearing the voices of participants and various stakeholders using trustworthy qualitative methodology, with data from each method informing the other. As a result, I can tackle complex issues related to implementing interventions in real-world settings and improve the design of interventions.

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?

One of the greatest needs is around diversifying the researcher leadership workforce. Higher education institutions need to prioritize recruitment, retention, and tailored support for educational researchers from historically and currently marginalized groups based on their race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, disabilities, and more.

Equally important is the need to increase funding resources for minority researchers whose scholarship aims to dismantle systemic racism and racial inequities in our educational systems. Researchers of color need more seats at the table to disturb the power imbalance within the research community, advocate for students and families in their own communities, and improve the relevance of education research for diverse groups.

Last but not least, the education research community at large needs to question the status quo of how to conduct research for, with, and by diverse communities.

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

Find the research topic that gives you goosebumps. It might be hard at the beginning when research interests are highly directed by the existing research agenda of advisors or funding sources. But don’t let that feeling of butterflies go. Try to start small. It might mean stepping out of your normal circle to find mentors, allies, or funding agencies that are also excited about your mission and your research interests.

Remember that you need to be so good that nobody can ignore you. Researchers of color, especially minoritized early career scholars, still need to work multiple times harder to be seen and heard. Unfortunately, this will still be true in the foreseeable future. Find and join minority education researcher communities through professional organizations or organize your own. You are not in this alone.

While continuing to hone your craft, speak up for yourself and your community when you can. Recognize your own burdens and privileges and stand with the most oppressed. Learn about and practice how to have a voice at the table even though your culture or your lived experience told you otherwise. The work you care about can change students' and families’ lives. Your work matters. Your voice matters.

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see herehere, and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice.

This blog was produced by Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow, and Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov), postdoctoral training program officer at the National Center for Special Education Research.

From Disproportionate Discipline to Thriving Students: An IES Postdoc’s Mission

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. This week, Dr. Courtney Zulauf-McCurdy, an IES postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington School Mental Health Assessment Research and Training (SMART) Center, shares her experiences and discusses her path forward.

 

My interests in child development began early on. I moved frequently for my parents’ work, so I was often seen as an outsider by the other children at the schools I attended. One school in particular had a group of “popular students” who bullied others and were particularly aggressive to peers. Often, teachers and parents would turn a blind eye to this behavior, and I became curious about how parents and educators respond to and shape child behavior.

Understanding Disparities in Early Childhood

I pursued a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago out of a desire to advocate for children in both research and clinical practice. As a graduate student in the Social Emotional Teaching and Learning (SETL) Lab, I worked directly with parents, educators, and young children to understand how the school and home environment shape child behavior. Much of our research aimed to support teachers in improving children’s social-emotional development, but what I learned was that teachers weren’t providing equal opportunities and experiences to all children.

In particular, I became focused on an alarming disparity: disproportionate discipline. Not only are preschoolers being expelled at rates three times higher than students in K-12, but there are large discipline disparities by gender and race. In AY 2013-14, the U.S. Department of Education reported that Black children composed 19% of enrollment but 47% of those expelled. A report citing data from the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau found that children with social emotional difficulties are 14.5 times more likely to be expelled.

During graduate school, I explored the reasons why Black boys are being disproportionately expelled and found that it was at least in part related to teachers’ biased perceptions of parents. Because of this, I became interested in developing evidenced-based interventions for parents and educators to protect children from being expelled.

For my clinical internship, I specialized in integrated behavioral health at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where I provided evidenced-based practices to children and families in underserved community settings. Here, I learned about behavioral interventions that improve child behavior, which work best when parents and teachers work together across home and school. However, I noticed that children of color were less likely to receive evidenced-based interventions (such as classroom-based behavioral interventions or parent management training), and even when they do, parents and teachers experience barriers to working together to implement these interventions. As a result, I shifted my focus from designing new interventions to understanding how to improve the implementation of interventions in community settings that serve young children from under-represented backgrounds.

Moving from Intervention Development to Implementation Science

As a second year IES postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington (UW) SMART Center, I am combining my research interests with implementation science. I am partnering with educators and parents to understand how teacher perceptions of parents and parent engagement is an implementation determinant—that is, a barrier or facilitator. Together, we are learning how to reduce disparities in preschool by improving the implementation of interventions that allow for early, easy, and acceptable access to families who face the highest levels of barriers. 

I have been using stakeholder-engaged processes consisting of focus groups, community advisory boards, and rapid try outs of strategies to ensure equity by engaging the perspectives of families from under-represented minority backgrounds. Such community engagement aims to ensure that our interventions are culturally responsive and unimpeded by bias.

Through my work, I have learned that educators and parents want the best outcomes for their children but face a multitude of barriers that hinder their ability to engage. For example, preschool teachers have limited resources, face stress and burnout, are under-prepared and underpaid, leading to considerable barriers in addressing the mental health needs of young children. Likewise, parents face obstacles such as perceived bias from their child’s school and logistical barriers such as time and childcare.

Moving Forward

I will continue working directly with parents and educators to understand how we can place all young children (and their families) in the best position to thrive. I will continue to use research methods, such as community advisory boards and qualitative methods, that seek to elevate the voices of parents and educators to promote equitable child outcomes. Through continued collaboration with community partners, disseminating my findings to parents, educators, and practitioners and connecting research with culturally responsive early childhood practice and policies, I hope to dismantle disparities in preschool outcomes.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants, and Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.

NCES Releases New Edition of the Digest of Education Statistics

NCES recently released the 2020 edition of the Digest of Education Statistics, the 56th in a series of publications initiated in 1962. The Digest—which provides a centralized location for a wide range of statistical information covering early childhood through adult education—tells the story of American education through data. Digest tables are the foundation of many NCES reports, including the congressionally mandated Condition of Education, which contains key indicators that describe and visualize important developments and trends.

The Digest includes data tables from many sources, both government and private, and draws especially on the results of surveys and activities carried out by NCES. In addition, the Digest serves as one of the only NCES reports where data from across nearly 200 sources—including other statistical agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau—are compiled. The publication contains data on a variety of subjects in the field of education statistics, including the number of schools and colleges, teachers, enrollments, and graduates, in addition to data on educational attainment, finances, federal funds for education, libraries, and international comparisons. A helpful feature of the Digest is its ability to provide long-term trend data. Several tables include data that were collected more than 50—or even 100—years ago:

  • Poverty status of all persons, persons in families, and related children under age 18, by race/ethnicity: Selected years, 1960 through 2019 (table 102.50)
  • Percentage of the population 3 to 34 years old enrolled in school, by age group: Selected years, 1940 through 2019 (table 103.20)
  • Rates of high school completion and bachelor's degree attainment among persons age 25 and over, by race/ethnicity and sex: Selected years, 1910 through 2020 (table 104.10)
  • Historical summary of faculty, enrollment, degrees conferred, and finances in degree-granting postsecondary institutions: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2018-19 (table 301.20)
  • Federal support and estimated federal tax expenditures for education, by category: Selected fiscal years, 1965 through 2019 (table 401.10)

The Digest is organized into seven chapters: All Levels of Education, Elementary and Secondary Education, Postsecondary Education, Federal Funds for Education and Related Activities, Outcomes of Education, International Comparisons of Education, and Libraries and Use of Technology. Each chapter is divided into a number of topical subsections. The Digest also includes a Guide to Sources and a Definitions section to provide supplemental information to readers. To learn more about how the Digest is structured and how best to navigate it—including how to access the most current tables or tables from a specific year and how to search for key terms—check out the blog post “Tips for Navigating the Digest of Education Statistics.”

In addition to providing updated versions of many statistics that have appeared in previous years, this edition also includes several new tables, many of which highlight data related to the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Percentage of adults with children in the household who reported their child’s classes were moved to a distance learning format using online resources in selected periods during April through December 2020, by selected adult and household characteristics (table 218.80)
  • Percentage of adults with children in the household who reported that computers and internet access were always or usually available for educational purposes in their household in selected periods during April through December 2020, by selected adult and household characteristics (table 218.85)
  • Percentage of adults with children in the household who reported that computers or digital devices and internet access were provided by their child’s schools or districts in selected periods during April through December 2020, by selected adult and household characteristics (table 218.90)
  • Number of school shootings at public and private elementary and secondary schools between 2000-01 and 2019-20, by location and time period (table 228.14)
  • Percentage of adults who reported changes to household members’ fall postsecondary plans in August 2020, by level of postsecondary education planned and selected respondent characteristics (table 302.80)
  • Percentage of adults with at least one household member’s fall attendance plans cancelled who reported on reasons for changes in plans in August 2020, by level of postsecondary education planned and selected respondent characteristics (table 302.85)

Also new this year is the release of more than 200 machine-readable Digest tables, with more to come at a later date. These tables allow the data to be read in a standard format, making them easier for developers and researchers to use. To learn more about machine-readable tables, check out the blog post “Machine-Readable Tables for the Digest of Education Statistics.

Learn more about the Digest in the Foreword to the publication and explore the tables in this edition.

 

By Megan Barnett, AIR

Research Roundup: NCES Celebrates Native American Heritage Month

Looking at data by race and ethnicity can provide a better understanding of education performance and outcomes than examining statistics that describe all students. In observation of Native American Heritage Month, this blog presents NCES findings on the learning experiences of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students throughout their education careers.

Early Childhood Education

  • In 2019, 45 percent of AI/AN 3- to 4-year-olds and 83 percent of AI/AN 5-year-olds were enrolled in school.
     

K12 Education

  • The 2019 National Indian Education Study (NIES) surveyed students, teachers, and school principals about the experiences of AI/AN students in 4th and 8th grades.
     
    • How much do AI/AN students know about their culture?
      • Most 4th-grade AI/AN students reported having at least “a little” knowledge of their AI/AN tribe or group, with 17 percent reporting knowing “nothing.” About 19 to 23 percent reported having “a lot” of cultural knowledge across school types. (For more information, see NIES 2019, p. 11.)
         
    • Where do AI/AN students learn about their culture?
      • Family members were identified as the people who taught students the most about AI/AN history, with 45 percent of 4th-grade students and 60 percent of 8th-grade students so reporting. Teachers were the second most commonly identified group of people important for educating students on AI/AN cultural topics. (For more information, see NIES 2019, p. 12.)
         
    • How do teachers contribute to AI/AN student cultural knowledge?
      • A majority of AI/AN students had teachers who integrated AI/AN culture or history into reading lessons: overall, 89 percent of 4th-grade students and 76 percent of 8th-grade students had teachers who reported using these concepts in reading lessons “at least once a year.” (For more information, see NIES 2019, p. 16.)
         
    • What are AI/AN student trends on assessments in mathematics and reading?
      • Nationally, mathematics scores for AI/AN students from 2015 to 2019 remained unchanged for 4th-graders and declined for 8th-graders. Most states saw no change. (For more information, see NIES 2019, p. 46.)
         
  • In 2019, 52 percent of AI/AN 4th-grade students had access to a computer at home. (For more information, see NIES 2019, p. 45.)
     
  • There were 505,000 AI/AN students enrolled in public schools in 1995, compared with 490,000 AI/AN students in fall 2018 (the last year of data available).
     
  • In fall 2018, less than half of AI/AN students (40 percent) attended schools where minority students comprised at least 75 percent of the student population.
     
  • There are approximately 45,000 American Indian/Alaska Native students served by approximately 180 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools located on 64 reservations in 23 states.
     
  • In school year 2018–19, the adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) was 74 percent for AI/AN public school students. The ACGRs for AI/AN students ranged from 51 percent in Minnesota to 94 percent in Alabama and were higher than the U.S. average in eight states (Texas, Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Connecticut, New Jersey, Alabama, and Kentucky).
     
  • In 2020, 95 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds who were AI/AN had completed at least high school.

 

Postsecondary Education

  • In academic year 2018–19, 14 percent of bachelor’s degrees conferred to AI/AN graduates were in a STEM field.
     
  • About 41 percent of AI/AN students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree full-time at a 4-year institution in fall 2013 completed that degree at the same institution within 6 years.

 

 

By Mandy Dean, AIR

Dual Languages and Dual Experiences: Supporting Educators to Make Data-Based Decisions to Serve Multilingual Children and Their Families

IES has funded scholars that push for equitable educational experiences. Dr. Lillian Durán is one researcher who stands out in this area. Her work has focused on improving instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Durán recently was funded to expand the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDI) suite of psychometrically robust measures for Spanish-speaking DLLs by developing and validating measures for 3-year-olds.  As a continuation of our Hispanic Heritage Month Series, we asked Dr. Durán to discuss her research with Hispanic student populations.

Lorena Aceves, a Society for Research Child Development Federal Postdoctoral Policy Fellow at the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Head Start on detail with IES, asked Dr. Durán about her work and her experiences. See her responses below.

 

How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

I am the first generation born in the United States. My mother was born in Rüstungen, Germany in 1931. This was in central Germany that was divided after WWII and became East Germany. She escaped as a young woman and made her way to the United States. My father was born in Nochistlán, Mexico in 1911, and his family migrated to the California when he was six years old because his father worked on building the railroads. In my home, we spoke German, Spanish and English, but English was my primary language. My personal experience in my family has fostered my interest in multilingual homes, and children who are growing up in first generation families.

Professionally, I became an early childhood special education teacher in 1998 and worked for 9 years both in Prince George’s County, Maryland and later in rural southwestern Minnesota. When I moved to Minnesota, I served three counties where Spanish-speaking children were about 25% of the population. I was the only teacher in nine school districts that spoke any Spanish, and I realized the incredible need in the field to support families who speak languages other than English, especially since there are so few teachers and specialists who are multilingual. In Minnesota, I was motivated to pursue a doctorate to fully immerse myself in understanding evidence-based solutions to serving multilingual children and their families.

What got you interested in a career in education science?

When I was a teacher, I had so many questions about best approaches to working with multilingual children and their families. I found myself looking for extra reading and trainings, but there was little information available to help me. At that time, I was a lead teacher and had signed up for my district to participate in a research project with Dr. Mary McEvoy out of the University of Minnesota. She was instrumental in encouraging me to apply to the doctoral program and agreed to be my advisor. In the end, she tragically passed away in an airplane accident, as many reading this will know, and Dr. Scott McConnell stepped in and took me on as an advisee. I tell this story because I think it is important to remember how important mentorship is to women of color out in the field and the incredible impact providing opportunities and encouragement can have. Without Mary pointing out my potential and giving me the confidence to even consider a doctorate, I might never have applied to a program.

In your area of work, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

This is a complex question because the truth is there are many competing priorities. However, I believe an important priority at this point is to develop more effective bilingual language and literacy interventions that support meaningful improved outcomes reflecting community priorities and values. The interventions need to move beyond a singular focus on English language and literacy development to include culturally and linguistically sustaining practices in intervention design. We need to think much more deeply about the outcomes we are working to achieve and conduct more longitudinal research that can document change and performance over time. There is significant evidence that multilingual learners, in particular, need time to progress and that short-term studies cannot adequately capture more meaningful academic and life outcomes. Our current IES-funded project is looking to develop IGDIs for 3-year-olds to help educators make data-based decisions to improve children’s language and early literacy performance in Spanish, as well as to track growth in their development over time. I also think we need to conduct more research with a broader range of understudied populations including more cultures and languages to better understand their needs as the United States increases in diversity. In order to improve equity, we need to move beyond treating all multilingual students as one uniform group and begin to more systematically explore within group differences to effectively differentiate educational approaches to maximize outcomes.

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

Quite honestly, the biggest challenge I have had to overcome in my life was my childhood. My parents had many challenges and struggles, and I had to care for my own needs and learn how to survive on my own from a very early age. I know this is personal, but I think this experience will resonate with many as we often do not address how many of us who go into education have experienced adverse early experiences ourselves and have had to draw on our inner phoenixes to get to where we are. Once I survived the first 18 years and was able to maintain my sense of self-worth, self-efficacy, and joy, there is not much else the world can throw at me that I can’t survive.

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

The best advice I can give is to be true to yourself and have confidence in your intelligence and your contribution to the field. Change is difficult for many people, and there are many entrenched ideologies and practices in academic settings that might inhibit your creativity and ingenuity, but don’t let them! During my doctoral program, I had ideas about a Spanish version of the IGDIs. Initial reactions to the idea included, “Why do we need to measure kids in Spanish if we are teaching them in English?” I did not let that discourage me from reading and understanding what it would take to develop a measure in Spanish. After a decade of IES funding, it is clear there is a need for Spanish early language and literacy measures, and there is, in fact, currently a clear mandate to do a much better job of measuring children in their home languages to accurately capture their ability levels and reduce the likelihood that they will be underestimated reinforcing deficit-based stereotypes.

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?

A critical but often overlooked part of education is assessment. Without accurate assessment, it is difficult to know whether what we are doing is working. I have had the great fortune to spend the last 10 years dedicated to Spanish assessment development. Having available high quality and psychometrically sound measures in Spanish that programs can use with confidence is critical to promoting equity in educational practices. It is important that measures developed in languages other than English are not simply translations of English measures, but rather true reflections of the cultural and linguistic characteristics of the population of interest. Technical manuals and evidence of the validity of the measure should be readily available just like they are for the English versions. Too often, measures developed in Spanish have undergone a less rigorous development process, and this does not support the accurate measurement of the ability levels of Spanish-speaking students. Therefore, my team’s assessment work has created a roadmap for embedding equity into measurement design, and I hope that our work leads to more strength-based approaches to assessment and intervention with young Spanish-speaking children that honors their home language and culture.

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

I think we need to create more accessible early career funding mechanisms for scholars of color and other underrepresented groups. Securing IES or NIH funding is a daunting process that realistically only pays off for very few of us. Smaller grants that can launch pilot work in emerging fields should be available to seed promising research careers and lines of research. This approach would support innovation and create space for more diverse scholarship and representation. We need to democratize the funding streams and think of new ways that scholars can enter the field with adequate support to launch their work.


Dr. Lillian Durán is an associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Education at the University of Oregon.

This interview was produced and edited by Lorena Aceves, a Society for Research Child Development Federal Postdoctoral Policy Fellow at the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Head Start on detail with National Center for Education Research, IES.