IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

What’s Next for the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative?

After years of intense collaboration and research, the Reading for Understanding (RfU) Research Initiative is coming to an end. But the initiative’s work continues through recently announced IES-funded grants.

Over six years, research teams in the RfU network designed and tested new interventions that aim to improve reading comprehension in students in all grade levels and developed new measures of reading comprehension and component skills that support it. The initiative led to several new and important findings. In the coming years, several teams will build on that work through new research projects funded by IES’ National Center for Education Research (NCER) and National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER).  

During the RfU initiative, the Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT) team found positive effects in improving the content-area reading comprehension of middle school students. The PACT intervention uses social studies content to engage students and teach them to build coherent representations of the ideas in texts. Through a new grant from NCER, the PACT team will be testing the effectiveness of the intervention in middle school social studies classrooms in eight states.

Another group of researchers from the PACT team are starting a new project with funding from NCSER to design and test a technology-based intervention aimed at improving how middle school students with reading disabilities make inferences while reading.  

The RfU assessment team is also launching a new NCER-funded project to develop a digital assessment appropriate for adults, in particular those reading between the 3rd- to 8th-grade levels. Building on the Global, Integrated Scenario-Based Assessment (GISA) developed in RfU, the team intends for this new assessment to help determine an adult reader's strengths and weaknesses, inform instruction, and improve programs and institutional accountability. In addition, this team is using assessment items developed with RfU funding to explore the relationship between high school students' background knowledge and their reading comprehension.  

Finally, the Florida State University RfU team is continuing to explore which combination of interventions will improve the early language skills that are foundational to mastery of reading. In this new project, the researchers will examine the relative efficacy and sustained impacts of a language and vocabulary intervention for prekindergarten and kindergarten students, with variations on when and how long the intervention is used.

Written by Elizabeth Albro, Associate Commissioner, NCER

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

Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluations: Helping States and School Districts Make Evidence-based Decisions

Last year, IES launched two new grant programs to help state and district education agencies obtain rigorous and timely evidence they can use to inform decisions about education interventions of high importance to the agency: Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluation of Education Interventions (CFDA 84.305L) and Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluation of Special Education Interventions (CFDA 84.324L). These programs are intended to support relatively quick (completed within 2 years) and inexpensive ($250,000 or less) evaluations to test the effects of education interventions that schools and other education institutions may want to scale up or redesign to improve student education outcomes.

IES developed the Low-Cost, Short Duration Evaluation grant programs to help states and school districts plan and launch rigorous evaluations when they roll out new interventions. Such interest is likely to intensify under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires states to set accountability goals and encourages use of evidence-based programs to close achievement gaps and improve low-performing schools. 

Advances in technology and administrative data systems have also led some policymakers and researchers to suggest that rigorous evaluations ought to be less expensive to perform today than in the past, when evaluators had to do much of their own data collection.

To meet the goals of relevance, rigor, and affordability, the Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluation grant programs set out specific requirements and expectations for applicants:

  • To ensure the relevance, the evaluations must be focused on an intervention that the education agency identifies as a priority and will be implemented in Year 1 of the grant, and must be carried out as a partnership between a research institution and a state and local education agency. 
  • To ensure rigor, evaluation designs must either be randomized controlled trials or regression discontinuity designs that have the potential to meet the What Works Clearinghouse evidence standards without reservation. Beginning in FY 2017, single-case designs may also be used in evaluations of special education interventions. 
  • To ensure lower-cost, the evaluations are expected to rely mainly on agency administrative datasets or other secondary sources rather than on new data collection. 

The short-term nature of the grants leads to a focus on interventions that are expected to improve student education outcomes within a summer session, quarter, semester or academic year. The low cost also means that researchers are not expected to conduct in-depth research into program implementation, comparison group practices, and costs and benefits of interventions unless the data exist in the administrative datasets. Other IES funding opportunities – including Education Research Grants, Special Education Research Grants, and Evaluation of State and Local Education Policies and Programs – are available to support longer-term and/or more in-depth evaluations. 

In sum, the Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluation grant programs fill a special niche within the IES portfolio by providing results on specific types of interventions that education agencies can use in making important decisions on programs, policies, and spending. They can also lay the groundwork for future grant-funded research to investigate implementation, underlying mechanisms, and longer-term impacts.

The results from last year’s competitions will be released soon and both programs are being re-competed this year with an application deadline of August 4, 2016.  On June 9, 2016, 2:00-3:30 p.m. (EDT), IES will host a webinar on the two grant competitions. Please register in advance. An archive of the webinar will also be available on the IES funding webinar page.

Written by Allen Ruby, Associate Commissioner, National Center for Education Research

A New Research Spotlight on Educating Highly Mobile Students

Across America, schools struggle with addressing the academic and social needs of students who are homeless, in foster care, from migrant backgrounds, or military-dependent. These students typically change residences and/or schools frequently (often multiple times within a given school year) making it difficult for them to succeed academically.  

This year, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is shining a research spotlight on improving the education outcomes of highly mobile K-12 students through a new special topic within its Education Research grants program. The new Systemic Approaches to Educating Highly Mobile Students special topic invites research on:

  • support services that reduce barriers that highly mobile students typically face;
  • policies that allow highly mobile students to receive credit for full or partial coursework completed while attending their previous schools;
  • policies that facilitate the transfer of student records across jurisdictions, and help highly mobile students navigate standards, course, and graduation requirements that change from state to state;
  • policies and programs that address the academic, physical, psychological, and social needs of highly mobile students who may have experienced deprivation or trauma; and
  • state and local implementation of services for highly mobile students that are required by federal law or are provided through federally funded programs or interstate agreements.  

Through this special topic, IES also encourages studies that create or utilize shared/integrated data systems (such as records exchanges) to identify and track highly mobile students and pinpoint factors that could potentially be used to improve these students' outcomes. 

(Dr. Jill Biden, pictured above, mentioned this new special topic area in her remarks at the American Educational Research Association's annual conference as part of her focus on military families.)

Additional Opportunities for Research on Highly Mobile Students

Researchers who are interested in studying highly mobile pre-K students are invited to apply through to the Early Learning Programs and Policies topic. Similarly, researchers who are interested increasing highly mobile students’ access to, persistence in, progress through, and completion of postsecondary education are invited to apply through the Postsecondary and Adult Education Research topic. 

IES also encourages researchers to partner with local school districts or state education agencies to carry out initial research on highly mobile students and develop a plan for future research. This can be done through the Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships in Education Research topic.

For more information about funding opportunities for research on highly mobile students, please visit the IES website or contact Katina Stapleton.

For examples of previously funded research on highly mobile students, see  Promoting Executive Function to Enhance Learning in Homeless/Highly Mobile Children, Developing a Model for Delivering School-Based Mentoring to Students in Military Families, and Students in Foster Care: The Relationship between Mobility and Educational Outcomes.

Written by Katina Stapleton, Education Research Analyst, NCER; Program Officer, Systemic Approaches to Educating Highly Mobile Students

Photo of Dr. Biden courtesy of AERA

Building a Better RFA

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is committed to continuous improvement and that includes the process by which people apply for and access grants.

Since its authorization in 2002, IES’ research centers—the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER)—have  been making efforts to improve the Requests for Applications (RFAs) we put out each year. In this spirit, we have conducted surveys of applicants the past few years and used that feedback to improve the current RFAs.

In Fiscal Years (FY) 2014 and 2015, all Principal Investigators (PIs) who submitted an application to the Education Research Grants Program RFA (CFDA # 84.305A) or the Partnerships and Collaborations Focused on Problems of Practice or Policy Program RFA (CFDA # 84.305H) were contacted via e-mail and asked to participate in the web-based survey. In FY 2015, applicants to the Special Education Research Grants Program (CFDA #324A) were included in the survey request.  The response rates were good for all surveys:

Grant Program FY 2014 FY 2015
Education Research Grants Program 62% 66%
Partnerships and Collaborations Program 59% 73%
Special Education Research Grants n/a 55%

 

Survey respondents generally provided positive feedback in both years. Most respondents indicated they felt the RFAs were clear and helpful, though there were some areas that generated some confusion and criticism.  For example, in FY 2014:

  • Applicants to the Education Research Grants program thought it was inconvenient to have to refer to two separate documents, the RFA and the Application Submission Guide, in order to complete their application.
  • Applicants to the Partnerships and Collaborations program reported some confusion about the distinction between partnership activities and research activities.

In response to the FY 2014 RFA survey results, the Institute made a number of changes. For the FY 2015 Education Research Grants and Special Education Research Grants, changes included combining the RFA and the Application Submission Guide into one document to provide all the necessary information in one place. According to responses from the FY 2015 RFA survey, this change was positively received. The majority of the respondents to the Education Research Grants and Special Education Research Grants surveys (n=398; 83%) reported that combining the RFA and Application Submission Guide was much better or somewhat better than having two separate documents. Overall, a majority of respondents (n = 161, 56%) felt the FY 2015 RFA was much better or somewhat better than in previous years, while another 43 percent felt that it was not better or worse.

For the Partnerships and Collaborations RFA, a number of changes were made to the FY 2015 RFA in response to the surveys. For example, the requirements for the research activities were disentangled from the requirements for the partnership in order to reduce redundancy within the application. Most respondents to the FY 2015 RFA survey (n = 53; 73%) felt this change made the RFA much better or somewhat better.

Respondents to the FY 2015 RFA survey also had some criticisms, and the Institute addressed those concerns in the FY 2016 RFAs. Specifically, in the Education Research Grants and Special Education Research Grants RFAs, more detail was added to the requirements for the dissemination plan and for the cost analysis plan.  For the Education Research Grants RFA, the language around research gaps was expanded to clarify that these are not priorities. Changes made in the Special Education Research Grant RFA in response to the feedback from the survey included streamlining application requirements related to student disability, age range or grade level, outcomes, and settings across its 11 research topics.  More details were added about the partnership tracking strategy (an area of confusion for many applicants) in the Partnerships and Collaborations FY 2016 RFA.

IES continues to strive toward improving RFAs and welcomes comments and suggestions for improvement. More information on the RFA results is available here: https://ies.ed.gov/ncer/projects/.

New FY 2017 RFAs are being posted on the IES Funding Opportunities page. If you have comments, please write to us at IESresearch@ed.gov.

By Christina Chhin (NCER), Rebecca McGill-Wilkinson (NCER), Phill Gagné (NCER) and Kristen Rhoads (NCSER)*

* Since this blog post was written, Dr. Rhoads has taken a position with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.