IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

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.

IES Honors Sade Bonilla as 2019 Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow

Each year, IES recognizes an Outstanding Fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. Sade Bonilla, the 2019 awardee, received her doctorate in the Economics of Education from Stanford University. She is currently an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where her research focuses on K-12 education policy with a particular emphasis on high school to college transitions, career and technical education, and educational inequity. Sade recently presented her research and received her award at the 2022 IES Principal Investigators meeting in January. In this blog, we’ve asked her to share her career journey and recommendations for current and emerging education researchers.

How did you become interested in a career in education research?

My interest in educational inequity and reform efforts in public education stemmed from my personal experience as a Latina from a working-class family attending urban public schools. I was attracted to the field of education policy and research as a first-generation college student because the field seeks answers to questions that are intensely personal for me: what works for poor minoritized kids? In other words, how can policy be designed and implemented such that kids like me were not an exception. There were several key adults in my educational career that believed in me and told me about opportunities—such as opportunities for financial aid to attend private colleges—that shifted my life trajectory. When I arrived at college, I took public policy and education courses and read articles on so many different topics. I was floored that asking and pursuing the answers to questions that one finds interesting could be a career. 

What inspired you to focus your research on understanding the effects of local and state educational policies aimed at eliminating structural inequality?

My interest in investigating how contemporary educational reforms impact the trajectories of traditionally underserved youth stems from my personal experience and the knowledge of how historical and current policies—school segregation, redlining, justice system, etc.—serve to reinforce social inequality in schools. Schools are a cornerstone of our formative experience, and they are also central to communities, civic discourse, and career preparation. Given that schooling is so integral to how we learn to navigate society, I have been interested in understanding which policies and programs allow students to have agency to create their own paths. 

What do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

When I started graduate school, I received the advice to read the literature extensively and think about where I could add value in terms of advancing our understanding of certain questions. As I sought to figure out which questions to ask and answer, I drew on my personal experience and those of my family members to think about how students succeed in high school and choose a career path that may involve postsecondary education. I found it helpful to think through how first-generation families like my own navigate high school and the transition to college. This also led me to realize the importance, as a quantitative researcher, of speaking with people in the field. I have really enjoyed pursuing researcher-practitioner partnership research and have been learning about examples of youth participatory research that I hope to support someday as well. 

What advice would you give to emerging scholars that are pursuing a career in education research?

I would advise them to choose questions that they are passionate about and to attend to questions and areas that tend to receive less attention. If an area of study is crowded and there are lots of people working in that space, be sure you think about how your work and thinking can provide unique insight. I would also hope that emerging scholars seek to do work that influences what happens in schools. To that end, I think it is important to pay attention to how practitioners are framing and understanding issues in the education system. Having this deeper understanding of the field will elevate your research and make it more impactful. 


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. As part of our research training blog series, we are featuring winners of the 2019-2021 Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow awards. The 2019 winner, Sade Bonilla, was a fellow in the Stanford University Predoctoral Training Program in Quantitative Education Policy Analysis.

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

 

Lessons Learned as the Virginia Education Science Training (VEST) Program Creates Pathways for Diverse Students into Education Science

Since 2004, the Institute of Education Sciences has funded predoctoral training programs to increase the number of well-trained PhD students who are prepared to conduct rigorous and relevant education research. In addition to providing training to doctoral students, all IES-funded predoctoral programs are encouraged to help broaden participation in the education sciences as part of their leadership activities. In this guest blog post, the leadership team of the University of Virginia predoctoral training program discusses their continuing efforts to create diverse pathways for students interested in education research.

In 2008, the IES-funded Virginia Education Science Training (VEST) Program began the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) with the goal of recruiting more students from traditionally marginalized groups into education science research. Each year, 8–10 students from around the United States traveled to receive faculty mentorship in independent research at the University of Virginia. In doing so, they experienced facilitated opportunities to develop new research skills and reflect about their own identities as scholars and students of color, first generation college students and/or students from families with low income. They became active members of research groups, visited IES program officers in Washington, DC, and presented their own research at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium.

Quite fortuitously, at an IES principal investigator meeting, we connected with the leadership of the IES-funded Research Institute for Scholars of Equity (RISE) program taking place at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). As a result, for four years, we collaborated with RISE leadership to host two-day RISE fellow visits to UVA. During these visits RISE fellows shared their projects and ideas with VEST fellows and faculty. The RISE and SURP fellows also mingled and attended workshops on graduate school admissions.

We had three goals for these efforts:

  • Provide IES pre-doctoral fellows with the opportunity to apply leadership skills to working with undergraduates
  • Increase the diversity of education scientists
  • Increase the diversity of our IES-sponsored PhD program

Enter COVID. In 2020, bringing students to UVA for the summer wasn’t feasible or wise. Instead, we reflected on our past successful experiences with NCCU and realized we could improve the quality of student experiences if we also worked closely with faculty at other universities. To start, we engaged with Virginia State University (VSU) and Norfolk State University (NSU), two Virginia HBCUs, to create the Open Doors Program.

Initially, eight faculty and administrators from NSU and VSU met with the UVA team, which included a post-doctoral fellow and a PhD student who coordinated discussions, helped design the curriculum, and built an Open Doors handbook. The design team built a program in which 12 rising juniors at NSU and VSU would:

  • Engage in the research and writing process that will lead to a research product and presentation that reflects their strengths, interests, and goals
  • Gain a deeper understanding of the opportunities available to them in graduate school
  • Have the opportunity to examine the complexities and multiple layers of their intersectional identities, identify assets and cultural wealth, and identify academic strengths and areas of growth
  • Build relationships with faculty and graduate student mentors

Due to the pandemic, the program was offered virtually over four weeks with a combination of seminars and mentoring sessions. The program exceeded our expectations. The students all indicated that Open Doors was a useful learning experience for them and provided them with a better understanding of the opportunities available in graduate school. The faculty valued the opportunity to work with each other. We will be offering Open Doors 2.0 next June with another cohort of 12 students from NSU and VSU. We learned a lot from our first year and have planned several modifications to the program. For example, this year, we anticipate that students and some NSU and VSU faculty will be on campus at UVA for two of the four weeks; the other two weeks will be virtual.

These efforts have been true learning experiences for UVA faculty and VEST fellows. We have several recommendations for other programs eager to create pathways programs.

  • Clarify your goals and organize the program around the key outcomes that you are trying to achieve. For SURP and Open Doors, we focused in on four outcomes: preparation to conduct education research, preparation for graduate school, expansion of networks, and providing access to new mentoring relationships.
  • Teach skills as well as knowledge. Our evaluation of SURP points to the importance of teaching skills so students can formulate research questions, recognize research designs, analyze and interpret data, and write about research. Students reported gaining skills in these areas which are critical to success in graduate school in education research.
  • Identify ways to enhance cultural capital. Students benefit from knowledge, familiarity, and comfort with university life. In Open Doors, we wanted to build an authentic collaboration that allowed faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students at the HBCUs and UVA to learn from each other, extending the cultural capital of all participants.

Our efforts have been exciting yet humbling. Above all, we enjoy listening to and learning from the SURP and Open Doors students. In Open Doors, we also enjoyed building relationships with faculty at other institutions. We have increasingly become aware of the challenges we face in efforts to increase the diversity of our programs. Recruitment is just a first step. Creating graduate school experiences that are conducive to learning and engagement for students from diverse group is an important second step. And a third critical step is to transform life at our universities so that students (and faculty) from traditionally marginalized groups can thrive and flourish. In doing so, we expect that universities will be better able to meet a full range of new challenges that lie ahead in education science.

 


Sara Rimm-Kaufman is the Commonwealth Professor of Education in the Educational Psychology-Applied Developmental Science program at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development.

Jim Wyckoff is the Memorial Professor of Education and Public Policy in the Education Policy program and directs the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness at the University of Virginia.

Jamie Inlow is the Coordinator for the VEST Predoctoral Training Program in the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development.

This blog post is part of an ongoing series featuring IES training programs as well as our blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within IES grant programs.

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

CTE Research Is Flourishing at IES!

Since its inception in 2017, the CTE portfolio in the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at IES has grown to 11 research grants and a research network! Several other CTE-related grants have been funded under other topics, such as “Postsecondary/Adult Education” and “Improving Education Systems” in the education research grants program, and in other grant programs such as “Using SLDS to Support State Policymaking.” Two CTE-related grants under the latter program were awarded in FY21—

The newest grants funded in FY21 in the CTE topic of the Education Research Grants program include—

As a causal impact study, the last project (on Virtual Enterprises) has been invited to join NCER’s CTE Research Network as its sixth and final member. Funded in 2018 to expand the evidence base for CTE, the CTE Research Network (led by PI Kathy Hughes at the American Institutes for Research) includes five other CTE impact studies (one project’s interim report by MDRC was recently reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse and was found to meet standards without reservations). You can read more about the network’s mission and each of its member projects here.  

On AIR’s CTE Research Network website, you can find several new resources and reports, such as: 

The CTE Research Network has also been conducting training, including workshops in causal design for CTE researchers and online modules on data and research for CTE practitioners, shared widely with the field by a Network Lead partner, the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). 

Last but certainly not least, if you are interested in getting your CTE project funded by IES, see the new FY22 research grant opportunities on the IES funding page. To apply to the CTE topic in the Education Research Grants program specifically, click on the PDF Request for Applications (ALN 84.305A). Contact Corinne Alfeld with any questions you might have.


Written by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), NCER Program Officer 

 

Autism Awareness & Acceptance Month

April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, a month dedicated to promoting true inclusion of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and supporting them in reaching their full potential. In honor of this, we reached out to researchers aiming to improve outcomes for learners with ASD through Early Career Development and Mentoring grants from the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER). We asked these principal investigators how they got involved in ASD research and about their current NCSER-funded work. Below is what they had to say.

Stephanie Shire, University of Oregon

Photo of Stephanie Shire

I first interacted with young children with ASD as a teenage volunteer in a hospital playroom. As I learned more about children with special needs through summer camps and as an in-home aide, I grew more intrigued by the range of strengths and needs of these children. I found joy in finding ways to connect with children who had few or no words, but I lacked the tools to support their growth. This set me on a path to learn about the range of intervention practices and intervention science under the mentorship of Dr. Connie Kasari at the University of California, Los Angeles. My overall goal is to develop and test intervention programs to support the deployment of high-quality practices across the United States and abroad.

In the spirit of this goal, the purpose of my Early Career project, LIFT (Leveraging autism Intervention for Families through Telehealth), is to develop a technology-enabled version of an evidence-based, caregiver-mediated social communication intervention (JASPER; Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement, and Regulation) to be delivered by community-based early educators serving families of young children with ASD in rural areas. We are currently in Year 1 of our 4-year project. This development year is focused on the creation of the online JASPER intervention and training materials for early intervention and early childhood special education providers. Despite the demands of the pandemic, participating providers have engaged in training using video and role play and the majority are now able to put their skills to use with young children with ASD. We are currently conducting user testing of the online materials and preparing for next year’s randomized controlled trial.

Veronica Fleury, Florida State University

Photo of Veronica Fleury

My first experience working with individuals with ASD was in a college course on behavior modification. The professor directed an ASD clinic that provided therapy using many of the strategies we discussed in class. I completed an internship in the clinic and was intrigued by the application of research techniques to promote prosocial behaviors for children with ASD. After college, I secured a full-time research assistantship at the University of Washington in a large ASD study focused on genetics and neurobiology. This was a pivotal experience because I realized this was not the kind of research that I wanted to pursue. The results of these efforts, while extremely valuable, did little to directly improve the lives of the participants. I realized that I wanted to be involved in applied research that allows for quicker uptake by practitioners and benefits for individuals with ASD. In order to be a good applied researcher, I needed practical experience working with children with ASD and their families. Although my entry into preschool special education teaching was initially a means to an end, it drew me in and further fueled my desire to serve children with disabilities. After this experience, I continued my graduate education and am now in an academic position that allows me to use science to address socially significant problems faced by individuals with ASD and their families.

The goal of Project START (Students and Teachers Actively Reading Together), which is part of my Early Career project, is to develop an adaptive shared reading intervention for preschool children with ASD using a sequential, multiple assignment, randomized trial (SMART) design. The results will help determine whether a full-scale efficacy study is worth pursuing for the intervention in its current form or whether additional refinement and testing is necessary.

Melanie Pellecchia, University of Pennsylvania

Photo of Melanie Pellecchia

I became interested in research focused on improving implementation of evidence-based treatments for young children with ASD in under-resourced communities after many years of working with young children with ASD as a behavior analyst overseeing publicly funded early intervention programs. While working within a large, urban public-service system, I observed the widespread disparities in access to high-quality intervention and challenges with implementing evidence-based interventions to scale for young children with ASD. I sought to pursue an academic research career focused on improving these implementation challenges.

As part of my Early Career project, I am iteratively developing a toolkit of implementation strategies designed to improve parent coaching for young children with ASD in Part C early intervention systems. I am currently in my third year of this project and am incorporating information learned from a variety of sources to develop the toolkit, including direct observations of early intervention sessions, qualitative interviews identifying barriers and facilitators to using parent coaching within early intervention, literature on best practices in parent coaching and parent-mediated interventions for young children with ASD, and feedback from expert and community advisory panels. The toolkit will include a series of infographics, videos, and a community of practice housed within an online platform. This year I plan to conduct a pilot study of the toolkit to assess its feasibility and promise for improving the use of parent coaching for young children with ASD in Part C service systems.

Marisa Fisher, Michigan State University

Photo of Marisa Fisher

Most people assume I got into the field because I grew up with an older brother with Williams Syndrome. But I didn't really think of myself as a sibling of a person with a disability and how that experience had shaped my life until I was in graduate school. The real reason I entered the field was because of three little boys with ASD with whom I worked as a behavior therapist when I was in college. What was originally a job became a passion for supporting people with ASD and other disabilities and finding better ways to teach skills and improve outcomes. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, and it was my experience with these boys and my work at an ASD research lab that pushed me to pursue a doctorate in special education so that I could continue to work with people with disabilities.

Through my work with individuals with ASD, I began to realize the social struggles they and my brother experienced and became interested in studying experiences of social victimization and finding out why people with disabilities are more socially vulnerable than individuals without disabilities. The goal of my Early Career project is to do just that. A key part of this project involves assessing students’ self-reported bullying experiences. Although my original plan was to adapt and expand on existing measures, this didn’t result in a feasible assessment. Therefore, I turned my attention toward developing and testing an assessment that was appropriate for students with ASD and plan to use it to better understand the risk factors and consequences of bullying for these students. In general, my research is evolving from identifying and describing the risk factors to developing interventions to address those risk factors and reduce experiences of social victimization. My approach is to teach individuals with ASD to recognize and respond to situations and to evaluate ways to change attitudes toward individuals with ASD and improve social inclusion.

This blog was written by Alice Bravo, virtual intern for IES and doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Washington, and Katie Taylor, program officer for NCSER’s Early Career Development and Mentoring program.