IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Meeting the Needs of Students in Real World Education Settings

This year, Inside IES Research is featuring a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we interviewed Michael P. Mesa, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Children's Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. His research focuses on examining factors that can maximize children’s academic and behavioral development, particularly in the context of small-group instruction. We recently caught up with Dr. Mesa to learn more about his career, the experiences that have shaped it, and his view of the role of diversity and inclusion in education research.

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

Headshot of Michael P. Mesa, PhD

I became interested in education research while working as an undergraduate research assistant at the Center for Children and Families at Florida International University. I worked on IES-funded research studies focused on behavioral interventions, such as the Summer Preparatory Program for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As part of the primary intervention, I used applied behavior analysis (ABA) in the context of a summer camp. I found supporting the behavioral development of children rewarding and the process of conducting research to be interesting. Over time, I was given opportunities to become more and more involved in the research side of the behavioral interventions.

At the same time, I was also a professional tutor and found that many of the students referred to tutoring for academic support also had behavioral difficulties. I wound up using the same strategies that worked in the behavioral intervention while tutoring students. For example, I was liberal with my use of labeled praise and consistent with my expectations and feedback and found that using ABA helped students stay engaged and motivated during the tutoring session. These experiences supporting students with academic and behavioral difficulties in research and applied settings inspired me to pursue my doctorate at the College of Education at Florida State University. Here I became interested in strategies that can be used to maximize learning and development, particularly in the context of targeted small-group instruction. For my dissertation, I explored the role of classroom management strategies in the context of small-group literacy interventions for children at risk for reading difficulties.

What are you researching now?

Currently I am investigating the role that group composition and peers play in maximizing student learning in the context of targeted, small-group interventions. My research suggests that the language skills of peers is related to their own language development in this context, such that students benefit from interacting with and being exposed to peers with more developed language skills.

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?

As researchers, I think it is important to focus on research questions with practical implications that meet the needs of students and teachers in real world classrooms or education settings. The development of and participation in researcher–practitioner partnerships is one path towards assuring that we are aware of the needs of the teachers and students we are serving and that our research is relevant for diverse communities. I believe these partnerships should include active participation from diverse stakeholders in various stages of research, including project development, implementation, analysis, and dissemination. Within the context of these partnerships, researchers can solicit research questions of importance and interest to teachers and other stakeholders.

I also believe that one of the ways we can improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities is by increasing the diversity of the research workforce. This means attracting individuals with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences, who will bring fresh and relevant ideas to the field. During my graduate studies, I was part of a department and organizations with colleagues and faculty from diverse backgrounds. For example, I served various roles in an IES-funded Pathways training program, Partners United for Research Pathways Oriented to Social Justice in Education (PURPOSE), focused on increasing the diversity of individuals in education research. As a Hispanic and first-generation graduate student, I found being part of these diverse research teams helped make me feel welcome in the field of education research and supported the development of my professional identity. I also observed that many of the research projects developed by these diverse individuals aimed to support marginalized students that are typically understudied. 

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

Protect your writing time and create a writing routine—find a consistent time and place to write for your primary research task and don’t schedule over it. I would encourage emerging scholars to treat their writing time like a meeting, class, or job that they can’t miss. This may require saying ‘no’ to requests from others in order to prioritize writing. Research requires sustained effort and I have found that protecting my writing has supported me in making continuous progress on my manuscripts and projects.

My next recommendation aligns with my research in the area of peer effects that has found that the skills of one’s peers are related to one’s own skill development. I would encourage early researchers to find colleagues and peers with common goals or interests, particularly peers who are at more advanced stages in their career journey, and to find ways to collaborate and work with them. Throughout my career journey, a constant theme is that I have been part of a supportive village of researchers, and that others have provided opportunities for me to become involved in their projects. I have also found it beneficial to have at least one accountability partner within my village of researchers. An accountability partner is somebody with whom you share your goals and your plans to meet these goals. During times of success, your accountability partner is somebody that you can celebrate with. During times of stress, your accountability partner is somebody that can help with reflection, problem solving, and encouragement. Participating in recurring meetings with a writing group is a way to combine these pieces of advice.

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here, here, 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 Hispanic Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Hispanic researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Hispanic students.

Michael P. Mesa, PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Children's Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center. He received his bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Statistics from Florida International University. Dr. Mesa earned his MS and PhD from the Educational Psychology and Learning Systems program at Florida State University, where he also earned certificates in Measurement and Statistics and College Teaching and completed the nationally recognized Preparing Future Faculty program.

This blog was produced by Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov), postdoctoral training program officer at the National Center for Special Education Research and Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.

 

Connecting to Place and People: How My Experiences with Native American Communities Motivate My Work

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. In this guest blog, Dr. Tabitha Stickel, a second-year postdoctoral research fellow at the Georgia State University (GSU) Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program shares her experiences working with adult education programs in Native American tribal lands and how it has shaped her work and purpose.

Entering Adult Education: Connection to the Land and Peoples of the Southwest

Prior to graduate school, I found work as an adult education teacher at a rural, southwestern community college in the traditional lands of the Diné (Navajo), the Hopi, and the Ndee (Western Apache). This college, which served the indigenous communities, was set in the short-grass prairies, spotted with juniper trees in a land that seemed silent and empty to the untrained eye. But the land was full of life and opportunity, and the students I met gave me new appreciation for the opportunities adult education could provide.

As an adjunct faculty in an adult basic and developmental education program, I traveled several hours each week to teach classes on the Diné and Hopi tribal lands. I was immediately struck by the students’ dedication to their education and personal goals—to be the first in their families to earn a college degree, help their children or grandchildren with homework, find or keep employment, and/or fulfill the promise of completing high school made to themselves or others. 

Challenges in Adult Education for Rural Students

Despite this dedication, adult students face a variety of barriers to attending classes. Adult students often must contend with the challenges of caretaking, work, and transportation—a perennial problem for rural students, as there is no public transportation. Some students were able to carpool, and some of the tribes arranged vans to transport the “closer” students to the campus.

Even when faced with such challenges, students showed up each week. I had students without electricity at home who used their cell phones to access class materials, one of many such examples of the digital divide in rural areas. I had a student who made burritos each week and sold them to raise money for a desk for her schoolwork. These students drove my passion for my work. When students overcome incredible odds for their education, how can an educator do anything other than rise to meet them? Earning an education credential, such as a high school equivalency, could have far-reaching positive outcomes for the students and their families. 

What My Students Taught Me

In addition to learning about the challenges and rewards adult learners face, I also learned the importance of listening to students and checking assumptions. For instance, I had a GED student who was chronically late. One day, I called her because I was frustrated that she was over an hour late, only to learn that she was on her way. In fact, she was walking more than 20 miles to come to class. She had been unable to hitch-hike to class as she normally would. I was completely humbled in that moment and realized that my assumptions were keeping me from understanding her. She ended up earning her GED a month later.

When my students shared their stories, I learned how their lived experiences—including the very land on which they lived—shaped them. When I began to truly listen to these stories and understand their importance, I became a better teacher. And I knew that these stories deserved to be heard and answered with more than I could offer as a single teacher.

Moving Between Two Worlds: Research and Practice

My experiences in the southwest prompted me to attend graduate school and research how to understand, empower, and teach adult learners. In general, however, there is insufficient research on adult education within and for certain populations. I wanted help to address this gap, so I centered my work on identifying culturally relevant themes of belonging for Native adult education students to explore the various pathways along which student belonging might develop.

In 2020, I returned to the adult education program I had worked in to gather stories from the students for my dissertation. I found student stories became intertwined with the pandemic and revealed the extent of the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic was having on the Native American communities and students’ sense of belonging. COVID-19 was making it more difficult for students to balance attending class and providing for their families. It was also making the digital divide even more apparent—as adult education programs transitioned to remote instruction, students had to navigate the realities of participating and belonging in the digital sphere. I further explore these themes in the Coalition on Adult Basic Education’s (COABE) forthcoming special issue on COVIDs effects on adult students.

As with other challenges, these Native communities and students continued to survive and thrive despite the tragedies of COVID-19. The students and staff in the adult education programs in these tribal communities deserve all the recognition in the world for their dedication, their creativity in addressing ever-present and ever-arising challenges, and their persistence.

My own commitment to this endeavor led me to become a postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia State University (GSU) Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program. I hope to soon return to the land and communities that have so integrally changed my life.  

Although I may return with more knowledge of the adult education field and how to facilitate classroom learning, I will occupy not just a “teacher” role but a student one as well, as I have much to learn from the lands, the people, and the experiences they inevitably shape.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants and Postsecondary and Adult Education research at NCER.

Understanding NCER and NCSER’s Investments in Research Training

Since 2004, NCER has invested over $270 million dollars in education research training programs through solicited and unsolicited grants. NCSER has invested over $32 million in special education research training programs through solicited and unsolicited grants since 2008.

This investment has supported the training and professional development of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and early- and mid-career researchers. But what guides NCER’s and NCSER’s investments? What roles do NCER and NCSER play in research training in the education sciences, and how can the centers determine whether these investments are successful?

In June 2022, IES awarded a joint-center contract to WestEd to document the background and rationale for these training programs and help articulate the theoretical models for each of the programs, including assumptions, inputs, activities, and outputs. WestEd will then work with IES to identify metrics and potential data sources to better understand the successes and impacts of the current and possible future programs.

 

The commissioners for the centers, Drs. Elizabeth Albro and Joan McLaughlin, are excited about the opportunity to delve into the training programs that they believe have transformed the education sciences:

We see the benefits of these trainings every day, including the quality of the applications that we receive, ability of the research teams to conduct thoughtful and rigorous studies even when confronted with the practical challenges of working in schools, the number of early career applicants taking on important research, and the growing diversity of the research teams. 

 The commissioners see the contract as an exciting opportunity:

WestEd is supporting us as we take stock of our various research trainings and help us identify metrics for measuring success both within and across our training programs.  We want to make sure our research training programs stay current and address the needs and evolving challenges of the field and are looking forward to working with the WestEd team on this project. 

 

Dr. Nick Gage, a former NCSER postdoctoral fellow and current mentor on an NCSER Early Career grant leads the WestEd team and notes –  

I believe deeply in the capacity of IES to impact change through the training programs and am passionate about working with IES to find the connections among the programs and to develop a plan for measuring success across the training programs. I believe thinking broadly while also attending to the unique features of the training programs when developing models and a unified conceptual framework will be an on-going challenge, but one my team is excited to tackle. 

By understanding the connections between what is being done during these programs and the impacts on grantees, trainees, institutions, and the education sciences in the short and long term, we can develop new approaches for measuring and understanding success resulting from training program implementation. 

To build the models and identify metrics, WestEd is talking with IES staff, reviewing public and internal documents, leveraging natural language processing and other data analytic approaches, and soliciting input from former training program grantees and participants. Dr. Gage’s goal is to incorporate the voices of all those involved in training programs to help bring together multiple perspectives and ideas in this effort.

 

For more information about the research activities or to provide input, contact Dr. Nick Gage ngage@wested.org.

 

NCER Research Training Programs 

  • Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs)  
  • Methods Training for Education Research 
  • Pathways to the Education Sciences 
  • Postdoctoral Research Training 
  • Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training 
  • Training in Education Use and Practice 

  

NCSER Research Training Programs 

  • Early Career Development and Mentoring in Special Education 
  • Methods Training for Special Education Research 
  • Postdoctoral Research Training Program in Special Education and Early Intervention 

 


This blog was written by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), an NCER Postdoctoral Training program officer and current coordinator for the NCER/NCSER Training Program team. She is also the contracting officer representative for the NCER/NCSER Education Research Training Program Support contract. 

A Conversation About Educational Inequality With Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow Marissa Thompson

Each year, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recognizes an outstanding fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. The 2021 awardee, Marissa Thompson, completed her PhD at Stanford University and worked as a postdoctoral fellow with the Education Policy Initiative at University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. This summer, she joins Columbia University as an assistant professor of sociology. Her work focuses on the relationship between education and socioeconomic and racial inequality over the course of life.

Recently, we caught up with Dr. Thompson and asked her to discuss her research on educational inequality and her experiences as a scholar.

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

For a long time, I thought that I wanted to become an engineering professor. I majored in chemical and biomolecular engineering in college and planned to pursue a doctoral degree in engineering after I graduated. Though I was excited about my undergraduate research projects, I was also passionate about diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This led me to spend my free time in college working on programs within the School of Engineering that promoted more equitable access to these majors. At the same time, I began taking some courses outside of the engineering program, which led me to a series of introductory sociology electives and inspired me to think about a career in the social sciences.

My interests in educational inequality stemmed in part from my own experiences and challenges as a Black woman in the sciences, but also from the experiences of my classmates who had to overcome barriers to access these fields. I wanted to have a more direct impact on the policies and programs that help to mitigate racial and socioeconomic inequality in education, which led me to apply for graduate programs in sociology of education.

What inspired you to focus your research on understanding the role of education in shaping inequality?

I began my graduate studies with the goal of focusing more narrowly on access and persistence in STEM fields, but this quickly developed into a broader interest in educational inequality. I was fortunate to work on several projects with advisors and mentors that motivated my interests in educational inequality over the life course—from studying racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in public school districts across the country to studying how processes of major choice can lead to increased gender segregation across fields. My work seeks to understand how a variety of sources—including structural inequality, policy changes, and individual preferences—are related to disparities in access to quality educational experiences. My goal as a researcher is to understand how patterns of inequality emerge as well as to research the efficacy of policies that might mitigate social inequality. In doing so, I hope to have an impact on reducing educational disparities for future generations.

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?

I think one of the most important ways that we can improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families is to involve a more diverse group of voices in the research process. This includes creating more opportunities for researchers from different backgrounds who may ask questions that are uniquely informed by their own experiences or the experiences of their communities. In addition, I also believe that, as researchers, we have a responsibility to speak to the communities that are affected by the policies and patterns that we influence.  

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

My first piece of advice would be to find mentors and peers in graduate school who can support you. I have benefitted tremendously from the encouragement of my support system, and I have learned so much from my mentors and peers along the way. I would also encourage students from outside of the traditional social sciences to consider research in education. As an undergraduate engineering major, I was initially afraid to take a leap and change disciplines for graduate school, but in retrospect, I’m so glad that I did. At the time, I worried that my skillset and training in a different discipline would be a disadvantage, but I believe that my interdisciplinary background and unique perspective have helped me to grow my research agenda in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. 


This blog was produced by Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow. It is part of an Inside IES Research blog series showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice.

LGBTQ+ Education Research: Why I’m Proud to be a Part of It

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. In celebration of PRIDE month, three IES training fellows reflect on the state of education research for LGBTQ+ students and what motivates them to pursue this area.

Damon R. Carbajal (he/él) is a community scholar, educator, activist, and alumni of the University of New Mexico, Research Institute for Scholars of Equity (RISE) program, residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose work focuses on recentering intersectional identities in and out of educational spaces. Souksavanh T. Keovorabouth (they/them), Diné, completed the University of Arizona Pathways to Doctoral Studies in Education-Related Fields and is currently a PhD candidate at both Oregon State University and Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia) as a Cotutelle Student, whose research focuses on the Indigenous urban experience, Two-Spirit wellbeing and Two-Spirit in urban areas, Relocation Act 1950, Native and Queer urbanization, BIPOC masculinities, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. Sarah Rosenbach (she/her) is a PhD candidate in psychology and social intervention at New York University, where she was a fellow in the NYU Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Program in Education Sciences during her first 4 years of graduate study, and is currently based in Honolulu, HI and researching evidence-based ways in which schools and other youth-serving settings can support the healthy development of LGBTQ adolescents.

 

What excites you about education research relevant to LGBTQ+ communities?

Damon R. Carbajal (DRC): As a gay, queer, Chicanx person, I have not had the easiest time in school and often felt I was voiceless. I see research as a powerful tool to help create safer spaces for all in education spaces. This is what keeps me going and what creates my deep connection to my research because I know that it helps to create spaces and opportunities that I did not have. Allowing folks to voice their lived experiences is critical for the growth of academia, research, and individuals. Overall, my excitement comes from the community we form when decentered voices are recentered in holistic ways that project the beauty and resilience of the queer community. This recentering is at the heart of all my work, and the impact is critical.

 

Souksavanh T. Keovorabouth (STK): What excites me is that I am able to bring in my own experience and experiences of other Queer Indigenous people into the light. Many Queer, Trans, and Two-Spirit Indigenous people have been erased, even by our own communities. Two-Spirit is an umbrella term used to signify the vast diverse set of genders, sexes, and sexualities within Indigenous communities pre-colonialization. We use this term to bring that history into the present. I focus on urban Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ communities because many of us have been or are displaced and removed based on our diverse gender, sex, and sexuality selves and we need to (re)establish communities of care. Through our tracing of histories and lineages, we can see that Two-Spirit people are vital to our true restoration of Indigenous sovereignty.

 

Sarah Rosenbach (SR): I am excited for the field to begin to translate this evidence to practice in teams of interdisciplinary researchers who are in partnership with educators and community organizations. Schools are perhaps the single most studied context for LGBTQ+ youth. Together with my collaborators, I have contributed to a growing body of research focused on the state of LGBTQ+ youth experiences in schools. I have been fortunate to work with an amazing team of LGBTQ+ folks in education, psychology, public health, and sociology. The ability to show up to this work as my true self and to work towards improving school experiences for LGBTQ+ youth in community is very meaningful to me. With a groundswell of empirical support building across disciplines, we have reached a critical turning point for action. I am excited for the field to begin to translate this evidence to practice in teams of interdisciplinary researchers who are in partnership with educators and community organizations. I believe that it is time for us to turn to creating and testing school-based prevention, intervention, and health promotion programs that specifically examine – and alter - the ways that schools socialize cisnormativity and heteronormativity in the lives of all youth.

How has being a member of or ally to the LGBTQ+ community influenced your path as researcher?

DRC: As a gay, queer, Chicanx researcher, educator, and activist, I believe that being a member of the LGBTQ+ community has influenced my research in a variety of ways including the research I focus on as well as the idea of even jumping into research. When I first started college, I wanted to be a high school teacher and had not thought about anything else. During undergrad, I had research fellowships and mentorship experiences that helped me realize that I could create more safe spaces and reach more students and educators through a research path. This realization was life altering and allowed me to grow into a researcher whose queer and BIPOC roots grant me insights that are new and authentic because of my social awareness and new perspectives. As a researcher, I can draw upon my life experiences, which include trauma, assault, and other facets of life—facets of my life that are sadly the reality of many who are in the LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities.

Because of my identity, I feel I am more likely to pursue topics that have often been overlooked or viewed as taboo. For example, my thesis examined LGBTQIA+ Mexican/x youth experiences of mental health in and out of schooling settings. Highly intersectional research such as this is not heavily represented in the field, except by researchers who are often members of the non-dominant communities. Overall, being an LGBTQ+ researcher can be taxing as I am often the only queer and/or Chicanx person in research spaces, but always highly rewarding because I am able to make a mark in the research world for and by my community.

STK: Being Queer and Nadleeh (Two-Spirit in Navajo language) influences my research because these aspects of me grant me the ability to draw upon stories and experiences to navigate the world outside of western construction of gender, sex, and sexuality. My research journey began in 2016. I was not feeling safe as a Queer, Brown, multiracial person, and I knew that others were feeling the same way, especially as policy debates and political actions, such as those reported by the Fenway Institute, took shape. We were being marginalized and erased, and this impacts mental health. Research indicates that LGBTQ+ youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers and that Indigenous LGBTQ+ youth are 2.5 more likely than their non-Indigenous LGBTQ+ peers. The Trevor Project survey also found that Indigenous youth who were accepted by their family and communities were nearly 60 percent less likely to attempt suicide. These numbers have really fueled the work that I do because I am able to use my voice and scholarship to give back to my communities and address their needs and support them. My identities have and continue to influence my path as a researcher because this is for all my community to move from having to survive to beginning to thrive. When I am done with my PhDs, I aim to continue writing, teaching, and working with my community through my research on Queer, Trans, and Two-Spirit identity, as we are vital to Indigenous futures.

SR: We are seeing a nationwide onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation aimed at dismantling hard-earned yet tenuous civil rights and coordinated with efforts to dismantle culturally responsive pedagogy and antiracist education. It is critical for all of us, those in the LGBTQ+ community and allies, to speak out in support of all LGBTQ+ youth with our local reporters, school boards, city councils, and state legislatures. But this is just one part of the solution. We must continually ask our LGBTQ+ community, “How may I better serve you?” and let the answers drive our scholarship and our activism. We must partner with movements in antiracist and decolonizing education. Together, we can leverage our scholarship and activism to reimagine our education systems towards justice for all.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants.