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. Marcia Davidson, an IES postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia State University Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL), shares her experiences and discusses her path forward.
Going Back for More
My career path has had many turns, but I’ve always focused on supporting literacy to ensure everyone can access education, no matter their location, age, or current ability. And I apply this to my life, too.
I started as a school psychologist, practicing for 15 years in Washington state, working with students with disabilities aged 3 to 21. I worked with teachers and small groups of students to provide support and additional instruction for those struggling with reading and realized that my training was insufficient to provide effective support. I was able to advocate for children who struggled with reading, but I wanted to know more about the research and the science that inform effective reading instruction. So I went back to school to earn my PhD in special education.
After finishing my degree, my first academic position was teaching special education and elementary education at Western Washington University. Despite being tenured faculty, I left academia to participate in research projects related to Reading First because I wanted to spend more time conducting and supporting research projects. This led to my working on an IES-funded Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER) project and my deep interest in interventions that improve student learning.
Eventually, my career took more unexpected turns as I was recruited to consult on a USAID/World Bank initiative in reading assessment for low- and middle-income countries, the Early Grade Reading Assessment. My work with this project prompted a significant career change: I moved to Liberia as a senior reading advisor on one of the first pilot early grade reading projects.
I spent the next 10 years working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on NGO, USAID, and World Bank projects and then worked for USAID. My work focused on early grade reading interventions and support in South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017, I left USAID but continued to support their projects, serving as the senior reading advisor for a scaled early grade reading project in Ghana.
A New Focus
Although my primary focus was supposed to be on children, I found myself drawn in by parents longing to learn themselves. In Liberia, a parent asked whether he could meet with a reading project teacher to learn to read. In Zambia, parents were meeting daily to review the reading lessons of their first-grade children with the hope that they might learn to read and support their children more effectively. In Nepal, a grandmother walked several miles up a mountain to her grandchild’s school so that she could learn to read by his side. Most recently, when I was in Ghana during the COVID outbreak, our team developed a radio reading program for families, and I again saw how excited parents were to work with their children and learn themselves.
I then turned my attention to my own country and realized that many adults in the United States also have literacy gaps and need good reading interventions. We face a reality in which 43 million adults in the United States (about 1 in 5) have very low levels of literacy and may struggle with basic reading comprehension. Of these, nearly 17 million adults could be classified as functionally illiterate. I began to wonder how research for U.S. adults with low literacy might differ from the work I had been doing in low- and middle-income countries and how adult literacy levels vary across countries.
Despite my interest in U.S. adult literacy, I realized that research had changed drastically and that there were new methods, designs, and approaches that I was less familiar with. So I decided to learn more and build new research skills by applying to become an IES postdoctoral fellow in adult literacy at Georgia State University.
Returning for More: A Fellowship to Reskill and Connect the Dots
I started my IES postdoctoral fellowship in the summer of 2021 in the GSU Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program. Here, I am researching interventions to support U.S. adults who struggle with reading. I want to extend my understanding of the role of morphology in reading acquisition, which I honed while working in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. In the United States and internationally, much of this research focuses on children. Teaching adults to read has often taken a back seat in literacy research, despite the critical need to address adult low literacy. I have seen the difference that learning to read can make in a child’s life, and I believe that learning to read for adults can also be life changing and exciting. For me, it is like closing the circle, from young children who are just discovering the delights of learning to read to adults who long to enrich their lives—and often livelihoods—with improved literacy skills.
Recently, I was offered a position as a senior education advisor to the Africa Bureau at USAID, and I will be leaving G-PAL to support the USAID team. However, improving adult literacy remains a priority to me, and I plan to continue my work on the projects I’ve started with my mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Tighe, on a morphology intervention for adults and on an analysis of process data on PIAAC literacy items. I also plan to volunteer at an adult literacy center when I move to Washington, DC for my new position. I am so grateful that I had the extraordinary experience of learning about the literacy needs of and effective interventions for adults who struggle with reading. I have a better understanding about the complexities of adult literacy learning needs and feel new urgency to address the learning barriers so many face. My postdoctoral experience has expanded my knowledge, methodological skills, and commitment. And I am confident that I will apply all that I have learned and continue to learn to my new position and beyond.
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.