IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Are You What You Eat? Understanding the Links Between Diet, Behavior, and Achievement During Middle School

We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but what exactly does it mean for student learning and achievement in middle school? In 2018, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham received an IES Exploration grant to investigate the direction and nature of the relationships between middle school students’ diet, behavior, and academic achievement. These relationships have not been fully studied in the United States, nor have longitudinal designs been used (most existing studies are cross-sectional) making it hard to determine the precise nature of the links between what adolescents eat and potential implications for learning and achievement.  

Because children in the United States consume about half of their nutrients at school, the need to identify school nutrition policies and practices that benefit student behavior and achievement is great, especially given newly published findings that motivated this IES research and that have attracted lots of media interest in recent days (see this story from CNN and this press release). The Alabama researchers found that specific nutrients (high sodium, low potassium) predicted depression over a year later in a sample of 84 urban, primarily African American adolescents (mean age 13 years). In the IES study, these researchers are expanding their work with a larger and more diverse sample of 300 students. In the first year of this 4-year study, the researchers recruited about two thirds of their sample (186 students across 10 schools) who completed the first of three week-long assessments as 6th graders and who will complete assessments again in the 7th and 8th grades. During each week-long assessment period, each student reports on their own diet and academic functioning, and on their own and their peers’ emotions and behavior. They also complete objective tests of attention and memory. The researchers observe each child’s actual food and beverage consumption at school and behavior during one academic class period. They also collect school records of grades, test scores, attendance, discipline incidents, and information about each school’s nutrition policies and practices. Parents and teachers also report on student diet, behavior, and academic functioning.

This school year the researchers are recruiting the rest of their sample. If their findings suggest a role for school practices and dietary factors in student behavior and achievement, they can guide future efforts to develop school-based programs targeting students’ diet that could be easily implemented under typical school conditions.

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

Computational Thinking: The New Code for Success

Computational thinking is a critical set of skills that provides learners with the ability to solve complex problems with data. The importance of computational thinking has led to numerous initiatives to infuse computer science into all levels of schooling. High-quality research, however, has not been able to keep up with the demand to integrate these skills into K–12 curricula. IES recently funded projects under the Education Research Grants, the Small Business Innovation Research, and the Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluation of Education Interventions programs that will explore computational thinking and improve the teaching and learning of computer science.

 

  • Greg Chung and his team at the University of California, Los Angeles will explore young children’s computational thinking processes in grades 1 and 3. The team will examine students’ thought processes as they engage in visual programming activities using The Foos by codeSpark.
  • The team from codeSpark will develop and test a mobile game app for grade schoolers to learn coding skills through creative expression. The game supports teachers to integrate computational thinking and coding concepts across different lesson plans in English Language Arts and Social Studies.
  • VidCode will develop and test a Teacher Dashboard to complement their website where students learn to code. The dashboard will guide teachers in using data to improve their instruction.
  • Lane Educational Service District will work with researchers from the University of Oregon to evaluate the impact of the district’s Coder-in-Residence program on student learning and engagement.

IES is eager to support more research focused on exploring, developing, evaluating, and assessing computational thinking and computer science interventions inclusive of all learners. IES program officer, Christina Chhin, will speak at the Illinois Statewide K-12 Computer Science Education Summit on September 20, 2019 to provide information about IES research funding opportunities and resources focusing on computer science education.

Teaching Organizational Skills to Adolescents: Bringing Clinical Practices into Schools

Organizing, planning, and managing time influence student achievement and become increasingly important as adolescents enter middle school. Clinical research offers promising practices for improving these skills in students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but the key is getting these practices into schools. That’s where IES-funded researchers come in.

In 2009, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University used an IES grant to develop Homework, Organization, and Planning Skills (HOPS)—a program that teaches middle school students with ADHD to use checklists to organize, plan, and manage their schoolwork.

In 2013, IES funded an initial efficacy study to test HOPS in public middle schools, comparing HOPS with more traditional homework support. Researchers found that parents of students using HOPS and traditional homework support reported fewer homework problems and better organizational skills at home. In contrast, teachers reported improved organization and management skills in the classroom only for their students who used HOPS, not the homework support. HOPS also provided greater benefits overall for students with higher levels of hyperactivity and oppositional behavior and greater deficits in organizational skills.

In June, IES awarded a grant to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to conduct a five-year effectiveness study that will test whether HOPS is beneficial for all students who have organizational skill deficits, rather than just students with a formal ADHD diagnosis. This is important because organizational deficits affect student achievement regardless of whether a student has been diagnosed with a learning disorder. This study will determine whether schools can implement HOPS effectively and inexpensively in a school environment.

Written by Greg Shanahan, IES Presidential Management Fellow, and Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

Career Pathways Research at HHS: Lessons and Opportunities for Education Research

Over the past few years, staff from IES and the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have been learning from and supporting one another’s work. Our offices have a shared interest in understanding and improving outcome for adults in postsecondary career pathway programs and for creating a strong evidence base.

We have even funded projects that dovetail nicely. For example, IES funded a development project focusing on Year Up, and OPRE included Year Up programs in their Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) Study.

For IES researchers not already aware of OPRE’s research, we would like to highlight three things that may be particularly relevant to the work IES hopes to support.

A Growing Portfolio of Career Pathway Research: For over a decade, OPRE has created a robust research portfolio longitudinal, rigorous experimental career pathways program research.  These career pathway programs provide postsecondary education and training through a series of manageable steps leading to successively higher credentials and employment opportunities. In particular, OPRE has supported the Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) Study and the rigorous evaluation of the Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG) Program. You can find reports from these and other self-sufficiency, welfare, and employment activities in the OPRE Resource Library.

Available Data and Funding Opportunity: Later this summer, OPRE will be archiving data from PACE and HPOG at the University of Michigan’s Inter-University Consortium on Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the Institute for Social Research. These data will be available as restricted-use files for secondary data analysis. To encourage research, OPRE announced a funding opportunity Career Pathways Secondary Data Analysis Grants to support secondary analysis these data. Applications are due August 16, 2019.

Understanding Programs’ Motivations for Participating in Research: Getting education programs (schools, universities, etc.) to join multi-year, randomized controlled trials is difficult. Programs are wary of random assignment or finding null or negative effects. Yet, the programs that participated in the PACE Study were overall quite supportive. A recent report “We Get a Chance to Show Impact”, Program Staff Reflect on Participating in a Rigorous, Multi-site Evaluation documents the hurdles and benefits of participation from a program’s point of view. These programs’ insights are particularly useful for any researcher hoping to form partnerships with education settings.

To learn more about the ongoing career pathways research at OPRE and their findings, please visit https://www.acf.hhs.gov/opre/research/project/career-pathways-research-portfolio.

In Nebraska, a focus on evidence-based reading instruction

Researchers have learned a lot about reading over the last few decades, but these insights don’t always make their way into elementary school classrooms. In Nebraska, a fresh effort to provide teachers with practical resources on reading instruction could help bridge the research-practice divide.

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) implemented NebraskaREADS to help “serve the needs of students, educators, and parents along the journey to successful reading.” As part of a broader effort guided by the Nebraska Reading Improvement Act, the initiative emphasizes the importance of high-quality reading instruction and targeted, individualized support for struggling readers.

As part of NebraskaREADS, NDE is developing an online resource inventory of tools and information to support high-quality literacy instruction for all Nebraska students. After reaching out to REL Central for support, experts from both agencies identified the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) as a prime source for evidenced-based information on instructional practices and policies and partnered with REL Central to develop a set of instructional strategies summary documents based on recommendations in eight WWC practice guides.

Each WWC practice guide presents recommendations for educators based on reviews of research by a panel of nationally recognized experts on a particular topic or challenge. NDE’s instructional strategies summary documents align the evidence-based strategies in the practice guides more directly with NebraskaREADS.

REL Central and NDE partners used the WWC practice guides to develop the 35 instructional strategies summary documents, each of which condenses one recommendation from a practice guide. For each recommendation, the instructional strategies summary document provides the associated NebraskaREADS literacy focus, implementation instructions, appropriate grade levels, potential roadblocks and ways to address them, and the strength of supporting evidence.

NDE launched the instructional strategies summary documents in spring 2019, and already educators have found them to be helpful resources. Dee Hoge, executive director of Bennington Public Schools, described the guides as “checkpoints for strong instruction” and noted her district’s plan to use them to adapt materials and provide professional development. Marissa Payzant, English language arts education specialist at NDE and a lead partner in this collaboration, shared that the “districts are excited to incorporate the strategy summaries in a variety of professional learning and other initiatives. They make the information in the practice guides much more accessible, and all the better it’s from a trustworthy source.”

Building on the positive reception and benefits of the instructional strategies summary documents, NDE and REL Central plan to expand the resource inventory into other content areas. Currently, they are working together to develop instructional strategy summaries using the WWC practice guides for math instruction.

by Douglas Van Dine​, Regional Educational Laboratory Central