IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Disability Research Informed by Researcher’s Experience as a Person with a Visual Impairment: An Interview with Dr. Rosenblum

As part of our recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we asked IES-funded researcher L. Penny Rosenblum how having a disability impacted the development of her career as a special education researcher.

As a person with a visual impairment, how have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

Photo of L. Penny Rosenblum, PhD I have a congenital visual impairment, so I have had low vision all my life. When I began my undergraduate studies, I quickly realized that I wanted to become a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI). Once I began work, I came to the realization that I could have a larger and more sustaining impact on the education of students with visual impairments if I prepared TVIs. After earning my doctorate, I first was faculty at Florida State University and then at the University of Arizona. The combination of my own experiences as a child and adult with a visual impairment coupled with my experiences teaching children and then preparing TVIs worked together to shape my research agenda.

What got you interested in a career in special education research?

During my master’s program at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, I was hired to enter data for a research study. I saw a pattern in the data others had not noticed and I shared this observation with the lead researcher and his doctoral students. This was a pivotal moment for me and sparked an interest in research. When I began my doctoral program and started to learn more about research methods and how outcomes can be used to shape intervention and policy, I was hooked!

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered and how did you overcome the challenge?

As a researcher, the biggest challenge is funding. I was funded by “soft money” (funding through external sources) at the University of Arizona for 2 decades, the last 7.5 of which were primarily with funding from NCSER. During my career in academia, colleagues and I spent countless hours writing grants. I wish there were more efficient mechanisms to fund research so that researchers can spend more time engaged in research and less time chasing dollars to do research.

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of how to support students with disabilities?

I engage in research that directly impacts students with visual impairments. I was privileged to serve as a project director for two related NCSER projects: AnimalWatch-VI Suite: A comprehensive program for increasing access to science and math for students with visual impairments and An Intervention to Provide Youth with Visual Impairments with Strategies to Access Graphical Information in Math Word Problems. Through these projects we developed materials to support students at the middle school math level to build their skills with the ultimate goal of having more students with visual impairments enter STEM careers. More specifically, the first project developed and tested an instructional program that teaches students with visual impairment computation, fractions, and variables and expressions through solving math word problems embedded in an environmental science context; the second one developed and tested a program to teach students to locate and understand information in graphics that accompany math problems using tactile graphics and accessible image descriptions. I am proud that the materials we developed are available through the American Printing House for the Blind. Our two apps are available at no cost!

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the career outcomes of students with disabilities?

We live in a digital world and until we have addressed the issue of universal access, students with visual impairments will continue to be at a disadvantage. If you’re at a disadvantage in K-12 education, then you’re not going to be as well prepared as others for post-secondary education and employment. I’d like to see research funding that addresses access issues and the development of technologies and tools to level the playing field for all students.

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers with disabilities?

Mentorship is so important to me. I have been fortunate in my journey to have some amazing mentors, including Dr. Carole R. Beal who was a principal investigator on the two NCSER-funded projects described above. Dr. Beal was always willing to discuss accommodations I needed due to my visual impairment and to work with me to find solutions. She mentored me in research methodology and professional writing. Researchers, whether they have a disability or not, need to mentor the next generation. I think this is even more important if an emerging scholar has a disability or is from another marginalized group.

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

When I think about advice, I again immediately go back to mentorship. I encourage emerging scholars to seek out mentors, both with and without disabilities and in and outside their professional field. I also think it is important to seek out and take advantage of opportunities that come your way, and not wait for someone to come to you. The more networking you can do, the more doors that will open for you. If you’re passionate about your field and your work, people will quickly look beyond your disability and focus on your commitment and skills as a researcher.

L. Penny Rosenblum, PhD is the owner of Vision for Independence, LLC. She has more than 35 years of experience in the field of visual impairment.

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see 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. This NDEAM blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and NCER Program Officer, and Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), NCSER Program Officer. See this related NDEAM blog post by NCSER Program Officer Akilah Swinton Nelson (Akilah.Nelson@ed.gov) for information about IES Research on improving career readiness and employment outcomes for students with disabilities.

Congratulations and Thanks to the 2021 Winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences

IES would like to congratulate and thank David Card, Joshua D. Angrist, and Guido W. Imbens, who received this year’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The work of these laureates has greatly contributed to the ability of researchers to provide causal evidence in support of education practice and policy decision making. IES is proud to have previously supported Card and Angrist in some of their education research work.

Many key issues in education cannot be analyzed using randomized experiments for practical and ethical reasons. Card’s work (with Alan Krueger) on natural experiments helped open up a novel approach to providing causal findings. In natural experiments, outcomes are compared for people who have differential access to a program or policy (or a change in a program or policy) because of real life conditions (for example, institutional or geographic differences) rather than through random assignment by researchers. Natural experiments have been adopted by IES grantees to examine a broad variety of education programs and policies such as PreK expansion, early literacy, school choice, school turnaround programs, high school curriculum change, and changes to postsecondary remediation course requirements. Angrist and Imbens showed how to estimate a causal treatment effect when individuals can choose to participate in a program or policy, which often occurs in natural experiments and can occur in randomized experiments after researchers have randomly assigned participants. IES grantees widely use their instrumental variable approach for both experimental (often involving designs based on school lotteries) and quasi-experimental designs.

In addition to developing evaluation designs and methods that have been broadly applied within education research, Card and Angrist have also directly carried out education research important to the field, sometimes with the support of IES. For example, Card is a principal investigator (PI) on two IES-funded studies on gifted education (elementary school and middle school) and is a co-PI on the National Center for Research on Gifted Education. Angrist is PI on two IES-funded studies, one on charter schools and one evaluating a Massachusetts desegregation program.

Angrist and Imbens have also supported the work of IES. Both researchers served as IES peer reviewers on grants and reports, and Imbens provided the What Works Clearinghouse with advice on standards for regression discontinuity designs (RDD) and co-authored one IES-supported paper regarding RDD (a method that has also become widely used in IES-funded research).

IES thanks Card, Angrist, and Imbens—both for their contributions to causal methods and for their direct participation in education research—and congratulates them for this recognition.

Importance of Measuring Spanish Literacy Skills

The Latinx population comprises the second largest ethnic group in the US and has grown more than 600% since 1970. In states like California, Texas and New Mexico, nearly half of people are Latinx and almost one third are bilingual. States in the Northeast, Midwest, and South have also experienced double-digit growth in their Latinx populations since 2010. Millions of children all across the country are growing up in communities where both English and Spanish are spoken. In response to these trends, there has been a push to support and celebrate student bilingualism and biliteracy. Forty states and Washington, D.C. offer a State Seal of Biliteracy for students who achieve proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing in English and an additional language, most often Spanish. In this guest blog, Drs. Ashley Adams Sanabria, Amy Pratt, and Elizabeth Peña discuss the importance of measuring literacy skills in Spanish and their new IES-funded measurement project that aims to develop assessments to measure Spanish language and literacy skills.

 

Why is it important to measure literacy skills in Spanish?

In the IES practice guide for effective language and literacy instruction for English language learners, the first recommendation is to monitor children’s reading progress and use the data to make informed instructional decisions. Traditionally, this type of assessment has been conducted exclusively in English; however, we risk missing an important part of the constellation of skills that bilingual children possess when we do not assess their Spanish (or other first language) skills. Bilingual children’s language and literacy skills are often divided across both of their languages. Factors like exposure to Spanish versus English, preference for using Spanish versus English, and the language of formal reading instruction will affect a bilingual’s early literacy development. Measuring skills in only one language may make it appear that bilinguals are behind when in actuality, the assessment strategy has not captured the entirety of their skill set.

Furthermore, research shows that bilingual language profiles are dynamic and interact with the type of instruction children receive. Progress monitoring assessments in both languages allow teachers to track how children are progressing in different skills in each of their languages and can provide important information that will inform how teachers plan instruction for bilingual learners. As part of a new IES-funded measurement project, researchers at the University of California, Irvine and San Diego State University are developing the A2i-ALE (Adquisición de Lectura en Español) assessments to measure Spanish language and literacy skills. These new assessments will be computer adaptive and designed to be used alongside the existing Assessment-to-Instruction (A2i) English assessments to monitor progress within and across school years for bilingual children in PreK through 3rd grade.

Which literacy skills should be measured in Spanish?

For our project, given we cannot measure everything, a key question we had to consider was which literacy skills to measure in Spanish. The Simple View of Reading holds that reading comprehension is the product of decoding skills and linguistic comprehension. Importantly, this framework can be applied to bilingual reading development, as well. Simply put, students must be able to decode written symbols into their spoken equivalent. But, we need to consider language differences. Languages with transparent orthographies and simple phonological structure, like Spanish, are easier to segment into their component sounds because there is a near 1-to-1 mapping between letters and sounds compared to English which has complex letter-sound mappings.

Once decoded, students must then apply their language skills (for example, vocabulary, knowledge of syntactic structures, background knowledge) to understand the meaning of the text they have just decoded. The Simple View of Reading has important implications for literacy instruction: (a) effective early reading instruction should develop skills in both decoding and language comprehension, and (b) given that these two domains develop relatively independently, reading comprehension outcomes will be enhanced by differentiating the amount of instructional time devoted to each of the two domains depending on individual learners’ skill level in each area.

Applying the Simple View of Reading to improve reading instruction for bilingual learners requires that teachers have valid, reliable information about decoding skills and language comprehension skills in all of their languages and use the information in planning and implementing reading instruction.

What’s next?

In our IES-funded study, we plan to develop A2i Spanish measures that will be designed to (a) describe each bilingual’s unique literacy skill profile in terms of their Spanish language, comprehension, and decoding skills, and (b) monitor children’s Spanish language and reading growth within and across school years. The goal is to inform Spanish language instructional decisions in dual language programs (that is, children demonstrating weaknesses in Spanish word reading or vocabulary could get more Spanish instructional time in those areas), as well as inform literacy instruction for bilingual children in English-only classrooms building on what is known about cross-language transfer.


This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see 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.

Ashley Adams Sanabria is an assistant professor at San Diego State University in the School of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences.

Amy S. Pratt is a project scientist at the University of California, Irvine in the School of Education

Elizabeth D. Peña is an associate dean of faculty development and diversity at the University of California, Irvine in the School of Education.

Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council, and Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), Program Officer for the English Learners portfolio, National Center for Education Research.

Disrupting the Status Quo to Support Latino Students from Immigrant Families

Driven in part by massive demographic shifts in the U.S. population, education and social behavioral research has increasingly attended to the growing diversity of the student population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos accounted for more than 50% of the U.S. population growth between 2010 and 2020. While the country’s white population is shrinking, the Latino population grew by 23% in the last decade and now makes up almost 19% of the U.S. population. Although the raw numbers are worthy of attention, the change rate—and what it means for how schools and other systems serve students—may be even more important, especially given that the K12 education system is not built to accommodate such rapid demographic shifts.

NCES data show that, although there has been overall progress in improving high school graduation rates, the nation’s Latino student dropout rate is 65% higher than White students and almost 40% higher than Black students. Only 20% of Latinos aged 25 to 29 have obtained a college degree—the lowest degree attainment rate of any racial/ethnic subgroup. Growing evidence shows that the disparities in college participation among Latino and first-generation college students may become even more pronounced as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.

Since 2015, with the support of two IES-funded NCER grants, my team of colleagues and I have led work designed to challenge and innovate how schools support the positive development and college access and success for Latino students from immigrant families. Our Juntos Project was designed to create a new intervention model working directly with teachers, school leaders, and parents of Latino middle school students. The goal of the project was to address common challenges confronting immigrant families as they navigate the U.S. education system, to use effective strategies for recognizing and transforming teacher bias, and to create a school climate that centers equity leadership and builds authentic family-school partnerships—all with the promise to improve academic and school success for Latino students. The second project, Project LEAPS (Latino Education After Public School), which is currently underway, extends the model we developed in Juntos by working with teachers, parents, and school counselors to support the postsecondary readiness (and ultimately the college access and success) of Latino students as they transition from middle school to high school.

Through this work, we continue to learn important lessons about how to be disruptive given that current approaches have too often failed to make a lasting impact on nurturing the academic success and positive behavioral health of Latino students. Here are a few of those lessons:

Parents are the most important teachers in a child’s life. As much as education researchers and professionals attend to the role educators play in student life, our approach is designed to capitalize on the strengths of Latino families and the deep cultural value of familismo, which prioritizes dedication, connectedness, and loyalty to family, as essential targets of our intervention. Notwithstanding the influence of adult agents inside the education system, parents (that is, all of the adults in a child’s life who play a major role in raising them) play the most important and sustained role in raising healthy children. Although the education system frequently frames parents and home environments as “the problem” when considering the challenges of underserved students, data from the NCES National Household Education Survey show that parents of students of color are as likely or more likely to be engaged in their children’s education (for example, checking on homework completion, monitoring school performance) than their white peers. This is especially true for Latino parents, including those who are Spanish speaking and those who have low educational attainment themselves.

Move from a deficit framing to an asset framing. Undoubtedly, many Latino students and their families experience challenges as they navigate the education system. However, many of these challenges are not of their making. The fact that we can mark disparities in educational outcomes and access to higher education by race/ethnicity, poverty, rurality and other factors should be a source of outrage. None of these demographic characteristics should be correlated with school success or can legitimately be described as causal. The true causes stem from deeply rooted inequities embedded in the education system. One way to shift away from a student or family deficit framing is to focus on a more interesting question: What makes students, families, schools, and communities thrive in the face of difficult circumstances? The answers to this question can help us leverage assets that too often go untapped in service of student success.

Attend to within-group variation. Like other racial/ethnic groups, Latinos are not monolithic. Comparative designs in which outcomes for Latino students are contrasted with White students or students from other groups often contribute little to nuanced understandings about how variables linked to these group identifications might explain differences in outcomes. Ample research shows that within-group variation among Latinos on factors such as country of origin, nativity, generational history, language, time in U.S. residency, context of reception for immigrants, and acculturation level are more important in understanding the nature of risk and protection around academic and social behavioral adjustment than are between-group differences. In designing intervention programs for the families and students we serve, our goals are to understand these sources of variation and carefully attend to them in our development work.  


This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see 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.

Charles Martinez (@c_martinez) is the dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, and the founding director of the Texas Center for Equity Promotion. He is a first-generation college graduate and a third-generation Mexican American. His Project LEAPS co-investigators are Heather McClure, University of Oregon, and Elma Lorenzo-Blanco, University of Texas at Austin.

This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Expectations Matter: Understanding Student Learning Outcomes and Implicit Bias in the Early Childhood Classroom

Educators bring implicit biases to the classroom which may impact discipline and development for students from historically disadvantaged households and communities, particularly students of color. Research has shown that some teachers show implicit (and explicit) preferences towards White students versus students of color. These implicit biases and lower expectations of students of color may negatively influence children’s early learning and development. With an IES exploration grant, Drs. Brian Boyd, Iheoma Iruka and Keith Payne are examining the relationship between malleable factors such as implicit bias, teacher expectations, and teacher-child interactions and student learning outcomes. Taking place in early education programs across 10 states and the District of Columbia, this study will examine links between implicit bias and school readiness skills in pre-school age children.

Bennett Lunn, a Truman-Albright Fellow at IES, asked Dr. Iruka about her work and background. Below are her responses.

How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

I am a Black woman, born in the United States but with parents who were born in Nigeria. I am the African diaspora that is rarely discussed because people see Black people as homogeneous. I was not always proud of my African roots or of my American roots – there is a double-edged sword in being a Black person in America and being an American Black in Nigeria. I was not always proud of being a Black person in America because of constant reminders about how much I have to overcome. I think my experiences as a Black woman in the U.S. with direct roots to Africa (my name is Nigerian), and who grew up in poverty (but did not know that then), give me an edge and a drive compared to those who just study poverty. Even when my papers and grants get rejected, I still know my experiences are valuable to me, my children, my family, and those fighting for justice. I bring all of who I am to my talks, papers, mentoring, networks, and partnerships. For me, there is no Iheoma without the village that I am a part of, my ancestors, my Nigerian and African diasporic heritage, and my experiences. I realize that my gender, race, culture, and other intersectional identities continue to shape my career and, most importantly, the journey I am on.

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in education?

I see my research as part of a tapestry that shapes how people see others, especially those who are often made to feel invisible, like young Black boys and girls, their families, and their communities. I hope that my research is more than just “DEI,” which is the phrase of the season. I don’t mind that it is, but I hope it is not only for the moment, especially when discussing racial equity and anti-racism. I want my research and other collaborative work to be about seeing the humanity, the beauty, the joy, the assets, and the possibilities of those we often see and treat as invisible. Examining the role of implicit bias in the classroom is the focus of my current IES-funded research, and my most recent book, Don’t Look Away: Embracing Anti-Bias Classrooms, is a call to action for all educators, professionals, and others to not look away from the injustices directed at minoritized groups, especially Black people. We cannot look away; we must act and continue to act until justice has won. In the words of Malcom X, “Speaking like this doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression”. I hope my research, my talks, and my entire body of work cause researchers and those who fund research to look at themselves and ask how they can do better with the weapon they have–research!

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

There is so much that can improve the enterprise of research and science. In early childhood education, as well as in other areas, it takes more than practice to create more equitable outcomes—research is needed to examine how systems create inequities. My RICHER framework, which provides actionable steps toward addressing bias and racism, is an ode to researchers and scholars, especially White scholars, about how they can do better in their science when their participants are non-white.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered and how did you overcome the challenge?

My biggest challenge is myself. While I have always had confidence in my skills, I was not always sure how direct I could be, especially with my White mentors, colleagues, and peers. There were times I felt I had to use coded language. As my journey has gone on, or because I am getting older and don’t have the energy to code, I have become more direct so the actions can be straightforward and clear. It is also crucial that I bring my lived experiences, including being the mother of two young Black children in America and wanting to see their experiences be even more equitable than mine. I want them to understand that their heritage, language, skin color, gender, and whatever other identities they have should be embraced because that will make them unique and motivate them to get through all the obstacles, including rejection, which are part of academia. I want them to embody Black joy!

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?

Lean into the RICHER framework. You can’t truly support scholars from historically underrepresented groups, especially Black ones, unless you have a sense of critical consciousness. I would say that I have been fortunate in having mentors who did not question my skill or talent but created opportunities even before I thought I was ready. When I think about those specific individuals, I realize that they were mentors who supported many people of color. These mentors cared about me, not just the scholar but the person, and they still do. To support underrepresented researchers, you have to see “us,” not just our color or race, or ethnicity. Scholars of color are multi-faceted and bring a lot to the table because we have had to live in multiple worlds and speak multiple languages.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?

First, find your village of peers, scholars, and mentors, whether through your university, professional organization, or social organization. You want a place where you can lay your burdens down, have joy, and just be your full self. Second, be truthful and authentic about your journey. Allow mistakes to guide you and realize that mistakes ensure growth and do not define you. And third, be sure to have fun and enjoy what you do. While the research I do is emotionally laden, it is joyful and motivational because I get to be part of a larger community focused on justice and asset-building. When I can bring my whole self into my research and work, I know I am doing the right thing. So always ask yourself, am I doing what I am supposed to be doing, and how do I know?


This blog is part of a series of interviews (see here and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. For other blog posts related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility, please see here.

Dr. Iheoma U. Iruka is a Research Professor of Public Policy and the Founding Director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This interview was produced and edited by Bennett Lunn, Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.