IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Representation Matters: Exploring the Role of Gender and Race on Educational Outcomes

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice.

 

The process of education transmits sociocultural values to learners in addition to information and knowledge. How individuals are represented in curricula and instructional materials can teach students about their place in the world. This can either perpetuate existing systemic inequalities or, conversely, provide a crucial counternarrative to them. With an exploration grant from IES, Anjali Adukia (University of Chicago) and Alex Eble (Teachers College, Columbia University) are exploring how  representation and messages about gender and race in elementary school books may influence student’s education outcomes over time. The researchers will develop and use machine-learning tools that leverage text and image analysis techniques to identify gender- and race-based messages in commonly used elementary-school books.

 

Interview with Anjali Adukia, University of Chicago

Tell us how your research contributes to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and/or inclusion in education.

In my work, I seek to understand how to reduce inequalities such that children from historically (or contemporaneously) marginalized backgrounds have equal opportunities to fully develop their potential. I examine factors that motivate and shape behavior, preferences, and educational decision-making, with a particular focus on early-life influences. Proceeding from the notion that children are less likely to be able to focus on learning until their basic needs are met, my research uses both econometric methods and qualitative approaches to understand the specific roles different basic needs play in making these decisions. My research, for example, has explored the role of safety and health (sanitation, violence), economic security (road construction, workfare), justice (restorative practices), and representation (children’s books), particularly for marginalized groups.

 

As a woman and a minority, how has your background and experiences shaped your career?

My research is informed and influenced by my own experiences. When I was a child, I never understood why there weren’t more characters that looked like me or when there were, why they had such limited storylines. For me personally, the motivation underlying our IES-funded project was borne out of my lived experience of always searching for content that reflected who I was. I think of representation as a fundamental need: if you don’t see yourself represented in the world around you, it can limit what you see as your potential; and similarly, if you don’t see others represented, it can limit what you see as their potential; and if you only see certain people represented, then this shapes your subconscious defaults.

It was a real watershed moment when I realized that academia allowed me to pursue many of my larger goals in life, in which I hope to meaningfully improve access to opportunities and outcomes for children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I hope to accomplish this in various ways, paying forward the many kindnesses generously given to me by: (1) producing rigorous policy-relevant evidence that expands our understanding of big questions and opens new avenues for inquiry; (2) translating my research such that it helps inform policymakers and practitioners in the design of school policies and practices; (3) understanding issues with a depth and sophistication that comes from “on-the-ground” insights, knowledge cultivated in multiple disciplines using different methodologies, introspection, humility, and courage; (4) directly working with government agencies, non-profit organizations, and community groups to positively inform policies; (5) contributing to the larger public discourse; and (6) by training and advising students to have the fortitude to ask hard questions, to be able to defend different perspectives on issues, to learn that knowledge brings more questions than answers, and to be willing to take risks and fail (and in the process, I will certainly learn more from them than they will ever be able to learn from me).

 

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

Life is always filled with challenges, but one challenge starting from when I was young was to feel comfortable in my own skin and to find legitimacy in my own voice. I grew up as an Indian-American daughter of Hindu immigrants in a rural, predominantly white and Christian setting. I was different from the other kids and did not always feel like I fit in. I remember literally trying to erase my skin hoping that it would make it lighter. I found the helpers, as my parents (and Mr. Rogers) would suggest, and tried to focus on the voices that lifted me up – my family, teachers, other mentors, those friends who loved me no matter my differences. My mother always told me to find the kindness, the good, the love in people; to find the common ground and to embrace and learn from the differences. I surrounded myself with love, focusing on what I had and on what I could do rather than what society was telling me I couldn’t do. I turned to concentrating on things that mattered to me, that drove me. I don’t think there is a single challenge in life that I overcame alone. I have been very lucky, and I am deeply grateful for the many gifts in my life, the many loved ones – family, friends, colleagues, mentors, healthcare workers – who have lifted me up, and the opportunities that came my way.

 

How can the broader education research community better support the needs of underrepresented, minority scholars?

The notion of what is considered to be an important question is often driven by the senior scholars in a field, for example, the people considered to be “giants.” Demographically, this small set of leading scholars has historically consisted of people from the most highly represented groups (particularly in economics). And because the field is thus shaped mainly by researchers from a “dominant” group background, the key questions being pursued may not always reflect the experiences or concerns of people from underrepresented backgrounds. Education research has pockets where these different perspectives are being considered, but it can continue to evolve by becoming more open to approaches thought to be less traditional or to questions not typically asked (or asked from a different point of view). Expanding the notion of what is considered important, rigorous research can be difficult and cause growing pains, but it will help expand our knowledge to incorporate more voices.

 

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

Keep a journal of questions that arise and topics that pique your curiosity and interest. Soon, you will find questions in the fabric of everyday life, and you will start to articulate the wonder you see in the world around you and what inspires you to action, to understand the universe further. I find that when I return to past writings and journal entries, I am reminded of questions that have ignited my fires and see some of the common themes that emerge over time. Find your voice and know that your voice and views will grow and evolve over time. There are so many interesting and important questions one can pursue. Most importantly, you have to be true to yourself, your own truth. Find circles of trust in which you can be vulnerable. Draw strength from your struggle. There is deep truth and knowledge within you.

 


Dr. Anjali Adukia is an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the College.

This interview was produced by Christina Chhin (Christina.Chhin@ed.gov), Program Officer, National Center for Education Research.

 

Better Reading Comprehension When You Know That You Don’t Know

The more you already know about a topic, the easier it may be to comprehend and learn from texts about that topic. But knowledge has to start somewhere. So how can we help students learn from texts when they may have low background knowledge?

In their exploratory study, researchers from ETS found that lack of knowledge is not necessarily a barrier to comprehension. Rather, they suggest that students who can identify their lack of background knowledge are more likely to comprehend and learn new information than students who do not acknowledge they lack background knowledge. In other words, knowing that you might not know may lead to better outcomes.

To determine the role of background knowledge, the researchers pretested middle and high school students’ background knowledge through questions related to topics the students may have some but not complete knowledge of, such as ecology, immigration, and wind power. The pretest included an “I don’t know” option, along with correct and incorrect responses.

Students then took a scenario-based assessment in which they read multiple sources about each of the topics. This type of assessment mirrors real-world learning by encouraging readers to build their own interpretations of a topic, which helps researchers determine whether students comprehend what they read.

They found that students who selected “I don’t know” when answering background knowledge questions had better understanding of the content than those who provided wrong answers on these questions. In fact, students who selected “I don’t know” rather than answering incorrectly were nearly three times as likely to learn from sources that provided the correct information than students who had answered the pretest incorrectly. Students who selected “I don’t know” may also learn more than students who had a comparable level of weak background knowledge. The researchers suggest that the “I don’t know” readers may have set different reading goals prior to engaging with the sources than those who guessed incorrectly.

 

Possible Implications for Teaching and Learning

The results from this work support the idea that having and building background knowledge is key. Thus, teachers may want to assess existing knowledge and address knowledge gaps prior to instruction.

Teachers may also want to provide an “I don’t know” option or options that allow students to rate their level of certainty. Doing so may help teachers distinguish between students who recognize their own gaps in knowledge from those who may not be aware that they are wrong or that they simply do not know. This latter group of students may need more help in determining the accuracy of their judgments or may have incorrect knowledge that could interfere with learning.

The researchers further suggest that teachers may want to go beyond the role of background knowledge by teaching students how to set appropriate reading goals and use strategic reading approaches to learn new facts or correct existing misunderstandings.

 


The research reported here was conducted under NCER grant R305A150176: What Types of Knowledge Matters for What Types of Comprehension? Exploring the Role of Background Knowledge on Students' Ability to Learn from Multiple Texts.

This blog was written by Dr. Meredith Larson. Contact her for more information about this project.

The Importance of Partnering with Practitioners in English Learner Research

IES values and encourage collaborations between researchers and practitioners to ensure that research findings are relevant, accessible, feasible, and useful. In FY 2014, Dr. Karen Thompson was awarded a grant for The Oregon English Learner Alliance: A Partnership to Explore Factors Associated with Variation in Outcomes for Current and Former English Learners in Oregon to determine best practices to support academic achievement among current and former English learners. Dr. Thompson and her colleagues wrote a guest blog post describing the work that the partnership undertook to better understand and improve the performance of English learners in Oregon. In this blog, we interviewed Dr. Thompson—three years after the end of the grant—to get her perspectives on the partnership, outcomes of their work, and where things currently stand.

 

What was the purpose of your research and what led you to do this work?

When I came to Oregon from California in 2012, there was growing momentum in the state to better understand and meet the needs of the state’s multilingual student population, particularly students classified as English learners (ELs). The state had developed an ambitious EL strategic plan, which included a variety of goals and action steps, such as identifying model programs and sharing best practices. I noticed that Oregon did not have publicly available information about the state’s former EL students. In prior work, other researchers and I had demonstrated that analyzing data only about students currently classified as English learners without also analyzing data about former EL students can provide incomplete and misleading information. Therefore, for Oregon to realize its goals and truly understand which programs and practices were most effectively educating its multilingual students, the state needed to make changes to its data systems. This was the seed that led to the Oregon Department of Education/Oregon State University English Language Learner Partnership. Our first goal was to simply determine how many former EL students there were in the state. Then, once the state had created a flag to identify former EL students, we were able to conduct a wide range of analyses to better understand opportunities and outcomes for both current and former EL students in ways that have informed state reporting practices and policy decisions.

 

How does this research differ from other work in the field? Why do you think partnerships with practitioners were necessary to carry out the work?

When we began our partnership, collecting and analyzing information about both current and former EL students was not common. Happily, more and more researchers and education agencies have now adopted these approaches, and we think our partnership has helped play a role in this important and illuminating shift.  

It was crucial to conduct this work via partnerships between researchers and practitioners. Practitioner partners had deep knowledge of the state’s current data systems, along with knowledge about which reporting and analysis practices could shift to incorporate new information about current and former EL students. Research partners had the bandwidth to conduct additional analyses and to lead external dissemination efforts. Our regular partnership meetings enabled our work to evolve in response to new needs. 

 

What do you think was the most important outcome of your work and why?

I think the most important outcome of our work is that educators across Oregon now have information about both their current and former English learner students and can use this data to inform policy and practice decisions. Other analyses we conducted have also informed state actions. For example, our analysis of how long it takes Oregon EL students to develop English proficiency and exit EL services informed the state’s EL progress indicator under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

 

What are the future directions for this work?

Our IES-funded partnership led to funding from the Spencer Foundation to do further research about EL students with disabilities in Oregon, which has impacted practices in the state. In addition, I am excited to be one of the collaborators in the new IES-funded National Research and Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners (PI: Aída Walquí, WestEd). As part of the Center’s research, I am working with colleagues at the University of Oregon and the University of California, Los Angeles to analyze malleable factors impacting content-course access and achievement for secondary EL students. We are collaborating with four states in this work, and as in our ODE/OSU partnership, we will be analyzing data for both current and former EL students. At a policy level, colleagues and I are involved in conversations about how data collection and reporting at the federal level could also incorporate analysis of data for both current and former EL students, including ways this might inform future reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

 

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Dr. Karen Thompson is an Associate Professor at the College of Education at Oregon State University. Her research focuses on how curriculum and instruction, teacher education and policy interact to share the classroom experiences of K-12 multilingual students.

 

Written by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), Program Officer for English Learner Program, National Center for Education Research.

Catching Up with Former NCSER Fellows: Experiences and Advice for Early Career Researchers

Since 2008, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) has supported postdoctoral training programs to prepare fellows in conducting early intervention and special education research that addresses issues that are important to infants, toddlers, children, and youth with or at risk for disabilities, their families, practitioners, and policymakers. As part of our Spotlight on IES Training Programs series, we reached out to a few former NCSER fellows who are now principal investigators (PIs) on IES grants to ask about their current research projects, how the NCSER fellowship prepared them for those projects, roadblocks they faced in applying for research funding, and advice for early career researchers interested in applying for IES funding. Below is what they had to say.

Photo of Angel FettigAngel Fettig, University of Washington

My NCSER postdoctoral position at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill provided the opportunities and resources to prepare me to be the researcher I am today. Through my postdoctoral position, I had the opportunity to work on multiple NCSER-funded projects and got a solid understanding of the day-to-day activities of large research grants. I also received resources and supports to attend trainings and hone my research skills. Most importantly, I was surrounded by a community of researchers and mentors who are committed to promoting the use of rigorous research methodologies to build on evidence-based practices. Since the completion of my postdoctoral position, I have engaged in continuous learning around innovative research methodologies and apply them in my research grant applications. My current research, including the NCSER project I lead, focuses on equipping educators and parents with evidence-based practices to support young children’s social and emotional development and reduce challenging behaviors. I strongly believe that social emotional development is critical in ensuring the success of young children with and at risk for disabilities as they enter schools, and adults who interact with them play a crucial role in fostering this development. My advice for early career researchers is to find good mentors and colleagues who are interested in similar topics, craft an idea that addresses the current needs, design a study with rigorous and innovative research methodologies, and then just apply for funding! You can’t score a goal if you don’t take a shot!

Photo of Paulo GrazianoPaulo Graziano, Florida International University

My NCSER postdoctoral position at Florida International University provided me with specialized training in evidence-based assessments and interventions for children with disruptive behavior disorders. In combination with my background in developmental psychopathology, this training allowed me to find gaps in the research on how to best prepare preschoolers with disruptive behavior disorders for school entry, which led me to apply for additional IES grants. The NCSER project that I was awarded in 2012 entailed iteratively developing and testing a summer treatment program targeting pre-kindergarteners with disruptive behavior. As part of the project, we learned which curriculum, length, and level of parental involvement was needed to optimize children's academic, behavioral, and social-emotional growth during kindergarten. I was fortunate enough to get this award while still finishing up my postdoctoral fellowship, which was tremendously helpful in obtaining a faculty position and continuing my work at the same institution. One roadblock I faced applying for funding was obtaining permission from my university to apply for a grant as the PI while still a postdoc and responding to reviewers who thought that a postdoc should not be a PI. However, I overcame both roadblocks with the support of my postdoc mentor. This initial IES grant and my NCSER postdoc training were essential for launching my career and establishing a translational line of research that integrates developmental and neuroscience research to inform the treatment of disruptive behavior disorders. This integrated line of research has also allowed me to successfully receive funding from other agencies including the National Institutes of Health. I would highly encourage early career researchers to develop solid relationships with their community's school system. Forming a partnership is critical towards submitting a project for funding that will not only be implemented with high fidelity but that will be well received and maintained/adopted by stakeholders once the grant ends.

Photo of Dwight IrvinDwight Irvin, University of Kansas

My NCSER postdoctoral fellowship at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at the University of Kansas focused on response to intervention in early childhood. With support and guidance from my mentors, Charles Greenwood and Judith Carta, I was afforded an opportunity to assist on multiple IES projects that allowed me to engage in planning, problem-solving, technology design/development, and statistical analysis. Importantly, I learned how an idea becomes a proposal, a funded grant, and is implemented to meet the proposed deliverables. During my postdoc, I formulated my own line of research and collected pilot data for future proposal development. It’s these experiences that I feel were most beneficial in preparing me for my current work and research. In our current NCSER project, we aim to validate a tool, the Classroom Code for Interactive Recording of Children's Learning Environments (CIRCLE) (Version 2.0), to assist preschool teachers in adjusting their instruction for young children at risk of not being ready for kindergarten. CIRCLE is a digital, live classroom observation system that assesses teacher and child behavior within multiple learning contexts. Our goal is to learn under what conditions and for whom intentional instruction is effectively promoting children’s literacy engagement and school readiness outcomes. Applying for research funding is always a formidable task. A big challenge is just being an early career investigator and lacking a reputation that convinces reviewers the work is feasible and worth funding. Another is learning how to write a proposal that is absent of fatal flaws and not viewed as too “ambitious.” My advice for early career researchers is to surround yourself with colleagues who value mentoring and have a history of funding. Find a way to involve yourself in developing a proposal even if it is not your own work and find a role on it even if it is not as an investigator. It is best not to expect success on an initial proposal submission, rather look at getting a panel review as a win. And lastly, find ways to collect and include meaningful pilot data to incorporate into a proposal as evidence that it is worth the investment.

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 postdoctoral training program.

National Research & Development Center Launches Website to Provide Research Evidence and Actionable Information for Improving Education Outcomes for Secondary English Learners

Many English Learners (ELs) in secondary school settings are identified as long-term ELs—students who have been enrolled in U.S. schools for six or more years who have not made significant progress in English—and are at risk for dropping out of high school. These students face unique challenges and barriers in accessing education opportunities, which has resulted in persistent differences in academic outcomes between ELs and non-ELs, as well as negative consequences that reach far beyond school.  

 

About the Center

The IES-funded National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners has identified two specific challenges that ELs in secondary school face as they simultaneously develop English proficiency and subject-matter knowledge: 1) barriers to enrollment in challenging courses, and 2) scarcity of quality learning opportunities. The Center is taking a multi-pronged research approach to improve outcomes for ELs in secondary school settings by:

  • Identifying and describing the systemic barriers that prevent secondary ELs from successfully accessing the general curriculum
  • Developing and testing innovative curricular materials that strengthen the learning opportunities and experiences of both teachers and ELs as they engage in disciplinary practices

 

New Website Launched

The Center has launched a new website that provides information about their work and resources for researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and other education stakeholders to address current challenges and needs facing ELs in secondary school settings. Visit https://www.elrdcenter.wested.org/ for information ranging from how teachers and school and district leaders can support adolescent ELs in distance learning to modules that can be used for teacher preparation or professional development sessions to develop expertise in working with adolescent ELs.

For more information about IES’s investment in improving opportunities and achievement for English learners in secondary school settings, please see here.


Written by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), Program Officer for English Learners Program, National Center for Education Research.