IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

The Scoop on Replication Research in Special Education

Replication research may not grab the headlines, but reproducing findings from previous studies is critical for advancing scientific knowledge. Some have raised concerns about whether we conduct a sufficient number of replication studies. This concern has drawn increased attention from scholars in a variety of fields, including special education.

Photo array, top left going clockwise: Therrien, Lemons, Cook, and Coyne

Several special education researchers explored this issue in a recent Special Series on Replication Research in Special Education in the journal, Remedial and Special Education. The articles describe replication concepts and issues, systematically review the state of replication research in special education, and provide recommendations for the field. One finding is that there may be more replication studies than it seems—but authors don’t call them replications.

Contributors to the special issue include Bryan Cook from the University of Hawaii, Michael Coyne from the University of Connecticut, and Bill Therrien from the University of Virginia, who served as guest editors, and Chris Lemons, from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. They shared more about the special issue and their collective insights into replications in special education research.

(In photo array, top left going clockwise: Therrien, Lemons, Coyne, and Cook)

How did you become interested in replication work?

Replication is a core component of the scientific method. Despite this basic fact that we all learned in Research 101, it is pretty apparent that in practice, replication is often ignored. We noticed how much attention the lack of replication was starting to get in other fields and in the press and were particularly alarmed by recent work showing that replications often fail to reproduce original findings. This made us curious about the state and nature of replication in the field of special education.

What is the state of replication research in special education?

It depends on how you define replication and how you search for replication articles. When a narrow definition is used and you require the term “replication” to be in the article, the rate of replication doesn’t look too good. Using this method, Lemons et al. (2016) and Makel et al. (2016) reported that the rate of replication in special education is between 0.4 to 0.5%, meaning that out of all the articles published in our field, less than 1% are replications. We suspected that—for a number of reasons (e.g., perceptions that replications are difficult to publish, are less prestigious than novel studies, and are hostile attempts to disprove a colleague’s work)—researchers might be conducting replication studies but not referring to them as such. And, indeed it’s a different story when you use a broad definition and you do not require the term replication to be in the article. Cook et al. (2016) found that out of 83 intervention studies published in six non-categorical special education journals from 2013-2014, there were 26 (31%) that could be considered replications, though few authors described their studies that way. Therrien et al. (2016) selected eight intervention studies from 1999-2001 and determined whether subsequently published studies that cited the original investigations had replicated them. They found that six of the eight original studies had been replicated by a total of 39 different studies (though few of the replications identified themselves as such).

What were some other key findings across the review articles?

Additional findings indicated that: (a) most replications conducted in special education are conceptual (i.e., some aspects are the same as the original study, but some are different) as opposed to direct (i.e., as similar to the original study as possible), (b) the findings of the majority of replications in special education agreed with the findings of the original studies, and (c) most replications in the field are conducted by one or more authors involved in the original studies. In three of the four reviews, we found it was more likely for a replication to produce the same outcome if there was author overlap between the original and replication studies. This may be due to the challenges of replicating a study with the somewhat limited information provided in a manuscript. It also emphasizes the importance of having more than one research team independently replicate study findings.  

What are your recommendations for the field around replicating special education interventions?

The article by Coyne et al. (2016) describes initial recommendations for how to conceptualize and carry out replication research in a way that contributes to the evidence about effective practices for students with disabilities and the conditions under which they are more or less effective:

  • Many studies evaluate an approach that has previously been studied under different conditions. In this case, researchers should specify which aspects replicate previous research;
  • Conceptualize and report intervention research within a framework of systematic replications, or a continuum of conceptual replications ranging from those that are more closely aligned to the original study to those that are less aligned;
  • Design and conduct closely aligned replications that duplicate, as faithfully as possible, the features of previous studies.
  • Design and conduct less closely aligned replications that intentionally vary essential components of earlier studies (e.g., participants, setting, intervention features, outcome measures, and analyses); and
  • Interpret findings using a variety of methods, including statistical significance, directions of effects, and effect sizes. We also encourage the use of meta-analytic aggregation of effects across studies.

One example of a high-quality replication study is by Doabler et al. The authors conducted a closely aligned replication study of a Tier 2 kindergarten math intervention. In the design of their IES-funded project, the authors planned a priori to conduct a replication study that would vary on several dimensions, including geographical location, participant characteristics, and instructional context. We believe this is a nice model of designing, conducting, and reporting a replication study.

Ultimately, we need to conduct more replication studies, we need to call them replications, we need to better describe how they are alike and different from the original study, and we need to strive for replication by researchers not involved in the original study. It is this type of work that may increase the impact research has on practice, because it strengthens our understanding of whether, when, and where an intervention works.

By Katie Taylor, Program Officer, National Center for Special Education Research

Enhancing Reading Instruction for Children with Down Syndrome

In February, President Obama named two Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grantees as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Christopher Lemons (Peabody College of Vanderbilt University) and Cynthia Puranik (Georgia State University) were honored in Washington, DC at a White House ceremony this past May, along with 103 other recipients of the award.

Dr. Lemons and Dr. Puranik have recently completed an IES-funded project, Enhancing Reading Instruction for Children with Down Syndrome: A Behavioral Phenotypic Approach. They served as the Co-Principal Investigators of this study to develop an intervention for improving reading for children with Down syndrome (DS). The intervention is a supplemental, 16-week reading curriculum that incorporates critical components of early reading (e.g., vocabulary, decoding skills, fluency) and has been adapted and modified to align with the Down syndrome behavioral phenotype—a set of characteristics commonly shared by children with the syndrome. The characteristics of focus for this intervention include the ability to process visual information and challenges with auditory and expressive language, using working and short-term memory, and motivation. Kim Sprague, program officer in the National Center for Special Education Research, spoke with Dr. Lemons (pictured right) about the project and next steps.   

Why do we need this reading intervention?

Over the last decade, research has demonstrated that students with DS can do better in school than we ever imagined in the past. The purpose of our intervention is to increase reading outcomes by adapting instruction that targets phonological awareness and phonics so that it is more closely aligned with the Down syndrome behavioral phenotype in an attempt to make the instruction more effective for children with Down syndrome.

What is the purpose of studying phenotype?

This is something I am often asked. We were looking for ideas to improve reading interventions for students with DS and there is evidence in the literature base that students with DS have a heightened probability of sharing certain characteristics—a behavioral phenotype. So we sought to develop an intervention based on this specific phenotype and our goal was to determine whether adapting instruction for a group who share common features may hold promise.

What was the intervention that was implemented for children?

Through the iterative process for this development grant, we experimented with applying several adaptations to evidence-based phonological awareness and phonics instruction. Our primary adaptation was to teach students a key word for each letter sound. We selected words that students were likely to know—like “dog.” In each lesson, we focused on three letter sounds paired with a picture and taught the student to match the picture to the printed word. We then used this word-picture pair to support the other components of the lesson that were focused on phonological awareness, alphabetic principle, decoding and scaffolding working memory. We worked with the paraprofessionals and teachers to train and support their implementation of the developed intervention.

What were the study results? 

We have learned that our intervention is effective at increasing reading outcomes for many students with DS who enter the program at the lowest reading levels. These children appear to have benefited from our adaptations. This said, there were some children with DS who needed additional individualization, so special education teachers need to understand how to provide this type of ongoing adaptation. Also, we demonstrated that many students’ who had already “broken the code”—students who already understand and can apply the alphabetic principle—didn’t need adapted instruction. They benefited from the standard version of the phonics intervention.

What are the next steps based on this work?

We still have a lot of work to do. I think we have had success in helping students improve phonological awareness and decoding skills. We need to more strongly focus on comprehension. So, how do we provide assistance to help them answer who, what, where, and when questions? How can we support students’ abilities in interpreting the meaning of texts independently? And, more specifically for students with DS, we need a better understanding of the variability that exists related to characteristics associated with the phenotype. We need stronger empirical work to explore potential aptitude-by-treatment effects that may result from this line of work and continue to explore interventions that are feasible and effective.

For reading instruction provided to students with DS, ensuring that paraprofessionals are appropriately trained and supported to deliver the reading intervention as well as to adapt to the individual needs of the student is critical. Doing so may offer the greatest hope to improve outcomes because paraprofessionals are often able to provide one-on-one instruction more frequently than the special education teacher. During the study, special education teachers and paraprofessionals were willing to provide one-on-one instructional time to participating students for four or five days per week. However, most of the teachers indicated that they would not be able to maintain this level of intensity after the study was over.

We are beginning work to explore how to better support teachers of students with intellectual disabilities as they implement data-based individualization, or DBI, as a method to enhance reading outcomes. We think this approach holds promise. Readers of your blog can learn more about this approach at the National Center on Intensive Intervention at www.intensiveintervention.org.

Wendy Wei, a program assistant in the National Center for Education Research, and Diane Mechner, who worked as an IES intern, contributed to this blog post.

Recognizing Our Outstanding Predoctoral Fellows

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. For the first time, IES has selected joint recipients for the 2015 award: Meghan McCormick and Eric Taylor. They will receive their awards and present their research at the annual IES Principal Investigators meeting in Washington, D.C. in December 2016.

Meghan completed her Ph.D. in Applied Psychology at New York University and wrote her dissertation on the efficacy of INSIGHTS, a social emotional learning intervention aimed at improving low-income urban students’ academic achievement. She is currently a research associate at MDRC. Eric completed his PhD in the Economics of Education from Stanford University and wrote his dissertation on the contributions of the quality and quantity of classroom instruction to student learning. Eric is currently an assistant professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

We asked Meghan and Eric how participating in an IES predoctoral training program helped their development as researchers.  For more information about the IES predoctoral training program, visit our website.

Meghan McCormick

Having the opportunity to be part of the IES Predoctoral Training Program helped me to develop a set of theoretical, quantitative, and practical skills that I would not have had the opportunity to develop otherwise. 

I was drawn to attend NYU (New York University) for my doctoral studies specifically because the school of education at NYU offered the (IES) predoctoral training program, in addition to hosting a core set of faculty with research interests very much aligned with my own. In my first year of graduate school, I quickly became aware that being a part of the IES program allowed me the freedom to study with an interdisciplinary set of scholars who could support multiple components of my training through a diverse set of experiences.

For example, in my work with Elise Cappella, Erin O’Connor, and Sandee McClowry, I was able to learn about the logistics of implementing a cluster-randomized trial across a broad set of schools, and conducting impact analyses to evaluate the efficacy of one social-emotional learning program called INSIGHTS. My experience working with Jim Kemple and Lori Nathanson at the Research Alliance for New York City schools showed me how to use research in a way that was responsive to the needs and goals of education policy makers. Quantitative coursework with Jennifer Hill and Sharon Weinberg helped me to apply rigorous quantitative methods to the data that were collected in schools, and to think concretely about the implications of research design for my future work. Coursework with developmental psychologists conducting policy-relevant research, such as Pamela Morris and Larry Aber, helped me to apply comprehensive theoretical framing when examining research questions of interest, and interpreting results. In addition, I have always been primarily interested in conducting interdisciplinary research that is responsive to policy and practice. My dissertation research grew out of my interest in learning about interdisciplinary methods for causal inference and applying them to research questions I had about how, for whom, and under what circumstances the social-emotional learning program I helped to evaluate effected outcomes for low-income students.

Most importantly, perhaps, having been part of the IES program’s collaborative and interdisciplinary community helped me to identify the type of research I wanted to do after finishing graduate school. Primarily, I knew that I wanted to conduct policy-relevant research, using the most rigorous quantitative methods available, with a team of researchers coming from different backgrounds. This realization led me to work at MDRC, where I have been working with JoAnn Hsueh and other colleagues to apply my skills from the predoctoral training program in new research design work that is responsive to critical policy questions in early education policy and practice right now. I feel prepared for this new work given the opportunities that the IES program afforded me across the last five years. 

Eric Taylor

I would emphasize two benefits. First, the IES program at Stanford helped me create and strengthen professional relationships with other education researchers and practitioners. Those relationships provided important opportunities to learn skills in ways that could not happen in the classroom but also complemented the excellent classroom instruction. The new relationships were diverse: other graduate students in different disciplines, Stanford faculty and faculty at other institutions, and, critically, practitioners and policy makers. For example, supported by my fellowship, I joined faculty at (the University of) Michigan and Columbia (University) working with the DC Public Schools to improve teacher applicant screening and hiring.

Second, those relationships combined with the financial support of the fellowship made it possible to work on new and timely research projects. During my time as an IES predoc, with collaborators at Brown, we started a researcher-practitioner partnership with colleges at the Tennessee Department of Education. The resulting work has taught me much about the day-to-day realities of school policy making and management, and how research can and cannot help. The partnership with Tennessee also grew into a five-year grant from IES, which began last year, to study state policy and teacher development through evaluation.

In short, I am certain my career is much further along today than it would have been without the IES predoc fellowship.

By Katina Stapleton, Education Research Analyst, National Center for Education Research 

 

A Conversation about Reading for Understanding

There is a lot of discussion these days about the importance of bringing many voices to the table when designing, implementing, and interpreting research studies. The usefulness of educational research is only enhanced when teachers, policmakers, and researchers work together to design studies and understand the findings.

The Educational Testing Service and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) sponsored such an opportunity on May 18 and 19 by bringing together over 150 researchers, practitioners, instructional specialists, federal staff, and policy makers to reflect on the efforts of the of the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative (RfU).

Researchers from the six RfU teams shared what they learned about how to work together to design and implement new approaches and improve reading for understanding from PreK through high school. They also discussed what needs to be done to build on this effort.  (Check out this recent blog post to learn how some researchers are building on the work of the RfU Initiative.)

Sessions at the meeting were designed to promote discussion among attendees in order to take advantage of different viewpoints and  better understand the implications of the RfU findings and the relevance for practice and policy. The meeting culminated with two panels tasked with summarizing key points from these discussions. One panel focused on implications for research, and the other on policy implications. The presence of practitioners from the field, researchers, and policymakers led to a well-rounded conversation about how we can build upon the research of RfU and put it into action in the classroom.

The agenda, presentation slides, and webcasts of the closing panels are now available for viewing on the meeting website.  

Written by Karen Douglas, Education Research Analyst, NCER

What’s Next for the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative?

After years of intense collaboration and research, the Reading for Understanding (RfU) Research Initiative is coming to an end. But the initiative’s work continues through recently announced IES-funded grants.

Over six years, research teams in the RfU network designed and tested new interventions that aim to improve reading comprehension in students in all grade levels and developed new measures of reading comprehension and component skills that support it. The initiative led to several new and important findings. In the coming years, several teams will build on that work through new research projects funded by IES’ National Center for Education Research (NCER) and National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER).  

During the RfU initiative, the Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT) team found positive effects in improving the content-area reading comprehension of middle school students. The PACT intervention uses social studies content to engage students and teach them to build coherent representations of the ideas in texts. Through a new grant from NCER, the PACT team will be testing the effectiveness of the intervention in middle school social studies classrooms in eight states.

Another group of researchers from the PACT team are starting a new project with funding from NCSER to design and test a technology-based intervention aimed at improving how middle school students with reading disabilities make inferences while reading.  

The RfU assessment team is also launching a new NCER-funded project to develop a digital assessment appropriate for adults, in particular those reading between the 3rd- to 8th-grade levels. Building on the Global, Integrated Scenario-Based Assessment (GISA) developed in RfU, the team intends for this new assessment to help determine an adult reader's strengths and weaknesses, inform instruction, and improve programs and institutional accountability. In addition, this team is using assessment items developed with RfU funding to explore the relationship between high school students' background knowledge and their reading comprehension.  

Finally, the Florida State University RfU team is continuing to explore which combination of interventions will improve the early language skills that are foundational to mastery of reading. In this new project, the researchers will examine the relative efficacy and sustained impacts of a language and vocabulary intervention for prekindergarten and kindergarten students, with variations on when and how long the intervention is used.

Written by Elizabeth Albro, Associate Commissioner, NCER