IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Asking Questions about Dyslexia

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) recognizes the important role people with disabilities play in a diverse and inclusive American workforce. In recognition of NDEAM, we asked IES predoctoral fellow, Rachelle Johnson, how having a learning disability impacts her career development as a researcher. Rachelle, a PhD student and FIREFLIES fellow at Florida State University, researches the role various factors play in the reading development of students with learning disabilities, with a focus on socioemotional and environmental factors.

What inspired you to become an education researcher?

Being dyslexic, I grew up in special education and in pull-out reading intervention groups. Because dyslexic students were often in the same classes and pull-out groups, we formed an informal community of understanding and acceptance. But as I progressed through school, I noticed the makeup of my classmates changed.  My dyslexic classmates had spread out—a couple were in advanced placement, many were in regular classes, others still in mainly special education classes, and many in a mix of class types. And many of us came back together for inclusion English class. Among us we had vastly different goals for the future. I was in some advanced placement classes and was looking at going to university, while many of my dyslexic friends were just trying not to drop out of high school. In noticing these wide individual differences among my learning disabled (LD) peers, I wanted to know what differentiated us. Why had some of us gone onto high achievement and some didn’t when we all started out in that same reading intervention pull-out room?

To figure out these answers, I started to read what I could on dyslexia and began attending local conferences on learning disabilities. In doing so, I became frustrated because the people I saw talking about dyslexia were not LD themselves and often I was the only “out” LD person in the room. Even though I was still in high school, I decided I wanted to be the one to find the undiscovered answers to my questions about the factors involved in creating differentiated outcomes among learning disabled people. And I wanted to write about and tell people what I found and have that information help my LD community. What I was trying to find the word for was research, but I didn’t know that was a career option.

When I described my questions about learning disabilities to the PI whose lab I started working in as a research assistant my first semester in college, she encouraged me to pursue a career as a LD researcher. She showed me that answering questions was what researchers do and that being a researcher was a career option for me. Today, I continue to research the same overarching research question that I had in early high school: what factors play into the individual differences in academic outcomes among LD students?

What have been some challenges you have faced as a learning disabled person in academia?

A big challenge I often came up against in my early career was how “out” I was going to be about being disabled. I was told that if people knew I was disabled I would never get hired, no one would take me as a PhD student, and that I was just setting myself up for discrimination. However, part of why I started pursuing research was because I didn’t see LD people being represented and given a voice in conversations on LD. I decided to go against the advice of those around me and disclose my disability. I knew I would not be able to hide my disabilities well and that if I was going to thrive in an environment I would need to disclose. Also, my disabilities are central to my identity, and I didn’t want to hide that important part of myself. It is important to me to be the representation I desperately wanted. 

Another challenge is that there is pressure to “be disabled but not too disabled.” When people first meet me, they often talk about my dyslexia in the past tense, like it is something that I overcame in elementary school. However, I did not overcome my dyslexia. Dyslexia is a lifelong disability and one that is very much still a part of my daily life. Reading is still an issue for me and will always be. I rely heavily on assistive technology such as text-to-speech to read academic articles.

What supports have been the most helpful to you in your academic career?

I have had many great mentors, both current mentors at Florida State University and past mentors in and out of research. My mentors never expected anything less from me due to my disability and were also willing to talk with me through different barriers and find solutions together without lowering the expectations.

As a person with a learning disability, what advice would you give education researchers who focus on students with learning disabilities?

Be sure to actively involve LD people in your research. A small proportion of people researching LD are LD themselves. Help by mentoring the next generation of LD researchers by taking on LD mentees.

What advice would you give students with learning disabilities who wish to pursue a career in education research?

Sometimes, it can be scary thinking about going into a field such as education research, especially if you are not expected to do well.  I have actively sought a career that relies on skills that I have disabilities in. However, even if the field of education research was not structured with disabled people in mind from the beginning, that does not mean that the LD and otherwise disabled community do not belong there. Imposter syndrome happens, but you do belong in those spaces.

Community is so important inside and outside academia and inside and outside disability. I have had many mentors who have supported me. My learning-disabled community outside of academia has always been there for me and that is a cherished part of my support system. Whether that be just friends or someone to help problem solve when my assistive technology is malfunctioning. But it is also important to be involved in disability community as a whole, not just limited to LD. And the level of disclosure and outness of disability is a personal choice for everyone. But I have found that in being out as disabled at least I am not also hiding a big part of my identity and it helps in finding other disability community members to make connections.


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

Rachelle Johnson is a proud dyslexic with ADHD. She has been in learning disabled spaces all her life and is actively involved in learning disability research, outreach, and activism. Rachelle is currently a developmental psychology Ph.D. student and FIREFLIES fellow at Florida State University, where she researches reading development and learning disabilities within the Florida Center for Reading Research. She is also a member of the Board of Directors and the Young Adult Leadership Council of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The goal of both her research and activism is to create a world where learning disabled people are understood, supported, and reach their potential in life.

This blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), NCER program officer and co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.

Helping People with Disabilities Achieve their Employment Goals

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is held every October to raise awareness about disability employment issues and celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. This year, we asked Dr. David Mann, a senior researcher at Mathematica and alumni of our University of Pennsylvania predoctoral training program, to share his journey as a researcher with a physical disability as well as his current research on vocational rehabilitation.

As a person with a physical disability, how have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

Having a disability has profoundly shaped my scholarship and career. My research focuses on the employment, benefit receipt, and health of children and working age adults with disabilities. My interest in those topics is rooted in my own experience as a person with a disability. Before my injury and subsequent disability, I had limited interest in disability awareness or policy. But after joining the disability community, I came to appreciate the importance of generating evidence that can empower people with disabilities to live the lives they want. More personally, I view my disability and the insight it provides as a critical component of who I am.

What sparked your interest in education research?

My interest in education research is rooted in my personal experience. I acquired my disability at age 14, just after finishing the eighth grade. I was taught at a young age that education is critical to having a fulfilling career, but that insight became even more important after acquiring a disability. I knew that if I wanted to be independent as an adult, education would be critical. This personal experience made me interested in education research more broadly, especially the intersection of education and disability.     

How does your research on vocational rehabilitation contribute to a better understanding of how to support students with disabilities as they enter the workforce?

The Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program provides services and supports—including education-based supports—to people with disabilities who want to work. The services and supports are individually tailored based on each customer’s career goals and barriers to employment. I received VR services during my time in college and graduate school. My recent VR research focuses on testing new interventions that could improve employment outcomes for key groups of VR customers, such as transition age youth or people receiving subminimum wages. If we can generate evidence that identifies more effective strategies for helping people with disabilities achieve their employment goals, then we can have a large positive impact in the disability community.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered as a researcher with a disability and how did you overcome the challenge?

My biggest disability-related challenge as a researcher is managing the effects of my condition, which are wide-ranging. My limited stamina, inability to physically write, and limited ability to type are key challenges when trying to produce research and keep up with colleagues. I use assistive technology and other accommodations whenever possible to overcome these challenges. However, not all the effects of my condition are addressed with technology or accommodations. Consequently, I also do the best I can to take care of myself and avoid situations that demand more stamina than I have.   

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

If I had to highlight one thing the broader education research community can do to support researchers with disabilities, it would be creating a culture of encouragement. Reflecting on my experience in the predoctoral training program, a few key faculty members linked to the program regularly signaled to me that I could do what I set out to achieve. Put another way, they believed in me. I will always be grateful for that because it gave me the confidence to pursue the career I really wanted, not what I thought was expected of me. Any graduate student can benefit from encouragement but encouraging researchers with disabilities is especially important because of the additional challenges they must overcome.

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

Pursue your research passion! I was interested in disability-related research since college, but early in my graduate career an advisor in the economics department dissuaded me from pursuing disability-related research because I have a disability. I now realize how misguided that advice was, but at the time, I followed his advice. It was only after graduate school that I felt free to examine the intersection of disability, education, and employment. Do not make the same mistake—start pursuing now the research topics you care most about.


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

David Mann is a senior researcher for Mathematica’s Center for Studying Disability Policy. His primary research interests include the labor force participation, human capital accumulation, and benefit receipt of youth and adults with disabilities. He also has expertise in disability policy reform.

This blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), NCER program officer and co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.

It Takes a Village: Supporting the Next Generation of Education Researchers

The IES Pathways to the Education Sciences Program was designed to inspire students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in doctoral study to pursue careers in education research. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we asked Dr. Guadalupe Carmona, Principal Investigator of the P20 Pathways to Education Research training program at University of Texas at San Antonio to share her career journey and advice on supporting the next generation of education researchers.

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

It takes a village….

My goal has been to prepare the next generation of students in STEM by providing all students access to fundamental STEM ideas from an early age. My own early life experiences guided my scholarship and career in mathematics education. I was born and raised in Mexico City by my mother, an English teacher, and my father, a chemical engineer. They always inspired me to wonder, to ask questions, to seek for answers and to ask more questions, to never settle.

I was inspired to become an educator at the age of 15 when I volunteered for an adult literacy program. There, I had the opportunity to meet an amazing group of (mainly) women who taught me the best lessons of my life. One of my students, Doña Lola, was 70 years old. For 40 years, she sold newspapers at the stand only 2 blocks away from where I lived. Every day she would earn a living by selling news that she was unable to read. Doña Lola was an example to her two daughters, who were 35 and 40, who also enrolled to obtain their middle school certificate. For three consecutive years, I met with Doña Lola and her friends every week. Their perseverance and knowledge earned them an elementary school certificate. When graduation day came Doña Lola’s daughters received her diploma because she had passed away.

Doña Lola and all the wonderful people I met in this program have inspired my scholarship and career. They taught me that education was a privilege that I had taken for granted. They taught me about the joy in learning new things that can transform lives in better ways and about the joy of teaching in their learning. Even in these early years in my life, they taught me that students’ agency and participation in learning communities are fundamental to provide all students access to fundamental ideas from an early age.

At the age of 16, I became inspired to become a mathematician. By a teacher’s recommendation, I registered for the Mathematics Olympics. I didn’t know what this was about, but I knew I had to show up on Saturday and Sunday. I was handed three problems and was given four hours to solve them. I found great joy in finding different ways to solve these problems and in finding ways to explain my thinking process clearly so that the judges would understand my reasoning. Several months later, I received a phone call asking me to come with my family to receive an award. In that ceremony, I met Dr. María Trigueros, faculty at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, who offered me a scholarship for the mathematics program. She inspired me to write my honor’s thesis about the Conceptualizations of the tangent line and its relation to the derivative, my introduction to mathematics education.

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

My research, teaching, and service have been guided by an integrated vision to build a scalable and sustainable research program to prepare the next generation of students in STEM by broadening access to fundamental STEM ideas from an early age, through innovative approaches to teaching, learning, and assessment. In our research group, we use low-cost technologies that are easily available to develop learning environments in STEM. My work centers on impacting the field to become more diverse and more inclusive of populations who have historically been underrepresented. As a scholar and an educator, I work on broadening participation in STEM and STEM education and building bridges to create pathways from K-16 that leads to improved access and quality to education innovation, research, and workforce in the STEM fields.

In a time when Hispanic students are the fastest growing population in this country, providing support for STEM education resources that are also bilingual/biculturally sensitive in Spanish and English, and especially, strengthening ties with STEM and STEM education researchers in HSIs, Mexico and Latin America, are fundamental pieces to achieve these needed changes. This vision cannot be achieved by a single individual. I am fortunate to work within learning communities formed by national and international network of scholars, research and resources who share this vision.

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

It is important that the education research community respond to the imminent need to broaden participation in education research—especially by engaging groups that historically have been underrepresented—and work together towards systemic change. There are at least four key action items:

  • Increase research focus in educational systemic changes by simultaneously addressing equity and knowledge, in the design of PreK-16 learning environments for all students, teacher professional development to support these learning environments, and innovative assessments to capture the complexity of student thinking in these learning environments.
  • Support training programs, such as the IES Pathways Research in Education Training Programs, for underrepresented individuals to develop careers and create new pathways in education research. These programs support fellows to develop knowledge, tools, and experiences in doing research and participating in learning communities and networks to support their lifelong careers in education research.
  • Foster collaborations for interdisciplinary research that requires broad and diverse perspectives to solve grand challenges in education. It is important to have a shared vision and work together in coordinated ways for changes to occur systemically.
  • Make use of science communication training for scholars to disseminate results of educational research, especially when addressing interdisciplinary challenges in education so that relevant knowledge quickly becomes part of public domain and citizen literacy.

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

Ask questions. Seek answers. Find mentors. Learn and participate. Be grateful for the doors they will open for you. Build community. Become mentors. Inspire others and open doors for them.

Be passionate about changing the world. Be strategic about the ONE thing you want to change; prioritize and focus. Always remember that YOU are part of the change!


Dr. Carmona is a Professor in STEM Education at The University of Texas at San Antonio and also serves as Executive Director of ConTex, an initiative between the University of Texas System and Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) to foster binational academic collaborations between Mexico and Texas that are mutually beneficial for both countries. Dr. Carmona’s research agenda for the past 20 years has focused on broadening participation in STEM and addressing the need to prepare the next generation of students who can have democratic access to the fundamental and complex ideas in STEM from an early age. 

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

This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program.

Connecting to Place and People: How My Experiences with Native American Communities Motivate My Work

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In this guest blog, Dr. Tabitha Stickel, a second-year postdoctoral research fellow at the Georgia State University (GSU) Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program shares her experiences working with adult education programs in Native American tribal lands and how it has shaped her work and purpose.

Entering Adult Education: Connection to the Land and Peoples of the Southwest

Prior to graduate school, I found work as an adult education teacher at a rural, southwestern community college in the traditional lands of the Diné (Navajo), the Hopi, and the Ndee (Western Apache). This college, which served the indigenous communities, was set in the short-grass prairies, spotted with juniper trees in a land that seemed silent and empty to the untrained eye. But the land was full of life and opportunity, and the students I met gave me new appreciation for the opportunities adult education could provide.

As an adjunct faculty in an adult basic and developmental education program, I traveled several hours each week to teach classes on the Diné and Hopi tribal lands. I was immediately struck by the students’ dedication to their education and personal goals—to be the first in their families to earn a college degree, help their children or grandchildren with homework, find or keep employment, and/or fulfill the promise of completing high school made to themselves or others. 

Challenges in Adult Education for Rural Students

Despite this dedication, adult students face a variety of barriers to attending classes. Adult students often must contend with the challenges of caretaking, work, and transportation—a perennial problem for rural students, as there is no public transportation. Some students were able to carpool, and some of the tribes arranged vans to transport the “closer” students to the campus.

Even when faced with such challenges, students showed up each week. I had students without electricity at home who used their cell phones to access class materials, one of many such examples of the digital divide in rural areas. I had a student who made burritos each week and sold them to raise money for a desk for her schoolwork. These students drove my passion for my work. When students overcome incredible odds for their education, how can an educator do anything other than rise to meet them? Earning an education credential, such as a high school equivalency, could have far-reaching positive outcomes for the students and their families. 

What My Students Taught Me

In addition to learning about the challenges and rewards adult learners face, I also learned the importance of listening to students and checking assumptions. For instance, I had a GED student who was chronically late. One day, I called her because I was frustrated that she was over an hour late, only to learn that she was on her way. In fact, she was walking more than 20 miles to come to class. She had been unable to hitch-hike to class as she normally would. I was completely humbled in that moment and realized that my assumptions were keeping me from understanding her. She ended up earning her GED a month later.

When my students shared their stories, I learned how their lived experiences—including the very land on which they lived—shaped them. When I began to truly listen to these stories and understand their importance, I became a better teacher. And I knew that these stories deserved to be heard and answered with more than I could offer as a single teacher.

Moving Between Two Worlds: Research and Practice

My experiences in the southwest prompted me to attend graduate school and research how to understand, empower, and teach adult learners. In general, however, there is insufficient research on adult education within and for certain populations. I wanted help to address this gap, so I centered my work on identifying culturally relevant themes of belonging for Native adult education students to explore the various pathways along which student belonging might develop.

In 2020, I returned to the adult education program I had worked in to gather stories from the students for my dissertation. I found student stories became intertwined with the pandemic and revealed the extent of the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic was having on the Native American communities and students’ sense of belonging. COVID-19 was making it more difficult for students to balance attending class and providing for their families. It was also making the digital divide even more apparent—as adult education programs transitioned to remote instruction, students had to navigate the realities of participating and belonging in the digital sphere. I further explore these themes in the Coalition on Adult Basic Education’s (COABE) forthcoming special issue on COVIDs effects on adult students.

As with other challenges, these Native communities and students continued to survive and thrive despite the tragedies of COVID-19. The students and staff in the adult education programs in these tribal communities deserve all the recognition in the world for their dedication, their creativity in addressing ever-present and ever-arising challenges, and their persistence.

My own commitment to this endeavor led me to become a postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia State University (GSU) Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program. I hope to soon return to the land and communities that have so integrally changed my life.  

Although I may return with more knowledge of the adult education field and how to facilitate classroom learning, I will occupy not just a “teacher” role but a student one as well, as I have much to learn from the lands, the people, and the experiences they inevitably shape.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants and Postsecondary and Adult Education research at NCER.

Understanding NCER and NCSER’s Investments in Research Training

Since 2004, NCER has invested over $270 million dollars in education research training programs through solicited and unsolicited grants. NCSER has invested over $32 million in special education research training programs through solicited and unsolicited grants since 2008.

This investment has supported the training and professional development of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and early- and mid-career researchers. But what guides NCER’s and NCSER’s investments? What roles do NCER and NCSER play in research training in the education sciences, and how can the centers determine whether these investments are successful?

In June 2022, IES awarded a joint-center contract to WestEd to document the background and rationale for these training programs and help articulate the theoretical models for each of the programs, including assumptions, inputs, activities, and outputs. WestEd will then work with IES to identify metrics and potential data sources to better understand the successes and impacts of the current and possible future programs.

 

The commissioners for the centers, Drs. Elizabeth Albro and Joan McLaughlin, are excited about the opportunity to delve into the training programs that they believe have transformed the education sciences:

We see the benefits of these trainings every day, including the quality of the applications that we receive, ability of the research teams to conduct thoughtful and rigorous studies even when confronted with the practical challenges of working in schools, the number of early career applicants taking on important research, and the growing diversity of the research teams. 

 The commissioners see the contract as an exciting opportunity:

WestEd is supporting us as we take stock of our various research trainings and help us identify metrics for measuring success both within and across our training programs.  We want to make sure our research training programs stay current and address the needs and evolving challenges of the field and are looking forward to working with the WestEd team on this project. 

 

Dr. Nick Gage, a former NCSER postdoctoral fellow and current mentor on an NCSER Early Career grant leads the WestEd team and notes –  

I believe deeply in the capacity of IES to impact change through the training programs and am passionate about working with IES to find the connections among the programs and to develop a plan for measuring success across the training programs. I believe thinking broadly while also attending to the unique features of the training programs when developing models and a unified conceptual framework will be an on-going challenge, but one my team is excited to tackle. 

By understanding the connections between what is being done during these programs and the impacts on grantees, trainees, institutions, and the education sciences in the short and long term, we can develop new approaches for measuring and understanding success resulting from training program implementation. 

To build the models and identify metrics, WestEd is talking with IES staff, reviewing public and internal documents, leveraging natural language processing and other data analytic approaches, and soliciting input from former training program grantees and participants. Dr. Gage’s goal is to incorporate the voices of all those involved in training programs to help bring together multiple perspectives and ideas in this effort.

 

For more information about the research activities or to provide input, contact Dr. Nick Gage ngage@wested.org.

 

NCER Research Training Programs 

  • Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs)  
  • Methods Training for Education Research 
  • Pathways to the Education Sciences 
  • Postdoctoral Research Training 
  • Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training 
  • Training in Education Use and Practice 

  

NCSER Research Training Programs 

  • Early Career Development and Mentoring in Special Education 
  • Methods Training for Special Education Research 
  • Postdoctoral Research Training Program in Special Education and Early Intervention 

 


This blog was written by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), an NCER Postdoctoral Training program officer and current coordinator for the NCER/NCSER Training Program team. She is also the contracting officer representative for the NCER/NCSER Education Research Training Program Support contract.