Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

The Value of Partnerships for Studying English Learner Education

English learners (ELs) can be a tricky student population to study. In some ways, these students who are learning English as part of their education are a homogenous population. For example, more than 75% of them speak Spanish, and more than half of the nation's 4.8 million EL students  are concentrated in grades K – 3. On the other hand, EL education can be very context-driven. For example, districts and states vary considerably both in the composition of their particular EL population, and in the specific policies, assessments, and instructional supports they use to guide ELs’ education.

In response to this latter point, some NCER grantees have figured out that one good way to study and support EL education is by working in close partnership with a specific education agency. In other words, don’t fight the place-based nature of EL education – rather, use it as an asset to make your research even more relevant.

There are several examples of IES-funded projects that have successfully worked using this approach. The most obvious are eight Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships we have funded that explicitly focused on ELs. These projects have tackled a range of EL-related issues including science education and trajectories through middle and high school, and have taken place in states like Utah and Oregon, and districts like Saint Paul, MN and Cleveland, OH. As intended for RPP projects, these partners have leveraged their mutual interests to complete rigorous analyses and create products with immediate value for practitioners (read more about one example here).

Partnerships and collaborations are not limited to the RPP competition, however. Some EL researchers have found ways to collaborate closely with agency partners even in the context of a more “typical” research project. One example of this is work done by Peggy Estrada with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Dr. Estrada’s Goal 1 grant focused on longitudinal patterns in EL performance before and after reclassification, or the point at which a student is deemed to no longer need the services and supports associated with EL status.

In LAUSD, reclassification decisions were made based on three criteria, and Dr. Estrada found that many students who are not reclassified miss only one of the three. She also observed that there are only eight different profiles that can describe a student’s status on the three criteria. She reasoned, further, that if teachers knew a student’s profile, they could tailor their supports to help the student meet the criterion on which he or she fell short.

To share these findings with LAUSD, Dr. Estrada created a number of actionable data visualization tools. These proved key in what happened next: LAUSD staff members Kathy Hayes and Hilda Maldonado immediately saw the value in Dr. Estrada’s findings and visualizations, and worked with their colleagues to create an English Learner Dashboard that incorporated both. The Dashboard is an interactive data tool that provides summary information about student reclassification profiles and allows staff to design reports tailored to their needs. LAUSD staff can download the names of students in each profile and generate reports with student names and detailed assessment results for each reclassification criteria.

Creation of this Dashboard is another great example of the value created through collaborations between researchers and practitioners – particularly for EL research. LAUSD staff cited the value of working with an external partner who provided objectivity and helped them to think more critically and deeply about an issue they found important. Dr. Estrada found that working with LAUSD enhanced both the validity and the utility of her research. In the end, both parties win – as do, more importantly, the EL students themselves.

Written by Molly Faulkner-Bond, Program Officer, NCER and Karen Douglas, former Program Officer, NCER

Exploring New Insights and Approaches to Closing the Gender Achievement Gap in STEM

Gender achievement gaps in education, particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) domain continue to persist. On the 2015 NAEP, male students continue to significantly outperform female students in science in Grades 8 and 12, and on the 2017 NAEP, male students outperformed female students in mathematics at Grades 4 and 8. In addition, a recent study by Reardon and colleagues supported by IES found that the gender achievement gap favoring male students in mathematics was related to local socioeconomic conditions, with the gap being more prevalent in more socioeconomically advantaged school districts.

Although we know that the gender achievement gap is pervasive, particularly in STEM, what can we do to help close the gap? Previously, IES released a Practice Guide on Encouraging Girls in Math and Science that included evidence-based recommendations for how practitioners can better support and encourage girls to pursue math- and science-related fields. Adding to this research base, three new FY 2018 IES grants funded under the Education Research Grants program will explore potential causes and correlates of gender differences in achievement that can provide new insights and approaches to closing the gender achievement gap in STEM.  Here is a brief summary of these studies along with their potential contributions to research, practice, and policy.

Gender Stereotypes in STEM – Although many factors influence the gender gap in STEM, research points to gender difference in students' interest and motivation in STEM as a major contributor to later disparities in STEM majors and careers. Allison Master and colleagues will explore how and when gender stereotypes about academic fields emerge, the relationship between stereotypes and motivation in STEM fields, and whether teaching a growth mindset (i.e., the belief that intelligence is malleable) can change stereotypes and improve students' sense of belonging, self-efficacy, interest, and outcomes in STEM in grades 2 to 8. The results from this study will be used to inform the development of future interventions to reduce the impact of STEM-gender stereotypes.

The Relation of Gender-Integrated Classroom Climate to Students' Academic Outcomes - Because boys and girls are typically taught together in classrooms, there is the assumption that boys and girls are cooperative and integrated in their classroom activities, yet evidence suggests this may not be the case.  Some classroom climates facilitate gender integration, while other classroom climates may perpetuate gender segregation where students tend to only work with classmates of the same gender. Carol Lynn Martin and colleagues will examine how gender integration relates to 4th to 6th grade students' school-related engagement and academic perceptions and achievement. The results from this study will provide preliminary evidence of potentially promising practices for gender integration in classrooms that can help girls feel more comfortable working with boys and may encourage persistence in STEM.

Underrepresented Student Learning in Online Introductory STEM College Courses – Online instruction has the potential to make course content more accessible to a larger number of students, thereby strengthening the STEM pipeline. Michelle Perry and colleagues will explore the interaction among various characteristics of online instruction and postsecondary students' persistence in STEM courses. In particular, the researchers will explores how students traditionally underrepresented in STEM (e.g., women, first-generation students, minorities) benefit from or are impeded by online course features (e.g., course videos, discussion boards). The results from this study will provide a theory of postsecondary online STEM instruction that could strengthen persistence in STEM among women and others traditionally underrepresented in STEM. 

Written by Christina Chhin, Education Research Analyst, National Center for Education Research


IES Funds First Large-Scale Evaluation Study of Public Preschool Montessori

The Montessori method of education was developed over 100 years ago by Dr. Maria Montessori. This “whole child” approach centers around the theory that children are capable of initiating learning in a thoughtfully prepared environment that develops children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive growth. Core components of Montessori education are mixed age classrooms in three-year groupings (e.g., 3-6 year olds, 6-9, 9-12, etc.), a carefully prepared environment filled with appropriate materials and lessons, student freedom to select lessons and activities each day, and daily uninterrupted 3-hour work blocks.


According to the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS), there are currently over 5,000 Montessori schools in the U.S., 500 of which are public schools and over 150 of which serve public preschool and kindergarten students.  Despite its growing popularity in public preschools and Head Start schools, no large-scale evaluation of the efficacy of the Montessori model on children’s academic, social, and emotional skills has been conducted. 

This year, IES funded the first such study. A project team led by Dr. Ann-Marie Faria and Ms. Karen Manship (American Institutes for Research) and Dr. Angeline Lillard (University of Virginia) will study more than 650 children for three years, beginning with their entry at age 3 into preschool. Importantly, this study relies on individual random student assignment via lottery entry to compare preschool students who enroll in Montessori at age 3 to those who are assigned to a waitlist control group (and thus are in other settings such as public PreK, daycare, or a home setting). Data will be collected in diverse urban and suburban school districts across the country, including Houston (TX), Hartford and New Haven (CT), and Washington, DC.

Researchers will examine the impact of preschool Montessori education on children’s academic, social, and emotional skills, as well as kindergarten readiness skills. The research team will also conduct a cost effectiveness study of the public Montessori preschool model, and will examine the effect of fidelity of implementation of Montessori on student outcomes. Collectively, the findings from this study will provide valuable evidence of the efficacy of Montessori preschool education. Ultimately, the researchers plan to disseminate their findings to educators, parents, and policymakers through research briefs, infographics, blog posts, and webinars.


By Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD, American Psychological Association Executive Branch Science Fellow/ AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship

Photo credit: Marilyn Horan, Carroll Creek Montessori Public Charter School


IES Expands Research in Social Emotional Learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a key ingredient of high-quality education care, is important for both educators and children, and has been associated with children’s concurrent and later academic and social success.

Over a decade ago, Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence developed and began testing RULER, an SEL program geared toward children and educators (i.e., school leaders, teachers, and staff). RULER stands for five key social and emotional skills: Recognizing emotions in self and others, Understanding the causes of emotions in self and others, Labeling and talking about emotions, Expressing emotions across situations, and Regulating emotions effectively. For children and the key adults in their lives, RULER combines a whole-school professional development approach with a skill-building curriculum targeting educator and student social and emotional skills, school and classroom climate, and educator and student well-being. RULER is currently offered for pre-k–12 and out-of-school-time settings.

IES has supported the development and testing of RULER programs since 2012. The first IES award supported the modification of existing components of the RULER K-8th grade intervention and creation of new developmentally appropriate content for preschool settings. RULER is currently implemented in over 200 early childhood school- and home-based programs across the country and nearly 2,000 K-12 schools nationwide. Although RULER’s evidence-base has been growing over the years, RULER has not been systematically studied in large-scale, randomized controlled trials in preschool settings nor has it undergone an external evaluation in the later grades.

That is about to change: this year, IES awarded two grants to study the effects of the RULER programs. One will study the efficacy of whole-school RULER implementation for preschool students (under the Early Learning Programs and Policies program), and the other will do so for grades K-6 (under the Social and Behavioral Context for Academic Learning program).

The Preschool RULER grant (PI: Craig Bailey, PhD) will assess school readiness in children aged 3-5, as well as outcomes at the teacher/classroom and school leader/school levels. The researchers will study 72 early childhood centers, including public, private, and Head Start programs from urban areas in Connecticut, using a multisite, cluster-randomized control trial design. Altogether, approximately 216 classrooms, 1,800 staff, and 2,160 children will participate. Children, educators, and school leaders will be assessed for social and emotional skills, and educators/leaders will be assessed for emotionally intelligent pedagogy and leadership. Children will also be assessed for their approaches to learning, pre-literacy, and pre-math skills. This study will provide evidence about the efficacy of RULER in preschool settings and contribute to our understanding of high quality early childhood interventions that promote social emotional learning.


The other grant, for RULER in grades K-6 (PI: Jason Downer, PhD), will be the first large-scale external evaluation of RULER. The study will take place in 60 urban and suburban public elementary schools, including 420 teachers and 2,520 K-6 students in Virginia. Key outcomes for this study will include school climate assessments (assessed by teacher and principal reports), teacher well-being (assessed by self-report), and four student outcomes: social-emotional skills, behavior, academic engagement and academic achievement (assessed by standardized assessments, tests, and attendance records). Ultimately, this study will describe RULER’s effects on school climate, teacher well-being, classroom climate, and student outcomes.

By Amanda M. Dettmer, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow Sponsored by the American Psychological Association Executive Branch Science Fellowship

Photo credits: Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Informing Future Research in Career and Technical Education (CTE)

Career and Technical Education (CTE) has been evolving and expanding at a rapid pace in recent years as industry and education leaders focus on students’ readiness for college and careers. While some studies have shown positive effects of CTE on students, the evidence base is thin. To learn more about the research needs of the CTE field, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) and the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) convened a group of experts in policy, practice and research related to CTE.  The discussion held by the Technical Working Group (TWG) led both NCER and NCSER to increase their investments in CTE for fiscal year 2019: NCSER included a CTE special topic, and NCER changed its CTE topic from a special topic to a standing topic. Applications to both are due August 23, 2018.  Both research centers hope to fund more studies that will help us better understand this growing aspect of education.

The TWG focused on the following four questions:

  1. Who is served by CTE and who is left behind? From national CTE statistics, we know that 82% of all public high schools offer CTE. And, 85% of students earn at least one credit in CTE with the average high school student earning 2.5 CTE credits. However, TWG members noted that research is lacking on specific subpopulations in CTE, such as students from various demographic backgrounds and students with disabilities. Disaggregated data on these dimensions are needed to better understand the CTE experiences of the range of students being served. Such data may help educators improve equity of access to high quality programs for all students.
  2. What do we know―and need to know―about CTE policies, programs, and practices at the secondary and postsecondary levels?  TWG experts discussed the need to know more about industry-recognized credentials and about business and industry engagement in CTE at the secondary level. They argued that we do not know if credentials align with industry requirements, nor do we understand the impact of different types of credentials on student outcomes and wage trajectories. TWG members also noted that the higher the perceived quality or prestige of the CTE program, the more exclusive it becomes, and the more difficult it is for disadvantaged students to obtain access. TWG members also expressed concerns about CTE teacher training, particularly for experts who are recruited from industry without prior teacher preparation. As the experts discussed postsecondary CTE, they suggested that the field would be best served by framing the conversation about secondary to postsecondary pathways as a continuum that enables transparent and sequential transitions from secondary to 2-year and then to 4-year programs or to training or employment, with guidance for students to understand possible sequences.
  3. What are the critical methodological issues in CTE?  TWG members noted that, with a few notable exceptions (e.g.,  a 2008  MDRC study on career academies in New York and a recent study of CTE high schools in Massachusetts), few causal studies on CTE have been conducted. There is an urgent need for more high quality, causal research on CTE policies and programs. In addition, the experts noted that there is almost no research on students with disabilities in CTE. TWG members concluded that the field needs to re-conceptualize CTE research – including better defining CTE students, instructors, programs, and measures – and identify the critical research questions in order to encourage more research in this field.
  4. What is needed to advance CTE research?  State CTE administrators want to know how to identify quality CTE programs so they know how to spend their dollars most effectively on programs that best meet the needs of students. Policymakers also want to know what “works” and what the benefits are of such investments. The TWG members encouraged studies that examine the educational benefits of particular instructional approaches. They also highlighted the importance of collaborative cross-institutional and cross-agency efforts to advance CTE research.

Readers are invited to read the summary of the TWG discussion.

By Corinne Alfeld (NCER program officer) and Kimberley Sprague (former NCSER program officer)