Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Announcing ED/IES SBIR’s 2018 Awards: Funding the Next Generation of Education Technology

In recent years, thousands of schools around the country have used technologies developed through the Small Business Innovation Research program at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (ED/IES SBIR). The program emphasizes a rapid research and development (R&D) process, with rigorous research informing iterative development and evaluating the promise of products for improving the intended outcomes. ED/IES SBIR also focuses on the commercialization after development is complete so that products can reach schools and be sustained over time.


This month, IES announced 21 new awards for 2018. Of these, 15 are Phase I projects to develop and test a prototype, and six are Phase II projects to fully develop and evaluate an education technology product for students, teachers, or administrators to use in classrooms and schools. A playlist of videos from the Phase II projects is available below. 

Many of the new projects continue trends that have emerged across the portfolio in recent years, including creating learning games and dashboards that present data to inform learning and instruction in core subjects like reading and math. Several other awards are for projects that promote learning in new areas, such as computer science and Career and Technical Education.

Trend #1: Learning Games

Games are increasingly being used to engage students in learning by presenting content in new ways. For the eighth straight year, many new ED/IES SBIR awardees will be developing game-based learning products.

  • Phase II awardee Electric Funstuff and Phase I awardee Schell Games are developing virtual reality (VR) games to immerse students in history in 360-degree environments, and Phase I awardee Gigantic Mechanic is developing a role-playing game on civic discourse facilitated by tablet-based computers.
  • With Phase I funding, Fablevision and Sirius Thinking are creating interventions that employ game mechanics to improve reading.
  • Several project teams are embedding storylines within learning games, including Phase II awardee MidSchoolMath for algebra, and Phase I awardees Codespark for computer science and Immersed Games for ecosystems science.
  • The 3C Institute is creating a game-based assessment of early grade science learning.

Trend #2: Dashboards for Students, Teachers and Administrators

Modern technologies provide the opportunity to organize and present data in real-time to students, teachers, and administrators to inform learning and decision-making. Several new awards are developing data dashboards.

  • Phase II awardees are fully developing dashboards across several areas. LiveSchool will generate reports on students’ behavior across classes with a recommendation engine for administrators and teachers to address challenges, StoryWorld will provide teachers of English Learners insights into students’ language acquisition, and Simbulus and Myriad Sensors will present real-time information to enrich classroom discussions on math and science topics.
  • Phase I projects by Appendis and Graspable are creating adaptive learning technologies which include teacher dashboards to present results on student performance to guide instruction. VidCode is creating a dashboard for teachers to monitor student progress in learning coding. Education Modified is developing a dashboard to provide special education teachers guidance on student IEPs, or individual educational plans.

New Areas of Focus

Along with continuing to support projects in the areas above, a series of Phase I 2018 awards are focusing on areas new to ED/IES SBIR.  VidCode, CodeSpark, and Zyante are focusing on computer science learning and Core Learning is seeking to build capacity in Career and Technical Education (CTE). Language Learning Partners is developing an automated avatar tutor to support English Learners through conversation. And in special education, Attainment Company is developing an app for supporting student writing.

Stay tuned for updates on Twitter and Facebook as IES continues to support innovative forms of technology.

Written by Edward Metz, Program Manager, ED/IES SBIR

Principals as Instructional Leaders and Managers—Not an “Either-Or”

Recently Morgaen Donaldson (University of Connecticut) and Madeline Mavrogordato (Michigan State), Peter Youngs (University of Virginia), and Shaun Dougherty (University of Connecticut) presented early results from their IES-funded study on principal evaluation policies at the AERA national conference. We asked the team to share their preliminary findings.

What is the purpose of your study?

There is widespread agreement among researchers, policymakers, and practitioners that principals play a critical role in providing high-quality education to students. The role of principals may grow even larger under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, which grants districts and states more flexibility regarding how to promote effective principal leadership. However, we know remarkably little about what school districts can do to improve principals’ leadership practices.

Given the importance of principals and the relative dearth of research on how to improve their leadership, we have been studying the extent to which principal evaluation systems focus on learning-centered leadership, one promising conception of leadership, in 22 districts in Connecticut, Michigan, and Tennessee. We are examining associations between the types of leadership emphasized in principal evaluation policies, the leadership practices that principals implement in their schools, and student performance.  

What is the major focus of principal evaluation policies?

To date, through document analysis we have found that district principal evaluation policies heavily emphasize instructional leadership, which focuses on teaching and learning issues, and de-emphasize managerial leadership, which concentrates on administrative tasks such as budgeting and overseeing school facilities. Similarly, in interviews and surveys superintendents and principals report that their evaluation systems focus on instructional leadership. For example, one Michigan superintendent said, “the emphasis on education right now [is] to take the principals away from being a manager to being an instructional leader.”

How are administrators actually interpreting the policies?

Further investigation revealed a more nuanced relationship between written district policies and administrators’ interpretations of these policies, however. We found no relationship between written policies’ emphasis on instructional leadership and principals’ survey responses regarding whether their district focused on this type of leadership. Principals’ perceptions of their district’s focus on managerial leadership was related to the emphasis of this type of leadership in the policies, however. Thus, when districts placed a higher emphasis on managerial leadership in their written evaluation policies, principals reported that they perceived a stronger emphasis on this type of leadership.

Moreover, we found that holding constant the written policy’s emphasis on managerial leadership, there was an inverse relationship between the written policies’ emphasis on instructional leadership and the principals’ perceived policy emphasis on managerial leadership. Thus, the greater the written emphasis on instruction, the less principals perceived that their policy emphasized management.

In addition, interview data reveal that although superintendents state that they emphasize instructional leadership they in fact weigh managerial leadership quite heavily. In superintendents’ framing, a principal’s competence in managerial leadership enabled him or her to practice instructional leadership. Superintendents asserted that when principals addressed managerial concerns, they could progress to exercising instructional leadership. If principals were unable to address managerial issues, superintendents reported that they moved rapidly to intervene and potentially remove principals.

What are the next steps for your IES research project?

These preliminary findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting a complex interplay between managerial and instructional leadership. They also reflect a longstanding tension between the two dominant conceptions of principal leadership among practitioners.  We plan to further examine the multifaceted relationship between instructional and managerial leadership as we continue our work on this project. We are currently surveying teachers about the types of leadership principals exercise in their schools and conducting a second round of interviews with superintendents to understand their perspectives in greater depth. In the next stage of the project, we will examine associations between the types of leadership emphasized in principal evaluation policies, the leadership practices that principals implement in their schools, and student performance in grades 3-8. 

Katina Stapleton, NCER Program Officer, oversees the project described in this blog post, and provided a framework for their responses.

Computerized Preschool Language Assessment Extends to Toddlers

Identifying young children with language delays can improve later outcomes

Language is a core ability that children must master for success both in and out of the classroom. Extensive studies have shown that many tasks, including math, depend on linguistic skill, and that early language skills are predictive of school readiness and academic success. Being able to quickly identify children at early ages with language delays is crucial for targeting effective interventions.

Enter the QUILS.

In 2011, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at IES funded a 4-year grant to Dr. Roberta Golinkoff (University of Delaware) and Drs. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University) and Jill de Villiers (Smith College) to develop a valid and reliable computer-based language assessment for preschoolers aged 3-5 years old. The resulting product was the Quick Interactive Language Screener (QUILS), a computerized tool to measure vocabulary, syntax, and language acquisition skills. The assessment ultimately measures what a child knows about language and how a child learns, and automatically provides results and reports to the teacher.

The preschool version of QUILS is now being used by early childhood educators, administrators, reading specialists, speech-language pathologists, and other early childhood professionals working with young children to identify language delays. The QUILS is also being utilized in other learning domains. For example, a new study relied on the QUILS, among other measures, to examine links between approaches to learning and science readiness in over 300 Head Start students aged 3 to 5 years.

QUILS is now being revised for use with toddlers. In 2016, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) funded a 3-year study to revise the QUILS for use with children aged 24-36 months. The researchers have been testing the tool in both laboratory and natural (child care centers, homes, and Early Head Start programs) settings to determine which assessment items to use in the toddler version of QUILS. Ultimately, these researchers aim to develop a valid and reliable assessment to identify children with language delays so that appropriate interventions can begin early.

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

Career Pathways Programming in Adult Education Programs: What We are Learning from Three Cities

As part of our series recognizing the IES investment in Career and Technical Education (CTE) research, we interviewed Esther Prins, Professor at Pennsylvania State University, about her NCER-funded project, Career Pathways Programming for Lower-Skilled Adults and Immigrants: A Comparative Analysis of Adult Education Providers in High-Need Cities.  This Researcher-Practitioner Partnership involves researchers at Pennsylvania State University working in collaboration with adult education providers in Chicago, Houston, and Miami to better understand how adult education programs are incorporating career pathways into their delivery models.

What is the education issue you and your partners trying to address?

Millions of U.S. adults have been left behind by the economy and rising education requirements for even minimum-wage jobs. Career pathway (CP) programs help adults prepare for employment and postsecondary education. Although recent federal policy (e.g., WIOA) has encouraged CP programming among adult education providers, there is little research to help guide practice and few opportunities for providers to learn about how their peers organize CP programs, who they serve, what outcomes they measure, and other program features.

What are career pathway programs in adult education?

CP programs develop adults’ basic math, reading, and English language skills, while concurrently preparing them to enter postsecondary education or jobs in specific fields like healthcare or manufacturing. These programs can be run through many kinds of institutions, including community colleges, workforce development organizations, and community-based organizations. The adults seeking CP classes may vary in their skill levels, but our project focused on the adults with greatest barriers to education and employment: those who did not graduate from high school or who have low math, reading, or English language scores.

What are some of the specific concerns your practitioner partners have?

Some practitioners are concerned that requirements programs must meet may unintentionally reward programs for enrolling higher-level students—the ones who are most likely to find a job or enroll in college—rather than serving students with the greatest need. They also want to know about what non-academic supports programs may need to provide, so we are exploring the role of wraparound support services. These are important because many adult learners experience poverty and related challenges such as transportation, childcare, housing, and financial instability.

What are some of the major findings thus far?

First, CP programming is widespread: more than 90% of the surveyed organizations offered or were developing CP classes in 2015. However, there are no shared program outcome measures, and this hinders comparison and documentation of programs’ collective impact. Coordination within cities primarily occurs on a small scale between a subset of organizations; citywide coordination across organizations and funding streams is less common.

Second, the majority of CP classes require students to meet minimum entry requirements such as passing a reading, math, or language test and/or possessing a high school degree. These requirements limit access for adults with the greatest barriers. To address these issues, programs are trying different options. For example, some programs offered multiple entry points (e.g., bridge classes) to enable adults with skills gaps to advance from lower-level to higher-level CP classes.

Third, agencies offer a variety of wraparound support services to meet students’ non-academic needs. Some programs bundle support services, meaning they require participation in at least two support services. These include screening for income supports and access to financial services, financial coaching and literacy, and job coaching.

The report on the survey is available online.

 

How are the findings being used?

Building on the findings from this study, the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition formed a group of 13 adult education providers to staff a Career Navigator at their local American Jobs Center to address issues such as forming shared program metrics, helping adults with lower skills, and connecting adults to support services available at the American Jobs Center. 

What other issues need to be studied?

Practitioners are interested in better understanding the long-term effects and trajectories of students in CP programs. For example, they’d like to know more about postsecondary and employment outcomes and whether certain individual characteristics, program supports, or instructional approaches lead to better outcomes. Additional research could help shed light on these issues.

Meredith Larson, NCER Program Officer, interviewed Esther Prins 

The figures above are from an infographic prepared by the research team and summarize the data gathered by the team.

Read Across America with IES

Happy Read Across America Day! This year is the 10-year anniversary of this national pep rally for reading, and IES has supported the development of a number of tools to promote reading and literacy.

Did you know that many of the curricula and materials developed by IES researchers are available for free? These materials include reading on topics interesting to students, as well as guidance for teachers on how to engage and motivate students in discussions about what they read. For example, as part of the Reading for Understanding Initiative, IES invested in multiple curricula that are designed to help improve students’ reading comprehension and are available at no charge.

For students in preschool through grade 3, the Let’s Know! curriculum supplement uses easily-accessible books to help teach children about vocabulary, making inferences, and text structures like cause and effect. There’s also a Spanish version of this curriculum (¡Vamos Aprender!). You can gain access to the curriculum through the Language and Reading Research Consortium webpage.

Word Generation is a group of curricula developed for students in grades four through eight with a focus on teaching students to understand multiple perspectives, reason, and learn academic vocabulary, all through high-interest topics in science and social studies.

Example topic questions from units include:

  • When is a crime not a crime?

  • The Legacy of Alexander the Great: Great Leader or Power-Hungry Tyrant? and

  • Thinking About Natural Selection.

You can find more information on WordGen and download materials on their website.

Finally, for high school students, Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT) is an intervention aimed at motivating and engaging students to read and understand informational texts in social studies. Students learn vocabulary words and make connections between social studies topics and their own lives. For example, in a unit about the 1920s, students learn about economy and prosperity and complete activities such as listing three items they have purchased and determining whether they are “needs” or “wants,” and how this relates to a consumer economy. Sample materials are available for download on the PACT website.

Have fun celebrating Read Across America Day, and enjoy a book with the students in your lives!

By Becky McGill-Wilkinson, NCER Program Officer