Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

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

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

Angel Fettig, University of Washington

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

Paulo Graziano, Florida International University

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

Dwight Irvin, University of Kansas

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

This blog was written by Alice Bravo, virtual intern for IES and doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Washington, and Katie Taylor, program officer for NCSER’s postdoctoral training program.

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

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

 

About the Center

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

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

 

New Website Launched

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

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


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

 

Building a Reading Comprehension Measure for Postsecondary Students

Assessments of both U.S. adults and 12th-grade students indicate that millions of learners may have significant reading skill gaps. Because these students may lack the fundamental reading and comprehension skills needed to thrive in college, postsecondary institutions need valid reading measures that accurately determine the source of student difficulties.

An IES-funded research team is developing and validating such a measure: Multiple-choice Online Causal Comprehension Assessment for Postsecondary Students (MOCCA-College). MOCCA-College aims to assess the reading comprehension abilities of postsecondary students and distinguish between common comprehension difficulties. This information could help students, faculty, and programs better determine who might need what type of additional reading instruction.

The current version of MOCCA-College is still being validated, but it already contains components that may interest postsecondary institutions, faculty, and students. For example, it suggests classroom interventions based on a student’s results and allows for different user roles, such as student, faculty member, or administrator. 

Results from pilot work indicate that MOCCA-College can reliably distinguish between postsecondary readers with strong comprehension skills and those who may need to build these skills. MOCCA-College uses both narrative and expository texts to determine student performance. The results indicate that both types of passages measure a single dimension of ability, though narrative passages may more easily and accurately discriminate between those who have good comprehension skills and those who do not.

This finding is in keeping with meta-analysis work that finds a similar pattern for narrative and expository items. Narrative passages appear to consistently measure inferential comprehension more accurately than expository passages for both younger and older readers. This holds even after matching texts for readability and demands on background knowledge.

As the researchers continue to validate MOCCA-College, we will continue to learn more about the needs of postsecondary readers, as well as how to identify and address these needs.

 


This research and articles referenced above are supported through NCER grant R305A180417: Multiple-choice Online Causal Comprehension Assessment for Postsecondary Students (MOCCA-College).

Dr. Meredith Larson, program officer for postsecondary and adult education, wrote this blog. Contact her at Meredith.Larson@ed.gov for additional information about MOCCA-College and postsecondary teaching and learning research.

 

World Braille Day: Research on Teaching Braille to Students with Visual Impairments

January 4 is World Braille Day, which aims to increase awareness of the importance of braille as a means of communication for those who are blind or with visual impairment. The date chosen honors the birthday of Louis Braille, who invented a reading and writing system – braille – consisting of raised dots that are read via touch. This system of reading and writing is an important component of education and literacy for many individuals. Recognizing this importance, Simon Fisher-Baum, Robert Englebretson, and Cay Holbrook were awarded a NCSER grant in 2019 to explore the knowledge, skills, and strategies teachers of students with visual impairments need to effectively teach braille reading and writing. We asked this team of researchers to answer a few questions about their work on teaching braille in recognition of World Braille Day.

What do we already know about the complexities surrounding learning braille for a person with visual impairment?

The ability to read and write braille is crucial for individuals who are blind, just as print literacy is crucial for individuals who are sighted. Braille literacy opens a host of opportunities for education, leisure, and employment. Learning to read and write braille depends on children having direct instruction from competent professionals who know braille and recognize its importance in facilitating literacy. Most children who learn braille do so under the instruction of a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI) with support from their classroom teachers who generally are only familiar with print. One major challenge for children learning braille is having sufficient access to a TVI. A second challenge involves the differences between print and braille and the different perspectives required of a typically sighted TVI and the children with visual impairment. The sighted TVI has learned braille as a 'code' (and thinks about transliterating it to their much stronger knowledge of print) whereas children are learning braille as their primary system of reading and writing. It is this potential mismatch that we are focusing on for our project. We seek to understand the perceptual and cognitive underpinnings of braille as a writing system for its readers in contrast with the print-based 'code' perspective that TVIs often implicitly and unconsciously bring to their teaching.

Your project has the challenge of researching a low-incidence population. Describe how you are able to find your sample.

There are no current, reliable demographics of the number of individuals who read braille in the United States. But the fact remains that even in a large city like Houston, where two of the co-PIs are based, it would be a real challenge to find a sufficient number of braille readers to conduct studies with any degree of statistical power. Because of this, we recruit participants at summer conventions of blindness organizations where there are large numbers of braille readers present. At least we hope to do this again once people can gather safely. Meanwhile, we are developing experiments involving adult braille readers submitting braille writing samples online and, thanks to the support of the Braille Institute of America, we are analyzing spelling tests and writing samples from over 1000 braille-learning children from the U.S. and Canada who participated in a literacy-focused contest called the Braille Challenge. In addition, we have access to teachers of students with visual impairments who read and write braille through the Braille Institute and professional conferences as well as strong contacts of researchers involved in this grant.

Tell us a little more about the Braille Challenge.

The Braille Challenge is an annual contest for braille-reading children in grades 1-12 in the U.S. and Canada that celebrates braille literacy and the academic use of braille. Since 2003, the Braille Institute of America has sponsored this event. You can think of the Braille Challenge a bit like the Scripps National Spelling Bee for kids who read braille, with sub-contests in areas such as spelling, writing braille from dictation, reading comprehension, proofreading, and analyzing tactile charts and graphs. The written materials that students produce from these contests are a treasure trove of comparative data. They enable us to analyze the error patterns in the same words and sentences produced by a large number of students, track the development and error patterns in the same students over the years, and ultimately associate student outcomes with the specific attitudes, knowledge, and skills their TVIs (who attend the contest with their students) bring to the teaching of braille.

Your project is using some innovative data collection approaches, such as finger and eye tracking studies. What do you hope to learn from this part of your project that can be better understood by these data collection approaches? 

Eye tracking is, of course, central in the reading sciences for understanding key perceptual, cognitive, and linguistic processing aspects of reading standard print. There has been little work to address those same types of questions with braille readers using finger-tracking technology. Our finger-tracking experiments will help us compare the proficiency of adult braille readers with the ways in which braille is being taught. In addition, one area that has never been explored is the underpinnings of how TVIs read braille. Typically, sighted TVIs read braille by eye (not by touch), and we would like to understand how reading braille by eye is similar to or different from how these same individuals read print by eye, and in turn, how TVIs reading braille by sight is similar to and different from the typical way blind readers read braille by touch.

What impact do you hope your project will have on how TVIs are trained and how they teach braille to students?

We hope that by understanding how braille is conceptualized and read differently by TVIs, proficient braille-reading adults who are blind, and children learning to read and write braille, our project will ultimately lead to evidence-based interventions for both TVIs and learners. This may include improved curricula for university TVI personnel preparation programs and improved materials designed for children learning braille that leverage their unique perspectives as braille readers.

Tell us about your research team and the diversity of experiences among team members with braille.


Clockwise from top left: Cay Holbrook, Simon Fischer-Baum, Robert Englebretson

The three research team members complement each other in areas of expertise, as well as in experiences with braille. Robert Englebretson is currently chair of the Linguistics Department at Rice University. He teaches a course on braille from the perspective of cognitive science and linguistics research. He has been recognized internationally for his work updating and publishing the braille version of the International Phonetic Alphabet, which enables access to careers in the language sciences for those who are blind or visually impaired and has served as co-chair of the research committee of the Braille Authority of North America. He also brings to this project his perspective as a life-long braille reader and his lived experience of the importance of braille literacy.

Simon Fischer-Baum is an Associate Professor of Psychological Sciences at Rice University. He comes to this project as a cognitive scientist who focuses on understanding literacy, using a wide variety of methods, from the careful analyses of the errors people make when reading and writing to analysis of the patterns of brain activity generated when we read and the study of individuals who have lost the ability to read or write following stroke. He learned about braille as a part of this current collaboration and applies his skillset as a cognitive scientist of language to figuring out the mental representations and processes that underlie how braille is read and written.

Cay Holbrook is a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She learned braille during her undergraduate program as part of an initial teaching credential. She began working as a teacher of students with visual impairments in Rock Hill, South Carolina and has also worked directly with students in K-12 in parts of Georgia and Florida. Her commitment to direct, ongoing, and consistent instruction by qualified teachers has guided much of her work. Her research and scholarship have included the publication of more than 12 co-authored or co-edited textbooks as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. She holds a PhD in special education from Florida State University. She has prepared teachers of students with visual impairments in Canada and the U.S. and was a member of the original advisory committee for the Braille Challenge.

What other research do you think is needed in the area of learning braille? What are your future plans to continue research in this area?

There is still much to be learned about how braille is read and written, and there are many lines of inquiry in braille literacy that would benefit greatly from a multidisciplinary approach to research like we are taking here. After we complete this project, our next goal would be to develop and test interventions that bring the perspectives of TVIs closer to the learning challenges their students are facing. But there is also the opportunity for new lines of research. One key question is how braille is learned by people who become blind later in life, including school-age children and older adults. There is already some evidence that these readers approach reading by touch differently than individuals who have only learned braille, but more research is needed to explore how those who become blind after learning to read print approach learning braille and what kinds of instructional strategies would best support their literacy acquisition. It is also worth exploring how different service delivery models – that is, what role the TVI plays in the student’s education plan – impact how the student learns to read and write. Finally, we know little about whether learning differences that lead to dyslexia and dysgraphia in the print reading population also occur in the braille reading population. To our knowledge, these kinds of developmental differences have never been explored within the population of braille reading children, but if they do occur, it seems like additional interventions would be needed with these students to help them acquire literacy.

 

Addressing COVID-19’s Disruption of Student Assessment

Under an IES grant, the RAND Corporation, in collaboration with NWEA, is developing strategies for schools and districts to address the impacts of COVID-19 disruptions on student assessment programs. The goal is to provide empirical evidence of the strengths and limitations of strategies for making decisions in the absence of assessment data. Jonathan Schweig, Andrew McEachin, and Megan Kuhfeld describe early findings from surveys and structured interviews regarding key concerns of districts and schools. 

 

As a first step, we surveyed assessment and research coordinators from 23 school districts (from a sample of 100 districts) and completed follow-up interviews with seven of them on a variety of topics, including the re-entry scenario for their district, the planning activities that they were not able to perform this year due to coronavirus-based disruptions to spring 2020 assessments, and the strategies they were employing to support instructional planning in the absence of assessment data. While the research is preliminary and the sample of respondents is not nationally representative, the survey and interview responses identified two key concerns arising from the lack of spring 2020 assessment data which has made it challenging to examine student or school status and change over time, especially as COVID-19 has differential impacts on student subgroups:

 

  • Making course placement decisions. Administrators typically rely on spring assessment scores—often in conjunction with other assessment information, course grades, and teacher recommendations—to make determinations for course placements, such as who should enroll in accelerated or advanced mathematics classes. 
  • Evaluating programs or district-wide initiatives. Many districts monitor the success of these programs internally by looking at year-to-year change or growth for schools or subgroups of interest. 

 

How are school systems responding to these challenges? Not surprisingly, the responses vary depending on local contexts and resources. Where online assessments were not feasible in spring 2020, some school districts used older testing data to make course recommendations, either from the winter or from the previous school year. Some districts relaxed typical practice and provided more autonomy to individual schools, relying on school staff to exercise local judgment around course placements and using metrics like grades and teacher recommendations. Other districts reported projecting student scores based on student assessment histories. Relatedly, some districts were already prepared for this decision because they had recently experienced difficulties with adopting an online assessment system and had to address similar problems caused by large numbers of missing or invalid tests.

 

School districts also raised concerns about whether assessments administered during the 2020-21 school year would be valid and comparable so that they could be used in student placement and program evaluation decisions. These concerns included the following:

  • Several respondents raised concerns about the trustworthiness of remote assessment data collected this fall and the extent to which results could be interpreted as valid indicators of student achievement or understanding.
  • Particularly for districts that started the 2020-21 school year remotely, respondents were concerned about student engagement and motivation and the possibility of students rushing assessments, running into technological or internet barriers, or seeking assistance from guardians or other resources. 
  • Respondents raised questions about the extent to which available assessment scores are representative of school or district performance as a whole. Given that vulnerable students (for example, students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness) may be the least likely to have access to remote instruction and assessments, it is likely that the students who are not assessed this year are different from students who are able to be assessed.
  • Other respondents noted that they encountered resistance from parents around fall assessment because they prioritized student well-being (for example, safety, sense of community, and social and emotional well-being) more so than academics. This is a perspective that resonates with recent findings from a nationally representative sample of teachers and school leaders drawn from RAND’s American Educator Panel (AEP).

 

In the next phase of the work, the research team plans to:

  • Conduct a series of simulation and empirical studies regarding the most common strategies that the district respondents indicated they were using to make course placement decisions and to evaluate programs or district-wide initiatives.
  • Provide a framework to help guide local research on the intended (and unintended) consequences for school and school system decision making when standardized test scores are not available.

 

We welcome individuals to reach out to RAND with additional recommendations or considerations. We are also interested in hearing how districts are approaching course placement, accountability, and program evaluation across the country. Connect with the research team via email at jschweig@rand.org.

 


Jonathan Schweig is a social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Andrew McEachin is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Megan Kuhfeld is a researcher at NWEA.