Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Supporting Native Students and Conducting Research with Tribal Communities: An Interview with Nia Gregory, Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe

The 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. Pathways Alumna, Nia Gregory, is currently the Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we asked Director Gregory, who is of Cherokee and Yuchi descent, to discuss her career journey. This is what she shared with us.

How did you become interested in a career in education?

Honestly, it was a long journey to where I am. I changed my major three times in undergrad from nursing to microbiology and then finishing with my bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies with a concentration in Native American studies. I was so disappointed with the lack of access to nursing programs and the increase of unhealthy competition; I had a perfect GPA and TEAS test scores, but I was denied for 3 years! That’s a long time for someone without many resources to stay in school. I switched to microbiology with the intent to teach. However, this was the first time I experienced how chilly the climate can be for women in the science fields. I felt that no matter how great I did, my professors gave credit to my male counterparts. Then, I took an elective class with the Department of Ethnic Studies, and I fell in love with the inclusion, transparency, and truth of it all. Never had I experienced the privilege of being taught my own history by people who represented my culture. I realized that I wanted to be that representation for others; I wanted to work towards correcting the narrative for Native peoples.

How did participation in the Pathways to the Education Sciences training program at California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State) shape your career journey?

The mentors in the program and the work experience gave me a clearer vision of how I could support Native students in the future. It also helped me prepare for graduate school and keep me on track. My mentor, Heidi Sarabia, made sure I was passionate about my research, which I carry with me today. She also taught me different aspects of the research process, including the IRB process, which gave me the confidence to conduct research during my graduate studies. As part of the Pathways program, we also had internship opportunities, where I was able to see the wonderful work that the College of Education at Sacramento State was doing. I learned many skills with this internship with the Capitol Education Institute under the amazing leadership of Pia Wong. I was also able to pick up an exceptionally valuable skill through Pathways Director Jana Noel’s grant writing workshop. However, I couldn’t help the Native community directly in that position. I decided I wanted to work closer with Native youth, so I applied for a position at Wilton Rancheria’s Department of Education.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?

Geez, it’s hard to pick just one! For a long time, it felt like every challenge was piling up, and barriers were getting higher. I was overwhelmed having to navigate college alone with limited resources. I dropped out of college and felt so defeated. I have always struggled with my mental health; regulating medications for bipolar disorder is exceptionally tiring. It wasn’t necessarily a specific tangible thing rather than a long slump. I wasn’t medically regulated, and I wasn’t treating myself or those around me well. In 2016, I took care of my father and watched him quickly decline and slip away from me. When he passed, it hit me hard, and I felt lost and knew I needed to make some moves. I decided to go back to school. Returning to college a bit older and more mature was a great experience. All in all, it took me 9 years to finish my undergraduate degree, but I’m grateful I was able to experience college in a healthier mindset with a wider worldview.

As the Executive Director of Education for the Wilton Rancheria Tribe, what advice would you give education researchers who wish to work with tribal communities?

The Native community is reasonably wary of researchers, especially research coming from outside of the community. So being transparent about your intention with data collection and interest in our community is key. Recognize that the community is not a subject of study, and it is not the community’s responsibility to aid in their research. As an educator, I feel it’s important to correct the erasure narrative of indigenous peoples in this country. However, I also feel it is not Tribal communities’ responsibility to catch people up to speed on the Native American experience. If somebody wishes to work with a Tribal community, they should take the time to learn about that community before reaching out to Tribes. I would also recommend going through a Tribal government or Tribal sponsored program. Recognize that you may be turned down, and the correct response is to graciously accept that. Be patient because forming this connection and trust takes time. Like my momma says, “your urgency is not my emergency.” I would also like to leave readers with a resource, a book by Devon A Mihesuah, So You Want to Write About American Indians?

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of Native American students and researchers?

I know it sounds very simple, but by making space. Not just for the individual but for the worldview of Native people. When I was in graduate school, I struggled with getting books and literature from Native authors in our university library. I was advocating for a Native student space on top of correcting professors when they were blatantly continuing the erasure narrative of Native peoples. Sometimes, good intentions aren’t enough. Educators of all stages of learning need cultural competency training. We are often an asterisk or marked as “other” or often “too few to include” in data and graphs. Even well-intentioned research on race and ethnicity is exclusive and doesn’t make space for the Native community.

What advice would you give Native American students and scholars who wish to pursue a career in education research?

That it’s okay to be mad but use that to turn it into passion. I was frustrated for so long with trying to find information or fighting a system that only values certain sources. Also, know that there are people out there that know the barriers you are facing. I have reached out to Native authors and researchers, and of all the people I have contacted responded with empathy and provided me with resources. Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel; reach out to Native educators and fellow students. Take Native studies courses. Get involved in a Native club for support. Talk to your professors. I cannot stress that enough!

Remember that your work will help the next generation, and then work for seven generations ahead. You are a living embodiment of what it means to resist and be resilient. You are your ancestors’ dreams come true.

All my relations


Nia Gregory is the Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe and focuses on the promotion of academic excellence of the Tribe.

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. As part of our Native American Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Native American researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Native American students.

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.

Honoring Native American Language and Culture: Supporting Native American Students in Our Schools

As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we want to recognize the rich and diverse traditions, linguistic backgrounds, and cultural heritages that American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students bring to classrooms. Indigenous knowledge can enrich perspectives of all students and educators. Despite their many strengths, AI/AN students tend to lag behind their peers on academic assessments. For instance, as reported in the Condition of Education 2020, on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), AI/AN students consistently score lower in reading and math and have lower graduation rates and the highest high school drop-out rates relative to their peers.

To close this achievement gap and support AI/AN students in their academic success, the AI/AN community has recommended integrating Native Language and Culture (NLC) into instruction. However, some studies have found a negative association between use of NLC and AI/AN student outcomes. In this guest blog, Dr. Claudia Vincent discusses her IES-funded study, which aims to obtain nuanced understanding of the construct of NLC and its relation to AI/AN student learning and achievement in school. 

With IES funding from 2014 to 2017, our team of researchers at the University of Oregon worked with data from the National Indian Education Study (NIES) to operationalize Native Language and Culture (NLC) in schools from different viewpoints (student, teacher, school administrator) and examine the relationship between use of NLC and student academic and behavioral outcomes. Here’s what we learned from our study.

NLC is multi-dimensional and means different things to students, teachers, and administrators.

For students, NLC meant direct contact with AI/AN people as well as access to instructional material providing information about AI/AN traditions, languages, and history. For teachers, most of whom are not of AI/AN descent, NLC meant use of AI/AN traditions, history, and issues in academic instruction and access to materials and resources reflecting those traditions, history, and issues. For administrators, NLC meant involvement of local AI/AN people in the school, the school’s ability to provide instruction in AI/AN culture, and the school’s ability to provide instruction in AI/AN languages.

The multi-faceted nature of NLC suggests that different NLC practices likely benefit different students differently in different contexts. Our exploration of the relationship between the use of NLC as defined by the NIES data and student academic outcomes as measured by NAEP data provided insight into the contextual variables affecting the benefits of NLC. First, implementation of recommended NLC practices is rare overall. AI/AN teachers speaking Native language(s) and teaching in classrooms with high AI/AN enrollment located in schools employing AI/AN teachers and staff implement the recommended practices more often. Second, NLC benefitted math achievement most for those AI/AN students whose families identified strongly with AI/AN traditions and customs and who attended schools with high AI/AN enrollment.

These findings suggest that alignment between school and home cultures can promote the achievement of AI/AN students, but that NLC might be less beneficial, or even detrimental, for students who do not have a strong AI/AN identity, or who attend schools with low AI/AN enrollment. In the latter context, NLC in the classroom might be associated with stereotype threat, meaning that AI/AN students might perform lower when negative biases about their ethnic backgrounds are more prominent.

While our data analyses provided important insights into the many dimensions of NLC and its relation to AI/AN student success, the lived experiences of our advisory board members brought our findings to life. In addition to our research team, our study was guided by an advisory board consisting of AI/AN scholars and community members representing the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Yakama Nation, the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, and Oglala Lakota descendancy. Their contributions were instrumental in providing context to our findings. For example, the board suggested that providing students with access to AI/AN people might be most beneficial if teachers create an inclusive and welcoming environment where visitors and their contributions to educational experiences are clearly honored. Similarly, a classroom visit from an AI/AN guest should be linked to broader instructional goals to prevent tokenization of AI/AN culture. Teachers should feel comfortable and supported in challenging the dominant cultural narrative in their school by questioning content of textbooks in order to encourage their students to think critically about the cultural context of their education. 

AI/AN students represent a highly diverse group who bring critical perspectives to our classrooms. Promoting learning environments where they can succeed would benefit not only AI/AN students but enrich the educational experiences of all students.  


This post is part of our Native American Heritage Month blog series, In the first post, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shared NCES findings on the learning experiences of AI/AN students throughout their education careers.

Dr. Claudia Vincent is a Research Associate in the Center for Equity Promotion, College of Education at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on identifying and developing solutions for persistent racial/ethnic disparities in discipline and academic achievement.

This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and Emily Doolittle (Emily.Doolittle@ed.gov), NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research.

Recognizing School-Based Teams for American Education Week: Team-Initiated Problem Solving (TIPS)

In honor of American Education Week, IES recognizes the many school-based educators and staff who work together to support student learning and growth. This is particularly true for teams working to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. Providing special education requires a team approach with collaboration among a variety of professionals. To this end, school-based teams—teachers, administrators, special education and behavior specialists, and other support professionals—at the elementary level are in a constant process of problem solving. Student needs, ever evolving, are best met using targeted data and evidence-based practices. But how do school teams ensure that they are defining student needs accurately and applying the most effective interventions? In the busy school environment, how can team members best use their meeting time to serve students?

NCSER-funded researchers have been working to measure and support school team efforts through the development of decision-making models and observation tools refined and expanded over the course of more than 15 years. One approach dedicated to training team members and facilitating successful problem-solving meetings has been demonstrated to improve the decisions made by school teams and is now being integrated with student data systems and supported by online tools for staff.

Photo of Dr. Rob Horner

Dr. Rob Horner (University of Oregon) and his team recognized the need for school problem-solving teams to access to student academic and behavioral data and to have a protocol for the effective use of these data. Based on an observational tool, Decision Observation Recording and Analysis (DORA), and a decision-making process developed with a previous NCSER grant, they evaluated the efficacy of Team-Initiated Problem Solving (TIPS). Focused on the school-based team meeting procedures, TIPS helps train school staff to use data to define student problems and develop targeted solutions that draw from existing research but are specific to each student’s unique circumstances and needs. This randomized controlled trial tested the TIPS model with school teams trained in schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a systems-level framework that involves implementing multi-tiered, evidence-based practices to improve student social/behavioral and academic outcomes. Results indicated that the teams already had fairly strong foundational meeting procedures (such as use of agenda, minutes, and assigned roles) following the general PBIS training, but after exposure to TIPS training and coaching, school teams were better able to identify precise academic and behavioral problems in the students they observed. The solutions they generated were more targeted and, notably, researchers saw a shift from solutions that focused on changing the student to those that aimed to alter the student’s environment. In addition, teams that participated in TIPS were more likely to implement solutions they developed and their schools had fewer out-of-school suspensions than the schools that had teams in the control group.

Although there were positive effects of the TIPS model, it is important to note that drawing together a team of school staff with diverse specialties and relationships with the student remains a challenge. Together with Dr. Horner, Dr. Erin Chaparro (University of Oregon) is leading an IES-funded project to develop a set of technology tools to facilitate the use of TIPS with problem-solving teams. The project includes both online professional development modules tailored to team members’ needs and an app to assist with meeting protocols and easy access to meeting history and student data. These programs, collectively called the TIPS EdTech tools, are intended to improve team functioning and, by extension, student outcomes. The researchers are currently completing a pilot study to help determine the fidelity of implementing these tools and the promise for positive impacts on team functioning and student outcomes.  

TIPS is now being used in additional research. Dr. Wayne Sailor (University of Kansas) and his research team are focused on school teams’ ability to effectively leverage data to integrate student behavioral and academic supports. This NCSER-funded grant aims to improve school teams’ use of an integrated multi-tiered systems of support, which works to combine behavior and academic services, through the development of a decision support system (DSS). The DSS consists of two parts, one of which is an adaptation of the TIPS model for problem-solving team meetings termed “the meeting engine.” The second component consists of an existing digital system called DataWall, an integrated data system to link education databases, chart data, and build summary reports at various levels (such as school, grade, or student). This research team is currently enhancing DataWall while integrating with TIPS procedures.

Serving students with disabilities requires the skills and collaboration of many different education professionals, such as teachers and special education teachers, administrators, service providers, and paraeducators. The challenge of coordinating the efforts of school-based teams calls for ongoing innovation by both researchers and practitioners. TIPS and its iterations are one evidence-based way of helping to facilitate school staff supports for diverse student needs.

Written by Julianne Kasper, Virtual Student Federal Service Intern at IES and graduate student in Education Policy & Leadership at American University.

How Do Education Leaders Access and Use Research Evidence?

In 2014, IES funded one of two R&D Centers on Knowledge Utilization (or Knowledge/Evidence Use) to explore how 1) education researchers can make their work more relevant and useful to practitioners located in state and local education agencies and in individual schools, 2) the work of practitioners can inform research efforts, and 3) practitioners can make decisions based on research evidence. The National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently completed its grant. Corinne Alfeld, a Program Officer in IES NCER, talked with Principal Investigator Bill Penuel about the Center’s findings and recommendations. The full list of Center staff and collaborators can be found on NCRPP’s website.

What were the outcomes of your IES-funded KU R&D Center? 

Our center studied how school and district leaders accessed and used research through a nationally representative survey and through case studies of school district decision making, research-practice partnerships, and a professional association of state leaders in science. Across all studies, we found that leaders highly valued research. At the same time, we found some things that might be surprising to many researchers:

  • Most leaders accessed research through their relationships and networks rather than through web sites, journal articles, or resources like the What Works Clearinghouse. The most common ways leaders accessed research was through their own professional associations, conferences, and colleagues in education settings. In some cases, these networks provided leaders with access to high-quality research. In our study of the professional association of science leaders, leaders cited National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine consensus study reports as the most shared and used among members.
  • Leaders used research for a variety of purposes and for a range of decision-making activities not only to make decisions about what programs to adopt. Many leaders, for example, design professional development for educators for which there may be no program to adopt. In our case studies of district research use, we found that leaders did rely on research—conceptually—to inform their design activities. Research use was embedded within the ongoing decision-making routines for designing, implementing, and evaluating professional development activities.
  • Leaders did not turn to impact studies of individual interventions when they looked for research. Instead, they more commonly turned to books and other kinds of publications that provided syntheses or summaries of research. A common thread was that these sources of research provided frameworks for action, broken down into clear steps they could follow.

How can researchers use your findings to improve their dissemination efforts?

Despite the value leaders placed on research, there is clearly room for improvement with respect to dissemination. More than half of respondents to our survey said that by the time research was published, it was no longer valuable to them. Here are two strategies that researchers might find useful.

  1. Long-term research-practice partnerships (RPPs) were sites where leaders found research to be both timely and relevant to them. These partnerships come in different shapes and sizes and have different goals. However, all engage educators in helping define the very questions that will be addressed in the research, and some also engage in co-design and testing of interventions to address persistent problems of practice and to work toward visions of more equitable systems of education.
  2. Embedding researchers within leaders’ professional organizations can help disseminate research in a timely manner. These members present regularly at association meetings and conferences. They also participate in committees, where they develop tools to inform ongoing leadership activities.

What these strategies have in common is that dissemination is not an afterthought. In fact, dissemination is not a good word for what these researchers are doing. A better word is engagement. Researchers are engaging educators throughout the process of research and development, not just at the end.

How can your findings be used to improve practitioner access to and use or consideration of research findings?

Many of the strategies for engagement involve educators engaging with various aspects of research directly. Years ago, Weiss and colleagues described this as its own form of research use, called process use. Engaging educators in the actual research process does something that is important for supporting research use, namely giving them time to make sense of research and its implications for their work.

We found evidence that involvement in RPPs for educators was helpful to their own policymaking and practice. More than three-quarters, for example, said that their external partners shaped the design of professional development, and many also said that their partnership helped to integrate newly developed practices in the partnership.

What are your plans for future work in this area?

At present, NCRPP is involved in two exciting new projects. The first is a project funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, which focuses on developing and validating measures to assess the effectiveness of RPPs. We’re using a framework developed by Erin Henrick and colleagues to evaluate RPPs, and we’ve gathered survey and interview data from more than 60 RPPs. Our goal is to develop formative measures to help RPPs evaluate progress on each of the five dimensions of the framework.

The second project is funded by the Wallace Foundation to study and support equity-centered leadership and districts in forming partnerships with researchers as they develop and test strategies for creating equity-centered leadership pipelines. Both projects are being undertaken in collaboration with the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships.

What do you see as the next steps for this field?

While it is tempting to suggest “more research is needed,” what is needed is an “evidence-informed” approach to evidence use—the application of what we already know about evidence use when it comes to policy and practice. That requires us to shift focus away from imagining that better, plain-language research briefs will help us improve research use. Instead, we need to encourage researchers to engage in more substantive ways with practice throughout the research process, to improve its relevance and timeliness.

We also need to embrace a broader conception of the kinds of evidence and information that can inform decision making, one that reflects the range of information that leaders currently use and could turn to. Of particular importance is considering the experiences of those students, families, and communities to whom we owe a great education debt as important sources for decision making. If we take a broader view of evidence, a new question emerges: How can we consider and integrate different sources of evidence in a way that is informed by values such as equity and justice into decision making? This is the sort of question I hope the field can pursue in the future.


Findings from the 2015 IES-funded Center for Research Use in Education (CRUE) at the University of Delaware will be highlighted in a blog in 2022. Stay tuned! If you have further questions, please contact Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov.

 

AI-Augmented Learning for Individuals with Disabilities: New Funding Opportunity, Current Research, and the Potential for Improving Student Outcomes

This March, IES Director Mark Schneider released a blog in which he discussed exploring a partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to encourage scientists with expertise in AI and related fields to address the important post-pandemic need for accelerating learning. IES is now excited to announce our resulting participation in NSF’s National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research Institutes—Accelerating Research, Transforming Society, and Growing the American Workforce solicitation. In this blog, we describe this new funding opportunity, provide examples of existing NCSER-funded research in this area, and highlight the potential for such research to further improve outcomes for learners with disabilities.

 Artificial Intelligence Research Funding Opportunity

With funding from the American Rescue Plan, NCSER plans to support research under Theme 6, Track B: AI-Augmented Learning for Individuals with Disabilities. Proposals must discuss how the work will respond to the needs of learners with or at risk for a disability in an area where the COVID-19 pandemic has further widened existing gaps and/or resulted in decreased access and opportunities for students with disabilities to learn and receive support services. Please review the solicitation, the webinar (November 16), and the frequently asked questions for more information. Interested applicants should note the primary focus of this institute:

The primary focus of an institute in AI-Augmented Learning includes research and development of AI-driven innovations to radically improve human learning and education. Achievement and opportunity gaps, particularly for learners from disadvantaged or underserved communities, have always been present, but COVID-19 has exacerbated them. Institute plans for this theme should address and measure outcomes with direct education impact, in both the short- and long- term, that have practical significance to educators, parents, or other decision-makers. Plans must also directly address algorithmic bias, model transparency, security and data privacy in the support of learning.”

Current NCSER-Funded Grants Applying Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Prior to the new collaboration between IES and NSF, NCSER funded several grants that apply artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches, including those described below.

With a 2018 NCSER grant, Dr. Maithilee Kunda and her team at Vanderbilt University are building on a technology-based intervention known as Betty’s Brain. This computer-based instructional program for middle school science, designed with the support of a 2006 NCER grant, allows students to teach a computer agent to understand certain concepts, increasing their own knowledge and understanding. Dr. Kunda and her team are developing a new game called Film Detective, which is designed to improve theory of mind (ToM) reasoning in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). More information about this project can be found in this IES blog.

With a 2021 NCSER grant, Dr. Patrick Kennedy and his team at University of Oregon are using machine learning to validate a well-known assessment, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, 8th Edition® (DIBELS 8) as a screener for dyslexia. As of 2020, 47 states require that students be screened for dyslexia in early elementary school and many states use DIBELS for this screening. However, it remains to be validated for this purpose. To address the validity of the DIBELS for screening, this research team is using machine learning approaches to predict and classify scores in relation to a pre-defined target. This will allow the research team to draw conclusions about the validity of the DIBELS 8 for dyslexia screening. These conclusions will be disseminated widely to state and local education agencies and other stakeholders.

The Potential of AI for Improving Outcomes for Learners with Disabilities

In addition to the work that IES is funding, AI has already demonstrated potential for improving outcomes for learners with disabilities in many other ways:

  • AI has been used to support children with ASD who have difficulties understanding people’s emotions, with AI-driven apps and robots helping students practice emotion recognition and other social skills.
  • AI has informed the development of algorithms that can help those involved in assessment identify disabilities in students, such as ASD, specific learning disabilities (dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • AI-embedded interventions have included error analysis to inform instruction and personalized feedback in spelling and math for students with disabilities.

Despite these advancements, there appear to be persistent gaps in AI research for students with disabilities, such as AI for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This is an especially important area of work because many of these learners have multiple disabilities and/or serious health conditions. For example, children with intellectual and developmental disabilities who also have hearing loss or visual impairment have compounded challenges. Some students with Down syndrome also have hearing loss and other health complications, such as cardiac issues. AI affords an opportunity to integrate health information across different applications to improve the quality of life for these students. These technological solutions can assist in managing information about the students and communicating health information between teachers, physicians, and caregivers.

AI has the potential to transform special education. We hope that this NCSER-NSF partnership will encourage researchers to be creative in planning projects that move the field of AI forward as well as provide innovative solutions to support learners with disabilities.

This blog was co-authored by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), program officer at NCSER and Bennett Lunn (Bennett.lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for NCSER and the National Center for Education Research (NCER). IES encourages special education researchers to partners with experts in Artificial Intelligence to submit to this NSF AI Institute solicitation 22-502 to increase the evidence base on use of AI for this population.