Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Investing in Scholars: NCSER Early Career Development Awardee Michael Hebert

By Liz Berke, NCSER Intern and Kristen Rhoads, NCSER Program Officer

Welcome to the last installment of our three-part series featuring the Principal Investigators of the inaugural NCSER Early Career Development and Mentoring grants.  To round the series out, we are featuring the work of Dr. Michael Hebert from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Hebert is a former reading specialist in California.

Dr. Hebert is being mentored by Ron Nelson, also from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  In his Early Career project, Dr. Hebert is working to improve reading comprehension in the content areas for children with or at risk for learning disabilities.  His intervention Structures, takes place in small groups led by a teacher, and focuses on helping students understand text structure to enhance reading comprehension. 

 

We had the chance to interview Dr. Hebert and he gave us his insights on the challenges of being a young researcher.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face as a young researcher? How do you hope this award will help you overcome those challenges?

This is a tough question to answer because I don’t know whether I am aware of all of the challenges I will face.  There are a lot of challenges (big and small) that I will not be aware of until they come up for the first time.  Sometimes these things have to do with the rules and regulations of my university with regard to budgeting or post award support, while others may be challenges to working with student research assistants.  This grant has been great for helping me identify the challenges of funded research projects and learn to work with entities like the Office of Sponsored Programs at my university.  Let’s face it, if I didn’t have these funds now, I wouldn’t learn to navigate these challenges until later in my career.  

Additionally, I find that it is simply a challenge to get research off the ground as an early career researcher.  Establishing relationships with schools, planning studies, establishing systems for collecting and analyzing data, and other tasks take time.  Although some of these things are probably a challenge for all researchers, people who are more established in their careers might already have a lot of strategies and systems in place.  This grant has given me some personnel resources that help with some of the more basic tasks, essentially creating more of the most valuable resource we have… time.

What advice would you give to young researchers? 

First, apply for the IES Early Career Grant award, of course.  It is an excellent way to get started in your research program, while allowing you to develop some additional skills at the same time.  The development aspect of the grant really forces you to focus on some skill areas that may not be your strong suit.  Second, take advantage of every resource you can at your university.  If you can find graduate assistant support or even undergraduate support, hire them even if you aren’t sure what you will do with them yet.   You’ll be surprised how much you can find for them to do.  Even if you have to spend some time training them, the return is worth it. Also, it is really rewarding to share what you know with the next generation of potential researchers.

What is your favorite aspect of working with your mentor?

Working with my mentor has been invaluable.  We work together on aspects of the grant multiple days each week, and sometimes on a daily basis.  We’re almost partners in the research, and he has challenged some of my ideas, while I have been able to challenge some of his, as well.  This type of working relationship has really been a collaboration of sorts, and given me good experience working together with a colleague on projects.   I’ve also had the opportunity to co-mentor one of his doctoral students, which is a nice way to learn.  

What made you decide to apply to for the early career development and mentoring award? 

The Request for Applications for this award came out while I was completing my dissertation, so I actually decided to apply before I started working at my university.  It seemed like the perfect fit, as I was not doing a postdoctoral position, but felt that I needed mentorship in my first position.  I had a research mentor in mind at the university and he agreed to mentor me, so it made the decision to apply very easy.  There were a lot of changes in my life at the time, including moving and starting a new position as an Assistant Professor, so I didn’t have much time to think it over.  That said, I wouldn’t go back and do anything differently.  

Questions? Comments? Please send us an email IESResearch@ed.gov.

Experts Discuss the Use of Mixed Methods in Education Research

By Corinne Alfeld and Meredith Larson, NCER Program Officers

Since IES was founded more than a dozen years ago, it has built a reputation for funding rigorous research to measure the causal effects of education policies and programs.  While this commitment remains solid, we also recognize the value of well-designed qualitative research that deepens understanding of program implementation and other educational processes and that generates new questions or hypotheses for study. In this blog post, we highlight the outcomes from a recent meeting we hosted focused on the use of mixed methods – that is, studies that combine qualitative and quantitative methods – and share some of the ways in which our grantees and other researchers incorporate mixed methods into their research.

On May 29, 2015, 10 researchers with experience designing and conducting mixed methods research met with staff from the two IES research centers in a technical working group (TWG) meeting. The TWG members shared their experiences carrying out mixed methods projects and discussed what types of technical assistance and resources we could provide to support the integration of high-quality mixed methods into education research. There was consensus among the TWG members that qualitative data is valuable, enriches quantitative data, and provides insight that cannot be gained from quantitative research alone.  Participants described how mixed methods in currently used in education research, proposed potential NCER and NCSER guidance and training activities to support the use of high-quality mixed methods, and offered suggestions for researchers and the field. Below are just a few examples that were shared during the meeting:

  • Dr. Carolyn Heinrich and colleagues used a longitudinal mixed method study design to evaluate the efficacy of supplemental education services provided to low-income students under No Child Left Behind. One of the critical findings of the study was that there was substantial variation across school districts in what activities were included in an hour of supplemental instruction, including (in some cases) many non-instructional activities.  This was revealed as the team examined the interview data describing what activities lay behind the shared metric of an hour of instructional time.  Having that level of information provided the team with critical insights as they examined the site-by-site variation in efficacy of supplemental education services.  Dr. Heinrich emphasized the need for flexibility in research design because the factors affecting the impact of an intervention are not always apparent in the design phase. In addition, she reminded the group that while statistical models provide an average impact score, there is valuable information included in the range of observed impacts, and that that variability is often best understood with information collected using in-depth field research approaches.
  • Dr. Mario Small used mixed methods research to examine social networks in childcare centers in New York City. Using observational methods, he discovered that variations in the level of networking among mothers depended on the individual child care center, not the neighborhood. He hypothesized that child care centers that had the strictest rules around pick-up and drop-off, as well as more opportunities for parent involvement (such as field trips), would have the strongest social networks. In such settings, parents tend to be at the child care center at the same time and, thus, have more interaction with each other. Dr. Small tested the hypotheses using analysis of survey and social network data and found that those who developed a social network through their child care center had higher well-being than those who did not. He concluded from this experience that without the initial observations, he would not have known that something small, like pick-up and drop-off policies, could have a big effect on behavior.
  • Dr. Jill Hamm described a difficult lesson learned about mixed methods “after the fact” in her study, which was funded through our National Research Center on Rural Education Support. In planning to launch an intervention to be delivered to sixth-grade teachers to help adolescents adjust to middle school, she and her colleagues worked with their school partners to plan for possible challenges in implementation. However, because some of the qualitative data collected in these conversations were not part of the original research study – and, thus, not approved by her Institutional Review Board – the important information they gathered could not be officially reported in publications of the study’s findings. Dr. Hamm encouraged researchers to plan to use qualitative methods to complement quantitative findings at the proposal stage to maximize the information that can be collected and integrated during the course of the project.
  • In a study conducted by Dr. Tom Weisner and his colleagues, researchers conducted interviews with families of children with disabilities to determine the level of “hassle” they faced on a daily basis and their perceptions of sustainability of their family’s routines. Findings from these interviews were just as good at predicting family well-being as parental reports of coping or stress on questionnaires. The findings from the analysis of both the qualitative and quantitative data collected for this study enhanced researchers’ understanding of the impact of a child’s disability on family life more than either method could have alone. Dr. Weisner observed that the ultimate rationale of mixed methods research should be to gather information that could not have been revealed without such an approach. Because “the world is not linear, additive, or decontextualized,” he suggested that the default option should always be to use mixed methods and that researchers should be required to provide a rationale for why they had not done so, where feasible.

Curious to learn more about what was discussed? Additional information is available in the meeting summary.

Comments? Questions? Please email us at IESResearch@ed.gov.

An Intern's Perspective on the National Center for Education Research

By Brittney Fraumeni, NCER Intern

Photo of Brittney Fraumeni

 

Each year, the Institute of Education Sciences’ two research centers offer unpaid internships for undergraduate or graduate students interested in learning about the research grant making process and contributing to the work of the centers.  Internships are coordinated through the U.S. Department of Education’s student volunteer office and are available throughout the year.  For application information, please see the ED Student Volunteer Unpaid Internship Program.  

This summer Brittney Fraumeni, a doctoral student in Psychological Science at DePaul University interned with the National Center for Education Research (NCER). At the end of her internship, Brittney reflected on her summer with NCER. 

What brought you to the internship?

As I headed in to the final months of my third year of graduate school, I began to really question what I wanted to do with my degree when I was finished. My PhD program emphasizes training for an academic position, but I had doubts about whether or not that was the best fit for me. So when the opportunity to be a summer intern at NCER presented itself, I seized it, hoping for a learning experience that would help shape my view of my future career.

How did you hear about the internship?

I briefly worked as a freelance researcher on a US Department of Education grant, which was the first time it occurred to me that the government had a research department. I easily found the IES website, and after some exploring on the site, discovered that they had internships available. I applied ASAP.

Why did you want to do the internship?

I really wanted an opportunity to see what a non-academic position could be like. As I mentioned, most of my graduate training has revolved around obtaining an academia related career, and so I had no idea what else was out there.

What were your days like at the internship?

The internship schedule was really flexible, and I was allowed to choose my own days and hours. Additionally, I was in charge of my own time management throughout the day. At the beginning of my six week stay, the main projects I was going to be working on were given to me, meaning that everyday I came in to the office after that, I mostly knew what I would be working on. I had three big projects to work on, so I usually just circulated through tasks for those, and every once in awhile a small project would head my way that I would add to my schedule.

What was beneficial about the internship?

The internship really helped confirm what I was already thinking at the beginning of the summer: I’d like to get a job in a non-academic field upon completing my doctorate. But, more than that, the internship gave me the chance to work with like-minded individuals who were open to letting me pick their brain and providing contact information with people in the education research field. Overall, it was a great learning and networking opportunity.

What did you learn from the internship?

More than just learning more about education research, I learned new skills. Before the internship, I only knew of social media from a personal standpoint. But, as more companies branch out to different social media outlets to promote their work, it’s important to know how to have a professional and effective social media presence. Working on the social media team at IES really boosted my social media skills.

What did you learn about IES/ED from doing the internship?

Before applying for the internship, I thought ED was really only a department focused on policy; I wasn’t even aware that the department was involved in research! However, through actually working here, I learned that not only is there a research department, there are so many more departments than I even could have imagined. IES itself is broken down in to multiple branches that all have different focuses on research elements. By working with the people here and having the opportunity to sit in on different meetings, I was able to learn what each department does and the special role they each play in promoting education research. Furthermore, I learned that not everybody took the same path to get here; IES is made up of employees with all different backgrounds, which makes for a fun and diverse environment to work in.

How did the internship reshape your thinking about education research?

I used to think education research was a relatively small area. Now, after having hands on experience with writing up award summaries, I know that there are many people interested in education research and pursuing it. It never occurred to me how many different companies (not just schools!) had an interest in developing interventions for education purposes. It is so inspiring to now know just how many people out there are trying to promote the best outcomes for students, from pre-k to college.


Questions? Comments? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov. 

The ‘Not So Simple’ View of Reading

By Karen Douglas, NCER Program Officer

 

Improving students’ capacity to understand what they read in all subject areas is a primary focus of educators and policymakers. Educators and researchers have been focused on interventions to improve reading for decades, and a great deal of attention has been given to improving word level skills (such as phonemic awareness and decoding). In part, this focus can be traced to the ‘Simple View of Reading,’ a theoretical framework developed by Gough and Tunmer almost 30 years ago.

The Simple View states that readers need to both understand language and decode the symbols on the page in order to comprehend written text. The influential role of decoding on reading outcomes has been well studied, and many interventions have been developed that show good results in improving these skills for many students. But improvement in decoding skills, while necessary, has not generally been sufficient to improve reading comprehension.

In recent years, researchers have begun exploring the other part of the equation -- language. Most often, researchers use vocabulary knowledge as a proxy for language skills and a great deal of research is focused on improving vocabulary skills. Efforts to improve vocabulary generally show that students learn the new words they are taught, but generalized effects on vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension are elusive. It seems likely that in addition to understanding the meanings of individual words, students also need to know how words are constructed (morphology), how they are used in text (syntax and grammar), and how to make inferences from text in order to make sense of the wide variety of materials they must read.

The Reading for Understanding Research Initiative (RfU), funded in 2010 by IES, is addressing a broader conception of language in trying to improve reading comprehension. RfU provided funding for six research teams to study the basic processes that undergird reading comprehension, develop and test new curricula and instructional programs to improve it, and develop new assessments to provide a better measure of students’ capacity to read in authentic scenarios. Collectively, RfU researchers are studying the development of reading for understanding from prekindergarten through high school with the goal of creating new knowledge about what matters at each developmental stage in order for students to finish high school with sufficient reading skills for college and career. Each of these six teams has incorporated attention to aspects of language beyond vocabulary knowledge and several teams have published results that provide evidence of the potential of improved language skills for building reading comprehension. Abstracts for studies and publications to date can be found on the IES website.

In a recent article in Educational Psychology Review, my co-author Elizabeth Albro and I describe the purpose of the RfU Research Initiative, the goals of the six teams funded under the initiative, and progress made through 2014. As the work of the RfU Research Initiative comes to completion, the RfU researchers are positioned to make important contributions to what we know about the development of reading for understanding and how we can best improve it for all students. Expanded knowledge about the language skills that support reading for understanding and how to improve them will be a key component of this contribution. Stay tuned to Inside IES Research to learn more about what the teams are finding.

 

Investing in Scholars: NCSER Early Career Development Awardee Jennifer Ledford

Featuring Jennifer Ledford, Vanderbilt University

By Liz Berke, NCSER Intern and Kristen Rhoads, NCSER Program Officer

Welcome to our second blog post featuring the Principal Investigators of the inaugural NCSER Early Career Development and Mentoring program grants.  This week we are excited to feature the work of Dr. Jennifer Ledford from Vanderbilt University and former Special Education teacher from Georgia.

Picture of Jennifer Ledford, Vanderbilt University

Dr. Ledford is being mentored by Dr. Joseph Wehby (Vanderbilt University), Dr. David Gast (University of Georgia) and Dr. Kevin Ayres (University of Georgia).  In her IES-funded project, she is further developing and testing a small-group intervention designed to improve the academic and social skills of children with autism.  Dr. Ledford is using single case designs to study whether the intervention improves child outcomes and teachers can effectively implement it. 

We had the chance to sit down with Dr. Ledford and ask her about the challenges she faces as well as get advice from her for others like her who are early in their research careers.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face as a young researcher? How do you hope this award will help you overcome those challenges?

Early career research in education is hard for numerous reasons—not yet having established relationships with teachers and schools, relative inexperience with balancing research with other tasks (i.e., teaching, advising, service), and, of course, lack of funding. The early career award actually helps in all of these areas. It is much easier to establish relationships with schools when you are an early career researcher if you have a well-considered and funded series of studies and if you’ve aligned yourself well with more advanced researchers. In addition, the funding potentially allows you to reduce time spent on teaching and other activities, so that you have additional time to contribute to research efforts. Funding student support has been especially crucial in running my complex single case studies that require considerable personnel resources. Finally, the mentorship and training associated with grant have provided a flexible but structured framework for improving my ability to conduct high-quality research.

What advice would you give to young researchers?

I’m not sure I feel ready to give advice to fellow early career investigators! I think taking advantage of the knowledge of senior researchers has been key for me—both in my official mentee role and just in the day-to-day conduct of research outside of this grant.  

What is your favorite aspect of working with your mentors?

It is great to have a structured and focused mentoring program—it makes it easy to forge a relationship and to continue working with your mentor over time. Without this structure, I think it may have been easy to let the mentoring take a back seat to other responsibilities. It’s great to have an excuse to meet with and learn from experienced and invested leaders in the field.

What made you decide to apply to for the early career development and mentoring award? Is there anything you wish you had known before you applied?

When I read the RFA for the new competition, I think my first thought was probably something like “I might actually be competitive for this grant!” The training and mentoring components and competition with other early career investigators makes it a less daunting prospect.  While I was applying, I wish I had realized and taken advantage of the potential value of the Program Officer during the application process and the tremendous benefit of asking for input from colleagues. 

Comments? Questions? Please write to us at IESresearch@ed.gov.