Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Recent Report Identifies Possible Categories of Adult Struggling Readers (and How to Help Them)

Nearly one in five U.S. adults aged 16 and over may struggle with basic literacy. These adults may struggle with any of the core components of reading, such as decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension. They may struggle for many different reasons—English is not their first language, possible cognitive declines from aging, or a lack of formal education. To identify the right instructional tools and curricula, we need to understand the varying needs of this heterogeneous group of adult struggling readers and design appropriate solutions.

In a recent report, IES-funded researchers conducted a latent class analysis of 542 adults (age 16- to 71-years old) enrolled in adult education programs whose reading scores indicate a reading level between the 3rd- and 8th-grade level. The analysis identified four possible subgroup categories of adult struggling readers based on their performance on lower-level competencies (phonological awareness, decoding, vocabulary) and higher-level competencies (comprehension, inferencing, background knowledge):

 

  • Globally Impaired Readers: adults who show difficulties in all competencies
  • Globally Better Readers: adults who are relatively strong in all competencies
  • Weak Decoders: readers who are relatively weaker in lower-level competencies but strong in higher-level competencies
  • Weak Language Comprehenders: readers who are strong in lower-level competencies but relatively weaker in higher-level competencies

 

On average, Weak Decoders were older than other categories, though Globally Impaired Readers were on average older than Globally Better Readers or Weak Language Comprehenders. Globally Better Readers and Weak Decoders included a larger proportion of native English speakers than the other two categories. Thus, both age and English proficiency may predict the pattern of strengths and weaknesses. However, having a high school diploma did not predict performance patterns.

Although Globally Better Readers tended to perform better on reading assessment than other categories, even this group of readers performed at the 6th-grade level on average. Thus, all groups of readers would benefit from additional instruction. The researchers suggest different approaches for addressing the needs of learners in the different categories. For example, Weak Language Comprehenders may benefit from technology-based solutions that help build their oral language competencies, whereas Globally Impaired Readers and Weak Decoders may benefit from direct instruction on decoding skills.

 


This research was conducted as part of the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL): Developing Instructional Approaches Suited to the Cognitive and Motivational Needs for Struggling Adults funded in 2012 through NCER.

The abstract for the publication discussed above is available on ERIC; Identifying Profiles of Struggling Adult Readers: Relative Strengths and Weaknesses in Lower-Level and Higher-Level Competencies (Talwar, Amani; Greenberg, Daphne; Li, Hongli).

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

CALM - Child Anxiety Learning Modules: From Research to Practice at Scale in Education

Many elementary school students experience anxiety that interferes with learning and achievement, but few receive services. To expand the network of support for these young students, IES-funded researchers have turned to school nurses as a potential front-line resource. The Child Anxiety Learning Modules (CALM) intervention incorporates cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other evidence-based strategies for school nurses to use when a child has vague somatic complaints that often signal underlying anxiety.

 

 

In 2014, IES funded a Development and Innovation grant to support the development of CALM to enhance the capacity of elementary school nurses to help children with anxiety. Based on promising findings of feasibility and reduced anxiety and fewer school absences, the development team is launching an initial efficacy trial this fall to investigate the scale up potential of the CALM intervention.

 

We asked the developers of CALM—Golda Ginsburg (University of Connecticut School of Medicine) and Kelly Drake (Founder/Director of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Maryland; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine)—to answer a few questions for our blog. Here’s what they answered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you describe how the CALM intervention was developed? What led you to develop an intervention for school nurses to implement?

We have been developing and evaluating psychosocial interventions for youth with anxiety for the last two decades, and we’ve learned a lot about effective, evidence-based strategies. We know that CBT, which consists of coping strategies that target the physical, cognitive, and behavioral manifestations of anxiety, is effective in helping youth manage and reduce anxiety. Unfortunately, we’ve also learned that most youth do not receive these—or any—services to help them. To address this gap in service utilization, our efforts have focused on ways of improving access to these therapeutic strategies by broadening the pool of potential providers. Given that early interventions can reduce the long-term consequences of untreated anxiety AND that youth with anxiety often complain of troublesome physical symptoms at school, we naturally thought of school nurses as a key provider with enormous potential. However, although nurses reported spending a lot of time addressing mental health issues, they received minimal training in doing so. That’s when the idea of the CALM intervention was born. We developed the initial CALM intervention using an iterative process in which versions of the intervention and its implementation procedures were sequentially refined in response to feedback from expert consultants, school nurses, children, parents, and school personnel until it was usable in the school environment by school nurses.

 

Was it part of the original plan to develop an intervention that could one day be used at scale in schools?

Yes—absolutely! Members of the National Association of School Nurses have been on our advisory team throughout to help us plan for how to scale up the intervention if we find it helps students.

 

What was critical to consider during the research to practice process?

A central focus was to minimize burden on school staff and to integrate the intervention within the goals and mission of schools’ interdisciplinary teams. Therefore, using a multidisciplinary support team was critical in taking the intervention from a research idea to an intervention that school nurses could delivered in their real-world practice setting—schools! As clinical psychologists, we also relied on our multidisciplinary team to ensure the intervention was usable by school nurses in terms of content and flexible and feasible for their busy school day. Indeed, school nurses and school nurse organizations provided critical support for the development of CALM with a focus on feasible strategies and methods for nurses to implement. They also provided invaluable feedback regarding perceived barriers to successful implementation of the intervention and adoption by nurses and school systems, and solutions to potential barriers and options for scaling up the intervention. We also relied on experts in school-based mental health programs and those with expertise in designing, evaluating, and implementing evidence-based prevention programs in schools. We also leveraged state-level expertise by consulting with school health experts in the Connecticut State Department of Education and the Connecticut Nurses Association regarding mental health education for nurses.

 

What model are you using for dissemination and sustainability?

A wide variety of methods will be used to disseminate findings from the current study to reach different stakeholders. We will present and publish findings at 1) national scientific and practitioner-oriented conferences, 2) Maryland and Connecticut State Departments of Education and participating school districts, and 3) in relevant peer-reviewed journals. In addition, should the findings reveal a beneficial impact of the intervention, we will have the final empirically supported training and intervention materials available for broad scale implementation. The CALM intervention will be packaged to include a training seminar, training videos, nurse intervention manual, child intervention handouts, consultation/coaching plan, and assessment materials. The research team will offer training seminars with all supporting materials to school nurse organizations at the national, state, and local levels. We will also engage nurse supervisors to identify nurses—or volunteer themselves—to become trainers for newly hired nurses in the future. Finally, our current Advisory Board, which consists of members of the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), school nurses, and researchers with expertise in large scale school-based mental health program implementation and evaluation, will assist in broad dissemination and sustainability efforts.

 


Golda S. Ginsburg, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, University of Connecticut School of Medicine and Adjunct Professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has over 25 years of experience developing and evaluating school-based interventions including school-based interventions for anxiety delivered by school clinicians, teachers, and nurses.

Kelly Drake, Ph.D., Founder/Director of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Maryland, Research Consultant with UConn, and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry in the JHU School of Medicine has extensive training and experience in clinical research with anxious youth and training clinicians in delivering CBT for children.

This interview was produced by Emily Doolittle (Emily.doolittle@ed.gov) of the Institute of Education Sciences. This is part of an ongoing interview series with education researchers, developers, and partners who have successfully advanced IES-funded education research from the university laboratory to practice at scale.

Small Changes to Textbook Design Can Make a Big Difference for Student Learning

During spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of millions of U.S. schools. As schools reopened this fall, conversations have revolved around using this unique situation as a chance to rethink education and how students learn. When we think about innovative ways to improve education, ideas tend to gravitate towards radical changes to the classroom experience, expensive interventions, and costly professional development. Everyone is looking for the next “big” idea, but perhaps part of the solution lies in a more subtle, inexpensive, and less disruptive change that may be as impactful as a completely new education approach: strategic revisions to the materials teachers and students already use in their classrooms (whether in person or virtual).

Textbooks (or ebooks) and supplemental education materials are central to providing students with the content knowledge and practice experiences to support mastery of academic skills. Textbook developers spend significant time and effort to ensure that the content in those textbooks aligns to standards and provides students with the information and examples needed to understand key concepts. However, even with age-appropriate content and high-quality practice exercises, textbooks may not be effective as learning tools if they present and sequence information in a way that is not aligned to what we know about how people learn.

You may be wondering how much room there is for improvement—textbooks seem pretty good at delivering content as is, right? Actually, findings from three IES-funded projects demonstrate that there are multiple ways to improve texts and student understanding of key concepts. Here are a few of those ways:

 

Present a wide range of fraction practice problems. Textbooks focused on fractions learning tend to present more problems with equal denominators for addition and subtraction problems than for multiplication problems. Why does this matter? In IES-funded research, David Braithwaite and Bob Siegler showed that students pick up on this bias. As a result, students are more likely to make errors on equal denominator fractions multiplication problems because they are so used to seeing those problems when practicing fractions arithmetic and subtraction. The recommended minor change is to include a wider range of fractions practice problems, including equal denominator multiplication problems, to ensure that students do not form irrelevant associations between superficial features of a practice problem and the solution strategies they are practicing.

 

Provide students with a mix of practice problems that require different strategies rather than practice problems of the same type. Typical math practice involves solving the same type of problem repeatedly to practice the specific solution strategy a student just learned. However, across numerous IES-funded studies, Douglas Rohrer and his research team have shown that students benefit substantially more from math practice that involves a mix of problems that require different strategies (those learned in previous lessons mixed with those just learned). One of the major benefits of this approach is that students get practice choosing which strategy to use for a particular problem. Rohrer and his team found that across 13,505 practice problems from six popular math textbooks, only 9.7% of those problems were mixed up in this way. The recommended minor change is to simply mix up the problem sets so that students have more experiences encountering different types of problems in a single sitting.

 

Where and how you place visuals on textbook pages matters, especially when you want students to compare them. Textbooks typically use visuals such as diagrams and photos to help reinforce key concepts. In an IES-funded study, Bryan Matlen and colleagues examined anatomy and evolution chapters within three popular middle school science textbooks and found an average of 1.8 visuals per page. Students were expected to make comparisons using about a third of those visuals. Of those they had to compare, about half were positioned in suboptimal ways—that is, the images were not presented in a way that made it easy to identify how the elements of one image compare to the elements of the other. For example, imagine a student is asked to compare two x-ray images of hands to identify a bone that is missing from one of them. This task is much harder if one hand is shown upside down and the other is right-side up or perpendicular to the first image. Consistent with this example, Matlen and colleagues have conducted studies showing that visual comparisons are more effective when the features of the visuals that need to be compared are spatially aligned. The recommended minor change is to be intentional about the placement of visuals that students are supposed to be comparing; make sure they are placed in optimal alignment to each other so that it is easier for students to see how the features of one correspond to those of the other.

 

In sum, transformative, radical ideas about how to improve education are interesting to brainstorm about, but sometimes the key to improvement is identifying small changes that can deliver big results.


Written by Erin Higgins (Erin.Higgins@ed.gov), Program Officer for the Cognition and Student Learning Program, National Center for Education Research.

 

Exploring How COVID-19 Affects Learning and Critical Thinking

Our nation continues to navigate a unique and challenging year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In our first blog post in this series, we highlighted how educators, students, families, and researchers are adapting while trying to engage in opportunities to support learning. COVID-19 has created numerous challenges in education research with many studies needing to be modified or put on hold. At the same time, new research questions arise focusing on the impact of the pandemic on student learning, engagement, and achievement. Here, we highlight two IES-funded projects that are conducting timely and relevant research exploring the impact of COVID-19 on learning and critical thinking.    

Guanglei Hong, Lindsey Richland, and their research team at University of Chicago and University of California, Irvine have received supplemental funds to build off their current grant, Drawing Connections to Close Achievement Gaps in Mathematics. The research team will conduct a study during the 2020-21 school year to explore the relationship between student anxiety about the health risks associated with COVID-19 and their math learning experiences. They predict that pressure and anxiety, like that induced by COVID-19, use the same executive function resources that students need to engage in higher order thinking and reasoning during math instruction, which negatively affects the ability to learn. Through this study, the research team will also test whether particular instructional approaches reduce the effects of pressure and anxiety on learning. These findings will be useful for teachers and students in the near term as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and longer term for students who experience anxiety due to a variety of other reasons.

In addition, IES has funded an unsolicited grant to Clarissa Thompson at Kent State University to investigate whether an education intervention aimed at decreasing whole number bias errors can help college-aged students and adults more accurately interpret health statistics about COVID-19. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the public receives daily updates about the number of people locally, nationally, and globally who are infected with and die from COVID-19. Beliefs about the risk of getting a disease is a key predictor of engagement in prevention behaviors. Understanding the magnitude of one’s risk may require making sense of numerical health information, often presented in the form of rational numbers, such as fractions, whole number frequencies, and percentages. An intervention to decrease whole number bias errors and improve understanding of rational numbers has the immediate and pressing benefit of being able to accurately reason about the risk of COVID-19 and other health risks. This skill is also critical for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Both of these projects offer opportunities to better understand learning and critical thinking in the midst of the pandemic. They will also provide the field with generalizable information about ways to improve learning in STEM fields. Stay tuned for more COVID-19 related education research discussions as we continue this series on our blog.

 


Written by Christina Chhin (christina.chhin@ed.gov) and Erin Higgins (erin.higgins@ed.gov), National Center for Education Research (NCER).

This is the third in a series of blog posts focusing on conducting education research during COVID-19. Other blog posts in this series include Conducting Education Research During COVID-19 and Measuring Attendance during COVID-19: Considerations for Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning Environments.

 

Measuring Attendance during COVID-19: Considerations for Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning Environments

The National Center for Rural Education Research Networks (NCRERN) is an IES-funded R&D Center that has established a continuous improvement network of 50 rural districts in New York and Ohio. The purpose of the Network is to build the capacity of rural school districts and supporting state agencies to use their own data to improve the education of their students. Districts are currently tackling the problem of student absenteeism through piloting, evaluating, and improving various interventions.  Katherine Kieninger, David Hersh, and Jennifer Ash describe how the Network is tackling the problem of measuring attendance during COVID-19, taking into consideration the various learning environments.

 

NCRERN has been working to develop a viable attendance construct given that districts and schools are currently struggling with how to define and track attendance for remote or blended learning models. When students are not physically present, the typical observe-and-log model of attendance tracking is not an option. However, not tracking attendance is not an option either given the importance of attendance for identifying at-risk students, predicting key student outcomes, and acting during the pandemic as a proxy for the general safety and well-being of students.

We considered several possible attendance constructs and assessed them by the degree to which they met the following criteria. First, a viable construct should be measurable equitably across all students and learning environments, including in-person, synchronous and asynchronous virtual internet-accessible environments, and asynchronous environments without internet access. The attendance construct should also be simple to understand, easy to capture, and quick to collect. Finally, access to technology and reliable low-cost high-speed internet must be considered, especially in rural areas lacking such infrastructure.

We concluded that tracking student exposure to instructional content best meets these criteria, as seen in the table below. While not without its own challenges, exposure to content is the least complicated option, can be tracked across learning environments consistently and is the closest in principal to what in-person attendance captures.

 

Attendance Construct

Simple

Easy to Capture

All Students

High Frequency

Reliable & Valid

Consistent Across Grade Levels

Consistent across Virtual OR In-Person

In-Person Attendance

X

Exposure to Instructional Content

Participation

X

?

?

Assignment Submission

X

Engagement

X

X

X

Mastery

X

?

X

X

X

 

In guidance provided to Network districts, we use the table below to outline how to define tracking exposure to content across the learning environments, suggest capture options, and provide a non-exhaustive list of considerations for school district stakeholders. Districts should acknowledge that a student can float between learning environments. For example, an in-person student in quarantine and healthy enough to continue classwork will become a virtual learner. Based on their individual home context, this could place a student in any of the three virtual environments. Creating a plan for seamless attendance tracking across learning environments is key to measuring attendance with fidelity.

 

Attendance Construct: Exposure to Instructional Content

Learning Environment

Definition

Capture Options

Considerations

In-Person

Student is present

Student Information System (SIS)

  • Will in-person students be able to log in for remote learning if they are not able to come to school?*

*For example, a student must miss school for an extended period (i.e. needs to quarantine)

Virtual

 

Synchronous

Student is present for virtual class

Student Information System (SIS)

  • Can you avoid concurrent classes for students in the same family?
  • If a student loses internet, do you have an asynchronous back-up option for course content?

Virtual

 

Asynchronous with Internet Access

Student affirmatively accessed content

Learning Management System (LMS) log-in with a minimum time threshold

OR

Daily form completion (form asks students on what content they worked)

  • How/when will teachers capture results in the SIS?
  • How do you count daily attendance for different class periods?
  • If using LMS log-in option, what is the minimum amount of time a student needs to be logged in?
  • If using a daily form, what question(s) will you ask?
    • We recommend a low threshold equivalent to something a student who was present could answer regardless of their level of engagement.

Virtual

 

Asynchronous without Internet Access

Student affirmatively accessed content

Contact each student for whom the above guidance does not or cannot apply.

 

Student is absent only if they have not worked on any instructional content.

  • How will you know when a student does not have internet access, therefore need to call?
  • How do you contact the students who many not have consistent cell service or a landline?
  • What time of day will you contact students or caregivers?
  • How many attempts does a teacher or staff member need to make per day before a student is marked absent?
  • How will you address unresponsive caregivers?
  • How will you count daily attendance for different class periods in MS/HS?
  • If students have multiple content teachers, who will reach out to students?

 

In the guidance, we also considered assignment submission as a potentially viable attendance construct. An equitable implementation of an assignment submission construct across all learning environments, however, would result in one unique challenge: Would a school district be willing to mark an in-person student absent for the day if the student failed to submit an assignment? While surmountable, addressing this issue would be challenging in the short-term.

As school districts finalize their attendance measurement plans, they will need to ensure that any selected attendance measurements are feasible and sustainable for the duration of the school year for the individuals capturing attendance. This includes considering how long tracking attendance will take for teachers and additional staff members daily. Gathering feedback from teachers and staff regarding the ongoing execution of gathering attendance data is key to ensuring reliable attendance tracking within a district.

 

We welcome individuals to reach out to NCRERN with additional recommendations or considerations. We are also interested in hearing how attendance is being measured in practice at school districts across the country. Connect with NCRERN via email at ncrern@gse.harvard.edu.


Katherine Kieninger, M.P.A. is the Ohio State Network Manager for the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks (NCRERN) at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

David Hersh, J.D., Ph.D. is the Director of Proving Ground at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

Jennifer Ash, Ph.D. is the Director of the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks (NCRERN) at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

This is the second in a series of blog posts focusing on conducting education research during COVID-19. Other blog posts in this series include Conducting Education Research During COVID-19.