Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

SREEing is Believing: Conference Shows Range of IES-Supported Work

By Ruth Curran Neild, Delegated Director, IES

Spring brings cherry blossoms to Washington D.C., turning the District into a city in bloom. The spring will also bring two major education research conferences to the city and, while these events may not offer breathtaking views like the cherry blossoms, the potential impact of the research being discussed is powerful.

The Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) kicks things off this week (March 2 – 5), with the theme “Lost in Translation: Building Pathways from Knowledge to Action.” Of the 60-plus presentations, courses, and forums at the SREE conference, more than 40 involve research funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), feature IES staff, or demonstrate products that have been developed with IES support. These sessions show the many ways that work supported by IES is being used to improve education across the country.

(The second conference, the American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting, will also include IES-supported work, but more on that later).

Research Studies, Large and Small

The core business of IES includes funding research studies on important topics of policy and practice. Funded work ranges from small pilot studies that test innovative approaches, to studies that are appropriately large – for example, evaluations that examine the impact of major Federal initiatives.  At one Thursday afternoon session, “Improving Mathematics Instructional Practice,” two of the studies being presented were funded through IES research centers—the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER). Later on Thursday, you can attend the “Reading for Understanding: New Findings from the Catalyzing Comprehension for Discussion and Debate Project,” in which all three studies being discussed were IES-funded.

And on Saturday, the “Evaluating the Scaling of Curriculum and Policy” session will feature three IES-funded studies, including a national, large-scale evaluation of the Teacher Incentive Fund pay-for-performance program, which is being conducted by our National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE).

Partnership and Collaboration

Many of the sessions at SREE feature IES-supported work done through alliances and partnerships that bring researchers and practitioners together. Much of this work is being done through our Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs), which are a key way that we help connect research to policy and practice every day.

For example, on Thursday morning, a session on “Pathways to Algebra Success” will feature studies that grew out of a REL research alliance. For all three studies, the questions that were asked came from practitioners and policymakers in the field.

Friday morning, the “Making Meaning of Research Study Findings” session will focus on how you “translate research into action.” The session will cover four studies from REL research alliances across the country, from New England to Indiana to the state of Washington. The studies cover a broad array of important topics in education—the academic performance and reclassification of English learner students; the effectiveness of teacher evaluation systems; and college enrollment patterns of high school graduates.

(If you’re not familiar with the RELs, read this blog post by Joy Lesnick, acting commissioner of NCEE, which oversees the REL program).

Making Science Better, Making Results More Accessible

Another big bucket of IES work that will be featured at SREE is resources and tools that are improving the research field and making it easier for people to access and use research.

For instance, a workshop on Wednesday featured the IES-funded CostOut tool, which can be used to determine return on investment. Another workshop featured the “Generalizer,” a privately funded, web-based tool that improves generalizations from experiments and uses data from IES’s National Center for Education Statistics.

On Thursday afternoon, attendees can preview software intended to make it easier for states and districts to conduct randomized controlled trials and quasi-experiments.  At another session, there will be a demonstration of the new “Find What Works” tool to help practitioners and policymakers find effective programs in the What Works Clearinghouse.

On Friday morning, NCER Associate Commissioner Allen Ruby will be a part of a panel discussing plans for a new “Registry of Effectiveness Studies in Education,” which will be developed with IES grant support. Study registries can contribute to increased transparency in studies of what works.

There is terrific work going on to connect research to practice.  Don’t miss out -- follow us on Twitter at @IESResearch to learn more about IES-supported work at the SREE conference.  

Looking Beyond the Label to Better Help English Learners

By Karen Douglas, NCER Program Officer, English Learners

The education of English learners (EL) continues to be a topic of great interest across the country. But there has been little research to identify what steps to take in order to best serve this diverse group of students.

In recent years, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has funded a number of grants that are using data to better describe EL students and study the factors that are related to better educational outcomes. Findings from these studies are included in a recent policy brief by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) entitled “Improving the Opportunities and Outcomes of California’s Students Learning English: Findings from School District-University Collaborative Partnerships.”

Although these studies all took place in California, the key findings likely have implications across the United States.

(Editor’s note: In some places you will see EL students referred to as English language learners (ELL), language minority, or limited English proficient (LEP) students. However, English learner (EL) is the term used by IES).

Defining ‘English Learner’

The term ‘English Learner’ seems pretty straightforward. It denotes a student that doesn’t speak English as a first language and whose lack of English skills serves as an impediment to learning. However, this simple term belies the diversity of this group of students.

Many EL students were born outside the U.S., but some are American citizens who were born in this country. Some arrive in the U.S. having gone to school starting at a very young age, while others come to the U.S. as teenagers and may not have had access to regular instruction in their previous country. And some EL students—such as the recent influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America—come from war-torn countries, where they have experienced significant trauma and have social emotional needs, as well.

Some EL students do not speak any English, but others come to our schools with basic English skills. And while a majority of ELs speak Spanish at home, many others speak European, African, and Asian languages.

Given all the ways that EL students differ from each other, there is a pressing need to move beyond the simple “EL” designation in order to better address the educational needs of these students.

You can learn more about the characteristics of EL students in a recent post to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) blog.

Meeting the Needs of EL Students

The context in which students designated as EL attend school is equally varied.  Schools differ greatly in the criteria they use to identify students as ELs, as well as the rules for deciding that a student is no longer an EL.

In addition, some students attend schools at which the majority of students are ELs, whereas others are one of a handful of ELs in the school. Instructional programs, even among those that provide support for the home language, vary widely in regard to the amount of instruction in another language a student will receive and the manner in which it is integrated across content areas.

Leaving EL Status

The complexity of reclassification out of EL status is a central issue in the PACE brief because there is a concern that EL students may not have the same access to the full curriculum as their non-EL peers.  The brief shares study findings in which EL students are overrepresented in lower-track classes, less likely to take important gateway math courses, and are more likely to be in classes with a higher percentage of ELs.

The studies in the PACE brief suggest that it is beneficial for students to be appropriately reclassified out of EL status, but these studies show that there is great variability in the stated criteria used by schools and districts as well as inconsistency in implementation. The report also highlights the potential benefits of bilingual and dual language programs both for learning in English as well as maintaining the first language.

Key Findings
 
The PACE policy brief makes three broad recommendations. Again, while these recommendations are directed at serving EL students in California, these are ideas that can be used throughout the country:

  • Improve the ways in which students who need language supports are classified and reclassified in order to improve alignment across districts, and alignment between classification and services;
  • Be more systematic in how data on EL students are collected and used, by tracking students’ progress over longer time periods and including all students who were ever EL students in accountability metrics; and
  • Improve EL students’ educational opportunities in school by expanding access to core content, bilingual instruction, and well-prepared teachers. 

Through better attention to the diverse characteristics of students designated as ELs, schools across the country will stand a better chance of both improving educational opportunities, as well as benefiting from the many contributions that EL students can provide to our school communities. 

IES Grantees Receive Award for Early Career Scientists and Engineers

By Dana Tofig, Director of Communications, IES

President Obama has named two Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grantees as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. This is the highest honor given by the U.S. Government to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Christopher Lemons, of Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, and Cynthia Puranik, of Georgia State University, will be honored at a White House ceremony in the spring, along with 103 other recipients of the award. They were nominated for the award by the leadership of IES and the recipients were announced Thursday.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. According to a White House statement, “the awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.”

Lemons and Puranik have both served as principal investigators for IES’ National Center for Education Research and National Center for Special Education Research.  Among the IES-funded research they have conducted together are “Enhancing Reading Instruction for Children with Down Syndrome: A Behavioral Phenotypic Approach” and “Peer Assisted Writing Strategies.”

Dr. Puranik, who was at the University of Pittsburgh when she was nominated, is currently an associate professor of Communications Sciences and Disorders in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is also an affiliate faculty for the Research on the Challenges of Acquiring Language and Literacy Initiative at Georgia State. In addition to the IES-funded research above, Dr. Puranik, was also the Principal Investigator for grant that sought to develop a test of emergent writing skills.

Dr. Lemons is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University and a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville. He is also co-director of the National Center for Leadership on Intensive Intervention, a senior advisor for the National Center on Intensive Intervention, and serves on the board of a number of scholarly journals, including his work as associate editor for the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.  

Career Technical Education is Growing; Research Must Follow

By Corinne Alfeld, Program Officer, NCER

February is Career Technical Education (CTE) month and there is certainly cause to celebrate for those who value CTE. After years of being marginalized in K-12 education and education research, CTE programs and offerings are growing across the country.   

Once known as “vocational-technical education,” CTE has undergone a transformation in the last decade that keeps pace with changes in workforce. High schools now offer elective CTE courses such as agricultural science, business entrepreneurship, computer graphic design, culinary arts, communications, health care, and mechatronics.  High school CTE courses have the ability to provide a context for students to explore possible careers, test their interests and abilities, apply academic knowledge and skills to real-world problems in a more project-based, hands-on way, and learn a useful skill. In other words, CTE can answer the question that many students ask: Why do I need to learn this?

Due in part to employer interest and involvement, CTE has become more of a focus for policymakers and education leaders as a way to ensure students are “college and career ready” when they graduate from high school. In 2015, the Association for Career and Technical Education documented 150 new and revised CTE laws or policies across 46 states. CTE programs are undergoing transformation with newfound vitality and momentum, with new delivery models, such as career academies, in which the entire curriculum is focused on one career area; programs of study that link high school and college courses with workplace experience; and regional CTE centers, which contain specialized equipment shared by multiple schools or districts and focus solely on CTE.

This means that CTE learning opportunities for students may range from a single introductory course in a traditional high school setting to a highly coordinated curricular experience of classroom- and work-based learning, culminating in a capstone project. 

As CTE becomes a larger part of the current education landscape, policymakers and practitioners need better evidence to guide their decision-making, especially given limited resources. For example, more research is needed on the following:

  • The relationships between specific career-focused school, program, or curricular features and student education outcomes;
  • Longitudinal pathways and outcomes for students enrolled in K-12 CTE programs (e.g., postsecondary education and employment);
  • Development of effective career-oriented programs or policies designed to support students’ career readiness outcomes;
  • Rigorous evaluation of existing career-focused schools or programs, including career technical programs of study, career academies, and other K-12 CTE delivery models;
  • Rigorous evaluation of state or district policies or reforms to support career technical education at the K-12 level, including the awarding of vocational diplomas, the use of career readiness measures, career academy models, awarding academic credit for CTE courses, and CTE teacher certification requirements; and
  • Development or improvement of measures of technical, occupational, and career readiness skills.

There are certainly challenges in studying CTE. In addition to the wide variety of CTE courses being offered, the range and quality of instructional CTE offerings can vary within and across schools. 

Researchers must struggle with questions, such as what is the treatment? How does one account for self-selection bias? Who are the counterfactuals? What are reliable and valid (and meaningful) outcome measures? How soon can effects be seen? As CTE expands in our K-12 education system, the field is in need of creativity and perseverance from researchers to overcome these challenges and build a robust body of both descriptive and causal evidence on which education leaders and policymakers can make decisions.

If you have ideas for CTE research projects, NCER would love to hear from you. Please contact Research Scientist Dr. Corinne Alfeld (corinne.alfeld@ed.gov or 202-245-8203) to share your thoughts or ideas. 

Developer of IES-Funded App Named an “Innovator to Watch”

By Dana Tofig, Communications Director, IES

Congratulations to one of our IES Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grantees, who has been named one of eight innovators to watch by Smithsonian Magazine.

Grace Wardhana, of Kiko Labs, developed the idea for Kiko’s Thinking Time, while watching her child, who she says was “obsessed with the iPad.” She wanted to turn that tablet time into learning time. With experience at Microsoft and McKinsey, a Master’s degree in science and engineering from Stanford, and a MBA from Harvard Business School, Grace got to work developing the app.

In 2014, she applied for and received a Phase I SBIR grant to develop a prototype of Thinking Time and in 2015, was awarded Phase II funding.  Smithsonian Magazine included Wardhana as one of eight “scientists, musicians, artists, and educators” to “expect great things from” in 2016. About Thinking Time, author Emily Matchar wrote that it “was developed in collaboration with Harvard and Berkeley neuroscientists and is aimed at helping children develop executive function—the skills of memory, focus and self-regulation necessary for success in school, work and beyond.”

You can watch a YouTube video to learn more about Thinking Time and also get more information on the IES website

PHOTOS
- Top of page--Grace Wardhana, of Kiko Labs. Source: https://www.kikolabs.com/about-us 
- Screenshot of Kiko's Thinking Time app