Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Highlights from the Building Strength in Numbers Briefings

By Caroline Ebanks, NCER Program Officer

Young children’s knowledge and understanding of mathematics concepts and their ability to think and apply those concepts in their daily lives are important predictors of early and ongoing school achievement. On Thursday, September 24th and Friday, September 25th, three IES-funded researchers – Dr. Prentice Starkey from WestEd, Dr. Douglas Clements from the University of Denver, and Dr. Hiro Yoshikawa from New York University – came to Washington, D.C. to highlight findings and policy and practice implications from the Institute’s investment in early math research since 2002. They described efficacious early math interventions that have narrowed the achievement gap, improved the pedagogical knowledge and instructional practices of early childhood educators, and changed policy and practice in early childhood programs.  The briefings were arranged for legislative staff on Capitol Hill and officials in the Department of Education by the Friends of IES, a coalition of research organizations that is working to raise the visibility of IES-funded studies.   

 

  • Dr. Starkey shared his findings about how using the Pre-K Mathematics curriculum with three- and four-year-old children can close the socio-economic gap in math achievement. Findings from two studies awarded in 2002 and 2005 found that the Pre-K Mathematics curriculum had significant, positive impacts on children’s mathematics knowledge, understanding of verbal directions, and persistence in completing a task. The positive impacts of that pre-kindergarten program led Dr. Starkey and his team to test whether receiving two years of math instruction at ages three and four would close the SES-related achievement gap that is often present at kindergarten entry.  The team found that for children who received two years of the intervention, the SES-related gap in mathematical knowledge was closed at the end of preschool but re-opened in kindergarten, suggesting that students need additional math instruction in kindergarten to support early gains. The key message from Dr. Starkey’s presentation is that it is possible to narrow or close the early math achievement gap and help young children succeed in school.
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  • Dr. Clements presented findings from three IES-funded studies of the Building Blocks curriculum and the Technology-enhanced, Research-based, Instruction, Assessment, and Professional Development (TRIAD) implementation model. In a 2005 scale-up study, Dr. Clements and colleagues found that the intervention had a significant impact on the mathematical knowledge of children at the end of prekindergarten; and that sustained effects at the end of kindergarten were only seen for children whose kindergarten teachers had received support to provide follow-through instruction for the students during the kindergarten year.  Their most recent study showed that effects were maintained in later grades, especially for African-American children. These findings suggest that pre-k effects don’t fade out, but that elementary schools need to do more to build on children’s entry level skills so as to support their ongoing learning and achievement during the elementary school years.  Reflecting the strong evidence base supporting the Building Blocks curriculum, both Boston Public Schools and New York City are using the Building Blocks curriculum in their preschool classrooms.  Takeaways from Dr. Clements include:
    • a strong professional development model is critical for the implementation of an efficacious curriculum;
    • follow through, building on children’s prior knowledge and skills in the early elementary grades, is essential, especially for children from at-risk backgrounds; and
    • fadeout is not the only option. It is possible to sustain implementation of an intervention over time and maintain effects with follow through.

     

  • Dr. Yoshikawa described findings from a 2009 IES-funded evaluation study of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) implementation of two efficacious interventions in public prekindergarten classrooms. One of the two interventions was the Building Blocks mathematics curriculum. The school district provided training and ongoing coaching support to teachers to implement the two interventions. The BPS pre-k program had a significant, positive impact on children’s language, literacy, math, and executive function skills (defined as working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility).  All children benefitted from the BPS program, but impacts were larger for children from lower-income families and Latino children. From this study, Dr. Yoshikawa and colleagues learned that a large school district can adopt a program, implement it with fidelity and observe meaningful, positive impacts on a range of academic and social behavioral indicators of children’s school readiness skills.  In current IES-funded work, this team is examining long-term impacts of the BPS program on children’s school achievement in elementary school.

 

These examples of the Institute’s investment in early math research highlight the role of IES in funding research to improve children’s learning and achievement, and inform early childhood policy and practice. The research has had lasting consequences for the students who participated in the programs and is influencing policy and practice. For example, New York City has adopted the Building Blocks curriculum and the Pre-K Mathematics curriculum is being implemented in prekindergarten classrooms across the state of California.  Additional information about these studies can be found in the What Works Clearinghouse intervention reports for the Building Blocks and Pre-K Mathematics interventions.


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

NCSER Celebrates Down Syndrome Awareness Month

By Kristen Rhoads, Education Program Specialist, Office of Special Education Programs

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month – a time to celebrate what makes individuals with Down syndrome wonderful.  
 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Down syndrome occurs in 1 out of approximately every 700 births, with about 6000 babies born with Down syndrome in the United States each year. It is a lifelong, genetic disorder caused by a full or partial third copy of the 21st chromosome.  Individuals with Down syndrome typically demonstrate profiles of relative strengths in visuospatial processing,  social skills, and receptive language and needs for support in many areas including expressive language, motor, and cognitive skills.  They may also have other health-related issues, including most commonly: hearing loss, ear infections, sleep apnea, eye diseases, and heart defects. With services, supports, and high expectations for performance, many individuals with Down syndrome earn high school diplomas, participate in post-secondary education, live independently, and become valuable contributors to society.  
 
In celebration of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, we asked Dr. Stephen Camarata, Professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at Vanderbilt University, for his thoughts on educating children with Down syndrome and potential directions for research. Dr. Camarata is the Co-Investigator for a NCSER-funded grant to evaluate the efficacy of interventions designed to produce speech accuracy and comprehensibility of elementary school students with Down syndrome.

What should families keep in mind when their child is initially diagnosed with Down syndrome?

In our Down Syndrome Clinic here at Vanderbilt University, there is an initial "burst" of medical activity when the family first learns that their child has Down syndrome. Families spend time making sure that the child’s basic health needs are met and have a lot of appointments doing imaging, surgery, and so on. Then, the family settles in as the Down syndrome unfolds. The child’s development –talking and communication, education, and behavior - all become immediate and long term foci.

Are there common misconceptions about individuals with Down syndrome?

A BIG problem is that there is a myth of a learning shelf life or a mythical critical period for learning.  All too often this means that educators quit trying to teach academic skills to people with Down syndrome when they reach the age of 10 or 12. Tragically, this can mean pushing children through custodial care with minimal academic content instruction until they "age out" of educational support.
 
Another important consideration that I sometimes see is that people have low expectations and, therefore, underestimate the learning abilities of a child with Down syndrome. In a sense, they set the bar "too low” or do not provide meaningful learning opportunities. Therefore, educators may inadvertently prevent a child with Down syndrome from reaching his or her potential. Down syndrome is highly variable, so it is important to provide multiple types of opportunities and let the child show you how much and how fast he or she can learn.

Are there areas of research or practice that you think require more attention?

With regard to key research areas, my own recommendations are to:

  1. Examine further the benefits of inclusion – for both a child with Down syndrome and his or her peers
  2. Develop and evaluate interventions or strategies that improve communication, speech, language, social and literacy skills, especially reading comprehension.
  3. Investigate learning in adolescence and develop and evaluate interventions that optimize academic and transition outcomes in middle school and beyond.
  4. Examine strategies to improve parent and family support. All of the terrific things that we have learned for training parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders may also work for families that include a child with Down syndrome.  More research in this area is needed. 

Visit our website, for more information about the research that NCSER funds.

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

IES Honors Statistician Nathan VanHoudnos as Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow

By Phill Gagne and Katina Stapleton, NCER Program Officers

Each year, IES recognizes an outstanding fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. The 2014 winner, Dr. Nathan VanHoudnos completed his Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University and wrote his dissertation on the efficacy of the Hedges Correction for unmodeled clustering. Nathan is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University. In this blog, Nathan provides insights on becoming an education researcher and on research study design. 

How did you become interested in education research?

I was born into it. Before he retired, my father was the Director of Research for the Illinois Education Association. Additionally, my grandparents on my mother's side were both teachers. 

 

As a statistician, how do you explain the relevance of your research to education practitioners and policy-makers?

I appeal to the crucial role biostatisticians play in the progress of medical research. Doctors and medical researchers are able to devote their entire intellectual capacity towards the development of new treatments, while biostatisticians are able to think deeply about both how to test these treatments empirically and how to combine the results of many such studies into actionable recommendations for practitioners and policy makers.  I aim to be the education sciences analogue of a biostatistician. Specifically, someone whose career success is decided on (i) the technical merits of the new methodology I have developed and (ii) the usefulness of my new methodology to the field. 

Your research on the Hedges correction suggests that many education researchers mis-specify their analyses for clustered designs. What advice would you give researchers on selecting the right analyses for clustered designs? 

My advice is to focus on the design of the study. If the design is wrong, then the analysis that matches the design will fail, and it is likely that no re-analysis of the collected data will be able to recover from the initial mistake. For example, a common design error is randomizing teachers to experimental conditions, but then assuming that how the school registrar assigned students to classes was equivalent to the experimenter randomizing students to classes. This assumption is false. Registrar based student assignment is a kind of group based, or clustered, random assignment. If this error is not caught at the design stage, the study will necessarily be under powered because the sample size calculations will be off. If the error is not caught at the publication stage, the hypothesis test for the treatment effect will be anti-conservative, i.e. even if the treatment effect is truly zero, the test statistic is still likely to be (incorrectly!) statistically significant. The error will, however, be caught if the What Works Clearinghouse decides to review the study. Their application of the Hedges correction, however, will not fix the design problem. The corrected test statistic will, at best, have low power, just like a re-analysis of the data would. At worst, the corrected test statistic can have nearly zero power. There is no escape from a design error. 


To give a bit of further, perhaps self-serving advice, I would also suggest engaging your local statistician as a collaborator. People like me are always looking to get involved in substantively interesting projects, especially if we can get involved at the planning stage of the project. Additionally, this division of labor is often better for everyone: the statistician gets to focus on interesting methodological challenges and the education researcher gets to focus on the substantive portion of the research. 

How has being an IES predoc and now an IES postdoc helped your development as a researcher?

This is a bit like the joke where one fish asks another "How is the water today?" The other fish responds "What's water?" 

I came to Carnegie Mellon for the joint Ph.D. in Statistics and Public Policy, in part, because the IES predoc program there, the Program for Interdisciplinary Education Research (PIER), would both fund me to become and train me to become an education researcher. The PIER program shaped my entire graduate career. David Klahr (PIER Director) gave me grounding in the education sciences. Brian Junker (PIER Steering committee) taught me how to be both methodologically rigorous and yet still accessible to applied researchers. Sharon Carver (PIER co-Director), who runs the CMU lab school, built in a formal reflection process for the "Field Base Experience" portion of our PIER training. That essay, was, perhaps, the most cathartic thing I have ever written in that it helped to set me on my career path as a statistician who aims to focus on education research. Joel Greenhouse (affiliated PIER faculty), who is himself a biostatistician, chaired my thesis committee. It was his example that refined the direction of my career: I wish to be the education sciences analogue of a biostatistician. 

The IES postdoc program at Northwestern University, where I am advised by Larry Hedges, has been very different. Postdoctoral training is necessarily quite different from graduate school. One thread is common, however, the methodology I develop must be useful to applied education researchers. Larry is, as one might suppose, quite good at focusing my attention on where I need to make technical improvements to my work, but also how I might better communicate my technical results and make them accessible to applied researchers. After only a year at Northwestern, I have grown considerably in both my technical and communication skills.

What career advice would you give to young researchers?

Pick good mentors and heed their advice. To the extent that I am successful, I credit the advice and training of my mentors at Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern. 


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

Where Are They Now? A Q&A With the Creators of EcoMUVE – A Virtual Environment for Middle School Science

Where Are They Now? showcases completed IES research projects. The feature describes the IES project and research findings, and updates the progress since IES project completion.

By Ed Metz, NCER Program Officer

In this inaugural Where Are They Now? feature, we take a look back at a 2008 grant to researchers at Harvard University for the development of EcoMUVE.

EcoMUVE uses Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs), which have the look and feel of video games, to help middle school students gain a deeper understanding of ecosystems, scientific inquiry, and causal patterns. The MUVEs recreate authentic ecological settings within which students explore and collect information. Students work individually at their computers and collaborate in teams within the virtual world. EcoMUVE includes two modules, Pond and Forest; each module is a two-week inquiry-based ecosystems curriculum. EcoMUVE received the First Place award in the Interactive and Immersive Learning Category at the 2011 Association for Educational Communications and Technology conference, and has received follow-on support from the National Science Foundation and Qualcomm Wireless. 

In this blog, we catch up with two of the researchers who led the development of EcoMUVE, Chris Dede and Shari Metcalf, to look back at their IES project and to learn about recent developments.

How and when did the idea to develop a virtual environment for science learning come about?

Chris Dede’s prior research with the River City project looked at supporting student inquiry using immersive exploration in a virtual world. Meanwhile, Harvard Professor Tina Grotzer was developing ways to support students in understanding complex causality in ecosystems. They worked together on a grant proposal to IES to combine their interests.

How does a virtual environment provide meaningful learning opportunities that otherwise might not be possible?

Ecosystems are complex systems shaped by relationships that often happen at microscopic levels, at a distance, and over long periods of time. Immersion in virtual environments can transform the learning experience by situating the learner in a rich simulated context in which new visualization opportunities are possible – e.g., zooming in to the microscopic level, or traveling to different points in time.

Students start to get a feel for the ecosystem and its relationships through tacit sensory clues. It is an uphill walk from the pond to the housing development, and students can walk down along a drainage ditch and through the pipe where runoff flows into the pond. The pond becomes noticeably greenish during the algae bloom. 

Students can experience turbidity directly by walking under the water of the pond and seeing how murky it looks on different days.

 

What was an unexpected outcome of the development process?

The types of “big data” about motivation and learning for each student that EcoMUVE can generate include: time-stamped logfiles of movements and interactions in the virtual world, chat-logs of utterances, and tables of data collected and shared. Other digital tools can provide data from concept maps that chart the flow of energy through the ecosystem and that document each student team’s assertions about its systemic causal relationships, with adduced supporting evidence. Using Go-Pro cameras, students’ collaborative behaviors outside of digital media can be documented. We would like to use this data to provide near-real time feedback to students and teacher, through various forms of visualization.

What were your main research findings from the IES development project?

After using EcoMUVE, students showed gains in learning of science content, and also improvements in their attitudes towards science, particularly in the beliefs they were capable and interested in being scientists. Teachers felt that the curriculum was feasible, well-aligned with standards, and supported student engagement and learning of science content, complex causality, and inquiry, and had multiple advantages over a similar non-MUVE curriculum. A study that looked at student motivation found that, while at first students were most enthusiastic about the 3D virtual world and game-like environment, over time their engagement centered on the inquiry-based pedagogy and the collaborative problem-solving.  Gains were also found in students’ complex causal reasoning about non-obvious causes; distant drivers of ecosystems dynamics and the system parameters; and processes, steady states and change over time.

How has the EcoMUVE project proceeded in recent years since the IES research project ended?  

Beginning in May, 2012, we’ve been pleased to be able to offer a standalone version of the EcoMUVE software for download through a free license from Harvard University. As of January, 2015, over 1,200 users have registered with the website. The EcoMUVE project receives e-mail inquiries almost every week from educators who are interested in the curriculum. In some cases, whole districts have adopted the EcoMUVE curriculum, including Cambridge, MA, and Peoria, AZ.

Internationally, researchers at the University of Hong Kong have been working with Harvard University to use EcoMUVE for professional development, to help teachers understand how to use scientific investigations as learning activities for students. Other collaborators include Sydney University, and Aalborg University in Copenhagen.

Looking ahead, what does the future hold for EcoMUVE?

We continue to make EcoMUVE available for download from our new website, http://ecolearn.gse.harvard.edu. We have been extending our research to develop EcoMOBILE, an extension of the EcoMUVE curriculum that blends immersive virtual environments with the use of mobile technologies during field trips to real ecosystems for observations and data collection. EcoMOBILE is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach Initiative. We have also just started a new research project, EcoXPT, also funded through NSF, designed to work alongside EcoMUVE to support experiment-based inquiry in immersive virtual environments.

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

About the Interviewees

Shari J. Metcalf is Project Director of the EcoMUVE project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She holds SB and SM degrees from MIT, and a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she designed and developed Model-It, a software tool for students building models of dynamic systems. Her professional focus is the design of educational software tools, and in particular on using modeling, simulation, and virtual immersive environments to support inquiry-based science learning.

Chris Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.  Chris was the Principal Investigator of the EcoMUVE project. His fields of scholarship include emerging technologies, policy, and leadership.  His research includes grants from NSF, IES, and the Gates Foundation to design and study immersive simulations, transformed social interactions, and online professional development.  

Beyond Wikipedia: Reading and Researching Online

By Becky McGill-Wilkinson, NCER Program Officer

Gone are the days of library card catalogs and having to consult the 26-volume hardbound encyclopedia gathering dust on your parents’ bookshelf. Students these days have seemingly infinite information at the tips of their fingers. Most households in the U.S. have a computer, and most teachers report at least one computer in their classrooms. Research shows that the majority of high school students use the Internet to complete school assignments, and 71 percent of students use their laptop computers for school. In this changing world, it becomes more and more important to understand how reading and researching on the Internet are different from performing those tasks with books and other paper texts.

Don Leu and his team at the University of Connecticut have been examining this topic for several years. First on their agenda was studying whether reading online is the same as reading on paper. They discovered that students who are poor readers on paper may be good readers online, and students who are good readers on paper are not necessarily good readers online, suggesting that reading online requires some unique skills. Leu and his collaborators argue that reading online requires that students be able to: (1) use search engines; (2) choose appropriate search result; (3) judge whether the source can be trusted to be accurate and unbiased; and (4) consolidate information across multiple websites or online texts.

Of course, it’s not enough to understand the process of reading and researching online. As with any skill, some students are better at it than others, and as computers, tablets, and smart phones become more common, it becomes more and more necessary for students to hone their online reading and research skills if they are to succeed in college and career. Teachers need to be able to teach these skills, and teachers need to be able to identify when their students need extra help or practice. In 2005, Leu received a grant from NCER to study Internet use in adolescents at risk for dropping out of school, and developed an intervention to help teach seventh-grade students specific strategies to locate, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information on the Internet.

Building on this earlier work, in a 2009 grant from NCER, Leu and his team set out to develop measures of online reading comprehension. The end result of this project is a set of Online Research and Comprehension Assessments (ORCAs) for use with seventh grade students. The team developed both a multiple choice version and a version that allows students to work in a simulated internet environment. In both versions, the student is tasked with answering a research question posed by a simulated peer, and must use a search engine, choose the appropriate search result, determine whether a source is trustworthy, and then tell their simulated peer about what they found. The ORCAs were tested with 2,700 students in two different states, and the researchers surveyed teachers and other practitioners to determine whether the ORCAs were usable.

Leu has been especially interested in thinking about how changing ideas about literacy may impact low-income students differently from middle- and high-income students. In a recently published paper, Leu shows that students who came from families earning approximately $100,000 per year were more than a year ahead of students whose families earn approximately $60,000 per year on online reading abilities as measured by the ORCAs. This study highlights the importance of considering the achievement gaps between high- and low-income students on a variety of domains, including those not typically measured by standardized tests, such as online reading comprehension.

The ORCAs are available online for free, as is a professional development module to help teachers learn to use it. 

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