Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Activities for Students and Families Stuck at Home due to COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

As I write this blog post, my 4-year-old is spraying me with a water sprayer while I am desperately protecting my computer from a direct hit. Earlier, while I was listening in on a meeting, she yelled out “hi!” anytime I took myself off mute. Balancing work and raising kids in this bizarre situation we find ourselves in is an overwhelming experience. When schools started closing, some parents resorted to posting suggested schedules for kids to keep up a routine and deliver academic content during the day. These were wonderful suggestions. As someone whose dissertation focused on how people learn, I should be applauding such posts, but instead, they filled me with a sense of anxiety and guilt. How am I supposed to balance getting my work done while also designing a rigorous curriculum of reading, writing, and math instruction for a kid whose attention span lasts about 10-20 minutes and who needs guidance and adult interaction to learn effectively? Let’s take a step back and recognize that this situation is not normal. We adults are filled with anxiety for the future. We are trying to manage an ever-growing list of things—do we have enough food? Do we need to restock medications? What deadlines do we need to hit at work?

So here is my message to you, parents, who are managing so much and trying desperately to keep your kids happy, healthy, and engaged: recognize that learning experiences exist in even the simplest of interactions between you and your kids. For example—

  • When doing laundry, have your child help! Have them sort the laundry into categories, find the matching socks, name colors. Create patterns with colors or clothing types (for example, red sock, then blue, then red, which comes next?).
  • Find patterns in your environment, in language (for example, nursery rhymes), and when playing with blocks or Legos. Researchers have shown that patterning is strongly related to early math skills.
  • Talk about numbers when baking. I did this with my daughter yesterday morning. We made muffins and had a blast talking about measuring cups, the number of eggs in the recipe, and even turning the dial on the oven to the correct numbers. Older kids might be interested in learning the science behind baking.
  • Take a walk down your street (practicing good social distancing of course!) and look for different things in your environment to count or talk about.
  • Bring out the scissors and paper and learn to make origami along with your kids, both for its benefits for spatial thinking and as a fun, relaxing activity! In this project, researchers developed and pilot tested Think 3d!, an origami and pop-up paper engineering curriculum designed to teach spatial skills to students. The program showed promise in improving spatial thinking skills.
  • If you choose to use screen time, choose apps that promote active, engaged, meaningful, socially interactive learning.
  • If you choose to use television programs, there is evidence showing that high quality educational programs can improve students’ vocabulary knowledge.

Hopefully these examples show that you can turn even the most mundane tasks into fun learning experiences and interactions with your kids. They may not become experts in calculus at the end of all of this, but maybe they will look back fondly on this period of their life as a time when they were able to spend more time with their parents. At the end of the day, having positive experiences with our kids is going to be valuable for us and for them. If you have time to infuse some formal learning into this time, great, but if that feels like an overwhelmingly hard thing to do, be kind to yourself and recognize the value of even the most simple, positive interaction with your kids.

Written by Erin Higgins, PhD, who oversees the National Center for Education Research (NCER)'s Cognition and Student Learning portfolio.

A2i: From Research to Practice at Scale in Education

This blog post is part of an interview series with education researchers who have successfully scaled their interventions.

Assessment-to-Instruction (A2i) is an online Teacher Professional Support System that guides teachers in providing Kindergarten to Grade 3 students individualized literacy instruction and assessments. Students complete the assessments independently online without the teacher taking time away from instruction. A2i generates instantaneous teacher reports with precise recommendations for each student and group recommendations. See a video demo here. Between 2003 and 2017, researchers at Florida State University (FSU) and Arizona State University (ASU), led by Carol Connor, developed and evaluated A2i with the support of a series of awards from IES and the National Institutes of Health. Findings from all publications on the A2i are posted here.

While results across seven controlled studies demonstrated the effectiveness of A2i, feedback from practitioners in the field demonstrated that implementation often required substantial amounts of researcher support and local district adaptation, and that the cost was not sustainable for most school district budgets. In 2014, the development firm Learning Ovations, led by Jay Connor, received an award from the Department of Education (ED) and IES’s Small Business Innovation Research program (ED/IES SBIR) to develop an technologically upgraded and commercially viable version of A2i to be ready to be used at scale in classrooms around the country. In 2018, with the support of a five-year Education Innovation and Research (EIR) expansion grant from ED totaling $14.65 million, A2i is now used in more than 110 schools across the country, with plans for further expansion. 

 

Interview with Carol Connor (CC) and Jay Connor (JC)

From the start of the research in the early 2000s, was it always the goal to develop a reading intervention that would one day be used on a wide scale?
CC: Yes and no. First, we had to answer the question as to whether individualization was effective in achieving student literacy outcomes. Once the research established that, we knew that this work would have wide-scale application.

When did you start thinking about a plan for distribution
CC: Before embarking on the cumulative results studies, in 2008, Jay said that we needed to know who the “customer” was… i.e., how purchasing decisions were made at scale.  His 2008 Phase I ED/IES SBIR was critical in shifting our research focus from individual classrooms to school districts as the key scaling point. 

Did you work with a technology transfer office at the university?
CC: Only to the extent of contractually clarifying intellectual property (IP) ownership and licensing. 

Who provided the support on the business side?
CC: Jay, who has an MBA/JD and has been a senior officer in two Fortune 100 companies was very instrumental in guiding our thinking of this evolution from important research to practical application. 


 Do you have any agreement about the IP with the university? What were the biggest challenges in this area?

JC: Yes, Learning Ovations has a 60-year renewable exclusive licensing agreement with FSU Foundation. FSU couldn’t have been better to work with.  Though there were expected back-and-forth elements of the original negotiations, it was clear that we shared the central vision of transforming literacy outcomes.  They continue to be a meaningful partner.

When and why was Learning Ovations first launched?
JC: In order to pursue SBIR funding we needed to be a for-profit company.  At first, I used my consulting business – Rubicon Partners LLP – as the legal entity for a 2008 Phase I award from ED/IES SBIR.  When we considered applying (and eventually won) a Fast Track Phase I & II award from SBIR in 2014, it was clear that we needed to create a full C – Corp that could expand with the scaling of the business, thus Learning Ovations was formed.

Who has provided you great guidance on the business side over the year? What did they say and do? 
JC: Having run large corporate entities and worked with small business start-ups in conjunction with Arizona State University (Skysong) and the University of California, Irvine (Applied Innovation at The Cove) and having taught entrepreneurship at The Paul Merage School of Business at UC Irvine, I had the experience or network to connect to whatever business guidance we needed.  Further, having attended a number of reading research conferences with Carol, I was quite conversant in the literacy language both from the research side and from the district decision maker’s side.

How do you describe the experience of commercializing the A2i? What were the biggest achievements and challenges in terms of preparing for commercialization?

JC: Having coached scores of entrepreneurs at various stages, I can safely say that there is no harder commercialization than one that must stay faithful to the underlying research.  A key strategy for most new businesses: being able to pivot as you find a better (easier) solution.  It is often circumscribed by the “active ingredients” of the underlying research.  Knowing this, we imbued Learning Ovations with a very strong outcomes mission – all children reading at, or above, grade level by 3rd grade.  This commitment to outcomes certainty is only assured by staying faithful to the research.  Thus, a possible constraint, became our uncontroverted strength.

Do you have advice for university researchers seeking to move their laboratory research in education into wide-spread practice? 
JC:  Start with the end in mind.  As soon as you envision wide-scale usage, learn as much as you can about the present pain and needs of your future users and frame your research questions to speak to this.  Implementation should not be an after-the-fact consideration; build it into how you frame your research questions. On one level you are asking simultaneously “will this work with my treatment group” AND “will this help me understand/deliver to my end-user group.”  I can’t imagine effective research being graphed onto a business after the fact.  One key risk that we see a number of researchers make is thinking in very small fragments whereas application (i.e., the ability to go to scale) is usually much more systemic and holistic.

In one sentence, what would say is most needed for gaining traction in the marketplace?
JC: If not you, as a researcher, someone on your team of advisors needs to know the target marketplace as well as you know the treatment protocols in your RCT.

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Carol Connor is a Chancellor’s Professor in the UC Irvine School of Education. Prior she was a professor of Psychology and a Senior Learning Scientist at the Learning Sciences Institute at ASU. Carol’s research focuses on teaching and learning in preschool through fifth grade classrooms – with a particular emphasis on reading comprehension, executive functioning, and behavioral regulation development, especially for low-income children.

Joseph “Jay” Connor, JD/MBA, is the Founder/CEO of Learning Ovations, Inc, the developer of the platform that has enabled the A2i intervention to scale.  Jay has 20+ years of experience in senior business management at the multi-billion dollar corporate level, and has experience in the nonprofit and public policy arenas.

This interview was produced by Edward Metz of the Institute of Education Sciences.

What Are we Learning about Applied STEM CTE Course-taking by Students with Disabilities?

February was National Career and Technical Education (CTE) Month, which celebrates the importance of CTE and the achievements and accomplishments of CTE programs across the country. IES supports research in this area, including grants funded through the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER).

Dr. Michael Gottfried at the University of California Santa Barbara was awarded a 2-year grant in 2019 from NCSER to investigate whether participating in applied STEM career and technical education (AS-CTE) courses in high school is related to pursuing and persisting in STEM majors and/or careers for students with learning disabilities (SWLDs). Although a significant number of SWLDs participate in CTE courses, little is known about the types of AS-CTE courses they take and the extent to which taking these courses is related to postsecondary and employment outcomes. This project uses data from two nationally representative, longitudinal studies, the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002) and the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:2009).

The descriptive evidence resulting from this project will have important implications for policymakers and educators about promoting SWLDs’ interests in CTE and STEM and facilitating their access to these courses. We take a moment to share our recent conversation with Dr. Gottfried to understand the importance of this project and what he is learning.

Tell us about your project and what you hope to accomplish (or why a focus on STEM and SWDs?)

Our project is investigating the pathway students take in the pursuit of and persistence in STEM majors and careers for SWLDs. SWLDs are currently underrepresented in STEM fields throughout the STEM pipeline from high school to college to career. This SWLD-STEM college and career gap will continue to persist and potentially worsen unless there are efforts to lessen this underrepresentation of SWLDs in STEM fields. To address this, our research team is exploring AS-CTE courses that SWLDs take in high school and the extent to which taking these courses promotes advancement towards postsecondary success and careers in STEM. Unlike traditional STEM courses, AS-CTE courses emphasize the application of math and science concepts directly to practical job experiences by offering “hands-on” logic and problem-solving skills. They are designed to reinforce traditional academic STEM learning and motivate students’ interests and long-term pursuits in STEM areas. Using two nationally representative samples of high school students, we are examining whether high school AS-CTE can help prepare SWLDs for college, STEM fields of study in college, and careers in STEM or with STEM applications. We hope that this project will provide new evidence for policymakers and educators that will help facilitate access to AS-CTE courses in schools in order to promote short- and long-term interest in STEM for SWLDs.

What are applied STEM career and technical education courses students with disabilities can take in high school?

AS-CTE courses encourage the alignment of applicable job-related skills with academically challenging coursework targeted to students at all ability levels. These courses fall into two of the sixteen broad CTE categories: engineering technology and information technology. Some examples of engineering courses offered in high schools include Biotechnical Engineering, Wind Energy, Laser/Fiber Optics, Aerospace Engineering, and Computer-Aided Design Software. Some examples of information technology courses are Database Management and Data Warehousing, Business Computer Applications, Web Page Design, Geospatial Technology, and Networking Systems. 

What have you learned so far about enrollment in CTE and applied CTE courses by students with disabilities and related outcomes for those students?

We are currently in the beginning stages of our project, but through our analyses thus far we have found that SWLDs are more likely to take CTE courses than the general student population but less likely than other students to enroll in AS-CTE courses. In other words, SWLDs are taking CTE courses, just not in STEM areas. We see this pattern becoming even more prominent in the recent years.

What are some of the challenges with your research?

Although using large national datasets such as ELS and HSLS provides extremely rich information and data about high school students across the nation, there are some limitations to the conclusions that we can draw when using extant longitudinal data. First, although we are able to examine AS-CTE course taking patterns for high school students, no data exist in either dataset on why students chose to take AS-CTE courses. Second, there is no detailed information available in these datasets about course content, including design, curriculum, rigor, and quality of an academic course, all of which affect student achievement. Third, the datasets identify SWLDs based on parent survey responses about whether a doctor, healthcare provider, teacher, or school official had ever told them that their student had a learning disability. There is no verification that the student has an official special education label of LD, so there may be some variability in the population of SWLDs in the datasets, which could impact what we find.

What other research is needed to improve CTE course-taking and outcomes for students with disabilities?

Our project is quantitative, which has many strengths such as identifying patterns and trends. Yet, we believe that a future qualitative project would be useful to complement the work we are doing. For instance, there are many lingering questions that we cannot address. For example, why are SWLDs taking fewer AS-CTE courses? What does SWLDs’ sense of STEM self-efficacy look like in these AS-CTE courses? What types of supports are teachers providing in these courses? These types of questions could be addressed with future qualitative research in which teachers and students can be interviewed and followed.

What other recommendations do you have to support research in this area?

For our work, we plan to address diversity within the SWLD group. For instance, we are going to explore differences by gender for SWLDs taking AS-CTE courses. We propose that future research could consider this type of heterogeneity.

Dr. Gottfried also has funding from NCER in a related project exploring whether and how AS-CTE course-taking can help prepare low-income students for college and for careers in STEM or with STEM applications.

If your state, district, or school is looking for resources for developing and improving the quality of your CTE program, the Association for Career and Technical Education has many high-quality CTE tools, including a Quality CTE Program of Study Framework. The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition also has many resources to increase engagement in CTE by students with disabilities, including the on-demand webinar, Toward Best Practices: Programs that Work, Models Toward Success. This webinar was recorded on December 19, 2019 with a panel of experts and practitioners in workforce education and CTE led by Dr. Michael Harvey, Professor of Education in the Workforce Education and Development academic program at the Pennsylvania State University. Advance CTE connects CTE leaders across states and has resources to support CTE at the state level.

This blog series was co-authored by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov) and Jacquelyn Buckley (Jacquelyn.Buckley@ed.gov) at IES and Michael Gottfried (mgottfried@education.ucsb.edu). IES began funding research grants in CTE in 2017 and established a CTE Research Network in 2018 through NCER. NCSER started funding research grants in special education in CTE in 2019. IES hopes to encourage more research on CTE in the coming years in order to increase the evidence base and guide program and policy decisions.

SELweb: From Research to Practice at Scale in Education

With a 2011 IES development grant, researchers at Rush University Medical Center, led by Clark McKown, created SELweb, a web-based system to assess the social-emotional skills in children in Kindergarten to Grade 3. The system (watch the video demo) includes illustrated and narrated modules that gauge children’s social acceptance with peers and assess their ability to understand others’ emotions and perspectives, solve social problems, and self-regulate. The system generates teacher reports with norm-referenced scores and classroom social network maps. Field trials with 8,881 children in seven states demonstrate that system produces reliable and valid measures of social-emotional skills. Findings from all publications on SELweb are posted here.

In 2016, with support from the university, McKown launched a company called xSEL Labs, to further develop and ready SELweb for use at scale and to facilitate the launch SELweb into the school marketplace. SELweb is currently used in 21 school districts in 16 states by over 90,000 students per year.

Interview with Clark McKown of Rush University Medical Center and xSEL Labs

 

From the start of the project, was it always a goal for SELweb to one day be ready to be used widely in schools?

CM: When we started our aspiration was to build a usable, feasible, scientifically sound assessment and it could be done. When the end of the grant got closer, we knew that unless we figured out another way to support the work, this would be yet another good idea that would wither on the vine after showing evidence of promise. In the last year and a half of the grant, I started thinking about how to get this into the hands of educators to support teaching and learning, and how to do it in a large-scale way.

 

By the conclusion of your IES grant to develop SELweb, how close were you to the version that is being used now in schools? How much more time and money was it going to take?

CM: Let me answer that in two ways. First is how close I thought we were to a scalable version. I thought we were pretty close. Then let me answer how close we really were. Not very close. We had built SELweb in a Flash based application that was perfectly suited to small-scale data collection and was economical to build. But for a number of reasons, there was no way that it would work at scale. So we needed capital, time, and a new platform. We found an outstanding technology partner, the 3C Institute, who have a terrific ed tech platform well-suited to our needs, robust, and scalable. And we received funding from the Wallace Foundation to migrate the assessment from the original platform to 3C’s. The other thing I have learned is that technology is not one and done. It requires continued investment, upkeep, and improvement.

What experiences led you to start a company? How were you able to do this as an academic researcher?

CM: I could tell you that I ran a children’s center, had a lot of program development experience, had raised funds, and all that would be true, and some of the skills I developed in those roles have transferred. But starting a company is really different than anything I’d done before. It’s exciting and terrifying. It requires constant effort, a willingness to change course, rapid decision-making, collaboration, and a different kind of creativity than the academy. Turns out I really like it. I probably wouldn’t have made the leap except that the research led me to something that I felt required the marketplace to develop further and to realize its potential. There was really only so far I could take SELweb in the academic context. And universities recognize the limitations of doing business through the university—that’s why they have offices of technology transfer—to spin off good ideas from the academy to the market. And it’s a feather in their cap when they help a faculty member commercialize an invention. So really, it was about finding out how to use the resources at my disposal to migrate to an ecosystem suited to continuing to improve SELweb and to get it into the hands of educators.

How did xSEL Labs pay for the full development of the version of SELweb ready for use at scale?

CM: Just as we were getting off the ground, we developed

 a partnership with a research funder (the Wallace Foundation) who was interested in using SELweb as an outcome measure in a large-scale field trial of an SEL initiative. They really liked SELweb, but it was clear that in its original form, it simply wouldn’t work at the scale they required. So we worked out a contract that included financial support for improving the system in exchange for discounted fees in the out years of the project.

What agreement did you make with the university in order to start your company and commercial SELweb?

CM: I negotiated a license for the intellectual property from Rush University with the university getting a royalty and a small equity stake in the company.

Did anyone provide you guidance on the business side?

CM: Yes. I lucked into a group of in-laws who happen to be entrepreneurs, some in the education space. And my wife has a sharp business mind. They were helpful. I also sought and found advisors with relevant expertise to help me think through the initial licensing terms, and then pricing, marketing, sales, product development, and the like. One of the nice things about business is that you aren’t expected to know everything. You do need to know how and when to reach out to others for guidance, and how to frame the issues so that guidance is relevant and helpful.

How do you describe the experience of commercializing SELWeb?

CM: Commercialization is, in my experience, an exercise in experimentation and successive approximations. How will you find time and money to test the waters? Commercialization is an exciting and challenging leap from the lab to the marketplace. In my experience, you can’t do it alone, and even with great partners, competitive forces and chance factors make success scale hard to accomplish. Knowing what you don’t know, and finding partners who can help, is critical.

I forgot who described a startup as a temporary organization designed to test whether a business idea is replicable and sustainable. That really rings true. The experience has been about leaving the safe confines of the university and entering the dynamic and endlessly interesting bazaar beyond the ivory tower to see if what I have to offer can solve a problem of practice.

In one sentence (or two!), what would say is most needed for gaining traction in the marketplace?

CM: Figure out who the customer is, what the customer needs, and how what you have to offer addresses those needs. Until you get that down, all the evidence in the world won’t lead to scale.

Do you have advice for university researchers seeking to move their laboratory research into wide-spread practice?

CM: It’s not really practical for most university researchers to shift gears and become an entrepreneur. So I don’t advise doing what I did, although I’m so glad I did. For most university researchers, they should continue doing great science, and when they recognize a scalable idea, consider commercialization as an important option for bringing the idea to scale. My impression is that academic culture often finds commerce to be alien and somewhat grubby, which can get in the way. The truth is, there are whip-smart people in business who have tremendous expertise. The biggest hurdle for many university researchers will be to recognize that they lack expertise in bringing ideas to market, they will need to find that expertise, respect it, and let go of some control as the idea, program, or product is shaped by market forces. It’s also a hard truth for researchers, but most of the world doesn’t care very much about evidence of efficacy. They have much more pressing problems of practice to attend to. Don’t get me wrong—evidence of efficacy is crucial. But for an efficacious idea to go to scale, usability and feasibility are the biggest considerations.

For academics, getting the product into the marketplace requires a new set of considerations, such as: Universities and granting mechanisms reward solo stars; the marketplace rewards partnerships. That is a big shift in mindset, and not easily accomplished. Think partnerships, not empires; listening more than talking.

Any final words of wisdom in moving your intervention from research to practice?

CM: Proving the concept of an ed tech product gets you to the starting line, not the finish. Going to scale benefits from, probably actually requires, the power of the marketplace. Figuring out how the marketplace works and how to fit your product into it is a big leap for most professors and inventors. Knowing the product is not the same as knowing how to commercialize it.

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Clark McKown is a national expert on social and emotional learning (SEL) assessments. In his role as a university faculty member, Clark has been the lead scientist on several large grants supporting the development and validation of SELweb, Networker, and other assessment systems. Clark is passionate about creating usable, feasible, and scientifically sound tools that help educators and their students.

This interview was produced by Ed Metz of the Institute of Education Sciences. This post is the third in an ongoing series of blog posts examining moving from university research to practice at scale in education.

Seeking Summer Interns

Would you like to leverage your superpowers to help improve education, science, and communication? Have you always wondered what really goes on in a federal research office? If so, we have the perfect summer internship for you!

Each year, the two IES research centers—the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER)—host on-site, summer volunteer interns. These interns help us compile, synthesize, and communicate the research we support through our grant programs. Previous interns have written and been featured in blogs, identified experts for technical working groups, prepared materials for briefings, and reviewed abstracts and reports to identify emerging themes in education research, among other things. And these interns gain knowledge about non-academic pathways for researchers, build writing and communication skills, learn about grant making and federal agencies – all while being able to enjoy everything that Washington, DC has to offer!

Applicant qualifications:

  • Upper-division undergraduate or graduate students
  • Currently enrolled in good standing at a postsecondary institution
  • Have an interest in education research
  • Have experience with software such as the Microsoft Office Suite
  • Be willing to devote at least 20 hours per week
  • Work in the Washington, DC area

If you’re interested, fill in the application on USAJobs (https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/555512800), noting your interest in the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), and submit your materials before April 30, 2020. International students must contact one of the program officers directly: Dr. Meredith Larson (NCER, Meredith.Larson@ed.gov) or Dr. Amy Sussman (NCSER, Amy.Sussman@ed.gov).

We encourage you to contact us for more information about the summer position and possible remote internships during the academic year!