Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Graduate Student Reflections on Engaging Research Opportunities

Engaging students in research can enrich their knowledge and support their future confidence to pursue research careers. In this interview blog, Dr. Allen Ruby, Associate Commissioner for the Policy and Systems Division at NCER, asked four doctoral graduate students at Montclair State University, Melissa Escobar, Taylor Walls, Hannah Thomas, and Marline Francois, to reflect on what attracted them to an IES-funded research project led by Dr. Carrie Masia. The project aims to improve education outcomes for Black American high school students with anxiety attending urban public schools through the development of culturally-responsive interventions.

What are your research interests, and how does this project align with your interests?

Melissa Escobar (ME): My research interests focus on optimizing access to evidence-based treatments for racial minority youth by training frontline providers in community and primary care settings to deliver them. I distinctly remember when I decided to pursue a career in psychology. I was working at a community youth center when the struggles of a Latinx mother deeply impacted me. Her husband's deportation to Mexico significantly altered her son's mood and schoolwork. She tearfully confided in me about her difficulties accessing mental health services for her son. She struggled to find a qualified provider who she believed understood their family's concerns, and the high cost of services and transportation prevented her from seeking care. Seeing the combination of cultural and structural barriers that influence mental health disparities within marginalized groups, I now align myself with research that advocates for high-quality depression and anxiety treatments in accessible locations for minority youth. This is why I found Dr. Masia's project a perfect fit for me. The project links the behavioral health and education sector to improve the mental health and academic achievement of historically marginalized youth with impairing anxiety.

Taylor Walls (TW): My research interests center around developing, implementing, and evaluating culturally sensitive interventions for children and adolescents with internalizing disorders in schools. A primary goal of this project is to use a school-based group intervention that has been shown to be effective in reducing social anxiety and revise it to address the unique needs of Black American students. It aims to consider the context of urban public schools and the culture of Black American adolescents. I have read about the importance of cultural adaptations to improve the quality and availability of these interventions for racial and ethnic minorities, and I welcome the opportunity to work closely on a project like this firsthand.

 

Hannah Thomas (HT): My research interests include optimizing evidence-based interventions for children and adolescents and the role of risk and protective factors in the development of internalizing disorders. My interest in these areas began when I worked at a summer program focused on bringing high school-aged student athletes, often from underserved communities, to learn leadership and sport psychology skills. This was a transformative experience, ultimately solidifying my interest to work with youth and interventions that teach skills to handle adversity. I was drawn to this IES project because it provides the opportunity to work with youth in a meaningful and impactful way.

 

Marline Francois (MF): My research interest is in exploring the psychological well-being of adolescent Black girls that experience racial and gender discrimination in education spaces. Furthermore, I am interested in creating gender and race-specific interventions for Black adolescent girls. My interest began after spending 15 years working as a therapist and recognizing the lack of interventions specifically for Black youth. I was also affected by the lack of adequate mental health services for Black youth coupled with their alarming increase in suicide rates. What I love about this project is that it aligns with my research interests and directly involves adolescents, which provides opportunities to learn from them and have them share their lived experiences.

 

What has been the most exciting aspect of this project for you?

ME: The most attractive part has been the opportunity to hear directly from students and parents on how to best address the needs of racial-ethnic minority families and develop culturally sensitive assessments and treatment strategies. Fully engaging with the community makes the work more meaningful to me. Also, the chance to have a hands-on approach in the research process from collecting qualitative data to developing interview guides and coding schemes makes me feel like my contributions are making a difference.

TW: As a fourth-year graduate student, this project is particularly exciting for me because I will be analyzing a portion of the data for my dissertation. It has expanded my research skills to formulate my own research questions to contribute information that is novel and of interest to my field. Furthermore, I enjoyed the aspects of this project that mirror my work as a clinician — speaking with children and their parents in one-on-one and small group settings to hear about their experiences and their feedback on how this program may be better tailored to their community. Having conversations with the individuals we want to impact makes this work particularly meaningful.

HT: The most exciting aspect of this project is the ability to be involved in multiple roles. I started at the beginning of the summer, and so far, I have been involved in conducting focus groups and developing a coding scheme for interview transcriptions. This excites me because I am able to diversify my skills as a researcher and gain experience in various research methods that may be useful for my dissertation.

MF: As a 3rd-year doctoral candidate, it has been exciting to see the process of this project from the beginning and being able to interview and interact with students and parents. I enjoyed the recruitment process and conducting focus groups and individual interviews. As a qualitative researcher, I appreciate the hands-on experience of learning how to conduct and the in-depth experiences shared by the students and parents, which will aid us in creating a more culturally sensitive intervention for Black youth.

What do you look for in a research supervisor or mentor?

ME: In addition to similar research interests, I look for a mentor who is respectful of personal boundaries. As graduate students, we have a lot of different responsibilities and having a mentor that shows you how to balance those roles is vital in keeping students engaged and successful. I have been fortunate to have a mentor who ensures that all work is evenly spread across all research team members. I also appreciate mentors who considers their students' personal goals and finds opportunities that align with them. For example, at the beginning of my graduate program, my mentor asked me what my goals were for the year, the program, and what type of work setting I saw myself in after graduation. This conversation has been beneficial in finding research opportunities, grants/scholarships, and clinical experiences that will help me meet my goals outside of working on research. Lastly, I take into consideration how available the mentor is. It is essential to maintain good communication through regular meetings and/or emails. This way, regular communication and feedback can happen in appropriate time frames, and any issues that arise are resolved quickly.

TW: It's important to me that a mentor has both interest in and time to support me in fostering my competence as a research professional and advancing my short- and long-term goals. This can be demonstrated in a number of ways, including recommending academic and professional development activities that will build my skills, providing constructive feedback in a respectful and supportive manner, and helping me manage challenges as they arise. I also prefer that my mentor shares in my passion for child-focused research and is eager to connect me with collaborators for projects or networking. Over the years, I've learned that I work best with mentors who grant me autonomy in my work, but I also benefit from frequent check-ins and strict deadlines. Finally, I appreciate a research mentor that provides encouragement and flexibility and acknowledges the importance of self-care and well-being.

HT: I looked for a research supervisor/mentor whose research interests aligned with mine. I found this to be important because not only are they knowledgeable in the area of research that I am interested in, but they also provide the right research opportunities to develop me on the road to an independent career.

MF: It was important for me to find a mentor with a research background that aligns to my research interests. I wanted to have someone that cared about my research interests and professional growth. Furthermore, it was important for me to find someone who was not afraid to give me constructive criticism on my ideas but also assist me with strategically planning for my future. As someone who values balance, it is also important for me to have a mentor who values my well-being.

What challenges have you faced when trying to find research projects that appeal to you, and what feedback would you give to graduate programs or faculty to better engage students in research? 

ME:  As a first-generation student, I did not know how to navigate finding research opportunities or emailing professors about potential opportunities. I quickly learned that most research opportunities aren't advertised and finding a role on a research team usually comes from word of mouth. I would encourage programs and faculty to do more to advertise research opportunities. I would also recommend that faculty welcome the involvement of undergraduate students in their labs. My research career began during the sophomore year of my undergraduate education. I would not have the experience I have today if that professor had not given me a chance. Even if the roles are small like doing audio transcription or data entry, all experience is valuable. Another suggestion would be to create a mentorship model within the lab with more senior students mentoring newer students. When relationships like this are built, students may feel more comfortable to try out new roles in the lab.

TW: In order to find research projects that appeal to me, I am diligent about seeking out faculty who are already doing work that interests me and are open to bringing on a collaborator. I appreciated that my graduate master's program hosted an open house at the beginning of each semester where students could meet faculty and be oriented to the research labs that were available to them. What helped me first want to get engaged in research was meeting faculty who were outwardly passionate about their work and created unique avenues for their students to get involved.

HT: I feel that I have been fortunate in obtaining research projects that appeal to me, and I attribute that to aligning myself with the right mentors. My past and current mentors are collaborative with other faculty and labs, which have allowed me to participate in a variety of research opportunities, further refining my research interests.  My suggestion for graduate programs and faculty to better engage students in research is to encourage collaboration across faculty and labs. 

MF: When I initially started my doctoral program, it was challenging to find the right research project that aligned with my interests. However, I believe it is important as a doctoral student to be flexible and adaptable to learning from other mentors. Furthermore, I found myself connecting with scholars and students from other disciplines and universities that had similar interests as myself. This has allowed me to learn to properly advocate for my needs and find a research lab that was more suitable for me. The advice I would give to graduate programs is to create more opportunities for graduate students across departments and disciplines tailored to various research needs. I also believe that universities can create more professional development training opportunities to better engage students in research, such as how to apply for competitive fellowships and grant opportunities during their studies.  


This blog was produced by Allen Ruby (Allen.Ruby@ed.gov), Associate Commissioner for Policy and Systems Division, NCER. 

 

Approaching Literacy Development From a Cross-Linguistic View

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In this guest blog, Dr. Young-Suk Kim, professor and Senior Associate Dean in the School of Education, University of California, Irvine, shares how her experiences and her work contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in education.

How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

My research seeks to understand how reading and writing develop and how to best support this development for children from various backgrounds. I work on theory building and develop and evaluate effective teaching approaches toward this aim. Three salient aspects of my background and experiences have shaped my scholarship and career.

The first is that my mother does not know how to read or write. My mother is one of the most resilient and hard-working people I know. However, like many females of her generation in South Korea in the 1940s, her widowed mother could not afford education for my mother or her sister. Growing up, I observed firsthand the impact of illiteracy on her life from daily inconveniences such as getting lost because she could not read bus routes to a broader impact on her personal development over time. Second, my teaching experience in the United States also had a direct impact on my choice of career. I taught students, the majority of whom were ethnic minorities, in a highly diverse metropolitan city. I learned about their lives as children of immigrants. I also observed their language use and development and their development of reading and writing skills. I became curious and wanted to understand mechanisms underlying the development of language and literacy skills and effective ways to support their development.

Another important part of the fabric of my experience is that I am a first-generation immigrant who came to the United States as an adult. This allowed me to approach literacy development from a cross-linguistic view, not a US- or Anglo-centric view. Although I conduct my primary lines of work with children in the US from diverse linguistic, cultural, and economic backgrounds, I also conduct studies with children learning to read and write in languages other than English outside of the US context (for example, South Korea, China, South America, Africa) to expand our understanding of language-general and language-specific principles of literacy acquisition.

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

There is a great need for the science of teaching reading. The science of reading has received substantial attention in recent years, and we need a better understanding of the science of teaching reading, which includes knowledge of current teaching practices in the classroom and best teaching practices that are feasible, usable, and scalable in classroom contexts. Popular media articles, such as this one from the National Public Radio, have drawn public attention to reading instruction in classrooms. While valuable, they do not provide a comprehensive and precise picture about what really goes on in the classroom, and we do not have systematic data about how reading is taught and how to create conditions that support successful reading instruction. Carefully developed instructional programs implemented in well-controlled environments have shown measurable effects on language and literacy skills. However, less is known about how to make them usable and scalable in school contexts for various populations in the United States, including monolingual and multilingual children, typically developing children and exceptional children, and children who are from underserved areas.

Another important part of the science of teaching reading is research on establishing bidirectional communications between the communities of research and practice. In the field of reading and writing, there is a critical gap between research and teaching practices, and addressing this gap requires knowledge brokering. Making education research relevant for diverse communities of students and families requires systematic efforts and research on knowledge brokering as well as factors that influence one’s choice of teaching reading, conditions that support public understanding of science, and effective ways to build two-way communication channels.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?

Who we are is shaped by the fabric of our life experiences and history and what we are endowed with. I believe that the effect of our life experiences and endowment is moderated by our own actions, especially self-reflections. I have two thoughts on self-reflections at the personal level. The first one is recognizing strengths of our prior experiences and work. Being a nonnative speaker of English and an immigrant learning US culture and norms presented tremendous challenges, and there were countless days that I bemoaned the challenges. However, upon reflection, I recognize that these are invaluable and indispensable assets to me as a person and for my career in education research—I have an appreciation of immigrants’ challenges and lives, and their roles in society, and have an appreciation of who I am as a multilingual and multicultural human being.

A second related point is intentionally and actively resisting harmful effects of racial strife. As an Asian female who has lived in different parts of the United States, I have experienced a fair share of microaggressions and blatant racial discrimination. These experiences had a negative impact on me, as they would on others. While not discounting the well-documented and profound negative consequences and systemic structures associated with racial strife, we have a choice of channeling such negative experiences in positive ways and for personal growth. I am not suggesting that the burden for structural equity is on individuals. Instead, I have observed deleterious effects of these experiences on individuals including myself. Turning them into positive transformative power requires careful and intentional reflections.

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?

I believe that my work contributes to defining diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in education in a broad way. My work with students from linguistically diverse backgrounds has contributed to understanding language-general and language-specific principles of literacy acquisition. I believe that this expands the idea of DEI beyond how it is discussed in US contexts, which tends to focus on race and ethnicity.

I also conduct research on the mitigation and prevention of reading and writing difficulties. It is estimated that anywhere between 5 and 10 percent of the population have reading and writing difficulties and addressing their educational needs is an important task in education. This line of work behooves us to broaden our understanding of DEI to students of different learning profiles.

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?

Supporting the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups requires serious attention to the research education pipeline. IES’s training programs are a fantastic way of achieving this goal. We also need to consider other aspects of the education pipeline. For example, systematic funding opportunities for undergraduate research training would be highly beneficial, particularly for individuals from underrepresented groups, who tend to have less exposure to research experiences. Given such opportunities, undergraduate students can be supported for their research experiences under the guidance of researchers, and this will help unveil the mystery of research for them and open up opportunities for pursuing careers related to educational research.  


Produced by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), program officer for the English Learners Portfolio at NCER.

Comparing College-Based to Conventional Transition Approaches for Improving Outcomes for Youth with Disabilities

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we discussed NCSER-funded research on transition support for students with disabilities with principal investigators Meg Grigal and Clare Papay. Transition services prepare students for life after school and can include activities such as job training, post-secondary education, and support for independent living and community participation. This research team’s project, Moving Transition Forward: Exploration of College-Based and Conventional Transition Practices for Students with Intellectual Disability and Autism, examines outcomes for two transition approaches: a college-based transition and the conventional approach provided by most local education agencies. In the interview below, the researchers discuss recent results and how this information can improve the quality of transition services for students with disabilities.

What is the purpose of your project? What motivated you to conduct this research?

Headshot of Meg Grigal

Headshot of Clare Papay

The bulk of existing transition research reflects knowledge about conventional transition services, 

or those services received by students with disabilities in high schools. An alternative approach, called college-based transition services, has been around for over 20 years, providing students with intellectual disability and autism a chance to experience college while continuing to receive support through special education. We wanted to explore and compare these two types of transition experiences and assess the outcomes for students. Using two existing datasets, our project conducted a series of interrelated analyses to look more closely at the transition services students with intellectual disability and/or autism (ID/A) are accessing and the association with youth outcomes in employment. Our hope is that our findings will contribute to the knowledge base on research-based college and career preparation for youth with ID/A.

Could you explain the difference between the two transition approaches (college-based and conventional) you are examining and how each prepares students for post-school life?

“Conventional transition services” is our way of describing the transition services typically provided to youth with disabilities across the United States. These services are documented in the data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012 (NLTS 2012). College-based transition services, also known as dual enrollment or concurrent enrollment, provide students with intellectual disability access to college courses, internships, and employment and other campus activities during their final 2 to 3 years of secondary education. These experiences enable students to participate in career planning with a person-centered planning approach, enroll in college classes for educational and personal enrichment, engage in social activities alongside their college peers, and participate in community-based, paid work experiences that align with their employment goals.

What do the results from your research say about the employment outcomes and other transition outcomes of students with intellectual disability and autism participating in these transition programs?

To be blunt, our findings tell us that conventional transition services are not supporting students with ID/A to become employed after high school. We found a very low prevalence of school-based predictors of post-school success for students receiving conventional transition services. As an example, in our analysis of data from NLTS 2012, we found only 32% of youth with ID/A had paid employment in the previous 12 months. Paid employment in high school is a strong predictor of post-school employment. Additionally, there was low prevalence of other critical transition activities, including self-determination/self-advocacy, self-care/independent living skills, occupational courses, and work-study. Our findings highlight points of stagnation in access to college and career preparation for students with ID/A. Past low engagement rates in college preparation activities may have been attributed to the limited access youth with ID/A have had to positive employment outcomes and poor access to postsecondary education.

On a more promising note, when we look at data on students with ID/A who are enrolled in college-based transition programs, the picture is much brighter. We’ve found moderate to high prevalence of activities reflecting important predictors of post-school success (including­ paid employment while in high school, interagency collaboration, and learning skills in community settings). Students in college-based transition programs are enrolling in courses for college credit and taking courses to help them prepare for careers. These students are leaving K-12 education in a much better position to successfully be employed after high school than many of their peers who are receiving conventional transition services.

Based on what you have learned, what are the implications for practice and policy?

With increased access and opportunities to pursue further education after high school, youth with ID/A need college preparation activities to be a part of their standard education experience. Our findings suggest college-based transition services offer an approach that addresses both employment and college preparation. However, the availability of college-based transition programs depends upon whether school districts have established partnerships with a college or university. Greater availability of college-based transition services would provide the field with a better understanding of the essential elements of practice and associated outcomes of this approach. Our findings also show the need for substantial improvement in the access to college and career preparation for youth with ID/A in conventional transition services. Finally, these studies highlight the need for additional and more robust data in federal data systems reflecting information about the transition experiences of students with intellectual disability, autism, and other developmental disabilities. We need to know what their experiences between age 18-22 look like, how inclusive these experiences are, and what outcomes they achieve after they leave K-12 education.

How can families find more information regarding college-based transition programs in their area?

We are glad you asked! The Think College website has a College Search feature that includes all the college and university programs enrolling students with ID/A in the United States, including those who are working with transitioning youth. This is a great way for families to explore local options. When options don't exist, we encourage families to speak with their school administrators to work on developing partnerships with local colleges or universities. Think College has many resources about college-based transition available on our website. Additionally, our national help desk is always available to answer questions or offer help to those seeking information about inclusive higher education and college-based transition services. Send us questions at thinkcollegeta@gmail.com

Many thanks to Drs. Grigal and Papay for sharing their work with our readers! If you want to learn more about this project, including the results of their research, please visit the following website: https://thinkcollege.net/projects/mtf.

Meg Grigal is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. At the Institute, she is co-director of Think College, a national organization focused on research, policy, and practice in inclusive higher education. Clare Papay is a senior research associate at the Institute for Community Inclusion.

This blog was produced by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at IES and graduate student at Texas A&M University, and Akilah Nelson, program officer for NCSER’s Transition to Postsecondary Education, Career, and/or Independent Living program.

 

 

Asking Questions about Dyslexia

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) recognizes the important role people with disabilities play in a diverse and inclusive American workforce. In recognition of NDEAM, we asked IES predoctoral fellow, Rachelle Johnson, how having a learning disability impacts her career development as a researcher. Rachelle, a PhD student and FIREFLIES fellow at Florida State University, researches the role various factors play in the reading development of students with learning disabilities, with a focus on socioemotional and environmental factors.

What inspired you to become an education researcher?

Being dyslexic, I grew up in special education and in pull-out reading intervention groups. Because dyslexic students were often in the same classes and pull-out groups, we formed an informal community of understanding and acceptance. But as I progressed through school, I noticed the makeup of my classmates changed.  My dyslexic classmates had spread out—a couple were in advanced placement, many were in regular classes, others still in mainly special education classes, and many in a mix of class types. And many of us came back together for inclusion English class. Among us we had vastly different goals for the future. I was in some advanced placement classes and was looking at going to university, while many of my dyslexic friends were just trying not to drop out of high school. In noticing these wide individual differences among my learning disabled (LD) peers, I wanted to know what differentiated us. Why had some of us gone onto high achievement and some didn’t when we all started out in that same reading intervention pull-out room?

To figure out these answers, I started to read what I could on dyslexia and began attending local conferences on learning disabilities. In doing so, I became frustrated because the people I saw talking about dyslexia were not LD themselves and often I was the only “out” LD person in the room. Even though I was still in high school, I decided I wanted to be the one to find the undiscovered answers to my questions about the factors involved in creating differentiated outcomes among learning disabled people. And I wanted to write about and tell people what I found and have that information help my LD community. What I was trying to find the word for was research, but I didn’t know that was a career option.

When I described my questions about learning disabilities to the PI whose lab I started working in as a research assistant my first semester in college, she encouraged me to pursue a career as a LD researcher. She showed me that answering questions was what researchers do and that being a researcher was a career option for me. Today, I continue to research the same overarching research question that I had in early high school: what factors play into the individual differences in academic outcomes among LD students?

What have been some challenges you have faced as a learning disabled person in academia?

A big challenge I often came up against in my early career was how “out” I was going to be about being disabled. I was told that if people knew I was disabled I would never get hired, no one would take me as a PhD student, and that I was just setting myself up for discrimination. However, part of why I started pursuing research was because I didn’t see LD people being represented and given a voice in conversations on LD. I decided to go against the advice of those around me and disclose my disability. I knew I would not be able to hide my disabilities well and that if I was going to thrive in an environment I would need to disclose. Also, my disabilities are central to my identity, and I didn’t want to hide that important part of myself. It is important to me to be the representation I desperately wanted. 

Another challenge is that there is pressure to “be disabled but not too disabled.” When people first meet me, they often talk about my dyslexia in the past tense, like it is something that I overcame in elementary school. However, I did not overcome my dyslexia. Dyslexia is a lifelong disability and one that is very much still a part of my daily life. Reading is still an issue for me and will always be. I rely heavily on assistive technology such as text-to-speech to read academic articles.

What supports have been the most helpful to you in your academic career?

I have had many great mentors, both current mentors at Florida State University and past mentors in and out of research. My mentors never expected anything less from me due to my disability and were also willing to talk with me through different barriers and find solutions together without lowering the expectations.

As a person with a learning disability, what advice would you give education researchers who focus on students with learning disabilities?

Be sure to actively involve LD people in your research. A small proportion of people researching LD are LD themselves. Help by mentoring the next generation of LD researchers by taking on LD mentees.

What advice would you give students with learning disabilities who wish to pursue a career in education research?

Sometimes, it can be scary thinking about going into a field such as education research, especially if you are not expected to do well.  I have actively sought a career that relies on skills that I have disabilities in. However, even if the field of education research was not structured with disabled people in mind from the beginning, that does not mean that the LD and otherwise disabled community do not belong there. Imposter syndrome happens, but you do belong in those spaces.

Community is so important inside and outside academia and inside and outside disability. I have had many mentors who have supported me. My learning-disabled community outside of academia has always been there for me and that is a cherished part of my support system. Whether that be just friends or someone to help problem solve when my assistive technology is malfunctioning. But it is also important to be involved in disability community as a whole, not just limited to LD. And the level of disclosure and outness of disability is a personal choice for everyone. But I have found that in being out as disabled at least I am not also hiding a big part of my identity and it helps in finding other disability community members to make connections.


This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see herehere, and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. 

Rachelle Johnson is a proud dyslexic with ADHD. She has been in learning disabled spaces all her life and is actively involved in learning disability research, outreach, and activism. Rachelle is currently a developmental psychology Ph.D. student and FIREFLIES fellow at Florida State University, where she researches reading development and learning disabilities within the Florida Center for Reading Research. She is also a member of the Board of Directors and the Young Adult Leadership Council of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The goal of both her research and activism is to create a world where learning disabled people are understood, supported, and reach their potential in life.

This blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), NCER program officer and co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.

Helping People with Disabilities Achieve their Employment Goals

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is held every October to raise awareness about disability employment issues and celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. This year, we asked Dr. David Mann, a senior researcher at Mathematica and alumni of our University of Pennsylvania predoctoral training program, to share his journey as a researcher with a physical disability as well as his current research on vocational rehabilitation.

As a person with a physical disability, how have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

Having a disability has profoundly shaped my scholarship and career. My research focuses on the employment, benefit receipt, and health of children and working age adults with disabilities. My interest in those topics is rooted in my own experience as a person with a disability. Before my injury and subsequent disability, I had limited interest in disability awareness or policy. But after joining the disability community, I came to appreciate the importance of generating evidence that can empower people with disabilities to live the lives they want. More personally, I view my disability and the insight it provides as a critical component of who I am.

What sparked your interest in education research?

My interest in education research is rooted in my personal experience. I acquired my disability at age 14, just after finishing the eighth grade. I was taught at a young age that education is critical to having a fulfilling career, but that insight became even more important after acquiring a disability. I knew that if I wanted to be independent as an adult, education would be critical. This personal experience made me interested in education research more broadly, especially the intersection of education and disability.     

How does your research on vocational rehabilitation contribute to a better understanding of how to support students with disabilities as they enter the workforce?

The Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program provides services and supports—including education-based supports—to people with disabilities who want to work. The services and supports are individually tailored based on each customer’s career goals and barriers to employment. I received VR services during my time in college and graduate school. My recent VR research focuses on testing new interventions that could improve employment outcomes for key groups of VR customers, such as transition age youth or people receiving subminimum wages. If we can generate evidence that identifies more effective strategies for helping people with disabilities achieve their employment goals, then we can have a large positive impact in the disability community.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered as a researcher with a disability and how did you overcome the challenge?

My biggest disability-related challenge as a researcher is managing the effects of my condition, which are wide-ranging. My limited stamina, inability to physically write, and limited ability to type are key challenges when trying to produce research and keep up with colleagues. I use assistive technology and other accommodations whenever possible to overcome these challenges. However, not all the effects of my condition are addressed with technology or accommodations. Consequently, I also do the best I can to take care of myself and avoid situations that demand more stamina than I have.   

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers with disabilities?

If I had to highlight one thing the broader education research community can do to support researchers with disabilities, it would be creating a culture of encouragement. Reflecting on my experience in the predoctoral training program, a few key faculty members linked to the program regularly signaled to me that I could do what I set out to achieve. Put another way, they believed in me. I will always be grateful for that because it gave me the confidence to pursue the career I really wanted, not what I thought was expected of me. Any graduate student can benefit from encouragement but encouraging researchers with disabilities is especially important because of the additional challenges they must overcome.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars with disabilities who are pursuing a career in education research?

Pursue your research passion! I was interested in disability-related research since college, but early in my graduate career an advisor in the economics department dissuaded me from pursuing disability-related research because I have a disability. I now realize how misguided that advice was, but at the time, I followed his advice. It was only after graduate school that I felt free to examine the intersection of disability, education, and employment. Do not make the same mistake—start pursuing now the research topics you care most about.


This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see herehere, and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. 

David Mann is a senior researcher for Mathematica’s Center for Studying Disability Policy. His primary research interests include the labor force participation, human capital accumulation, and benefit receipt of youth and adults with disabilities. He also has expertise in disability policy reform.

This blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), NCER program officer and co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.