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.

IES Honors Dominic Gibson as Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow

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 2018 winner, Dr. Dominic Gibson completed his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Chicago. He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Washington where he specializes in understanding how children learn words and mathematical concepts. In this blog, Dominic discusses his research and his experience as an IES fellow.  

What inspired you to focus your research on early mathematics?

So many everyday activities as well as many of humanity’s greatest achievements rely on math. Simple math becomes so second nature to us that it is often difficult for older students to conceptualize what it would be like to not have a basic understanding of numbers. But children take months and often years to learn the meanings of just the first few number words (one, two, three) and to learn how the counting procedure really works. Children’s acquisition of other math terms (angle, proportion, unit of measurement) is similarly marked by misconceptions and slow, difficult learning.  

Overcoming these learning challenges relies on an interesting mixture of uniquely human abilities (like language) and skills we share with other animals. Moreover, children’s ability to master early math concepts predicts their future academic success. Therefore, by studying how children learn about math, we can better understand the sources of humanity’s unique achievements and apply this knowledge to reducing early achievement gaps and maximizing our potential.

Based on your research, what advice would you give parents of pre-kindergartners on how to help their children develop math skills?

My biggest piece of advice is to talk to children about numbers and other basic math concepts. Children benefit from abundant language input in general, and “math talk” is no different. Even simply talking about different numbers of things seems to be particularly important for acquiring early math concepts. Numbers can be easily incorporated into a variety of activities, like taking a walk (“let’s count the birds we see”) or going to the grocery store (“how many oranges should we buy?”). Likewise, good jumping off points for using other types of early math talk such as relational language are activities like puzzles (“this one is too curvy to fit here—we need to find a piece with a flat edge”) and block building (“can you put this small block on top of the bigger one?”).

It also may be useful to note that even when a child can say a word, they may not fully understand what it means. For instance, two- to four-year-old children can often recite a portion of the count list (for example, the numbers one through ten) but if you ask them to find a certain number of items (“can you give me three blocks?”) they may struggle when asked for sets greater than two or three. Therefore, in addition to counting, it is important to connect number words to specific quantities (“look there are three ducks”). It may be especially helpful to connect counting to the value of a set (“let’s count the ducks—one, two, three—there are three!”).

My last piece of advice is to be careful about the types of messages we send our children about math. Many people experience “math anxiety,” and if we are not careful, children can pick up on these signals and become anxious about math themselves or internalize negative stereotypes about the types of people who are and are not good at math. Ensuring that children feel empowered to excel in math is an important ingredient for their success.

How has being an IES predoctoral fellow helped your development as a researcher?

The diverse group of people and perspectives I encountered as an IES predoctoral fellow made a huge impact on my development as a researcher. As an IES predoctoral fellow pursuing a degree in psychology, I met many students and faculty members who were interested in the same questions that interest me but who approached these questions from a variety of other disciplines, such as economics, public policy, and sociology. I also connected with networks of educators and policymakers outside of academia who alerted me to important issues that I may have missed if I had only worked within my own discipline. Through these experiences, I gained new tools for conducting my research and learned to avoid the types of blind spots that often develop when approaching a problem from a single perspective. In particular, I gained an appreciation for the challenges of translating basic science to educational practice and the number of interesting research questions that emerge when attempting to do this work.

Compiled by Katina Rae Stapleton, Education Research Analyst and Program Officer for the Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences, National Center for Education Research

Inequity Persists in Gifted Programs

The National Center for Research on Gifted Education (NCRGE) at the University of Connecticut, in Phase I of a rigorous research agenda, examined how academically-gifted students are identified and served in three states in order to provide systematic information for the field. The research team focused especially on the representation of historically underserved groups in gifted education.

NCER recently spoke with the Center’s Principal Investigator, Del Siegle, a nationally-recognized expert on gifted education. 

What is the biggest challenge facing gifted educators today?

Unfortunately, many of our nation’s brightest students from underserved populations (e.g., Black, Hispanic, English Learner, and/or free and reduced-price lunch eligible) are not being identified as gifted and do not receive gifted education services. About 80% of states that completed the most recent National Association for Gifted Children’s State of the States survey indicated that underrepresentation of students from underserved populations was an important or very important issue in their state.

What did you find in your study of identification of underserved students for gifted programs?

During Phase I of our work, we analyzed standardized student achievement test data from three states that mandate gifted identification and programming. We found that schools were less likely to identify students from underserved groups as gifted—even in cases where the underserved child had similar achievement test scores. For example, students with similar test scores who received free and reduced price lunch were less than half as likely to be identified as gifted as students who didn’t receive free or reduced price lunch.

What identification practices are schools using?

Cognitive tests and teacher nominations were the most common identification tools across the three states we studied. The majority (90% to 96%) of the districts in all three states used these practices to select students. Identification for gifted services occurs most often in third grade. Districts seldom reassess identified students once they are identified and only about half reassess non-identified students in elementary schools at regular intervals. Screening all children and using a variety of identification criteria showed promise for reducing under-identification in one of our states.

How are students being serviced in gifted programs?

In the three states we studied, schools primarily focused on critical thinking and creativity followed by communication skills, research skills, and self-directed projects.  Mathematics and reading language arts acceleration was much less of a focus and were ranked among the bottom third of focus areas. Gifted students seldom receive gifted programming in core academic areas. Only 29% of the schools provided a separate gifted curriculum in reading/language arts. Only 24% of the schools had a separate gifted curriculum in mathematics. Gifted students spent 5 hours or more each week in regular education mathematics and reading/language arts classrooms. Of the 74% of schools reporting using pull-out services, only 32% offered separate gifted curriculum in reading/language arts and 28% offered separate gifted curriculum in math. 

What about gifted student growth in mathematics and reading?

In 3rd grade, gifted students are approximately 2 grade levels ahead of students not identified as gifted, but gifted students grow more slowly than non-gifted students between 3rd and 5th grade. Most grouping arrangements for gifted students had no impact on the growth of academic achievement. We believe much of this has to do with the limited advanced mathematics and reading instruction gifted students receive in their classrooms and gifted programs.

What is the next step in your research?

We are examining the effect of attending dedicated gifted classes in core content areas on academic achievement in reading/language arts and mathematics in a large, ethnically, economically, and linguistically diverse urban school district. Our research will compare the reading/language arts and mathematics achievement of gifted students in three different settings: schools offering a full-time gifted-only program with gifted classes in all subject areas, schools offering a part-time gifted-only program with gifted classes in mathematics, and schools offering a part-time gifted-only program with gifted classes in reading/language arts.

CAPR: Answers to Pressing Questions in Developmental Education

Since 2014, IES has funded the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) to answer questions about the rapidly evolving landscape of developmental education at community colleges and open-access four-year institutions. CAPR is providing new insights into how colleges are reforming developmental education and how their reforms are impacting student outcomes through three major studies:

  • A survey and interviews about developmental education practices and reform initiatives
  • An evaluation of the use of multiple measures for assessing college readiness
  • An evaluation of math pathways.

Preliminary results from these studies indicate that some reforms help more students finish their developmental requirements and go on to do well in college-level math and English.

National Study of Developmental Education Policies and Practices

CAPR has documented widespread reform in developmental education at two- and four-year colleges through a national survey and interviews on developmental education practices and reforms. Early results from the survey show that colleges are moving away from relying solely on standardized tests for placing students into developmental courses. Colleges are also using new approaches to delivering developmental education including shortening developmental sequences by compressing or combining courses, using technology to deliver self-paced instruction, and placing developmental students into college-level courses with extra supports, often called corequisite remediation.

Developmental Math Instructional Methods in Public Two-Year Colleges (Percentages of Colleges Implementing Specific Reform Strategies)

Notes: Percentages among two-year public colleges that reported offering developmental courses. Colleges were counted as using an instructional method if they used it in at least two course sections. Categories are not mutually exclusive.

Evaluation of Developmental Math Pathways and Student Outcomes

CAPR has teamed up with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin to evaluate the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways (DCMP) curriculum at four community colleges in Texas. The math pathways model tailors math courses to particular majors, with a statistics pathway for social science majors, a quantitative reasoning pathway for humanities majors, and an algebra-to-calculus pathway for STEM majors. DCMP originally compressed developmental math into one semester, though now the Dana Center is recommending corequisite models. Instructors seek to engage students by delving deeply into math concepts, focusing on real-world problems, and having students work together to develop solutions.

Interim results show that larger percentages of students assigned to DCMP (versus the traditional developmental sequence) enrolled in and passed developmental math. More of the DCMP students also took and passed college-level math, fulfilling an important graduation requirement. After three semesters, 25 percent of program group students passed a college-level math course, compared with 17 percent of students assigned to traditional remediation.

Evaluation of Alternative Placement Systems and Student Outcomes (aka Multiple Measures)

CAPR is also studying the impact of using a combination of measures—such as high school GPA, years out of high school, and placement test scores—to predict whether students belong in developmental or college-level courses. Early results from the multiple measures study show that, in English and to a lesser extent in math, the multiple measures algorithms placed more students into college-level courses, and more students passed those courses (compared to students placed with a single test score).

 

College-Level English Course Placement, Enrollment, and Completion in CAPR’s Multiple Measures Study (Percentages Compared Across Placement Conditions)

 

College-Level Math Course Placement and Completion in CAPR’s Multiple Measures Study

Looking Ahead to the Future of Developmental Education

These early results from CAPR’s evaluations of multiple measures and math pathways suggest that those reforms are likely to be important pieces of future developmental education systems. CAPR will release final results from its three studies in 2019 and 2020.

Guest blog by Nikki Edgecombe and Alexander Mayer

Nikki Edgecombe is the principal investigator of the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness, an IES-funded center led by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) and MDRC, and a senior research scientist at CCRC. Alexander Mayer is the co-principal investigator of CAPR and deputy director of postsecondary education at MDRC.

Making Contributions: IES-funded Research in Mathematics

From 2002 to 2013, the Institute of Education Sciences has funded scores of research grants with a focus on improving mathematics education. Many of the outcomes of that research have been captured in a new publication, Synthesis of IES-funded Research on Mathematics.  

This Synthesis was co-authored by Bethany Rittle-Johnson, of Vanderbilt University, and Nancy C. Jordan, of University of Delaware, two nationally recognized experts in the area of mathematics education research. The co-authors reviewed published research and organized the synthesis for the public to answer the overarching question—What have we learned? The short answer: A lot!

Here’s a look at the new Synthesis by the numbers:

 

200

Between 2002 and 2013, IES has funded almost 200 grants on mathematics learning and teaching through its two research centers—the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER).

 

69

The co-authors synthesized what was learned from 69 IES-funded grants that had peer-reviewed publications published between January 1, 2002, and June 30, 2014. Grants that did not have peer-reviewed publications during that time frame were not included in this synthesis.

 

28

The Synthesis summarizes 28 contributions that IES grants have made in furthering our understanding of mathematics teaching and learning for students in kindergarten through high school. A summary of research findings is provided for each contribution, along with citations to the publications that will allow practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to access more information about the findings if they are interested.

 

2

The research contributions listed in the Synthesis are divided into two sections

  1. Improving Mathematics Learning in two areas: Whole numbers, operations, and word problem solving in elementary school, and fractions and algebra in the middle grades; and
  2. Development and Evaluation of Teacher Professional Development Approaches.

 

65%

The Synthesis cites research that shows that annual income is 65 percent higher among adults who have taken calculus in high school than among adults who have completed only basic mathematics. It is our hope that this Synthesis will spark efforts to improve American students’ math proficiency and increase their interest in taking higher level math.

 

So, where do we go from here? IES will continue to make significant contributions to mathematics education research and practice. In particular, the co-authors of the Synthesis recommend the following future directions for IES-funded research in mathematics:

  • Replication: Studies of promise or ones that demonstrate positive results must be replicated and extended to ensure that the findings can be reproduced in different educational settings, improve student achievement on measures used by teachers and schools, and lead to improvements that can be sustained over time;
  • Innovation: Future work should continue to innovate and test new strategies for improving mathematics achievement. Research should examine the features of interventions that most effectively build concepts and skills in mathematics topics and address whether observed gains can be transferred to other areas of mathematics learning; and
  • Context: Future research must continue to address what works for whom and under what conditions.

Although the Synthesis provides a broad overview of the contributions IES-funded research has made in mathematics education, it is not exhaustive. There are many more IES-funded studies that did not have published results by June 30, 2014. These studies are likely to produce additional findings on mathematics learning on these topics, as well as on topics not addressed in the Synthesis, such as mathematics learning in high school. Also, it should be noted that other centers and programs within IES conduct research and evaluation on mathematics that can be helpful to researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.

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