Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

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.

____________

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.

Fieldnotes: Reflections from an Adult Education Instructor on Research and Practice

Approximately 18 percent of US adults are at the lowest levels of literacy and nearly 30 percent are at the lowest levels of numeracy. The adult education system serves adults with low skills, but many education researchers know little about the students or the setting.  Recently, NCER convened a working group of adult education instructors, administrators, and researchers to discuss adult education’s research and dissemination needs.

Mr. Marcus Hall, an adult education instructor at the Community Learning Center and JEVS Human Services in Philadelphia, participated in this working group. He spoke with Meredith Larson, NCER program officer for adult education, about his experiences and interests in research. A copy of the working group meeting summary is available here.

Please describe your adult education classroom.

I once taught a 7-week course with students ranging from 18 to over 60 years old who had low literacy or math scores. I tried to contextualize instruction around their career interests and differentiate it to their learning needs. For example, some students were proficient readers but needed comprehension and math practice while others struggled with one or more of the basic components of reading. Somehow, I needed to help those learning phonics and those struggling with fluency while also challenging those ready for comprehension work. It’s hard to meet student needs in such a short time without teacher aides or adaptive technologies.

Why is research particularly important for adult education?

The challenges we face are monumental. Despite the large number of adults in need, adult education feels under-funded, under-staffed, and under-appreciated. Our students need complex, comprehensive, and well-rounded intervention, but we often have to make the most out of slightly targeted, inexpensive, and difficult-to-implement solutions. We need researchers to provide practical information and recommendations that we can use today to help adults learn and retain information.

Have you used research into your teaching?

Specifically, for reading instruction, I use techniques and activities built on evidence-based reading interventions. I start with tested diagnostic assessments to determine the needs of my students followed by strategies such as Collaborative Oral Reading or Repeated Reading exercises to support my students.

What topic during the meeting stood out to you?

The discussion about the workforce and professional development resonated with me. Many of our educators are part-time, come out of K-12, close to retirement, and may not have specific training for working with adults. They are asked to teach subjects they may not have any certification in, and their programs may not be able to provide the professional development they need. Just as we need supports for our learners, we need research to develop supports for us educators.

What additional research would you like to see?

Many of my students have had traumatic experiences that, when relived in the classroom, can cause them to disengage or struggle. I feel that understanding triggers and signs of discomfort has greatly enhanced my ability to help my students. Many educators want to leverage mental health approaches, like trauma-informed care, but we could use help learning how to integrate these strategies into instruction.

What do you hope researchers and educators keep in mind regarding one another?

It seems that researchers publish and promote their work to other researchers and then move to the next topic. This may be due to time constraints, publishing demands, or institutional requirements. I hope researchers take the time to come into our settings and observe us in action. I want researchers to work with us to help us understand and accept what is and isn’t working.

As for educators, we need to not try things and then stop using them when something unexpected occurs. At times, we revert back to what we know and are most comfortable with in the classroom. We educators can and must think critically about our norms and be ready and willing to enhance our practice with new information. 

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.

Read Across America with IES

Happy Read Across America Day! This year is the 10-year anniversary of this national pep rally for reading, and IES has supported the development of a number of tools to promote reading and literacy.

Did you know that many of the curricula and materials developed by IES researchers are available for free? These materials include reading on topics interesting to students, as well as guidance for teachers on how to engage and motivate students in discussions about what they read. For example, as part of the Reading for Understanding Initiative, IES invested in multiple curricula that are designed to help improve students’ reading comprehension and are available at no charge.

For students in preschool through grade 3, the Let’s Know! curriculum supplement uses easily-accessible books to help teach children about vocabulary, making inferences, and text structures like cause and effect. There’s also a Spanish version of this curriculum (¡Vamos Aprender!). You can gain access to the curriculum through the Language and Reading Research Consortium webpage.

Word Generation is a group of curricula developed for students in grades four through eight with a focus on teaching students to understand multiple perspectives, reason, and learn academic vocabulary, all through high-interest topics in science and social studies.

Example topic questions from units include:

  • When is a crime not a crime?

  • The Legacy of Alexander the Great: Great Leader or Power-Hungry Tyrant? and

  • Thinking About Natural Selection.

You can find more information on WordGen and download materials on their website.

Finally, for high school students, Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT) is an intervention aimed at motivating and engaging students to read and understand informational texts in social studies. Students learn vocabulary words and make connections between social studies topics and their own lives. For example, in a unit about the 1920s, students learn about economy and prosperity and complete activities such as listing three items they have purchased and determining whether they are “needs” or “wants,” and how this relates to a consumer economy. Sample materials are available for download on the PACT website.

Have fun celebrating Read Across America Day, and enjoy a book with the students in your lives!

By Becky McGill-Wilkinson, NCER Program Officer

 

Trading the Number 2 Pencil for 2.0 Technology

Although traditional pencil and paper tests provide good information for many purposes, technology presents the opportunity to assess students on tasks that better elicit the real world skills called for by college and career standards. IES supports a number of researchers and developers who are using technology to develop better assessments through grants as well as the Small Business Innovation Research program. 

A screenshot of the GISA assessment intro page One example of the power of technology to support innovative assessment  is the Global, Integrated, Scenario-based Assessment (known as ‘GISA’), developed by John Sabatini and Tenaha O’Reilly at the Educational Testing Service as part of a grant supported by the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative.

Each GISA scenario is structured to resemble a timely, real-world situation. For example, one scenario begins by explaining that the class has been asked to create a website on green schools. The student is assigned the task of working with several students (represented by computer avatars) to create the website. In working through the scenario, the student engages in activities that are scaffolded to support students in summarizing information, completing a graphic organizer, and collaborating to evaluate whether statements are facts or opinions. The scenario provides a measure of each student’s ability to learn from text through assessing his or her knowledge of green schools before and after completing the scenario. This scenario is available on the ETS website along with more information about the principles on which GISA was built.

Karen Douglas, of the National Center for Education Research, recently spoke to Dr. Sabatini and Dr. O’Reilly on the role of technology in creating GISA, what users think of it, and their plans for continuing to develop technology-based assessments.

How did the use of technology contribute to the design of GISA?

Technological delivery creates many opportunities over more traditional paper and pencil test designs. On the efficiency side of the argument, items and tasks can be delivered over the internet in a standardized way and there are obvious advantages for automated scoring. However, the real advantage has to do with both the control over test environment and what can be assessed. We can more effectively simulate the digital environments that students use in school, leisure and, later, in the workforce. GISA uses scenario-based assessment to deliver items and tasks. During a scenario-based assessment students are given a plausible reason for reading a collection of thematically related materials. The purpose defines what is important to focus on as students work towards a larger goal. The materials are diverse and may reflect different perspectives and quality of information. 

Screenshot of a GISA forum on Green Schools

The student not only needs to understand these materials but also needs to evaluate and integrate them as they solve problems, make decisions, or apply what they learn to new situations. This design is not only more like the activities that occur in school, but also affords the opportunity for engaging students in deeper thinking. GISA also includes simulated students that may support or scaffold the test taker's understanding with good habits of mind such as the use of reading strategies. Items are sequenced to build up test takers’ understanding and to examine what parts of a more complex task students can or cannot do. In this way, the assessment serves as a model for learning while simultaneously assessing reading. Traditionally, the areas of instruction and assessment have not been integrated in a seamless manner.

What evidence do you have that GISA provides useful information about reading skills?

We have a lot more research to conduct, but thus far we have been able to create a new technology- delivered assessment that updates the aspects of reading that are measured and introduces a variety of new features.

Despite the novel interface, items, tasks, and format, students are able to understand what is expected of them. Our analyses indicate the test properties are good and that students can do a range of tasks that were previously untested in traditional assessments. While students may be developing their skills on more complex tasks, there is evidence they can do many of the components that feed into it. In this way the assessment may be more instructionally relevant.

Informally, we have received positive feedback on GISA from both teachers and students. Teachers view the assessment as better matching the types of activities they teach in the classroom, while students seem to enjoy the more realistic purpose for reading, the more relevant materials, and the use of simulated peers. 

What role do you think technology will play in future efforts to create better assessments?

We believe technology will play a greater role in how assessments are designed and delivered. Being able to provide feedback to students and better match the test to student needs are some areas where future assessments will drive innovation. More interactive formats, such as intelligent tutoring and gaming, will also grow over time. With new forms of technology available, the possibilities for meeting students’ educational needs increases dramatically.

What’s next for GISA?

We are using GISA in two additional grants. In one grant, we leverage the GISA designs for use with adults, a group for which there are few viable assessments. In the other grant we are using GISA to get a better understanding of how background knowledge affects reading comprehension.

For more information about the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative, read this post on the IES blog.

By Karen Douglas, Education Research Analyst, NCER, who oversees the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative