Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Empowering the Families of Black Autistic Children through Culturally Responsive, Community-Based Interventions

In recognition of the IES 20th anniversary and Black History Month, we interviewed Dr. Jamie Pearson, an assistant professor of special education at North Carolina State University. Jamie is developing and refining a community-based parent-training intervention, FACES (Fostering Advocacy, Communication, Empowerment, and Support), designed to strengthen Black parents' capacity to access and use special education services and improve the communication and behavior outcomes for their autistic children.

How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career in studying diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?Headshot of Jamie Pearson

My early career experiences were as a behavioral interventionist for autistic students in home, school, and community settings. While providing direct support, I noticed that many of the students I supported were white and most came from middle- and upper-class socioeconomic backgrounds. These experiences led me to question whether there were disparities in diagnosis, misdiagnosis, and treatment/service access for children of color, particularly Black autistic children. These early questions were the catalysts for my scholarship.

As a doctoral student, I began exploring Black families’ experiences supporting autistic children. I became very passionate about investigating (a) disparities in the identification of autism and service access for Black autistic students and their families, (b) the implementation and evaluation of culturally responsive family advocacy interventions, and (c) strategies for strengthening partnerships between historically marginalized families and schools. Based on the findings from my early exploratory research, I developed and piloted the FACES intervention.

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

When I began this work, I distinctly remember a faculty member asking me why it was important to look at the intersections of autism and race/ethnicity. They genuinely didn’t understand. I was passionate about my work, and even though not everyone understood the implications of these disparities at the time, they learned from my early exploratory work. It is important for underrepresented scholars to know that you have a seat at the table! Your knowledge, experiences, and contributions are needed in education research. We need more scholars of color, disabled scholars, and LGBTQIA+ scholars who reflect the populations with whom we conduct educational research and whose diverse perspectives impact how we engage in and interpret education research. My three pieces of advice in a nutshell would be find your passion, follow your passion, and know that you are deserving of a seat at the table. Pull up a chair if you have to!

Tell us about your current IES project focused on FACES. Do you have any updates or preliminary findings you would like to share about supporting Black children with ASD and their families?

The purpose of my IES Early Career project is to develop and test the promise of FACES when delivered by community-based parent educators. So far, two of my doctoral students and I (all Black women) have been the only people to facilitate FACES. To scale the intervention up, we need to design a training for facilitators to know how to implement FACES, train the facilitators, and then test its promise when delivered by facilitators in community-based settings. We are partnering with two community-based organizations who provide parent advocacy and support to achieve these goals.

During phase 1 of this project, we conducted a content analysis of our community partners’ data to better understand the extent to which Black families raising autistic students were seeking support for their child. These findings indicate that Black families are most often seeking specific therapeutic services (such as speech therapy) for their child, followed by school-related support and behavioral support. We then conducted focus groups with community-based providers to better understand their experiences and needs supporting Black families. Findings from these focus groups indicated that community-based providers are serving multiple roles—feeling as though they serve as therapist, teacher, advocate, and more with some families—with limited resources. These findings, combined with emergent themes around racial responsiveness and racial sensitivity, are helping us tailor the train-the-trainer components of the project. For example, we are building a section into our training about the implications of colorblind ideology and how to address facilitator biases. Facilitators will need to complete this training and demonstrate their understanding of the content before they move forward with facilitating the FACES intervention.

What do you see as the greatest research needs to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

Much of the research around autism disparities has focused on quantifying racial disparities, yet little work has been done to reduce these disparities. Black families raising autistic children need access to parent education and advocacy training to combat the barriers they face in service access and utilization and find spaces where they feel welcome. I strongly believe that community-based parent education sets the foundation for empowering families that have been historically marginalized. We’ve seen FACES families go back to their communities and educate their friends and families about autism, connect them to services, and even create their own support groups. When families have more knowledge about autism and autism services, they feel more empowered. When they feel more empowered, they are better equipped to advocate. This is why it’s critical to engage in this work with historically marginalized families at the community level.

However, families of color still face many systemic barriers, so we still have a lot of work to do with educators and healthcare providers to ensure they are engaging in culturally responsive practices that facilitate effective partnerships with marginalized families. We need both empowered families and culturally responsive providers to effectively address these disparities.

The IES 20th anniversary campaign focuses on the future of IES as well as the most notable IES accomplishments. Follow the campaign on IES social media channels and our website. Join the conversation by using #IESat20 on social media.

This blog was produced by Akilah Nelson, program officer for the National Center for Special Education Research.

Spotlighting Doug and Lynn Fuchs: Two Decades of Innovation in Special Education Research

Doug and Lynn Fuchs

During our 20-year anniversary, IES would like to reflect upon the important work of Drs. Doug and Lynn Fuchs, who have received multiple IES grants over the years to explore important factors associated with learning and develop interventions aimed at improving outcomes for low-achieving learners and learners with disabilities in math and literacy. Their work as “trailblazers in the field of special education” was recognized in 2021 when they received the “Nobel Prize of education,” the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education.

Doug and Lynn Fuchs are internationally recognized for their intervention work in Response to Intervention, or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), tiered models that include teacher collection of progress monitoring data and offer progressively intensive support for students who are not performing at grade level. Their research and development work has provided training for educators and research project staff and intervention materials to use in tiered interventions for students who are struggling in the areas of reading and mathematics. Their research has also included exploratory work and measurement development to better understand and measure factors associated with risk of disability in reading and math in elementary school children. Their innovative intervention designs take into consideration different cognitive factors such as working memory and executive functioning.

Although Doug Fuchs is well known for his work within MTSS frameworks, one of his early IES grants in 2004 focused on teachers tailoring instruction to meet individual student needs in elementary schools with a diverse range of students. The goal of the project was to scale up Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS), an instructional approach developed by the Fuchses in 1997 with increasing instructional differentiation and evidence of reading achievement. For this scale-up study, his research team collected and analyzed data across 2 years from three sites. They demonstrated that implementation of PALS with onsite support for teachers led to significant reading achievement gains, an effect that was strongly influenced by whether teachers were encouraged to modify the PALS program to suit the needs of their particular students. With a NCSER grant in 2009, Doug Fuchs and his research team (including Lynn Fuchs) developed and tested interventions in reading and math to prevent or mitigate disability among first grade students with or at risk for disabilities in these outcome areas. One of the interesting findings from this research related to students with comorbid math and reading disabilities (LD). They found that students with comorbid LD respond differently than those with only math disabilities, depending on the nature of mathematics intervention. However, students with reading disabilities responded similarly whether they had a disability only in reading or in both reading and math. Recently, Doug Fuchs has become passionate about assessment, critiquing how reading comprehension is often assessed in an article he co-authored with Nathan Clemens, “Commercially Developed Tests of Reading Comprehension: Gold Standard or Fool’s Gold?

Lynn Fuchs is a leader in improving outcomes for students with or at risk of math disabilities. Through a 2009 grant, she and her research team (including Doug Fuchs) developed a measure to predict first graders’ calculation skills and word problem development using dynamic assessment. The measure was found to be more predictive than traditional assessments for early identification of students at risk for a math disability. The team concluded that language, reasoning, and mathematical cognition were important in predicting calculation and word problem solving for these early learners. Lynn Fuchs continued this work in math and cognition with students in second grade, exploring connections between cognition and student calculation, word problem solving, and pre-algebraic knowledge with funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. With a 2015 IES grant, she applied what she learned about the importance of cognition to test the efficacy of a math intervention that embedded working memory training into a previously validated math problem-solving intervention (Pirate Math) for students with poor problem-solving skills. The results of this study showed that general working memory training with ongoing math practice improves working memory and word problem skills; however, working memory training alone is not sufficient to improve word problem solving.

More recently, Lynn Fuchs received a 2020 grant to further research a fraction intervention for fourth grade students with disabilities developed through her work as co-principal investigator on the 2010 National Research and Development Center on Improving Mathematics Instruction for Students with Mathematics Difficulties. In the current replication study, she and her research team are testing the Inclusive Fraction Intervention as a class-wide intervention taught by general education teachers to understand the effect on students with and without math learning disabilities. Lynn Fuchs also chaired the panel for the most recent WWC Practice Guide, Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Intervention in the Elementary Grades. This guide provides six evidence-based practices that can help teachers tailor their instructional approaches and/or their mathematics intervention programs to meet the needs of their students. All six practices in this guide are supported with strong evidence due, in part, to the research conducted by Lynn Fuchs. By the start of 2023, this practice guide has had 62,346 views and 10,468 downloads.

Together, Doug and Lynn Fuchs have pushed the field forward with their leadership. Through their 2013 A3 Initiative project, they developed and tested the efficacy of intensive reading and math interventions for learners in upper elementary grades. The research team demonstrated that both the math and reading interventions were effective in improving  outcomes for students with disabilities. As part of this work, the Fuchses led a meeting with a group of experts to discuss evidence to support the importance of moderator analysis in intervention research. This effort resulted in a special journal issue with several articles on this topic. Their leadership role extends beyond IES-funded work to their involvement in several other national projects, such as the National Center on Intensive Intervention, funded by the Office of Special Education Programs and other national thought leadership activities, such as their webinar on  intensive intervention. The Fuchses have also published articles in practitioner journals outlining how their research-based practices can be implemented by teachers in the classroom, such as “What is intensive intervention and why is it important?

The impact of Doug and Lynn Fuchs research is far reaching. In addition to leading research projects and publishing articles, Doug and Lynn Fuchs have truly developed capacity in the field of special education research through mentoring and collaborating with junior researchers. The following are examples of researchers who worked with Doug and Lynn Fuchs in the past as graduate research assistants, post-doctoral researchers, or research associates who now lead their own IES-funded research:

Doug and Lynn Fuchs have pushed the fields of assessment and intervention development forward, providing new opportunities to understand and support math and literacy outcomes for students with or at risk for disabilities. We are proud to have funded their work over the years, and we are excited to see how they continue to advance the field.

This blog was authored by Sarah Brasiel, program officer at NCSER.

Family Access to Knowledge of their Rights in Transition and Guardianship for Students with Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first enacted in 2004, specifies how public agencies should provide early intervention, special education, and related services to children with disabilities and delineates the rights of families to participate in meetings in which decisions are made on the evaluation, identification, and educational placement of their children. However, students with disabilities transition out of IDEA coverage when they graduate high school or reach age 21. This is a particularly crucial moment for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

Under IDEA, parental decision-making rights transfer to students at age 18 unless parents seek further guardianship. This complex issue requires understanding of the options and what they mean for the student. Alleviating any knowledge gaps is important for better transition outcomes for secondary students. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education released an updated transition guide, A Transition Guide to Postsecondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities, for high school educators to better equip students on their transition into postsecondary education. The Department also released a brief to better inform students about their rights and the overall transition process as they prepare for postsecondary education and employment.

Allison Hall at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and her research team are exploring the role of special educators in informing youth and parents about transfer of rights and guardianship and its implications for transition outcomes for students with IDD. The project began with a review of the literature, a document review of state-level policies, and interviews with experts in the field of transition for students with IDD. These three initial research activities were followed by interviews with students, parents, and special educators on their experience during discussions of the transition process. We asked her to update us on the project and what they’ve learned so far. (Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.)

NCSER: Please provide an update of where you are with the project.

Headshot of Allison Hall

Hall: Project staff members recently completed interviews in triads—which included a special educator, parent, and student with IDD—

focused on conversations about the transfer of rights and transition planning process for students after turning 18 through videoconferencing with participants from New York and Massachusetts. The research team, including researchers from Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong and the Self Advocacy Association of New York State, is now analyzing the data for common themes. Once analyzed, the team will produce briefs and a short video highlighting key findings from the research.

Findings from qualitative data collection with experts in transfer-of-rights and transition planning yielded important information about the factors that influence how the transfer-of-rights conversations happen in special education settings:

  • School-based professionals have limited capacity and knowledge about the long-term impacts of guardianship
  • Schools are operating under an outdated paradigm of ableism—the tendency to intentionally or unintentionally presume incompetence as it relates to decision making for students with IDD
  • There is limited/lack of student engagement in transition planning and decision making
  • Schools are frequently guided by inadequate district and state policies

NCSER: Could you share any resources that may be useful to policymakers or parents?

Hall: Resources on our Institute for Community Inclusion website include an interactive map that describes the transfer-of-rights policies and laws in each state; plain language briefs for students about turning 18, transfer of rights, and alternatives to guardianship; and a brief that supports parents taking advantage of the transfer-of-rights process to position their youth with IDD for better transition outcomes.

NCSER looks forward to seeing the final results of Dr. Hall’s study on understanding how educators provide transfer-of-rights and guardianship information to families and the ways in which this information impacts parent expectations and student self-determination, each of which impacts student outcomes. Findings from this study can inform a future school-based intervention that tests strategies for more robustly incorporating transfer-of-rights discussions into the student-led transition planning process.

This blog was produced by Alysa Conway, NCSER student volunteer and University of Maryland, College Park graduate student with substantive contributions from NCSER program officers Akilah Nelson, Katie Taylor, and Amy Sussman.

Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane

Today, we’re highlighting Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane, Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. Dr. Lane’s research aims to analyze existing data to determine how internalizing and externalizing behavior patterns, as well as referrals for special education eligibility, may have shifted over time with the pandemic. Moreover, the project will test Recognize. Relax. Record. (RRR), which is an intervention designed to reduce symptoms of anxiety, increase engagement, maximize learning recovery, and improve academic outcomes for students with and at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. 

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.___________________________________________________________________________________

National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER):How would you describe your research project in a sentence?  

Headshot of Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane:* We will determine shifts over time in internalizing behavior patterns and we will test an intervention, Recognize. Relax. Record. designed as part of Project ENHANCE (network grant), to meet this charge. 

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Given the educational complexities of the COVID era, many students are expected to exhibit elevated levels of internalizing issues (e.g., anxious feelings), which may impede learning as teachers strive to maximize student engagement to facilitate learning and well-being. It is critical to examine how the prevalence of internalizing symptoms has shifted during the pandemic. Furthermore, in anticipation that prevalence has increased, it is vital teachers have effective and feasible interventions to support these students rather than rely on potentially scarce, resource-intensive external sources. We have the data to determine shifts in internalizing behavior patterns and we have developed and propose to test an intervention, RRR, to meet this charge. 

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: We will determine shifts in internalizing behavior patterns since the pandemic. In addition, we will conduct a series of studies to determine the efficacy and feasibility of RRR in helping students manage anxious feelings and increasing academic engagement, ultimately facilitating students’ academic and social and emotional well-being during recovery from the pandemic. 

“As a classroom teacher, I wanted to make sure all students–including students with the most severe emotional and behavioral disorders–could be welcomed and included in general education settings in such a way that special and general education teachers felt confident in meeting these students’ multiple needs.”

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education?   

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: As a classroom teacher, I wanted to make sure all students–including students with the most severe emotional and behavioral disorders–could be welcomed and included in general education settings in such a way that special and general education teachers felt confident in meeting these students’ multiple needs. Also, I was very concerned that students with internalizing behavior patterns were often overlooked because their behavior challenges did not capture teacher attention. This led to our collective work: designing, implementing, and evaluating Comprehensive, Integrated, Three-tiered (Ci3T) models of prevention to (a) prevent the development of learning and behavior challenges and (b) respond to existing challenges, with an emphasis on systematic screening. 

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: As a mother and a researcher, detecting and supporting students with internalizing behaviors are key priorities. As we navigate through the pandemic, our team is highly committed to the educators we serve so that they have feasible, effective interventions that support students with internalizing behaviors to engage in instruction and empower all teachers with the tools to meet students’ multiple needs. 

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: As part of Project ENGAGE, we will determine how internalizing behavior patterns have shifted since the pandemic and we will empower teachers with practical, effective Tier 2 strategies that can be integrated into academic instruction to help students manage anxious feelings, enhance engagement, and facilitate learning and well-being. The resulting intervention will be able to be used by a range of students and teachers to support students with the tools needed to recognize and manage anxious feelings, while optimizing engagement during instruction. Furthermore, this intervention is designed to support teacher well-being by being a practical, efficient, and effective intervention that can be embedded into daily instructional activities. 

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Project ENGAGE was designed with recovery from the pandemic in mind. Aim 1 addresses the need for schools to understand shifts that have occurred in internalizing behavior patterns. Aim 2 addresses the need for educators to have effective interventions at Tier 2 for students experiencing elevated levels of anxious feelings that impede educational engagement and thus attainment.

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: While there are a host of challenges, one particular concern is the accurate detection of elevated risk for both major categories of behavior disorders of childhood: internalizing and externalizing behaviors. It is critical the field support educators in the (a) selection and installation of systematic screening tools that can effectively and efficiently identify preK-12 students at the first sign of concern and (b) design of practical, effective strategies that can be used by all educators to maximize engagement and support social and emotional well-being. For some school systems, free access tools such as the Student Risk Screening Scale for Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors (SRSS-IE; Drummond, 1994; Lane & Menzies, 2009) are the only option. Further, as we detect students who are experiencing elevated levels of internalizing concerns, it is vital for educators to have access to feasible, evidence-based practices to support these students at initial signs of concern.  

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: It is possible–and feasible–to detect and support students with internalizing and externalizing behaviors at the first sign of concern. Systematic screening is a gift to students, families, and teachers. 

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Districts and schools across the United States are increasingly exploring and adopting integrated tiered systems such as Ci3T models of prevention. These integrated systems provide a systematic structure for educators to collaborate and meet students’ multiple needs (academic, behavioral, and social and emotional well-being) in a coherent and wholistic manner. Furthermore, the emphasis on using data, like systematic screening to detect students with both externalizing and internalizing behavioral concerns, provides a basis for educators to provide supports in an equitable and proactive manner. There is also evidence to suggest Ci3T models may facilitate teacher well-being as they promote efficiency, collaboration, and ongoing professional learning to enhance teachers’ sense of efficacy and reduce burnout as they go about their vital work of meeting students’ multiple needs.   

 NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Our ultimate goals: 

  1. Accurate detection of students with internalizing and externalizing behaviors at the first sign of concern. 
  2. High-quality, on-demand professional learning resources to support the design, implementation, and evaluation of Ci3T models of prevention to address students’ academic, behavioral, and social and emotional well-being needs in an integrated fashion. 

*Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane’s answers include input from Project ENGAGE Co-Principal Investigators. 

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane! We hope you’ve enjoyed our NCSER Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education grantee spotlight blog series. Keep following the blog for more exciting news from IES.


Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Dr. Michael Hebert

Today, we want to highlight Dr. Michael Hebert, associate professor at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Hebert’s work will evaluate the Workshop on Reading Development Strategies (WORDS), a comprehensive professional development program for teachers designed to support implementation of Tier 2 intensive interventions in reading for students with or at risk for reading disabilities in grades K–3. Please find below the inspiring story of our grantee! 

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. 


National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER): How would you describe your research project in a sentence?   

Headshot of Dr. Michael Hebert

Dr. Michael Hebert: Workshop on Reading Development Strategies (WORDS) is designed to accelerate reading development for students with disabilities following the COVID-19 pandemic, and we will test the impacts of WORDS in kindergarten through grade 3. 

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: As a director of a university reading center that suspended in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was forced to figure out how to do what most other educational institutions also had to do: pivot. Students with reading disabilities didn’t suddenly have fewer needs, and our preservice teachers still required training in how to meet the needs of those students. We pivoted to virtual instruction.  

Like most schools and programs, we had some successes and challenges. It became obvious quickly that we had particular difficulty delivering virtual instruction to students with disabilities. Our preservice teachers sometimes had difficulty figuring out how to make appropriate accommodations, assessing students’ needs, or sustaining their attention. On at least one occasion, a lesson ended when a student with an emotional and behavioral need simply shut their laptop. 

Two teacher surveys I conducted with Jessica Namkung and Marc Goodrich reinforced that students with disabilities were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers reported covering less content and having difficulties making appropriate accommodations. Some of our Nebraska partner schools also reported 10–12% increases in the number of students falling below cut scores in reading across grade levels. It was clear that schools needed support to increase instructional opportunities and accelerate reading growth for students with and at risk for disabilities.  

As it happened, I was already working on the WORDS project with the state of Nebraska, with a focus on the science of reading. We were seeing early promise for the program to accelerate reading improvements for students with disabilities. Those early successes inspired my team to develop an IES grant proposal to test whether the WORDS project could be adapted to accelerate pandemic recovery for students with reading difficulties and disabilities. We are especially focused on impacting schools in rural and remote areas that may have had particular difficulty providing students with access to reading instructional opportunities during the pandemic.  

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research?  

Dr. Michael Hebert: We hope to see impacts on reading skills and overall reading achievement for children. We’re specifically expecting to see improvements on foundational reading skill outcomes (for example, letter naming fluency and phonological awareness), word-reading and decoding skills, and reading fluency outcomes. We’re focused on outcomes that have practical significance to Nebraska schools and drive a lot of school decisions, including reading assessments mandated by Nebraska state law and annual state assessments. We also hope to see a reduction in the overall number of students identified with reading difficulties and disabilities. 

“Although there may have been no way to prepare for the pandemic, we can’t let a generation of students with reading difficulties fail because of our lack of preparation. We have a responsibility to learn quickly how to meet their needs and accelerate their learning.

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: When I was a reading specialist, my charge was to identify why individual children had reading difficulties and design ways to help them become successful readers. I became very interested in distinguishing students with opportunity gaps from those that faced barriers due to disabilities. These groups sometimes have different instructional needs. I found it especially appealing to design specific instructional plans for students and help them grow.  

One tool that I found particularly adaptable and effective for many of my students with disabilities was writing. Writing gave students another way to engage in the content and practice skills, and through this, I noticed more rapid reading gains for students with learning disabilities. It was really exciting. I remember talking with Steve Graham and Karen Harris about it at a conference around that time. They helped me understand that I needed more evidence for it than my gut hunches. They also convinced me that research evidence was the key. Now that I reflect on it, I’m pretty sure they tricked me into going to graduate school. The rest is history.  

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Michael Hebert: My first teaching job after college was in a third-grade classroom on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I quickly learned that my teacher-prep program hadn’t prepared me well enough to teach reading to a classroom of 100% English learners (ELs), some of whom missed large amounts of school. (I got my credential in New Hampshire, where the EL population was very small.) However, it wouldn’t have been acceptable for me to fail to do my job for those kids and blame my lack of preparation. Needless to say, I had to work very hard that year to learn quickly and meet their needs. I’ve been inspired to better prepare myself and other teachers to teach reading to different populations ever since.  

 The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools remind me of that first year of my career. Teachers were unprepared. We didn’t know the best ways to teach foundational reading and writing skills in virtual and hybrid contexts. Kids missed a lot of school and instruction. Although there may have been no way to prepare for the pandemic, we can’t let a generation of students with reading difficulties fail because of our lack of preparation. We have a responsibility to learn quickly how to meet their needs and accelerate their learning. 

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: Targeted interventions focused on specific skills have been a staple of special education. Those types of interventions will continue to be important and indispensable for meeting individual student needs. However, the WORDS project is a larger-scale intervention that focuses on improving several parts of the system at once—including curricular foci, teacher instruction, multitiered systems of support, and school use of assessment data—while not losing sight of the need to meet students’ individual needs. The aim is to relieve pressure on the special education system while also improving interventions for students with disabilities.

To do this, the WORDS project includes ongoing professional development on the science of reading, individualized teacher coaching, leadership development, after-school instruction for students with reading difficulties, and assessment support for schools. We work with schools over a 2-year period. (We can’t make large-scale improvements with a day or two of professional development.) WORDS focuses on continuous improvement and includes individualized consultation for schools that can be adapted for their specific needs (e.g., curricular adoption or intervention-material choices). If effective, this could provide a model for other states to develop similar multicomponent, large-scale intervention programs and impact how we approach improving special education outcomes.  

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic? 

Dr. Michael Hebert: We know that one project can’t address all of the challenges related to the pandemic. Therefore, the focus of our program is to address the challenges of accelerating reading development for students with and at risk for disabilities. To do that, the WORDS project floods the system with a multicomponent approach to improving reading instruction in schools and a focus on effective reading practices identified through reading science. By intensifying intervention through after-school tutoring, improving core instructional and assessment practices, and providing schools with support to adapt to students’ needs, the WORDS project is aimed at developing the capacity of schools and teachers. The goal is to develop the appropriate conditions for accelerating reading improvement. Our project includes a series of regression discontinuity designs that allow us to provide regular, rapid feedback to the schools in the project. This will allow schools to make additional instructional adjustments and decisions quickly. We also report our results regularly to the Nebraska State Department of Education so that they can make decisions about whether to implement the program in other schools.

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: Identifying school and teacher partners is one of the biggest challenges. Shortages of teachers, substitutes, and paraprofessionals are straining the system at a time when many teachers are still stressed and tired from the unique challenges of the pandemic. Schools are also cognizant of the need to make the most of their instructional and professional development time to meet the needs of students who missed instructional opportunities during the pandemic. Because of that, schools are less willing to take on research partnerships. They’re (understandably) being careful about any research partnerships they take on. They are protecting their teachers and seem less willing to participate in projects that require significant amounts of instructional time. Therefore, it is incumbent upon special education researchers to design research studies in ways that relieve some of the pressure on schools, provide schools with data that helps them make decisions in the short term, and are responsive to the needs of schools and teachers. There are many critical research questions around students with disabilities that need to be studied. We need to make sure we’re carefully listening to schools and stakeholders about their needs in order to foster research partnerships that can help us address those questions. 

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: Many disabilities are invisible. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish students with disabilities from students who have lacked learning opportunities. Both groups may perform similarly on assessments. However, the academic needs of those two groups are likely to be different. Students with disabilities may have difficulty learning due to their disability; simply giving them more learning opportunities will not always be sufficient without other accommodations. The good news is that we know a lot about how to provide appropriate accommodations and adjust instruction based on students’ disabilities and needs. In many cases, providing the right intervention and accommodations can make all of the difference. Therefore, it is important to be careful when assessing students and identifying students with disabilities (especially invisible disabilities) so that we can appropriately meet their needs. 

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Michael Hebert: I’m very excited about the collaborative research training grants that have recently been awarded by the Office of Special Education Research. We need to continue to develop talented new researchers to continue to push the field forward. I’m particularly excited about projects involving multiple institutions collaborating to provide students with varied experiences and research opportunities. This kind of training has the potential to expose doctoral students to varied methods, experts, research projects, and special education issues across multiple states. Some examples include: 

  • The Leaders Investigating Mathematics Evidence (LIME) program collaboration among the University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University, and University of Missouri
  • RISE Scholars Network (Research Interventions in Special Education) collaboration between the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, Texas A&M University, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

I can’t wait to see what these scholars do. 

NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: We have short- and long-term goals. In the short term, we’re focused on implementation and carrying out our study with the highest degree of rigor and care. Our goals are to carry out a great study, impact teachers and kids, and conduct a strong cost analysis to help people understand the cost required for this type of work. That essentially leads me to our long-term goal: sustainability. Although this is a pandemic recovery grant, we hope the WORDS project can become a model for improving reading outcomes for students with and at risk for disabilities even in nonpandemic times. To do that, we need to consider ways to make the project sustainable. We’ve already built some mechanisms into the WORDS project for this. For example, we have a leadership training program included within the WORDS project, which aims to identify and cultivate reading-teacher leaders in schools across the state. By cultivating leadership opportunities for talented personnel in the schools, we accomplish a few things. First, we make schools less reliant on outside support. Second, we foster institutional knowledge that can help during times of teacher turnover, administrator turnover, or changes to curriculum. Third, we build a network of teachers and experts across the state that can support neighboring school districts and colleagues. This further makes Nebraska schools less reliant on expensive outside experts.  

Another way we’re hoping to foster sustainability is through the after-school tutoring component of WORDS. Although there are personnel costs to tutoring, investment in the extra instruction may help some students exit intervention, relieving pressure on reading specialists, special education teachers, and paraprofessionals during the school day. If that works, schools may be able to reallocate resources to other students with and at risk for disability or intensify instruction for those students. Anyway, you get the idea…sustainability is an important goal for us moving forward. 

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Michael Hebert! Come back tomorrow for our next grantee spotlight!