Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

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


Family, Work, and Education: The Balancing Act of Millions of U.S. Adults

For U.S. adults with low skills or low academic attainment, finding the time or resources to go back to school can be difficult because of family and work obligations. Recently released NCES tables from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) give us a clearer sense of how many adults face this challenge. With this information, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers can better understand and meet the education and training needs of working adults and parents.

How large is the concern?

Previous PIAAC analyses found that nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults score at the lowest levels of literacy, nearly 30 percent score at the lowest levels of numeracy, 14 percent of U.S. adults have less than a high school diploma, and 27 percent have no more than a high school diploma or equivalent. But how many of these adults have family or work responsibilities that may complicate their participation in education?

According to the new NCES tables, millions of adults have low skills or low attainment and family or work obligations that may complicate participation in education or training.

  • Of the over 40 million adults at the lowest levels of literacy, nearly 56 percent are employed, 77 percent have children, and 44 percent are both employed and have children.
  • Of the nearly 63 million adults at the lowest levels of numeracy, nearly 56 percent are employed, 74 percent have children, and 42 percent are both employed and have children.
  • Of the nearly 31 million adults with less than a high school diploma or equivalent, nearly 49 percent are employed, 58 percent have children, and 32 percent are both employed and have children.
  • Of the nearly 58 million adults with less than a high school diploma or equivalent, approximately 64 percent are employed, 71 percent have children, and 45 percent are both employed and have children.

What do we know about how to serve adults with family or work obligations?

Currently, the research on improving outcomes for adults with low skills or low attainment is limited, and less is known on how to help such adults who have family or work obligations.

Examples of questions facing policymakers, practitioners, and researchers include:

  • How do current education and training programs benefit working adults or parents?
  • Are work or family obligations barriers, motivational factors, or both?
  • Are multi-generational approaches (e.g., those that combine postsecondary or adult education services with Head Start or early childhood education) able to improve the academic outcomes of adults and the children they care for?
  • Are the assessments used appropriate for adults?

IES offers opportunities for researchers to conduct this sort of work through its Postsecondary and Adult Education topic and disseminate information about promising practices. For more information about funding opportunities for such research, contact Dr. Meredith Larson.

About the PIAAC

The PIAAC is an international assessment for adults that assesses cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) and contains data on educational background, workplace experiences and skills, and other items. For the purposes of this blog, the category of lowest levels is defined as Below Level 1 and Level 1.


By Meredith Larson, NCER Program Officer


Teaching 21st Century Skills to Community College Students: An Innovative Approach Under Development in California

As part of our series recognizing Career and Technical Education (CTE) month, we interviewed Mary Visher, Senior Associate at MDRC, about her recently funded study, Teaching and Learning 21st Century Skills in Community Colleges: A Study of the New World of Work Program (NWoW). This project is developing and testing an innovative program aimed at teaching 21st century skills to community college students in CTE courses. Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners are working closely together to improve upon NWoW, which is already in use in several community colleges in California.

What are 21st century skills, and why are they important?

There is growing consensus among researchers, practitioners, and employers that 21st century skills–e.g., adaptability, analytic mindset, collaboration, and communication–are essential for success in both school and in the modern workplace. We believe that postsecondary programs need to incorporate strategies to ensure that students graduate with these skills.

Why are you (personally) excited about this work?

About two years ago, I was interviewing community college students in California about their experiences when a young man walked into the room. The first thing I noticed were his tattoos, which covered every inch of his exposed skin. The next thing I noticed was how he strode over to me, stretched out his hand to shake mine with a firm grip, looked me in the eye, smiled warmly and introduced himself. Having interviewed hundreds of community college students for other research projects, I had rarely – if ever – encountered this level of self-assurance, respectful courtesy, and ability to immediately adapt and respond to an unfamiliar person with an unfamiliar purpose.

The young man told me that he had been incarcerated as a teen for gang involvement, and, after being discharged from prison, he couldn’t find work. With few other options, he enrolled in the diesel technology program at his local community college, but this was not an ordinary CTE program. It included NWoW.

Through NWoW, he learned 21st century skills in the context of learning diesel technology skills and had worksite experiences to practice both. He told me that this part of his education “changed his life.” He did so well in a job interview at a food processing equipment manufacturer that he was not only hired, but quickly promoted to a management position. At the time we met, he was to receive company training and another promotion, but he still planned on earning his certificate. After that, he planned on applying to a state university to pursue a BA or a master’s degree.

The young man credited his professional success to NWoW, where he learned behaviors and skills no one else had taught him. It is exciting to be a part of developing and testing a program that may affect the lives of adult students in such ways.

How did NWoW come into being?

In 2015, faculty at a community college in California noticed the deficiencies in students’ soft skills and developed a 21st century skills curriculum to use in their classes. They added a work-based learning and an assessment component a short time later. Soon thereafter, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office noticed their work and gave them support to further develop the program and take it to more colleges. 

What are the core components of the NWoW program?

NWoW is designed to promote growth in 10 skills and has 3 core components, all 3 of which will undergo an iterative development process in the next 2 years:

  1. A curriculum designed to be embedded in CTE community college courses;
  2. A work-based learning component to allow students practice the skills in an authentic work setting; and
  3. An assessment/credentialing component allowing students to earn a “digital badge” in each of the 10 skills.

What is your research goal?

Our goal is to work with instructors (including the original program designers), employers, and other partners to further refine and enhance this program. Moreover, we hope to address important questions in the field about whether or how such skills can be taught and learned in the classroom, how to measure them, and how to signal competency to employers and others. 

Who else is involved?

MDRC is working with the NWoW team and its partners, including the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, the Foundation for California Community Colleges, LinkedIn, and badgr. The development work is ongoing with three community colleges, and we will then test the improved version in a new set of colleges.

By Mary Visher, Senior Associate at MDR​C, interviewed by Meredith Larson, NCER


NCSER Grantees Recognized by Council for Exceptional Children

Two NCSER-funded researchers were recently recognized for their contributions to the field of special education by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). They were honored at the CEC Convention and Expo earlier this month.

Headshot of Diane Browder

Diane Browder received the 2018 CEC Special Education Research Award, which recognizes an individual whose research has significantly advanced the education of children and youth with exceptionalities. Browder, Distinguished Professor of Special Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has served as Principal Investigator on multiple NCSER-funded grants. Through Project RAISE (Reading and Accommodations Interventions for Students with Emergent Literacy), she formed a partnership with local schools and community services to evaluate interventions designed to teach reading to students with moderate and severe mental retardation in Grades K – 3. Browder and her colleagues found that their Early Literacy Skills Builder intervention improves phonological awareness and phonics skills and that comprehensive reading instruction produces better reading outcomes when compared to instruction that provides sight words alone for students with intellectual disabilities in special education classrooms. Browder also developed math and science instruction for students with significant cognitive disabilities in Grades 3 – 10 who participate in alternate achievement assessments as well as instructional materials for teaching mathematical problem solving to students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities in Grades 4 – 8. This research has shown that students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities are capable of learning grade-level content in math and science, challenging long held assumptions about the academic potential of these populations.


Headshot of Sarah Powell

Sarah Powell received the 2018 Distinguished Early Career Research Award from CEC’s Division of Research, which recognizes individuals who have made outstanding scientific contributions to research in special education within the first 10 years after receiving their doctoral degrees. Powell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at University of Texas at Austin.She is currently the Principal Investigator of a NCSER-funded grant evaluating the efficacy of equation-solving instruction, within the context of tutoring, for improving word-problem solving outcomes for students in Grade 3 with mathematics difficulties.


These NCSER-supported researchers have been contributing to the advancement of the field by investigating instruction in a variety of subjects for students with disabilities. Congratulations to the CEC award recipients!


By Amy Sussman, NCSER Program Officer

Career and Technical Education at IES

Welcome to Career and Technical Education (CTE) month!

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be blogging about IES projects and resources relevant to CTE. We will be highlighting grant competitions, including our newest competition, Expanding the Evidence Base for Career and Technical Education, which aims to increase research on the impact of CTE programs and policies on student outcomes and support training of new CTE researchers. And we will showcase work conducted by IES and our grantees.

For this first blog, we wanted to share our working definition of CTE, along with links to information and resources.

CTE aims to help students enter into and succeed in specific occupational fields such as health science, information technology, and business administration. Students in secondary, postsecondary, and adult education may pursue CTE activities as part of their other education requirements (e.g., courses for high school graduation, classes to prepare for General Equivalency Development or General Equivalency Diploma (GED) test) or as a program to earn an occupational certificate at the subbaccalaureate level.

Over the past decade, interest has been growing in CTE and career pathway models across public and private arenas. For example, at the federal level, interest in CTE is reflected in the legislations that authorize these education and training activities, namely the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006  and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014.

At IES, our goal is to identify the needs of CTE students and expand our understanding of effective CTE practices. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) assists in monitoring the status of CTE by providing national information on student participation in CTE at the secondary and postsecondary levels and on adults’ preparation for work. This information is available on the CTE Statistics website.

The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) also supports work on CTE. For example, NCEE’s Regional Education Laboratory Programs work with policymakers and practitioners on career and college readiness issues, including CTE. Some regions have groups that focus on CTE directly, such as REL Appalachia's West Virginia Workforce Readiness Partnership and REL Mid-Atlantic's Readiness for Career Entry and Success Research Alliance.

The two grant-awarding centers, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) support field-initiated research in CTE primarily through the Career and Technical Education, Postsecondary and Adult Education, and Transition Outcomes for Secondary Students with Disabilities topic areas. In September 2017, NCER and NCSER sponsored a technical working group meeting to gain insights from CTE practitioners and researchers. On January 22, NCER released the request for applications for the new research network mentioned above, Expanding the Evidence Base for Career and Technical Education.

We look forward to sharing more information about our CTE research and statistics. Come back throughout the month to hear from IES staff and grantees about this work!

By Meredith Larson (NCER)