Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

From the NCSER Commissioner: Letter to the Field

Headshot of Joan McLaughlin

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to announce my retirement at the end of December of this year. It has been a delight to serve as Commissioner, and Deputy Commissioner before that, of the National Center for Special Education Research. The work of NCSER is important and unique in the federal government—supporting research to improve our understanding of children and youth with disabilities and the services provided through IDEA. We have accomplished a great deal in the last several years. We have invested over 1 billion dollars in roughly 550 research grants to improve academic access, engagement, and progress; social and behavioral skills for learning; functional and transition skills; and the tools educators need to improve outcomes for students with or at risk for disabilities. We have made a meaningful difference in special education research and in the lives of students, educators, and families. And we have committed to providing research training opportunities to increase the capacity in the field—to date we have funded training for 79 postdoctoral fellows and research and mentoring for 33 early career scholars as well as hundreds of established researchers in our methods trainings. NCSER is in a good place for new leadership.

None of this would have been possible, of course, without two key ingredients. The first is the work of NCSER staff. Their expertise, hard work, and passion for the mission of the Center has supported the advances that have been made across all our research portfolios. Their kindness and sense of humor have helped get us through the tougher times of limited budgets and the COVID-19 pandemic. They made each workday better and will continue to keep our small Center mighty. I know I leave you in good hands as NCSER transitions to a new Commissioner.

The second ingredient is the work of the researchers who have taken on the challenges of working in early intervention and special education. Thank you all for your commitment to high quality research, your concern for learners with disabilities, and your patience and persistence when circumstances, such as the pandemic, got tough. I hope that you have felt the importance of your contribution toward evidence building and addressing issues of critical importance to students, practitioners, and families. I have learned so much from you and appreciate your support, and I look forward to hearing about your current and future projects.

IES Director Mark Schneider and I are of course invested in making sure the excellent research funded by NCSER continues. If you have thoughts about the Commissioner role or individuals you would like to be considered for the role, you can reach Mark at mark.schneider@ed.gov.

Take care and support one another in this important work. I will be around until the end of December, but my thoughts will continue to be with you long after I leave IES. Thank you all so much.

Wishing you all the best,

Joan McLaughlin
NCSER Commissioner

Grateful for Our Interns: The 2022-23 Data Science Interns at NCER and NCSER

In preparation for Thanksgiving, NCER and NCSER would like to express their gratitude to all the student volunteer interns who are giving their time and talents to help us understand and communicate about education research. In our second blog about these interns, we are highlighting our data science interns. These interns come to us through either the Virtual Student Federal Service program or the Student Volunteer Trainee Program. The interns are working on different data science tasks, such as data visualizations, finding ways to connect publication information from different federal databases to funded NCER and NCSER projects, and helping to understand and improve internal data on research projects. Their primary mentors, Sarah Brasiel (NCSER) and Meredith Larson (NCER), are proud to introduce the team.

Megan Church

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I am a senior at William & Mary, pursuing a bachelor’s degree with a double major in data science and psychology. I am a lead researcher at William & Mary's School of Education, focusing on elementary students’ interactions with data. Due to my interest in education research and love of creating data visualizations, the IES data science internship seemed like the perfect fit. I hope this opportunity will give me a glimpse into the inner workings of the research branch of the U.S. Department of Education and help me decide on a future career path.

Fun Fact: I have been to seven concerts this year in six cities, three states, and two countries.

Katelyn Egan

Headshot of Katelyn Egan

I am pursuing a master’s degree in educational psychology with a concentration in learning analytics through the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I’m looking forward to applying the data science and analysis skills I have learned in my program and learning more about the research goals and initiatives of the Institute of Education Sciences. Previously, I received a Fulbright grant to work with English language learners at a vocational secondary school in Bulgaria for the 2019-20 academic year and worked as a teacher for 2 years in South Africa with the Peace Corps. I have also spent 2 years working in the educational technology industry and hope to continue using data science and analytics to serve K-12 educators and students.

Fun Fact: I play the bassoon!

Juliette Gudknecht

Headshot of Juliette Gudknecht

I am pursuing a master’s degree in the applied statistics program at Columbia University. My prior internships at NASA, the U.S. State Department, and my university were among the experiences that helped me prepare for this internship. My goal is to pursue a PhD in special education studying autism spectrum disorder in academic contexts. I applied for this internship to gain critical data analysis skills and learn about the U.S. Department of Education and IES. I hope this experience will allow me to gain the necessary skills to become a qualified researcher in quantitative studies within special education. Thank you to everyone at IES for this amazing opportunity!

Fun Fact: I have my own nonprofit for Autism advocacy!

Rikesh Patel

I am pursuing a bachelor's degree in economics with minor in data science engineering at University of California, Los Angeles. I have honed my analytical and technical skills in working with SharePoint databases in past internships, which led me to this internship. I will be working with internal data to help the research centers gain more insight into their grants and contracts. I fell in love with data years ago, and now I aspire to become a full-fledged data scientist in the future, applying Python, SQL, and other technical knowledges to do my best. One day, I want to help develop a model that helps people all over the world.

Fun Fact: I recently got into traveling. This winter, I'm planning on taking some cooking classes in Greece!

Morgan Tucker

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I am in my final undergraduate year at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, studying international political economy and data science. I currently work as a research assistant for UT’s Innovations for Peace and Development Lab, researching the connections between government/agency responsiveness and discrimination towards citizens and am using many different packages, analytics, and visualization tools in R to do so. I previously worked under the U.S. Embassy Amman as a data management intern, where I created tutorials, researched best data management practices, and incorporated feedback to improve data collection, management, and distribution. I also used Python and SQL as a data scientist for the V&A Waterfront marketing team in South Africa, using large data sets, advanced querying, and machine learning to develop consumer profiles. Right now, my main goal is to remain sane as I reach the end of my undergraduate experience. I also hope to stay in Austin and enroll in a master’s programs this fall to further hone my programming skills and work at the intersection of data science and government. With my background in economic development and R programming, this internship opportunity was the perfect mix of both and will be an amazing way to improve my programming expertise and see what my future career may look like.

Fun Fact:  I studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa this past summer. I learned a lot about urban economic development during my time there and can’t wait to visit again!

Grateful for Our Interns: The 2022-23 Writing and Communications Interns at NCER and NCSER

In preparation for Thanksgiving, NCER and NCSER would like to express their gratitude to all the student volunteer interns that are giving their time and talents to help us understand and communicate about education research. In our first blog about these interns, we are highlighting our writing and communications team. These interns come to NCER and NCSER through the Virtual Student Federal Service program and are contributing to different writing tasks, such as helping to revise and update our online abstracts and working on blogs for Inside IES Research | Notes from NCER & NCSER. The NCER mentors, Meredith Larson and Vinita Chhabra, and the NCSER mentor, Amy Sussman, are proud to introduce the team.

Shanna Bodenhamer

Headshot of Shanna Bodenhamer

I am currently pursuing a PhD in educational psychology with an emphasis in special education at Texas A&M University (whoop!). Prior to starting my PhD program, I taught in the public schools as a special education teacher. Other roles I have had in public schools include working as a board-certified behavior analyst providing behavioral training and support to teachers and as a program facilitator overseeing the implementation of a state-funded autism grant for an early childhood intervention program. My goals are to complete my PhD, continue conducting research, and ensure that this research makes its way into practice. I was excited to start this internship because it focuses on making research and evidence-based practices available and accessible to everyone. My hope is to close the research-to-practice gap and provide practitioners with the tools they need to provide quality services for children with disabilities.

Fun Fact: My favorite place to be when the weather is warm is on a lake, wakesurfing with my family. We're a little competitive, but it's always in good fun!  In my spare time, my hobbies are photography, reading mystery/thriller novels, and proving to my teenage daughters that I am, in fact, very cool.

Rachael Higham

Headshot of Rachael Higham

I am pursuing a master’s degree in English with a concentration in professional writing and rhetoric at Bowling Green State University. Prior to this, I worked with students to build foundational skills in reading and writing at a school focused on language-based learning differences. Through this work, I became interested in accessibility. My research examines the use of communication models in popular science and how best to create content that allows inclusive access to scientific knowledge. My goal is to transition to professional writing. I applied to this internship because I hope this opportunity will continue to help me build skills and a knowledge base for both my academic and professional goals.

Fun Fact: I am working on seeing all the national parks and took two cross country trips last year to add to the list. My favorite so far is Mt Rainier!

Rebecca Sun

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I’m currently a second-year undergraduate majoring in English at University of California, Riverside. My academic experience helped me prepare for this internship as I’ve spent a large majority of my time reading, writing, and analyzing a range of texts and sources. In addition, I’m interested in education research—I’ve done volunteer and advocacy work to support a more inclusive English language arts (ELA) curriculum in K-12 schools. My goals include further exploring my interests in English, graduate school, and publishing. Applying to this internship will help get me closer to those goals because I’ll be able to gain technical writing experience by updating abstracts, learning official writing guides, and learning more about IES. All the while, I am gaining more personal and professional guidance and opportunities from my mentors.  

Fun Fact: Aside from reading books, another one of my hobbies is listening to music. My favorite artist is Taylor Swift—I love her entire discography and her songwriting ability that captures the different human experiences and emotions. 

From the NCER Commissioner: How IES’ Investment in Literacy Is Changing Education

A cornerstone challenge in education is that too many learners in our nation can’t read well enough to succeed in their future education and employment. In addition, a disproportionate number of individuals with low literacy skills are members of underrepresented groups. Since IES’ founding in 2002, we have devoted millions of dollars to addressing this challenge, seeking to generate high-quality evidence about literacy practices that work for learners across our nation. Today, we can see how this 20-year investment focused on improving literacy has generated interventions and assessments that are transforming practices at scale and meeting the needs of learners and educators by incorporating evidence-based practices into the materials they use daily.

Since IES is an applied research agency, its mission is to provide scientific evidence on which to ground education practice and policy and to share this information in formats that are useful and accessible to educators, parents, policymakers, researchers, and the public. IES and its four centers work together to collect data on the current state of education; identify solutions and innovations through research, grant programs, and competitions; and evaluate the success of investments in order to identify solutions worthy of scaling across the nation’s education system.

The education research community is often accused of generating findings and products that sit in an attic corner unused. We aim to disrupt this perception and make it clear that our grantees’ knowledge and tools are both useful and used. Here I want to share a few examples to showcase how American tax dollars are transforming how millions of learners are learning to read.

IES Technologies and Google Classroom

In April 2022, we were excited to learn that Google had acquired the intellectual property rights for Moby.Read and SkillCheck, education technology products developed through IES programs by California-based Analytic Measures, Inc. (AMI). Google Classroom is advertised as an educators’ “all-in-one place for teaching and learning,” and many tools and apps are integrated into the system, including the IES-developed and IES-evaluated product, ASSISTments, which provides student feedback assistance and assessment data to teachers.

Moby.Read and SkillCheck are technology solutions created to provide teachers with a more efficient way to assess their students’ reading skills and provide them with individualized feedback.  These technologies were developed over two decades with IES funding, a process that included prototype development starting in 2002, followed by ED/IES Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding to test Moby.Read in 2016 and 2017 and SkillCheck in 2020 and 2021, with validation research conducted all along the way.

Since their commercial launch in 2019, Moby.Read and SkillCheck have been used for more than 30,000 student assessments in 30 states.

IES Literacy Innovations and Scholastic

In September, Scholastic announced that the A2i (Assessment to Instruction) system—a system for literacy screening, progress monitoring and assessment, and instructional planning designed for classrooms and community organizations—and the Learning Ovations team that had developed and evaluated A2i would become part of its education solutions group. A2i provides educators with a system that enables them to deliver individualized reading. IES has invested in developing and evaluating this system since 2003, generating evidence of its effectiveness in improving young learners’ reading skills and comprehension. In 2020, we interviewed the creators of this system, who told the story of how their evidence-based system was prepared to scale. The system will continue to evolve so that it can serve all learners in our nation: IES is currently supporting the expansion of this system and its assessments for use with English learners.

A2i will help enhance Scholastic’s literacy platform, which integrates literacy screening, progress monitoring and assessment, instructional planning, and professional learning with their books and e-books, print- and technology-based learning programs, and other products that support children’s learning and literacy. With this acquisition, the IES-supported A2i system will have the opportunity to reach the 115,000 schools in the Scholastic community, potentially helping 3.8 million educators, 54 million students, and 78 million parents/caregivers in the United States.

Improving Literacy Outcomes Through Assessment

Teaching students how to read depends upon knowing what learners do and do not know. The acquisition of Moby.Read and SkillCheck highlights the recognition of that need by Google but is only one example of the IES commitment to developing and validating literacy assessments. While the two examples described above have the potential to touch many millions of learners, we have also invested in many other literacy assessments that are being widely used.

For example, since 2014, more than 2.5 million 3rd to 12th grade learners have been evaluated through a reading diagnostic system developed with IES funding: the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading Aligned to Florida Standards. Another diagnostic tool for 3rd to 12th graders, available nationally via the Educational Testing Service (ETS), is Capti Assess with ETS® ReadBasix™. This diagnostic assessment system was developed and validated with funding from both NCER and ED/IES SBIR.

Educators in more than 13,000 U.S. schools rely on myIGDIs (currently distributed via Renaissance Learning) to evaluate the needs of their preschool learners. These individual growth and development indicators (IGDIs) are brief, easy-to-use measures of early language and literacy designed for use with preschool children. The development and validation of these measures have been (and are being) supported by multiple IES projects. Their current work seeks to expand the IGDIs for use with young Spanish-speaking and Hmong-speaking learners.

Scaling Evidence-Based Innovations to Accelerate Literacy Learning After COVID

Launched with funding from the American Rescue Plan, the Leveraging Evidence to Accelerate Recovery Nationwide Network (the LEARN Network) is adapting and preparing to scale existing, evidence-based products to assess students whose learning was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. IES has made four awards to product teams and one to a scaling lead, and these five teams will establish the LEARN Network together.

In addition to the LEARN Network’s generating of solutions to the nation’s most pressing challenges to COVID-19 recovery within the education sector, IES expects that the combined efforts of this network will lead to the establishment of best practices for the field for how to prepare to scale evidence-based products effectively.

Three of the four product teams are focused on preparing to scale literacy products developed and tested with prior IES funding. These innovations are designed for students in grades K–3 (Targeted Reading Instruction), fourth and fifth grades (Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies), and middle school (Strategic Adolescent Reading Intervention). The projects will work with students and teachers in elementary schools in Florida and North Carolina, in fourth grade classrooms in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and in urban middle schools in the District of Columbia.

As I reflect on 20 years of investment in rigorous and relevant literacy research, I am hopeful. Our investment is transforming what we know and improving how that knowledge is being translated to ensure that every learner in our nation can read at or above grade level.

With our newest investment in supporting the systematic scaling of evidence-based practices, I believe that our educators and learners will have access to tools that support their needs for the next 20 years and beyond.

Elizabeth Albro (elizabeth.albro@ed.gov) is the commissioner of the National Center for Education Research.

Graduate Student Reflections on Engaging Research Opportunities

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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