Inside IES Research

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Education Research, Eyesight, and Overcoming Adversity: An Interview with Pathways Alumna Carrissa Ammons

The Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program was designed to inspire students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in doctoral study to pursue careers in education research. In recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we asked Carrissa Ammons, an alumna of the California State University, Sacramento (CSUS) Pathways training program, to share her experiences as a student-researcher with low vision.

What sparked your interest in education research?

My interest in education research stems from my own lived educational experiences as a formerly impoverished person who was born with a visual impairment. My innate passion for understanding the world around me motivated me to continue learning, and my intrinsic curiosity drew me towards the sciences at a rather young age. Over time, I became interested in psychology, and I entered college with the goal of becoming a clinical psychologist. However, my exposure to research methods and applied research experiences within the Cultural and Community Lab at CSUS gave me the confidence to pursue a career as a researcher. Now, I want to use my knowledge and work to help reduce barriers to education for individuals who have not been historically represented within education and the social sciences.

What was your favorite experience as a Pathways fellow?

My Pathways summer internship at the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) has been an invaluable part of my professional and personal development. The internship was challenging at times but also incredibly fulfilling. All of the SCOE staff I worked with were supportive and gave me great insight into how the state values and uses evidence-based decision making and evaluation. During my 10-week internship, I assisted with a variety of projects, including evaluations for programs relating to bullying prevention, underage substance use prevention and intervention, and California National History Day. I also helped complete a literature review on evidence-based practices in recruiting and retaining diverse teacher candidates for the SCOE internal education career pipeline program.

I learned that researchers who work for state organizations must excel at communicating their findings to both technical and non-technical audiences because they are often tasked with communicating data to individuals with little to no background in research, and because they heavily rely on data visualization as a means of disseminating information in a way that is easy to digest for a diverse array of audiences.

What have been some challenges or barriers you have faced in academia as a person with low vision?

Transportation and inequitable access to written and visual information have been the most salient barriers to education that I have faced during my academic career. I am unable to obtain a driver’s license in most states due to the level of my visual impairment, so I am often dependent on public transportation. While I am incredibly grateful for the increased freedom that I have been granted by the Sacramento Regional Transit, some areas of their system can still be a bit inconsistent—it can be difficult, if not impossible at times, to make impromptu changes to my weekly routines. This structural restriction to my mobility has made it difficult to participate in events and activities outside of certain time frames and areas, and this can evoke a lot of anxiety and aversions for me as I try to fully participate in academic experiences and extra-curricular activities.

For example, reaching the CSUS campus from my home via transit requires a transfer from a bus to the light rail and onto another bus. This process takes approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes from door to door for a trip that would typically take approximately 20 minutes by car. If an issue arose during any leg of this trip (such as a late or canceled bus), it could set me back an hour or more depending on the time of day. This has caused me to miss entire classes and events at times. Alongside the stress of arriving places on time, relying on the public transit system as one’s sole means of transportation can be incredibly taxing mentally at the end of the day. There were many times during my evening commute home from college when the bus on the last leg of my trip would be canceled for the evening due to a driver shortage, forcing me to either ask a loved one or use a rideshare service (which as a student was not always financially feasible). 

Having low vision has also been a barrier throughout my education; however, major advancements in accessible technology during my college years have provided me with more equitable access to visual information. There are some environments, such as academic conferences, where I still struggle to gain access to the same quality of experience as my fully sighted peers. For example, academic poster sessions are environments that require a lot of reading, and for individuals to be able to quickly scan information in order to get the most out of the limited time provided for each session. While most presenters are happy to explain their work to their onlookers, it can still be difficult at times to get the full picture of their work without being able to fully examine all the components of their posters, such as charts or tables.

One easy way presenters and conferences can disseminate information in a more equitable way is to include tools like QR codes on visual material to allow individuals to view them in ways that may be most accessible to them. Academic organizations can also make more of an effort to assess the needs of their members prior to conferences, rather than assuming that everyone with a disability will be able to advocate and accommodate for themselves prior to the event, especially those that claim to be student-friendly organizations. Learning to navigate new spaces can be difficult enough, let alone having to do so while having physical or mental traits that were not considered during the planning and implementation of these events.

What advice would you give students with disabilities who wish to pursue a career in education research?

I wish all students with disabilities could recognize that the concept of disability is a byproduct of living in a society that was not built with us in mind, and those traits do not reflect any deficit in our personal ability to achieve our dreams. It may be difficult at times, but never forget that representation is the only way we, as a scientific community, can achieve the fullest picture of the human experience and push the needle closer to creating an inclusive society for everyone, including ourselves. Despite being faced with myriad historic and contemporary barriers to inclusion and belonging within our society, we have always been here, we will always be here, and our voices deserve to be included in conversations pertaining to education and human development.


Carrissa Ammons recently graduated from California State University, Sacramento with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. As part of her Pathways fellowship at CSUS, Carissa conducted research with Dr. Lisa Romero on the efficacy of motivated self-regulation theory in mitigating implicit biases of college level educators. This summer, Carissa served as a data analysis and visualization intern at the Sacramento County Department of Education’s Center for Student Assessment and Program Accountability. Carissa is currently applying to graduate school and says her ultimate career goal is to become a professor of psychology and run her own research lab with a focus on studying diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within higher education, with an emphasis on personal identity and stereotype threat.

This NDEAM blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), Program Officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training program.

IES Researchers on the Hill: A Briefing on Adult Education

On August 23, 2023, WestEd research and policy experts presented at a briefing focused on strengthening adult education and career pathways for Senate staff in Washington, DC. hosted by Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). The briefing drew from research and development WestEd is conducting for both IES (Adult Numeracy in the Digital Era: Adaptive Technology for Quantitative and Digital Literacy, ANDE) and the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (Adult Numeracy Instruction 2.0), as well as WestEd’s experience building and managing statewide adult education and postsecondary longitudinal dashboards and leading technical assistance on building data-informed accelerated pathways to living wage careers for adult learners.

NCER program officer Meredith Larson asked WestEd’s Dr. Ann Edwards about this briefing and how she understands the role of researchers and research in communicating with policymakers. As the principal investigator on the ANDE grant, Dr. Edwards has been involved in recent work in adult education and provided some context for the briefing and the work that was discussed.

How did this briefing come about?

Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Todd Young (R-IN) recently signaled their commitment to strengthening adult education by introducing the Strengthening Research in Adult Education Act. To deepen their understanding about the current state of research in the field, the co-chairs of the Senate Adult Literacy Caucus, Senators Reed and Collins (R-ME), co-hosted this briefing and asked WestEd to share what we are learning with a bipartisan group of Senate staff.

What were some of the main points made at the briefing?

We covered many topics, but we presented our interpretation of existing evidence. Some of our comments included the following:

  • Much of the existing research on adult education is outdated or sparse. Existing research tends to focus on adult learning broadly or on adult learners in other contexts, with less attention paid to the unique educational needs and goals of learners in adult education programs. For example, some adult learners enroll in programs to pass a test for a job, continue their education, or improve their English language skills. These learner-centric goals aren’t always the focus of the research.
  • Moving forward, we can build more knowledge of adult education by investing in studies that are situated in the actual adult education settings that adult learners can, and do, access. For example, much of our knowledge about how adults might learn and appropriate instructional practices for them draws from K-12 and higher education systems rather than the adult education system.
  • When thinking about how to improve the adult education system, it’s important to understanding which strategies work for learners in adult education programs who face a wide range of life experiences as they balance jobs and family responsibilities. We need to consider the range of reasons they access programs and how these needs are changing. For example, in addition to foundational skills in numeracy and literacy (reading, writing, language), digital literacy is increasingly important for adult learners as they seek to achieve high school equivalency and look to engage in the workforce.
  • Investing in research could help us modify and strengthen programs. We have seen how effective something like a research network (for example, the IES-funded CREATE Adult Skills Network) can be for rapidly generating new insights that can strengthen adult learning.
  • We also identified a few specific areas where more research is necessary and could be key to adult education:
    • strengthening the adult educator workforce
    • identifying and applying literacy, numeracy, and English as a Second Language instructional practices developed specifically for adult learners
    • understanding promising models and instructional strategies that can be scaled across the adult education system
    • measuring short- and long-term outcomes of adult education programs
    • exploring the use of artificial intelligence to strengthen teaching and learning for adult learners
  • To this end, there is room for strengthening adult education data collections that are connected to federal reporting and accountability systems. The adult education system needs rigorous and reliable data and research to know accurately what works for adult learners and what improvements are needed.

Why do you feel this sort of communication is important?

We hope that briefings can help congressional staff better understand the complexities of the adult education system and the uniqueness of this population. Additionally, we wanted to emphasize for policymakers the limits of existing research on adult learners. Because federal reporting requirements often dictate which data are collected, we wanted to suggest ways the federal government could improve data collection, integration, and reporting. We also wanted to underscore and illustrate how research, policy, and practice are connected in efforts to enhance adult education outcomes. Sharing our research and insights with Senate staffers can help inform their decisionmaking by grounding policy in research, and we believe that can help to improve outcomes and increase opportunities for the economic mobility of this often overlooked population.

Do you have any plans for future conversations with policymakers?

Yes, we plan to stay connected to policymakers and look forward to future opportunities to contribute our insights on research and policy. As Congress takes on new opportunities such as the Strengthening Adult Education Research Act or the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), we hope they will turn to researchers and practitioners to learn about what is working in the field and how research can inform progress.


This blog was produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), research analyst and program officer for postsecondary and adult education, NCER.

Spotlight on FY 2023 Early Career Grant Awardees: Self-Regulation for High School Students with Disabilities

This final post in our series of NCSER blogs highlighting the recently funded Early Career Development and Mentoring Grants Program principal investigators features an interview with Sara Estrapala, assistant research professor in special education at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Dr. Estrapala is conducting research aimed at improving self-regulation of high school students with disabilities and challenging behavior.

How did you become interested in research on self-regulation among high school students with disabilities? 

Headshot of Dr. Sara Estrapala

I worked in a high school as a special education paraeducator prior to my doctoral program and really enjoyed working with that student population. I was responsible for helping students manage themselves in their general education classes. This experience led me to wonder whether there were ways to teach students—particularly those with challenging behaviors— to be more self-sufficient. When I started my doctoral program, I worked on an IES-funded project to develop a self-monitoring app and witnessed the incredible impact that self-monitoring can have on student classroom behaviors. My classroom and research experiences merged into a line of research on self-regulation development for high school students with disabilities.

What is the broader challenge in education that you hope your study will address?

High schools are notoriously difficult settings in which to conduct behavior intervention research, due to increased demands on student and teacher time for academics, organizational complexity (for example, multiple teachers, classrooms, academic departments), and misconceptions about behavior supports for high school aged students. As such, there is a relatively limited literature base for researchers and practitioners related to behavior interventions or supports for high school students. I hope to develop an effective intervention specifically for this context and developmental level while also learning how to effectively conduct rigorous research in this complex and challenging environment. Ultimately, I aim to contribute to our collective knowledge about how to help support high school students with disabilities and challenging behavior. 

What sets apart your self-regulation intervention from other interventions that have been studied?

The most unique aspect of the self-regulation intervention that I am developing is that students have ownership over their self-regulation plan. Typically, students are provided with a self-regulation or self-management plan that is developed by an adult—such as their teacher, counselor, or behavior specialist—with very little opportunity for input. Because self-regulation interventions involve a lot of decisions (such as identifying target behaviors, goals, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation plans), there are numerous opportunities to ask students what they think will improve their classroom behavior. My goal is to develop a framework for teaching students how to identify and define their own behaviors that might be reducing their learning or classroom performance as well as replacement behaviors that will enable them to achieve greater academic success. I believe that including students in the decision-making process will help them better learn why self-regulation is important and how it can help them reach meaningful goals.

What advice do you have for other early career researchers?

Network. Network. Network. Find a variety of colleagues to work with, including those with similar and advanced years of research and practice. I find working with other researchers helps prevent feeling isolated and increases my motivation to keep pushing forward. Joining professional organizations and attending their social events has helped me meet peers with similar research experience and create a network for collaboration. This process also created opportunities for me to meet the faculty mentors of my peers, which, in turn, has helped me establish a larger network of mid- and late-career researchers.

Sara Estrapala demonstrates passion and insight in her research promoting self-regulation among high school students with disabilities. NCSER looks forward to following her career trajectory and the development of this exciting project.

This blog was produced by Emilia Wenzel, NCSER intern and graduate student at University of Chicago. Katherine Taylor is the program officer for NCSER’s Early Career Development and Mentoring program.

Improving Assessment Practices for Spanish-Speaking English Learners: An Interview with Dr. Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we interviewed Dr. Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, associate professor at Vanderbilt University, who recently received a new NCSER grant to explore the associations among language comprehension skills in both Spanish and English, the processes involved in English reading comprehension, and special education placement decisions for elementary school students from Spanish-speaking homes. She believes the results of the study have the potential to mitigate English reading comprehension difficulties, improve school-based assessment practices to better inform special education decisions, and reduce disproportionate special education representation for students from Spanish-speaking homes.

How did you become interested in a career in education research?

Headshot of Dr. Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez

My experience as an elementary school teacher in Southern California is what motivated me to pursue graduate studies. I taught five grade levels within a 3-year span in two very different elementary school contexts. Most students in the school commonly labeled as “diverse”—the same school I attended as a student—were of Mexican origin and from Spanish-speaking, low-income homes, whereas students in the other school actually represented a wide range of linguistic, socioeconomic, and racial/ethnic backgrounds.

I soon noticed a common thread across the two school contexts. The students who were English learners (ELs) tended to struggle with English language and reading development more than their English-proficient peers. This is not surprising given that EL students, by definition, are effectively still in the process of developing English proficiency. What I found disturbing were the discussions about routing ELs to special education services under the assumption of learning disabilities (LDs), which occurred far too frequently given the expected prevalence of LDs in this community of learners. Although ELs may benefit from additional services, I repeatedly found that many educators (including EL specialists and special education teachers) did not know how to determine whether ELs needed more time to develop English language and reading skills or had, in fact, a language-based disability.

I needed to learn more about typical and atypical language and reading development to help students, regardless of their language background, acquire the language and reading skills to thrive academically. What was supposed to be a 1-year stay to get a master’s degree to become a reading specialist turned into a life-changing, 6-year stay to get my PhD.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered and how did you overcome the challenge? 

Year after year, myths persist about linguistically diverse students in the United States. These include such misconceptions as assuming most linguistically diverse students are foreign-born or have limited English proficiency and, most troubling, that speaking a language other than English is a risk factor for low academic achievement. I have found that too many researchers, educators, and policymakers share these misconceptions about linguistically diverse learners.

This represents a significant challenge as the very people who have limited knowledge about linguistically diverse students are those in positions of power who can and do make high-stake decisions. These decisions influence the overall well-being and academic achievement of all students, including linguistically diverse students. I would love to say this challenge can be overcome, but I know that shifting away from the pervasive deficit mindset about this population will not be easy. For now, I continue to underscore the vast heterogeneity among linguistically diverse students in the United States, and I make clear in all my work that speaking a language other than English does not impede the ability to learn. This may sound obvious, but it is necessary for all to know.

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

We have a long way to go to ensure educational equity for historically underserved students and families. One area in need of attention is the common inequitable process for identifying—and reclassifying—ELs in U.S. schools. Typically, parents are required to complete a home language survey when they enroll their child in school. If parents report that a language other than English is used at home, the student is immediately flagged as potentially not having the academic English language skills necessary to access the curriculum in English and must take an English language proficiency assessment. The intent is to identify students who need academic English language support services.

The problem is that many ELs who receive EL services tend to face a cycle of watered-down instruction and low academic expectations. In fact, many ELs are never reclassified as English-proficient despite years of EL support and English-only instruction. In sharp contrast, if parents report English as the only language used in the home, the student is automatically assumed to have adequate academic English language skills; their academic English language proficiency is never assessed. If we had universal academic English language proficiency screeners, I hypothesize that a sizable proportion of the “English-only” school-age population would show language profiles similar to that of ELs. It seems clear to me that there is inequity in the EL identification process and that ELs are arguably held to a higher academic standard, without the accompanying rigorous academic English language instructional support.

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

All emerging scholars must prioritize their research (from idea generation to grant writing to manuscript development) over other pulls on their time. However, emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups must be extra cautious to avoid overcommitting their time. It is almost a given that, precisely because they are from underrepresented, minoritized groups, there will be more service requests of all sorts for this subset of emerging scholars. Here is a typical example: A faculty member from an underrepresented, minoritized group tends to lead equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts at the department, college, and/or university level. Yet, being a scholar from a historically underrepresented and minoritized background is not synonymous with being an EDI expert. I think people don’t quite understand that these unspoken expectations can create a real time and ethical dilemma for emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that their peers from majority groups do not encounter.

This  interview blog was produced by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), a program officer for the reading, writing, and language portfolio in the National Center for Special Education Research.

Trends that Expand How We Think About Multilingual Students

Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) is here once again, and with it, an opportunity to celebrate the many strengths, talents, and achievements of students who identify with this ethnic community. In this guest blog, Dr. Molly Faulkner-Bond, a senior research associate at WestEd and principal investigator of two NCER research grants and an NCEE contract, discusses three trends that reflect efforts to celebrate and support all multilingual students.

The word “Hispanic” often makes people think of students classified as English learners, and not without reason—as various federal data sources show, about three‑quarters of English learners speak Spanish. As someone whose career focuses squarely on English learners, I’m always thrilled to see this group celebrated and acknowledged in research, policy, development work, and any kind of reporting and dissemination.

But the Hispanic population is broader and richer than just English learners. It includes millions of Hispanic students who are not currently, or perhaps never were, English learners. These students—many of whom are multilingual—also deserve to be celebrated and acknowledged for their knowledge, strengths, and contributions to their academic communities.

In thinking about the work I see happening in the field—be it in school districts, universities, research firms, or government agencies—some of the trends I find most exciting are those that reflect ongoing efforts to embrace and celebrate all types of multilingual learners in our schools. I have noticed three trends that reflect efforts to expand our thinking about multilingual students, including those who are Hispanic.

Labels and Language are Evolving

When I talk to policymakers, educators, and researchers, it’s clear that everyone is thinking more deeply about the words we use to describe students who speak multiple languages. Over time, federal policy has evolved from “limited English proficient” to “English language learners” to “English learners.” These days, I increasingly hear the phrase “multilingual learners” instead. In general, this evolution reflects growing awareness of the deficit orientation implied by many of our older labels and an effort to shift our language from what multilingual students can’t do or need help doing to focus on the strengths they bring to school.

I’m excited about these efforts and shifts. I also think more work and clarity are needed in the field to come to a consensus about who and what we mean by “multilingual learners.” In some states (for example, California), the phrase “multilingual learners” is used as an umbrella term for all students who use or are learning multiple languages, regardless of whether they are formally classified as English learners. In these cases, the term “multilingual learners” includes students who are screened for English learner status but not classified, heritage language learners who are fluent in English but also learning an ancestral or cultural language they did not grow up using, and English-only students who are learning a world language via direct instruction in school. In other states (for example, Rhode Island), the term “multilingual learners” is used to replace the term “English learner” with a more asset-oriented alternative.

I see opportunities and challenges in each approach. The broader use in California gives us language to acknowledge the many profiles and faces of multilingualism and the many students who are learning and using languages other than English in their lives and schools. It can also lead to confusion and make it challenging to communicate about the specific group of English learners who constitute a protected class, are entitled to specific supports and services by law, and whose achievements must be tracked and reported for federal accountability. The narrower use in Rhode Island is more straightforward in this sense, requiring us to attend more carefully to a specified group relative to the larger multilingual population. The narrower approach, however, leaves us without the language to acknowledge and celebrate the many multilingual students who are not classified as English learners for service and accountability purposes.

I believe (and evidence suggests) that the labels we use for students matter, so these conversations are consequential and important to have. I am excited about the conversations that are to come, as they are likely to move us forward as a field, regardless of where we land on the labeling.

Nurturing and Celebrating Multilingualism

Another area where I see increased awareness and advocacy is around celebrating the value of multilingualism for all students. Perhaps the most notable example of this is U.S. Secretary of Education Cardona’s Raise the Bar initiative, which includes pathways to multilingualism for all students as a key goal and a strategy to support global engagement.

A related sign of this shift is the general expansion of dual-language (DL) instructional programs and the State Seal of Biliteracy (SSoB) across the country over the past two decades. Given that research suggests multilingualism and multilingual education confers benefits for academic, social-emotional, and workforce outcomes, these expansions should not be surprising.

It’s important to acknowledge that enthusiasm for multilingualism is a shift from former practice, which tended to center monolingualism in English as a desirable norm and sometimes made it challenging for families to pursue dual language education. There is also concern that the expansion of DL programs and the SSoB does not always benefit English learners or students from communities whose languages are undervalued or minoritized. More research and discussion are needed on these topics. As part of a recent IES-funded research, my colleagues and I are examining implementation of the Language Opportunity for Our Kids (LOOK) Act in Massachusetts, focusing on the extent to which the expansion of bilingual programming through the LOOK Act supports equitable access to and participation in DL programs and SSoB for English learners. Stay tuned for our findings!

Substantial Investments in Rigorous Research

One final area for hope are the substantial investments from the U.S. Department of Education in multilingual learners and English learners. In addition to initiatives like Raise the Bar, IES currently supports two $10M research and development centers focused on secondary English learners, as well as a large-scale evaluation study on the impacts of English learner classification and reclassification policies in 30 states. This is in addition to annual funding from NCER and NCSER on English learner-focused research projects, both through a topic area dedicated to English learners and through other topics that support research that will generally improve the opportunities and outcomes of multilingual learners. These investments are critical to advancing our understanding of what works for which multilingual students under which circumstances. I appreciate the Department’s attention to this vital population of students and look forward to seeing these students continue to thrive as we improve our practices and understanding of how to help them unlock their potential. I see many exciting things happening in the field around multilingualism, all of which give me hope for Hispanic students both within and beyond the English learner group.


Molly Faulkner-Bond is a senior research associate at WestEd and focuses on understanding and improving policies, assessments, and programs for students identified as English Learners, and amplifying that knowledge for the benefit of all students and educators. She supports a variety of stakeholders via several federally funded centers, including the Regional Educational Laboratories, the Regional Comprehensive Centers, and the National Research and Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners.

This blog was produced by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), program officer for the English Learners portfolio at the National Center for Education Research.