Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Looking Beyond the Label to Better Help English Learners

By Karen Douglas, NCER Program Officer, English Learners

The education of English learners (EL) continues to be a topic of great interest across the country. But there has been little research to identify what steps to take in order to best serve this diverse group of students.

In recent years, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has funded a number of grants that are using data to better describe EL students and study the factors that are related to better educational outcomes. Findings from these studies are included in a recent policy brief by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) entitled “Improving the Opportunities and Outcomes of California’s Students Learning English: Findings from School District-University Collaborative Partnerships.”

Although these studies all took place in California, the key findings likely have implications across the United States.

(Editor’s note: In some places you will see EL students referred to as English language learners (ELL), language minority, or limited English proficient (LEP) students. However, English learner (EL) is the term used by IES).

Defining ‘English Learner’

The term ‘English Learner’ seems pretty straightforward. It denotes a student that doesn’t speak English as a first language and whose lack of English skills serves as an impediment to learning. However, this simple term belies the diversity of this group of students.

Many EL students were born outside the U.S., but some are American citizens who were born in this country. Some arrive in the U.S. having gone to school starting at a very young age, while others come to the U.S. as teenagers and may not have had access to regular instruction in their previous country. And some EL students—such as the recent influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America—come from war-torn countries, where they have experienced significant trauma and have social emotional needs, as well.

Some EL students do not speak any English, but others come to our schools with basic English skills. And while a majority of ELs speak Spanish at home, many others speak European, African, and Asian languages.

Given all the ways that EL students differ from each other, there is a pressing need to move beyond the simple “EL” designation in order to better address the educational needs of these students.

You can learn more about the characteristics of EL students in a recent post to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) blog.

Meeting the Needs of EL Students

The context in which students designated as EL attend school is equally varied.  Schools differ greatly in the criteria they use to identify students as ELs, as well as the rules for deciding that a student is no longer an EL.

In addition, some students attend schools at which the majority of students are ELs, whereas others are one of a handful of ELs in the school. Instructional programs, even among those that provide support for the home language, vary widely in regard to the amount of instruction in another language a student will receive and the manner in which it is integrated across content areas.

Leaving EL Status

The complexity of reclassification out of EL status is a central issue in the PACE brief because there is a concern that EL students may not have the same access to the full curriculum as their non-EL peers.  The brief shares study findings in which EL students are overrepresented in lower-track classes, less likely to take important gateway math courses, and are more likely to be in classes with a higher percentage of ELs.

The studies in the PACE brief suggest that it is beneficial for students to be appropriately reclassified out of EL status, but these studies show that there is great variability in the stated criteria used by schools and districts as well as inconsistency in implementation. The report also highlights the potential benefits of bilingual and dual language programs both for learning in English as well as maintaining the first language.

Key Findings
 
The PACE policy brief makes three broad recommendations. Again, while these recommendations are directed at serving EL students in California, these are ideas that can be used throughout the country:

  • Improve the ways in which students who need language supports are classified and reclassified in order to improve alignment across districts, and alignment between classification and services;
  • Be more systematic in how data on EL students are collected and used, by tracking students’ progress over longer time periods and including all students who were ever EL students in accountability metrics; and
  • Improve EL students’ educational opportunities in school by expanding access to core content, bilingual instruction, and well-prepared teachers. 

Through better attention to the diverse characteristics of students designated as ELs, schools across the country will stand a better chance of both improving educational opportunities, as well as benefiting from the many contributions that EL students can provide to our school communities. 

IES Grantees Receive Award for Early Career Scientists and Engineers

By Dana Tofig, Director of Communications, IES

President Obama has named two Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grantees as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. This is the highest honor given by the U.S. Government to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Christopher Lemons, of Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, and Cynthia Puranik, of Georgia State University, will be honored at a White House ceremony in the spring, along with 103 other recipients of the award. They were nominated for the award by the leadership of IES and the recipients were announced Thursday.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. According to a White House statement, “the awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.”

Lemons and Puranik have both served as principal investigators for IES’ National Center for Education Research and National Center for Special Education Research.  Among the IES-funded research they have conducted together are “Enhancing Reading Instruction for Children with Down Syndrome: A Behavioral Phenotypic Approach” and “Peer Assisted Writing Strategies.”

Dr. Puranik, who was at the University of Pittsburgh when she was nominated, is currently an associate professor of Communications Sciences and Disorders in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is also an affiliate faculty for the Research on the Challenges of Acquiring Language and Literacy Initiative at Georgia State. In addition to the IES-funded research above, Dr. Puranik, was also the Principal Investigator for grant that sought to develop a test of emergent writing skills.

Dr. Lemons is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University and a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville. He is also co-director of the National Center for Leadership on Intensive Intervention, a senior advisor for the National Center on Intensive Intervention, and serves on the board of a number of scholarly journals, including his work as associate editor for the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.  

Career Technical Education is Growing; Research Must Follow

By Corinne Alfeld, Program Officer, NCER

February is Career Technical Education (CTE) month and there is certainly cause to celebrate for those who value CTE. After years of being marginalized in K-12 education and education research, CTE programs and offerings are growing across the country.   

Once known as “vocational-technical education,” CTE has undergone a transformation in the last decade that keeps pace with changes in workforce. High schools now offer elective CTE courses such as agricultural science, business entrepreneurship, computer graphic design, culinary arts, communications, health care, and mechatronics.  High school CTE courses have the ability to provide a context for students to explore possible careers, test their interests and abilities, apply academic knowledge and skills to real-world problems in a more project-based, hands-on way, and learn a useful skill. In other words, CTE can answer the question that many students ask: Why do I need to learn this?

Due in part to employer interest and involvement, CTE has become more of a focus for policymakers and education leaders as a way to ensure students are “college and career ready” when they graduate from high school. In 2015, the Association for Career and Technical Education documented 150 new and revised CTE laws or policies across 46 states. CTE programs are undergoing transformation with newfound vitality and momentum, with new delivery models, such as career academies, in which the entire curriculum is focused on one career area; programs of study that link high school and college courses with workplace experience; and regional CTE centers, which contain specialized equipment shared by multiple schools or districts and focus solely on CTE.

This means that CTE learning opportunities for students may range from a single introductory course in a traditional high school setting to a highly coordinated curricular experience of classroom- and work-based learning, culminating in a capstone project. 

As CTE becomes a larger part of the current education landscape, policymakers and practitioners need better evidence to guide their decision-making, especially given limited resources. For example, more research is needed on the following:

  • The relationships between specific career-focused school, program, or curricular features and student education outcomes;
  • Longitudinal pathways and outcomes for students enrolled in K-12 CTE programs (e.g., postsecondary education and employment);
  • Development of effective career-oriented programs or policies designed to support students’ career readiness outcomes;
  • Rigorous evaluation of existing career-focused schools or programs, including career technical programs of study, career academies, and other K-12 CTE delivery models;
  • Rigorous evaluation of state or district policies or reforms to support career technical education at the K-12 level, including the awarding of vocational diplomas, the use of career readiness measures, career academy models, awarding academic credit for CTE courses, and CTE teacher certification requirements; and
  • Development or improvement of measures of technical, occupational, and career readiness skills.

There are certainly challenges in studying CTE. In addition to the wide variety of CTE courses being offered, the range and quality of instructional CTE offerings can vary within and across schools. 

Researchers must struggle with questions, such as what is the treatment? How does one account for self-selection bias? Who are the counterfactuals? What are reliable and valid (and meaningful) outcome measures? How soon can effects be seen? As CTE expands in our K-12 education system, the field is in need of creativity and perseverance from researchers to overcome these challenges and build a robust body of both descriptive and causal evidence on which education leaders and policymakers can make decisions.

If you have ideas for CTE research projects, NCER would love to hear from you. Please contact Research Scientist Dr. Corinne Alfeld (corinne.alfeld@ed.gov or 202-245-8203) to share your thoughts or ideas. 

Developer of IES-Funded App Named an “Innovator to Watch”

By Dana Tofig, Communications Director, IES

Congratulations to one of our IES Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grantees, who has been named one of eight innovators to watch by Smithsonian Magazine.

Grace Wardhana, of Kiko Labs, developed the idea for Kiko’s Thinking Time, while watching her child, who she says was “obsessed with the iPad.” She wanted to turn that tablet time into learning time. With experience at Microsoft and McKinsey, a Master’s degree in science and engineering from Stanford, and a MBA from Harvard Business School, Grace got to work developing the app.

In 2014, she applied for and received a Phase I SBIR grant to develop a prototype of Thinking Time and in 2015, was awarded Phase II funding.  Smithsonian Magazine included Wardhana as one of eight “scientists, musicians, artists, and educators” to “expect great things from” in 2016. About Thinking Time, author Emily Matchar wrote that it “was developed in collaboration with Harvard and Berkeley neuroscientists and is aimed at helping children develop executive function—the skills of memory, focus and self-regulation necessary for success in school, work and beyond.”

You can watch a YouTube video to learn more about Thinking Time and also get more information on the IES website

PHOTOS
- Top of page--Grace Wardhana, of Kiko Labs. Source: https://www.kikolabs.com/about-us 
- Screenshot of Kiko's Thinking Time app

The PI Meeting in 140 Characters

By Wendy Wei, Program Assistant, National Center for Education Research

How can practitioners and policymakers apply education research to their everyday work if they never hear about it or do not understand it? Communicating and disseminating research findings plays an integral role in promoting the education sciences and advancing the field.

That is why we made communication and dissemination a major theme at the IES Principal Investigators’ Meeting held earlier this month (December 10-11). The two-day meeting in Washington, D.C., featured five sessions that focused on communications – ranging from data visualization techniques to effective dissemination strategies to hearing journalists’ perspectives on how to share scientific results with the general public.

There was a lot of talk about social media during the meeting and plenty of tweeting about the presentations. We used the Twitter hashtag, #IESPIMtg, to foster an ongoing conversation for meeting attendees and to share findings that emerged from sessions.  Any tweet that included #IESPIMtg was automatically pooled together, generating a live Twitter feed that was on display in the lobby throughout the meeting.

 You can see all of the #IESPImtg tweets online, but here are some highlights:

"There is a tremendous sense of urgency to bridge the gap between research and practice..." --John B King #IESPIMtg

— Leah Wisdom (@lifelnglearner) December 10, 2015

.@StanfordEd's Sean Reardon: Good partnership work can lead to new knowledge, change policy+practice, improve data quality #IESPIMtg

— Bill Penuel (@bpenuel) December 11, 2015

#IESPIMtg Practitioner partners play a critical role in making sense of data and analyses in RPPs.

— Jennifer Russell (@Jenn_L_Russell) December 10, 2015

And we can get a little bit meta now…communicating about how to communicate:

Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff urges researchers to create "'edible science' that is accessible, digestible and usable." #IESPIMtg

— Tomoko Wakabayashi (@twakabayashi264) December 10, 2015

Awesome presentation on #DataVisualization by @jschwabish: Show the data, reduce the clutter, stop distracting attention. #IESPIMtg

— Rudy Ruiz (@RudyRuiz_BMore) December 10, 2015

.@KavithaCardoza Explaining your research--Don't think of it as "dumbing down." Think of it as simplifying. #IESPIMtg

— Dana Tofig (@dtofig) December 11, 2015

And, of course, what's Twitter without a little fun? When we tweeted this picture...

The poster session is going strong. Principal investigators present findings from #iesfunded research. #IESPIMtg

— IES Research (@IESResearch) December 10, 2015

...Chris Magnuson, Director of Innovation for Live It, Learn It, posted this reply: 

@IESResearch careful...photo looks like it was taken on Death Star! May the force be with all grantees! #SBIR #IES

— Chris Magnuson (@cromagnuson) December 10, 2015

The National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) have made a commitment to be active contributors in communicating with and engaging the general public in the exciting findings of NCER- and NCSER-funded work. Over the past few years, we have been active on Twitter (you can follow us @IESResearch), and this past year, we launched our blog (the very one you are reading!). These two platforms have provided us with an outlet to share research findings, provide updates about events and deadlines, and connect with audiences we otherwise might not reach.

For those of you who could not make the PI meeting, videos will be posted on the conference website in about a month. So stay tuned!

We hope you’ll continue the conversation started at the PI meeting by following us on Twitter at @IESResearch or sharing your thoughts with us at IESResearch@ed.gov.