Inside IES Research

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Does Gifted Education Access Vary by District? A Study in Washington State

Students and their teacher work over a table with a large map on it.

States and localities have discretion over gifted programs, but surprisingly little large-scale research compares the education environments of students in gifted programs to high-achieving, non-gifted students or investigates how these learning environments vary across districts. In this guest blog, Ben Backes, James Cowan, and Dan Goldhaber discuss their IES-funded exploration study, where they  use administrative and survey data to describe the relationship between gifted participation and access to educational resources across nearly 300 school districts in Washington State.

Gifted Access and Participation in Washington

The underrepresentation of low-income and minority students in gifted programs has attracted attention because identification procedures often include nomination or referral processes requiring subjective evaluation of student ability. Nationally, low-income and non-White students are significantly less likely to participate in gifted programs. To better understand who is in these gifted programs in Washington State, we are investigating participation in gifted programs by student race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status in grades 4–12. Consistent with prior studies, relative to White students, we observe Asian students being more likely to be found in gifted programs, while Black, Hispanic, and free and reduced-price lunch students are less likely to receive gifted services. Washington districts frequently use universal screening policies, and the Black-White and Hispanic-White gifted gaps disappear once statistical adjustments for prior test scores are used. We find little association between use of modifications for underrepresented minorities or low-income students—as reported by district coordinators—and gifted participation.

In sum, we find consistent evidence of disparities in access to gifted programs conditional on student achievement in Washington for low-income students, but less consistent evidence of disparities by student race/ethnicity. However, we only observe data on student academic aptitude beginning in third grade, and many classification decisions are made before this time. There may be disparities in initial gifted classification decisions for younger students.

Unsurprisingly, participation in gifted programs does affect student learning environments. Gifted students are much more likely to sit in classrooms with other high-achieving students and in more homogenous classrooms. These differences persist even after limiting the sample to high achievers. These patterns are most pronounced in elementary school. Gifted students are taught by more qualified teachers in elementary and middle school, as measured by experience, licensure test scores, and educational attainment. However, these effects are very small.

Differences Across Districts and Program Types

We find that although gifted students do tend to take more advanced courses with higher-achieving peers, there is considerable variation in the design of gifted programming across school districts.

  • Although school districts tend to assign gifted students to more advanced academic tracks, we find that these effects are mostly concentrated in large urban and suburban districts. The estimated gifted effects on access to more advanced courses are typically much smaller in the western and eastern school districts in smaller cities and rural areas of the state.
  • Larger, higher income districts in cities and suburbs operate gifted programs that provide more significant changes in learning environments. Students in these programs are more likely to share classrooms with other gifted students and with high-achieving students, and—in the case of large districts—sit in smaller classrooms with more qualified teachers.
  • The structure of gifted programming also influences the type of instructional approaches districts employ. Self-contained gifted programs—where students are assigned to specialized classrooms for most of their instruction—report using a broad array of acceleration strategies. However, about one third of gifted students participate in programs offered through services in regular classrooms, where independent study, supplemental instruction, and flexible ability grouping appear to be important strategies.
  • Well under half of districts have established gifted curricula for math or ELA. About 20% of gifted students are districts that report having a districtwide math curriculum and 25% are in districts that report having districtwide ELA curriculum. This finding is consistent with another study that surveyed districts in three states.

What’s Next?

There is a growing body of empirical literature providing causal estimates of the effect of gifted participation on student achievement which generally uses administrative data from a single school district. The results from this study of gifted programs across an entire state suggest that district-specific gifted programming effects are likely to vary substantially as the nature of the programs vary substantially across districts. This implies both that we should be cautious about generalizing based on district-level studies and that the variation in findings across studies may be indicative of true variation in program effectiveness. In the next stage of this project, we plan to investigate the extent to which this heterogeneity generates differences in the relationship between gifted participation and student achievement.


Ben Backes is a Senior Economist with CALDER at the American Institutes for Research.

James Cowan is a Senior Researcher with CALDER at the American Institutes for Research.

Dan Goldhaber is the Director of CALDER at the American Institutes for Research and CEDR at the University of Washington.

 

Gender-Sexuality Alliances as a School Resource for LGBTQ+ Students

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, we interviewed Dr. Paul Poteat, professor at Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, about his IES-funded research on Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs)—his motivation, what he’s learned so far, and future work that needs to be done.

What led you to focus on GSAs as a school resource for LGBTQ+ students?

Many LGBTQ+ students continue to experience discrimination at school, but schools are also a place where they can access support and resources from trusted adults and their peers. Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) have formed as clubs in an estimated 37% of U.S. secondary schools. GSAs aspire to be youth led with advisor support and meet for up to an hour during or after school on a weekly or biweekly basis. They provide a space for LGBTQ+ students and their heterosexual and cisgender peer allies to socialize, support one another, discuss and learn about LGBTQ+ topics, and engage in advocacy and awareness raising to promote more welcoming schools. In these ways, GSAs are in a promising position to reach and support LGBTQ+ students at a large scale.

What do we know about GSAs and student wellbeing? What do we still need to know?

Most GSA research has considered student wellbeing in relation to GSA presence at their school. Students in schools with GSAs report greater perceptions of safety and less victimization than students in schools without GSAs. Among students who are GSA members, many report feeling a sense of empowerment from their involvement.

Although these findings have been encouraging, there are some important limitations to what we know about student experiences in GSAs and how GSAs may promote wellbeing. For instance, GSAs vary to some extent in what they do—they are not standardized programs—and even members in the same GSA can report different experiences. We have less of an understanding of what specific GSA experiences are associated with any beneficial outcomes, especially because most GSA research has relied on cross-sectional data. We still need to identify specific mechanisms by which GSAs may promote wellbeing. It is also unclear whether some members benefit more from their GSA involvement than others.

How is your project adding to our understanding of GSAs?

Our project aims to identify specific practices and experiences in GSAs that predict social-emotional outcomes and academic performance for GSA members over time. We plan to—

  • Focus on perceived support from peers and advisors, leadership roles, involvement in advocacy and awareness-raising efforts, and perceived climate of the GSA. We are looking at these processes in two ways: on a week-to-week basis over an intensive 8-week period of the school year and more broadly at three time points spanning the school year.
  • Identify whether GSA experiences—from meeting to meeting or over the school year—go on to predict greater school belonging, hope, positive affect, and self-worth, which in turn could predict better academic outcomes, such as greater class engagement and lower absenteeism.
  • Consider whether GSA experiences buffer the negative effects of victimization on these outcomes. We have been working with a diverse group of GSAs across the state of Massachusetts, in New York City, and in San Diego.

How could the data from your project be useful for GSAs and inform ongoing research? 

As an Exploration grant, the data from our project could provide a foundation to develop and evaluate programs tailored for GSAs. To do this, we first need a deeper understanding of GSAs and any naturally occurring processes within them that may predict various social-emotional and academic outcomes among members. We can then develop programs GSAs would be interested in adopting that target and enhance these processes with greater precision. On a practical level, our findings could be useful to GSA advisors and student leaders by identifying the types of conversations, activities, and structures to their meetings that could benefit their members. Ultimately, more research in this area could support GSAs as they seek to identify and meet the range of needs and interests of their members, capitalize on the strengths that members bring, and promote their thriving and academic success.


Paul Poteat is a professor in the Counseling, Developmental & Education Psychology Department at Boston College. He conducts research on the school-based experiences of sexual and gender minority youth.

Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and training program officer for the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and Emily Doolittle (Emily.Doolittle@ed.gov), NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research.

 

A Lifetime of Learning: A Fellow’s Journey to Improve Literacy for All

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In this guest blog, Dr. Marcia Davidson, an IES postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia State University Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL), shares her experiences and discusses her path forward.

Going Back for More

My career path has had many turns, but I’ve always focused on supporting literacy to ensure everyone can access education, no matter their location, age, or current ability. And I apply this to my life, too.

I started as a school psychologist, practicing for 15 years in Washington state, working with students with disabilities aged 3 to 21. I worked with teachers and small groups of students to provide support and additional instruction for those struggling with reading and realized that my training was insufficient to provide effective support. I was able to advocate for children who struggled with reading, but I wanted to know more about the research and the science that inform effective reading instruction. So I went back to school to earn my PhD in special education.

After finishing my degree, my first academic position was teaching special education and elementary education at Western Washington University. Despite being tenured faculty, I left academia to participate in research projects related to Reading First because I wanted to spend more time conducting and supporting research projects. This led to my working on an IES-funded Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER) project and my deep interest in interventions that improve student learning.

Eventually, my career took more unexpected turns as I was recruited to consult on a USAID/World Bank initiative in reading assessment for low- and middle-income countries, the Early Grade Reading Assessment. My work with this project prompted a significant career change: I moved to Liberia as a senior reading advisor on one of the first pilot early grade reading projects.

I spent the next 10 years working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on NGO, USAID, and World Bank projects and then worked for USAID. My work focused on early grade reading interventions and support in South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017, I left USAID but continued to support their projects, serving as the senior reading advisor for a scaled early grade reading project in Ghana.

A New Focus

Although my primary focus was supposed to be on children, I found myself drawn in by parents longing to learn themselves. In Liberia, a parent asked whether he could meet with a reading project teacher to learn to read. In Zambia, parents were meeting daily to review the reading lessons of their first-grade children with the hope that they might learn to read and support their children more effectively. In Nepal, a grandmother walked several miles up a mountain to her grandchild’s school so that she could learn to read by his side. Most recently, when I was in Ghana during the COVID outbreak, our team developed a radio reading program for families, and I again saw how excited parents were to work with their children and learn themselves.

I then turned my attention to my own country and realized that many adults in the United States also have literacy gaps and need good reading interventions. We face a reality in which 43 million adults in the United States (about 1 in 5) have very low levels of literacy and may struggle with basic reading comprehension. Of these, nearly 17 million adults could be classified as functionally illiterate. I began to wonder how research for U.S. adults with low literacy might differ from the work I had been doing in low- and middle-income countries and how adult literacy levels vary across countries.

Despite my interest in U.S. adult literacy, I realized that research had changed drastically and that there were new methods, designs, and approaches that I was less familiar with. So I decided to learn more and build new research skills by applying to become an IES postdoctoral fellow in adult literacy at Georgia State University.

Returning for More: A Fellowship to Reskill and Connect the Dots

I started my IES postdoctoral fellowship in the summer of 2021 in the GSU Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program. Here, I am researching interventions to support U.S. adults who struggle with reading. I want to extend my understanding of the role of morphology in reading acquisition, which I honed while working in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. In the United States and internationally, much of this research focuses on children. Teaching adults to read has often taken a back seat in literacy research, despite the critical need to address adult low literacy. I have seen the difference that learning to read can make in a child’s life, and I believe that learning to read for adults can also be life changing and exciting. For me, it is like closing the circle, from young children who are just discovering the delights of learning to read to adults who long to enrich their lives—and often livelihoods—with improved literacy skills.

Recently, I was offered a position as a senior education advisor to the Africa Bureau at USAID, and I will be leaving G-PAL to support the USAID team. However, improving adult literacy remains a priority to me, and I plan to continue my work on the projects I’ve started with my mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Tighe, on a morphology intervention for adults and on an analysis of process data on PIAAC literacy items. I also plan to volunteer at an adult literacy center when I move to Washington, DC for my new position. I am so grateful that I had the extraordinary experience of learning about the literacy needs of and effective interventions for adults who struggle with reading. I have a better understanding about the complexities of adult literacy learning needs and feel new urgency to address the learning barriers so many face. My postdoctoral experience has expanded my knowledge, methodological skills, and commitment. And I am confident that I will apply all that I have learned and continue to learn to my new position and beyond.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants, and Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.

Valuing Culture and Community: Supporting Hmong Children’s Home Language and Early Language and Literacy Development

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month we interviewed Dr. Lori Erickson, St. Paul Public Schools, and Dr. Alisha Wackerle-Hollman, University of Minnesota, who are developing a screening tool to assess the language and literacy skills of Hmong preschoolers. In this interview blog, we asked Lori and Alisha to discuss the motivation for their collaborative work, what they have learned so far, and the importance of conducting research with ethnically and linguistically diverse students and communities.  

What motivated your team to study the outcomes of Hmong preschoolers?

Our team is a unique collaboration between practitioners at the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) and researchers at the University of Minnesota IGDILab. We are both deeply committed to supporting children’s full language and early literacy profiles across their languages to better inform instructional decision making and show a commitment to valuing culture through honoring children’s home language. When we started this project, we knew that the Individual Growth and Development (IGDIs) early literacy screening and progress monitoring measures were available in English and Spanish, and we had been implementing with great success. However, given that the district provides pre-K immersion programming in Spanish, French, and Hmong, it became clear that there was also a concentrated need for a valid, reliable tool to measure early literacy development in the Hmong language. The Hmong community, parents, and teachers voiced the need for a deeper understanding of the Hmong language and literacy skills that children acquire prior to and during the preschool period.

Prior to our current work, the IGDILab had significant experience developing the IGDIs Español, during which we refined a community-based approach for understanding language and early literacy development that took into consideration the developmental trajectory of each language, rather than as a translation to English. IGDI users noticed this difference, and SPPS approached our team about using a similar approach to develop the Hmong IGDI measures.

Please tell us about the two projects you have worked on together to address the early learning needs of Hmong students.

Our partnership has had the good fortune to receive two IES awards. The first award was a 2017 research partnership grant. We invested two years in gathering information from the community about what Hmong IGDI measures should include and developing a deeper understanding of the Hmong language landscape. The success of that program led to an IES measurement award to fully develop the Hmong IGDI measures. Currently in Year 1 of the measurement award, we have learned so much from both projects over the past four years.

  • There is tremendous passion around the Hmong language. Stakeholders, including community elders, families, students, and educators, have shown a deep passion for celebrating and honoring the Hmong language. These discussions have focused on nuances of the language including generational differences, dialectical differences, and cultural representation.
  • We have learned much about how the language has evolved. The Hmong language is spoken most frequently by elders. Children are often exposed to the language in the presence of elders, creating a cultural and social dynamic that requires inter-generational conversation to support language preservation.
  • Although it is important to understand how a child’s native Hmong language can support their academic success in Hmong and English, it is also critically important to support Hmong language development to support social pride and cultural identity.

Throughout our work we have affirmed that studies like ours that focus on minoritized languages in concentrated communities are critical to support children’s success and to promote language preservation.       

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of studying low incidence populations, including ethnically and linguistically diverse students?

There are over 300,000 Hmong in the United States, and the Hmong population is the fastest growing of the East Asian group (US Census Bureau, 2017). Hmong Americans represent one of the most under-served cultural communities in the US, concentrated in two specific areas: the Midwest—St Paul, MN and Madison, WI—and the Central Valley of California (Pew Research, 2015).

Given the high levels of poverty and the large percentage of students entering the U.S. education system, Hmong Americans represent an important Asian subgroup that may continue on a negative academic and economic trajectory if meaningful intervention is not put into place.  The needs of Hmong Americans warrant our attention to bring educational opportunity and equity to a growing but marginalized group of children and to contribute to our broader mandate to conduct research that contributes to the betterment of all children.

Our effort to develop Hmong IGDIs will provide educators with a set of resources that are instructionally relevant—that is, the measures can be used to provide data that have direct implications for instructional practices, such as informing how to modify instruction to maximize Hmong language and early literacy development. In this way, our work aims to demonstrate a deep value of the Hmong language, support educators to understand children’s Hmong language and early literacy skills and improve their academic outcomes through differentiated instruction.

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

Volumes of research demonstrate the importance of language and early literacy development during the preschool years. However, this research has provided little attention on low incidence populations, including ethnically and linguistically diverse students (for example, Hmong, Karen, Somali, and Indigenous dialects). These children’s outcomes are just as important as those of majority populations. We must invest in these low-incidence populations to create a more equitable educational experience for our youngest learners.

An omnipresent need in this arena is the need to involve and collaborate with the communities, families, and educators that education research intends to serve. Indeed, the strongest parts of our work involves the feedback we receive from community and family members. Our team includes three Hmong community members as staff, and we continuously engage the community in our process. Our initial interview and focus groups drove the creation of a community level survey to gather input on what features of the language were most important to the community. We then used those data as a catalyst to form a strong partnership between the community, family members, and the research institution, which has resulted in a process that is meaningful to all parties. If we expect our education research to be meaningful in communities of practice, we must improve how we value and collaborate with those communities in partnership.

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?

This work has a direct connection to equity and inclusion in education. The Hmong are a low-incidence population, which has contributed to their marginalization. As an example of how this community experiences marginalization and inequities, we share our experience in the IES review process. When we first submitted our application for a measurement goal project the review panel provided a weak score for our application noting that they could not justify the resources of an IES award on such a small population, among other weaknesses. These results illustrate just how inequitable our system has been. When we reapplied the following year, we developed an argument around equity. Fortunately, the reviewers agreed with our rationale and funded this project.

We fully recognize the Hmong community is small and highly concentrated, and we fully believe developing the Hmong IGDI measures will provide a meaningful resource to these communities to support Hmong children’s language and early literacy development. As our nation continues to grow in diversity, we will see more and more languages in our classrooms. We must develop procedures and resources that can support all students, not just those historically centered. As evidence grows, we are learning about how a child’s native language used in community can be an asset to their academic performance in the classroom, even when the instructional language is English. These findings provide evidence of how inclusive practices that include native languages can be beneficial to all students, not just to monolingual English speakers.


Produced by Caroline Ebanks (Caroline.Ebanks@ed.gov), Team Lead for Early Childhood Research and program officer for the National Center for Education Research.

Active-Duty Military Families and School Supports

Virtually every school district in the United States educates a child whose parent or guardian is serving in the Armed Forces. This May for Military Appreciation Month we asked Timothy Cavell, University of Arkansas, and Renée Spencer, Boston University, to discuss their IES-funded project on school supports for military-connected students.

What motivated your team to study military-connected students?

We got interested in studying military-connected students through our work on youth mentoring. We saw the potential for school-based mentoring to offer a measured response to the needs of military-connected students who are generally resilient but who, at times, need extra support. With funding from IES, we developed a system for delivering school-based mentoring that was anchored by a district-level military student mentoring coordinator who forged home-school-community action teams composed of school staff, military parents, and community leaders. This project heightened our sensitivity to the high mobility that characterizes military-connected families. These students experience 6 to 9 moves during their K-12 years—a mobility rate 3 times that of non-military children. Our current IES project, the Active-Duty Military Families and School Supports (ADMFSS) study, looks beyond mentoring to explore other kinds of supports that might benefit highly mobile military students and parents. We want to know how school supports might foster school connectedness for military students and parents.

What are your preliminary research findings?

We’re still in the early phases of data analysis and working on manuscripts for publication, but we can share a few things we’ve learned so far. Our findings are based on collecting three waves of parent and student data across two separate cohorts of elementary and middle school students (N = 532).

  • Personal connections seem to matter most to military connected students and parents. Of the many types of school supports we measured, including things like welcoming practices and social and emotional learning supports, students rated having teachers help new students feel welcome when they first move into the school as most important. Parents rated ongoing communication with the school as most important.
  • School supports likely matter. In preliminary analyses of our data, we’re finding associations between measures of school support and academic and psychosocial functioning. Parents who reported receiving school supports they considered important also reported higher quality parent-teacher relationships, stronger perceptions that schools were welcoming of military families, and less parenting stress compared to parents who reported receiving fewer school supports they considered important. Students who reported receiving school supports they considered important reported feeling more connected to school, higher academic efficacy, higher school engagement, and greater family support than students who reported receiving fewer supports they considered important. Although military-connected parents often noted a preference for not being treated differently from civilian families, they do appreciate school supports geared specifically for military-connected students. Some examples include an orientation, open house, or school tour at the beginning of the school year; lunchtime groups specifically for military-connected students; and access to the military family life counselor.

Based on your preliminary research, what advice would you give schools on how to best support military-connected students?

Most military families seem to weather the stresses and strains of multiple moves, but there are times when these families and students need additional support. The majority of military-connected students attend civilian schools where teachers often lack understanding of and appreciation for military family culture. We learned from our work that military-connected parents greatly appreciate when school staff acknowledge the distinct nature of military family life and “see” their family’s sacrifice. Simply recognizing the distinct challenges and sacrifices these families encounter can go a long way, and small accommodations (for example, not penalizing students for being absent on the day an active-duty parent returns from deployment) are highly valued.  

What has been the most rewarding aspect of this project for you as a PI?

Without a doubt, it’s the level of appreciation expressed by the families who participated in our study. We were surprised that many felt our study was an effort to see the challenges faced by military-connected students, a group often considered the most invisible within a school. It is meaningful to engage in work that touches the lives of families who make important sacrifices to serve our country.

What are the next steps for your research team?

We just received recommendation for funding from the Department of Defense to develop and conduct an initial evaluation of a digital tool that can be used to support the school transitions of military-connected students in the elementary and middle school grades. This tool will capture information about the transitioning military student that is catalogued in a teacher-friendly e-dossier that parents can share with new teachers before the student arrives in their classroom.

We hope this tool will empower military-connected parents to act with greater agency when their family moves, and their student makes yet another school transition. By sharing this information with the new school, it provides military-connected students with just-in-time support and receiving teachers with just-in-time training about military family life and the needs of this new student.


Renée Spencer is a professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. Her research is rooted in relational perspectives of human development and much of her work focuses on distinguishing factors that facilitate positive and meaningful youth mentoring relationships from those that contribute to mentoring going awry. Dr. Spencer’s research highlights the importance of tailoring mentoring to the specific needs of special populations of youth, such as systems-involved and military-connected youth.

Tim Cavell is a professor in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the role of parents, teachers, and mentors in selective interventions for children who are highly aggressive or chronically bullied. Dr. Cavell also examines school-based strategies to support elementary school students from military families.

This interview blog is part of a larger IES blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in the education sciences. It was produced by IES program officer Vinita Chhabra (Vinita.Chhabra@ed.gov), parent of military-connected students. For more information about the study, please contact the program officer Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov).