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

Headshot of Megan Church

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

Headshot of Morgan Tucker

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. 

Comparing College-Based to Conventional Transition Approaches for Improving Outcomes for Youth with Disabilities

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we discussed NCSER-funded research on transition support for students with disabilities with principal investigators Meg Grigal and Clare Papay. Transition services prepare students for life after school and can include activities such as job training, post-secondary education, and support for independent living and community participation. This research team’s project, Moving Transition Forward: Exploration of College-Based and Conventional Transition Practices for Students with Intellectual Disability and Autism, examines outcomes for two transition approaches: a college-based transition and the conventional approach provided by most local education agencies. In the interview below, the researchers discuss recent results and how this information can improve the quality of transition services for students with disabilities.

What is the purpose of your project? What motivated you to conduct this research?

Headshot of Meg Grigal

Headshot of Clare Papay

The bulk of existing transition research reflects knowledge about conventional transition services, 

or those services received by students with disabilities in high schools. An alternative approach, called college-based transition services, has been around for over 20 years, providing students with intellectual disability and autism a chance to experience college while continuing to receive support through special education. We wanted to explore and compare these two types of transition experiences and assess the outcomes for students. Using two existing datasets, our project conducted a series of interrelated analyses to look more closely at the transition services students with intellectual disability and/or autism (ID/A) are accessing and the association with youth outcomes in employment. Our hope is that our findings will contribute to the knowledge base on research-based college and career preparation for youth with ID/A.

Could you explain the difference between the two transition approaches (college-based and conventional) you are examining and how each prepares students for post-school life?

“Conventional transition services” is our way of describing the transition services typically provided to youth with disabilities across the United States. These services are documented in the data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012 (NLTS 2012). College-based transition services, also known as dual enrollment or concurrent enrollment, provide students with intellectual disability access to college courses, internships, and employment and other campus activities during their final 2 to 3 years of secondary education. These experiences enable students to participate in career planning with a person-centered planning approach, enroll in college classes for educational and personal enrichment, engage in social activities alongside their college peers, and participate in community-based, paid work experiences that align with their employment goals.

What do the results from your research say about the employment outcomes and other transition outcomes of students with intellectual disability and autism participating in these transition programs?

To be blunt, our findings tell us that conventional transition services are not supporting students with ID/A to become employed after high school. We found a very low prevalence of school-based predictors of post-school success for students receiving conventional transition services. As an example, in our analysis of data from NLTS 2012, we found only 32% of youth with ID/A had paid employment in the previous 12 months. Paid employment in high school is a strong predictor of post-school employment. Additionally, there was low prevalence of other critical transition activities, including self-determination/self-advocacy, self-care/independent living skills, occupational courses, and work-study. Our findings highlight points of stagnation in access to college and career preparation for students with ID/A. Past low engagement rates in college preparation activities may have been attributed to the limited access youth with ID/A have had to positive employment outcomes and poor access to postsecondary education.

On a more promising note, when we look at data on students with ID/A who are enrolled in college-based transition programs, the picture is much brighter. We’ve found moderate to high prevalence of activities reflecting important predictors of post-school success (including­ paid employment while in high school, interagency collaboration, and learning skills in community settings). Students in college-based transition programs are enrolling in courses for college credit and taking courses to help them prepare for careers. These students are leaving K-12 education in a much better position to successfully be employed after high school than many of their peers who are receiving conventional transition services.

Based on what you have learned, what are the implications for practice and policy?

With increased access and opportunities to pursue further education after high school, youth with ID/A need college preparation activities to be a part of their standard education experience. Our findings suggest college-based transition services offer an approach that addresses both employment and college preparation. However, the availability of college-based transition programs depends upon whether school districts have established partnerships with a college or university. Greater availability of college-based transition services would provide the field with a better understanding of the essential elements of practice and associated outcomes of this approach. Our findings also show the need for substantial improvement in the access to college and career preparation for youth with ID/A in conventional transition services. Finally, these studies highlight the need for additional and more robust data in federal data systems reflecting information about the transition experiences of students with intellectual disability, autism, and other developmental disabilities. We need to know what their experiences between age 18-22 look like, how inclusive these experiences are, and what outcomes they achieve after they leave K-12 education.

How can families find more information regarding college-based transition programs in their area?

We are glad you asked! The Think College website has a College Search feature that includes all the college and university programs enrolling students with ID/A in the United States, including those who are working with transitioning youth. This is a great way for families to explore local options. When options don't exist, we encourage families to speak with their school administrators to work on developing partnerships with local colleges or universities. Think College has many resources about college-based transition available on our website. Additionally, our national help desk is always available to answer questions or offer help to those seeking information about inclusive higher education and college-based transition services. Send us questions at thinkcollegeta@gmail.com

Many thanks to Drs. Grigal and Papay for sharing their work with our readers! If you want to learn more about this project, including the results of their research, please visit the following website: https://thinkcollege.net/projects/mtf.

Meg Grigal is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. At the Institute, she is co-director of Think College, a national organization focused on research, policy, and practice in inclusive higher education. Clare Papay is a senior research associate at the Institute for Community Inclusion.

This blog was produced by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at IES and graduate student at Texas A&M University, and Akilah Nelson, program officer for NCSER’s Transition to Postsecondary Education, Career, and/or Independent Living program.

 

 

Award-Winning Efficacy Research on Improving Cognitive and Motor Skills in Infants with Neuromotor Disabilities

Headshot of Regina (Reggie) Harbourne

Congratulations to Regina (Reggie) Harbourne and her colleagues for receiving the most prestigious award of the American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine (AACPDM)—for the second time!—for their NCSER-funded research on the efficacy of the START-Play intervention. The Gayle G. Arnold Award is presented annually to the authors of the best scientific manuscript in the field. Dr. Harbourne and her colleagues received the award in 2019 for their first publication on the initial motor and cognitive outcomes of this study. They recently accepted this award again at the 2022 annual meeting for a follow-up publication on the impacts of the intervention on the important cognitive construct of object permanence.

Sitting Together and Reaching to Play (START-Play) is an intervention designed to target sitting, reaching, and motor-based problem solving in infants with motor delays or disabilities. Physical therapists work in the child’s home with the family on providing intensive, individualized activities to promote these motor skills, building toward goal-directed movements, problem-solving, and learning basic cause-effect relationships based in early motor skills. In this study, the research team conducted a randomized controlled trial with 112 infants aged 7 to 16 months. Those receiving START-Play and those in the control group all continued to receive their usual early intervention services. Children were assessed at various timepoints during the 12-week intervention as well as follow-up visits up to examine maintenance of outcomes.

In their first award-winning manuscript, START-Play Physical Therapy Intervention Impacts Motor and Cognitive Outcomes in Infants With Neuromotor Disorders: A Multisite Randomized Clinical Trial, the authors report on the primary impacts of the intervention. They found that for those infants with more significant motor delay, those who received START-Play had greater improvements in cognition, fine motor skills, and problem-solving (at the 3-month follow up), and greater improvements were maintained for fine motor skills and for reaching at the 12-month follow up when compared to the infants receiving usual care. In addition to the Arnold Award, this manuscript won another prestigious research award from the American Physical Therapy Association, the Chattanooga Award, which recognizes authors who publish work in the association’s journal, Physical Therapy Journal.

The most recent Arnold award was for the research team’s new secondary outcomes manuscript, Early vs. Late Reaching Mastery’s Effect on Object Permanence in Infants with Motor Delays Receiving START-Play and Usual Care Early Intervention.[1] Object permanence is the cognitive construct that allows us to maintain a continual mental representation of an object, an important working memory skill for infants to develop. This manuscript reports that, overall, infants who mastered the motor skill of reaching early showed greater development of object permanence understanding than infants who mastered reaching later. Children who reached early and also received the START-Play intervention continued to improve their object permanence understanding to a greater degree than children receiving usual care. This study extended our understanding of how object permanence relates to developing motor skills, described in the authors’ previous publication, which revealed that object permanence skills improved as sitting skills improved. Together, these two papers show how developing the motor skills of sitting and reaching are important to building cognitive skills and understanding objects in the world.

After accepting the award, Dr. Harbourne answered some questions from NCSER about her team’s research on START-Play.

What was the motivation behind your work on developing and testing the efficacy of START-Play? 

Early intervention services for children with motor delays or dysfunction are often siloed into disciplines by functional areas. For example, educators address cognitive skills and physical therapists address only motor skills. But our study supported the idea that early learning that combines movement with problem solving can advance cognitive skills, problem-solving, and fine motor skills, all areas important to eventual success in school.

What do your results tell us about how the intervention is working and its implications for implementation?  

Because we found that adding problem-solving and cognitive challenges to our motor intervention did not slow progress in motor skills, we believe that integrating motor and cognitive challenges may be better for overall development than separating these areas during service delivery. We also had a strong fidelity of intervention program, assuring that the key ingredients of the intervention were adhered to, and that it was clearly different from usual care. However, one implication is that early interventionists need further training to deliver this type of service to families of children with significant motor delays.

Please tell us about your current and ongoing work on START-Play. How are you moving forward with these positive results?

We are currently examining the data from our long-term follow-up study that we conducted with supplemental funding through NCSER. We are also working on a study, funded through NIH, to look at a dose-matched comparison of START-Play intervention with a formalized version of usual care called MORE-PT for infants with cerebral palsy. In addition, we have developed an online continuing education course that translates our findings from the original START-Play study and will help therapists to implement the key ingredients of START-Play in early intervention. We are excited to work on implementation and hope to gain further understanding of the implementation process as we move forward.

Regina (Reggie) Harbourne is the director of the infant development lab and associate professor of physical therapy in the Rangos School of Health Sciences, Duquesne University. This blog was produced by Amy Sussman, the program officer for NCSER’s Early Intervention and Early Learning program.


[1] Manuscripts are submitted for review for this award before they are published. Although AACPDM has first option to publish the wining manuscripts, the paper is not yet published or available publicly.