Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Improving Student Communication through Paraeducator and Teacher Training

In honor of Developmental Disabilities Month, NCSER would like to highlight research that supports young children with complex communication needs. Many children with disabilities, including those with autism and other developmental disabilities, may be described as having complex communication needs because they are unable to use speech to meet their needs in daily interactions. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems provide such individuals a way to communicate that does not require vocal speech. Examples include low-tech systems like manual signs or picture cards and high-tech systems like electronic speech generating devices. For non-speaking children, access to AAC is critical for expressing their needs and wants, developing relationships, and participating in academic instruction. In school settings, paraeducators work frequently with students to support their communication needs.

With a NCSER-funded grant, Dr. Sarah Douglas (Michigan State University) has been developing and piloting an online training program, the POWR System, for paraeducators and their supervising teachers to improve communication skills of children with complex communication needs. We recently caught up with Dr. Douglas to learn more about the POWR System, what led her to conduct this research, and future directions.

What inspired you to conduct this research?

Headshot of Dr. Sarah Douglas

My exposure to children who use AAC began when I was a child myself. In elementary school, a new school was built in my neighborhood. Unlike other schools during the late 80s and early 90s, this school had special education rooms at the center of the school. Each time I went to various activities around school, the children were visible. The teacher in the classroom for children with extensive support needs, Mrs. Smith, was an advocate for inclusion and socialization for her students so each of the children spent time in general education classrooms. She began inviting general education students to spend recess in her classroom playing games and cooking with students. I took her up on this offer and got to interact with them while they used their AAC. I learned that communication could come in many forms—not just through speech. These early experiences led me to become a special education teacher supporting children with complex communication needs. In that class I worked with a lot of paraeducators. When I pursued my PhD, I focused on paraeducators and AAC. My dissertation topic laid the foundation for this NCSER grant project. During my dissertation I implemented an intervention to teach paraeducators how to best support children who use AAC. So, I guess you could say this has been something I’ve been working on for decades. 😊

What do the results from your research say about communication outcomes for young children with complex communication needs? What are the outcomes for educators that support student communication?

We’ve learned so much from this work. Findings from our study indicate that, for children who use AAC, the kinds of support and communication opportunities that paraprofessionals provide really matter. Providing meaningful, motivating opportunities to communicate is critical for young children who use AAC. One of our studies highlighted that young children who use AAC are most likely to respond after being provided with a choice or a question. These results suggest that certain types of supports make it more clear to young children that a response from them is expected. We also learned that waiting for them to communicate is critical. Generally, 5-7 seconds is sufficient wait time, but for children who have motor challenges more time is likely necessary. Also, paraeducators modeling the use of an AAC device can be really supportive, as our research found that children were more likely to communicate after a model of AAC by paraeducators. We all need models when we are learning new skills and children who use AAC are no different. We also learned that most paraeducators we worked with were very responsive to child communication, so teachers should continue to support and encourage that. Teachers can provide great supervision and support to paraeducators as they implement AAC strategies.

Based on these results, what are the implications for practice and policy?

Districts could do more to support teachers in knowing how to oversee and provide feedback to paraeducators. Not all teachers were comfortable with this role at first. We also feel strongly that, based on this work, more team members should be involved in interventions focused on AAC strategies. Perhaps the teacher and paraeducator are the main implementers, but speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and district level personnel have important roles in supporting this work and should also be involved in understanding these interventions and guiding implementation.

What are the next steps in your research on AAC for children with developmental disabilities?

We continue to do a lot of work to know how to best support child communication through communication partners such as siblings, parents, SLPs, teachers, and paraeducators. We recently obtained a new grant from IES to develop a professional development and training intervention for school-based SLPs to support family member implementation of communication strategies with children who use AAC. We are really excited about this project. It is only the first year, but we already have most of the intervention developed and are conducting focus groups with SLPs and family members to get feedback and make revisions.

How can educators find more information about the POWR system and implementing augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems in their classrooms?

The intervention is available and can be accessed by reaching out to me at sdouglas@msu.edu.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am just so grateful for the early experiences I had that led me to this important work and excited to support all the children, families, and educational teams.

A special thanks to Dr. Douglas and the POWR research team for all their hard work supporting communication for students using AAC. We look forward to seeing the impact your current project will have on the field!

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at NCSER and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University. Emily Weaver, NCSER PO, monitors a portfolio of grants that covers both paraeducators and students with autism.

CTE Teacher Licensure: The Wild West of the Wild West and Its Impact on Students with Disabilities

Positive career and technical education (CTE) experiences have the potential to lead to long-term success for students with disabilities. Yet the pathways into this field for teachers are highly variable. In honor of CTE Awareness Month, we would like to share an interview with NCSER-funded principal investigators Dan Goldhaber (left below) and Roddy Theobald (right below), who have been investigating the relationship between preparation pathways for CTE teachers and student outcomes. In the interview below, Drs. Goldhaber and Theobald share their findings and how their research can influence CTE teacher licensure. 

What led to your interest in studying CTE for students with disabilities?Headshot of Roddy TheobaldHeadshot of Dan Goldhaber

A growing body of research—including prior work we’ve done with a NCSER grant on predictors of postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities—has found that participation in a concentration of CTE courses in high school is a strong predictor of improved postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities. Moreover, in another recent NCSER-funded project, we found that pre-service preparation of special education teachers can be a significant predictor of outcomes for students with disabilities in their classrooms. Our current project lies directly at the intersection of these two prior projects and asks the following question: Given the importance of both CTE courses and special education teachers for predicting outcomes for students with disabilities, what role do CTE teachers play in shaping these outcomes, and what types of CTE teacher preparation are most predictive of improved outcomes for these students? This question is important in Washington state because individuals with prior employment experience can become a CTE teacher through a "business and industry" (B&I) pathway that does not require as much formal teacher preparation as traditional licensure pathways. Likewise, this question is important nationally because over half of states offer a similar CTE-specific path to teacher licensure that relies on prior work experience as a licensure requirement.

Your research team published a report last year from your current research project with some surprising results related to the teacher preparation pathway and outcomes for students. Can you tell us about those findings?

In the first paper from this project, now published in Teacher Education and Special Education, we connected observable characteristics of CTE teachers in Washington to non-test outcomes (including absences, disciplinary incidents, grade point average, grade progression, and on-time graduation) of students with and without disabilities in their classrooms. The most surprising findin­g was that students with disabilities participating in CTE tended to have better non-test outcomes when they were assigned to a CTE teacher from the B&I pathway compared those assigned to a traditionally prepared CTE teacher.

What do you think may be the underlying reason for this finding?

We discussed several hypotheses for this result in the paper, including the possibility that the content knowledge and experience of B&I pathway teachers may matter more than traditional preparation for students with disabilities. This conclusion, however, comes with two caveats. First, preliminary results from the second paper (presented at the 2023 APPAM Fall Conference) suggest that these relationships do not translate to improved college enrollment or employment outcomes for these students. Second, we cannot disentangle the effects of B&I teachers' prior employment experiences from "selection effects" of who chooses to enter through this pathway.

In what ways can this research influence CTE policy and practice?

We have described teacher licensure as the "Wild West" of education policy because 50 different states are responsible for developing state teacher licensing systems. CTE teacher licensure is like the "Wild West of the Wild West" in that over half of states offer a CTE-specific pathway to licensure, which relies on prior industry experience as a requirement for licensure, each with different requirements and regulations. As states continue to navigate challenges with staffing CTE classrooms with qualified teachers, it is important to understand the implications of the unique CTE-specific pathways for student outcomes, particularly for students with disabilities. This project is an early effort to provide this evidence to inform CTE licensure policy. 

How do you plan to continue this line of research?

The next steps of this project leverage data provided through the Washington state’s P-20 longitudinal data system maintained by the Washington Education Research and Data Center (ERDC). ERDC has connected high school students' CTE experiences (including their teacher) to college and employment records. This allows us to consider the implications of CTE teacher characteristics for students' postsecondary outcomes. Moreover, due to the question about the prior employment experiences of CTE teachers, ERDC has agreed to link records on CTE teachers’ prior employment so we can disentangle the importance of different pre-teaching employment experiences of CTE teachers. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

We are grateful to NCSER for their support of this project and the two prior projects that motivated it!

Dr. Dan Goldhaber is the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington.

Dr. Roddy Theobald is the deputy director of CALDER and a managing researcher at AIR. Thank you, Dr. Dan Goldhaber and Dr. Roddy Theobald, for sharing your experiences and findings about CTE!

This blog was authored by Skyler Fesagaiga, a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NCSER and graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. Akilah Nelson, NCSER program officer, manages grants funded under the Career and Technical Education for Students with Disabilities special topic.

Leveraging Multiple Funding Sources to Train Special Education Researchers

Through different programs within the Department of Education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act authorizes funding that can provide doctoral students with valuable training in special education research. These different funding mechanisms work independently or, in some cases, can be leveraged to work synergistically. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provides support for doctoral-level students The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provides support for doctoral-level students through grant programs that are part of the Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results Program to help prepare future faculty, researchers, and administrators for leadership positions. Through this program, OSEP awards funds to institutions of higher education to provide doctoral students (OSEP Scholars) with advising, mentorship, and research experience. In exchange for service to the field following graduation, scholarships may cover such student expenses as tuition and fees, health insurance, books, supplies, and research-related expenses.

IES grants allow faculty to hire doctoral students on their NCSER-funded research projects, providing another potential avenue for these students to obtain research experience. Sometimes OSEP Scholars receive their research experience and mentorship through work on NCSER-funded research projects, as either their primary research focus or an additional research training opportunity. When this occurs, the benefits of both funding sources can provide students with opportunities to apply their training and knowledge in true research settings under the guidance of seasoned researchers.

In a new blog series, we will interview doctoral students who participate in both kinds of federally funded opportunities to better understand the unique contributions of each and how the two funding sources complement one another. We asked each doctoral student to tell us about their experience as an OSEP Scholar, their work on IES-funded grants, the synergy between their OSEP supports and NCSER grant work, and how they believe these experiences will help them achieve their career goals.

Matt Klein, Texas A&M University

Headshot of Matt Klein

I am in my third year as an OSEP Scholar, supported through the Research Interventions in Special Education (RISE) Scholars Network—a partnership among Texas A&M University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to train future faculty in special education. This program has provided me with access to numerous learning experiences, including the opportunity to collaborate with high-caliber doctoral students, work with leading researchers at multiple institutions, and take research method courses that would otherwise not be available to me. The funding and tuition coverage that I receive as an OSEP Scholar has allowed me to focus on my studies and research without worrying about needing to take outside employment that may be unrelated to my training in education research.

I also work on an IES-funded meta-analysis project that looks at augmentative and alternative communication interventions for children with autism and/or intellectual disabilities. I love this project because I had worked as a teacher for children with autism. Currently, I code the data from the articles that are included in the analysis. This process has certainly been a learning experience, but it is so much fun because I read about interesting research that serves as inspiration for my own future work.

My work on the IES project and my experience as an OSEP Scholar inform one another. I began my doctoral program as a research assistant on the IES-funded project, and in my second year I became an OSEP Scholar. During my first year, I gained valuable research experience while working on the meta-analysis. This experience was crucial in my second year when, as an OSEP Scholar, I took a class on systematic review with intervention studies. My training as an OSEP Scholar has, in turn, given me the tools to lead a sub-project on the IES-funded meta-analysis.

Although I am still considering my future career goals, ideally, I would like to conduct research on interventions that can be used to support advocacy for play-based learning opportunities for children with disabilities. The research experience I receive as an OSEP Scholar and through IES-funded research will help build my knowledge base. The ongoing collaboration with other OSEP Scholars provides a natural forum for me to develop and refine research ideas as well as build a professional network for future collaborations even before I graduate.

Taydi Ray, Vanderbilt University

Headshot of Taydi Ray

I’m a first-year doctoral student, supported by an OSEP-funded training grant—Preparing Leaders to Unify Social, Behavioral, and Communication Interventions for Toddlers (Project PLUS-BC)—a cross-site collaboration between Vanderbilt University and the University of Washington to prepare scholars for leadership roles in early childhood special education with a focus on toddler language and social-emotional development. My short time as an OSEP Scholar has allowed me to visit our partner site, attend national conferences, and participate in a cross-site prenatal-to-three seminar. The training grant has also covered school-related expenses, such as tuition and a stipend I used to purchase a new computer. The project provides mentorship, training, and research opportunities with faculty from both universities. 

EMT en Español, an IES grant, introduced me to academia before I became an OSEP Scholar. This efficacy trial strives to improve language and school readiness skills for Spanish-speaking toddlers. I joined the research team in May 2022, primarily serving as an interventionist to deliver a naturalistic language intervention, Enhanced Milieu Teaching (EMT), and train caregivers to use the strategies, too. This project was an excellent introduction to special education research.

Although I continue to work on this project, as a current OSEP Scholar, my primary research efforts and training occur through another IES-funded project—Toddler Talk. Toddler Talk aims to improve language development in toddlers at high risk for persistent developmental language disorders and poor social and academic outcomes. I currently serve as a data collector for this project, which entails learning, administering, and scoring classroom-based assessments with teachers and toddlers. I have enjoyed this unique opportunity to engage in classroom research.

Before pursuing a doctoral degree, I worked as a bilingual speech-language pathologist (SLP) in schools. I would love to combine my background in speech pathology with my budding knowledge of special education research by serving as a faculty member in a communication disorders program. Ultimately, I hope to prepare future SLPs to confidently work with culturally and linguistically diverse children with disabilities and their families. I believe that my work on Project PLUS-BC, Toddler Talk, and EMT en Español will prepare me to be a well-rounded leader in special education.

Both OSEP and NCSER provide student scholars access to a variety of experiences that include training in research methodology and opportunities to apply this knowledge and build skills within current research projects. These opportunities can comprehensively prepare doctoral students to be future leaders who will contribute to meaningful research and teach the next generation of teachers, interventionists, and providers to use evidence-based practices to serve and support children with disabilities in their communities. Thank you to Matt and Taydi for sharing their experiences as OSEP Scholars working with research supported by NCSER. NCSER looks forward to seeing the future impact you will have in your field!

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at NCSER and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University. Shanna is also an OSEP Scholar through RISE. Sarah Allen manages OSEP’s Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results Program.

Research and Development Partnerships Using AI to Support Students with Disabilities

A speach therapist uses a laptop to work with a student

It is undeniable that artificial intelligence (AI) is, sooner rather than later, going to impact the work of teaching and learning in special education. Given formal adoption of AI technologies by schools and districts and informal uses of ChatGPT and similar platforms by educators and students, the field of special education research needs to take seriously how advancements in AI can complement and potentially improve our work. But there are also ways that these advancements can go astray. With these technologies advancing so quickly, and with AI models being trained on populations that may not include individuals with disabilities, there is a real risk that AI will fail to improve—or worse, harm—learning experiences for students with disabilities. Therefore, there is a pressing need to ensure that voices from within the special education community are included in the development of these new technologies.

At NCSER, we are committed to investing in research on AI technologies in a way that privileges the expertise of the special education community, including researchers, educators, and students with disabilities and their families. Below, we highlight two NCSER-funded projects that demonstrate this commitment.

Using AI to support speech-language pathologists

In 2023, NCSER partnered with the National Science foundation to fund AI4ExceptionalEd, a new AI Institute that focuses on transforming education for children with speech and language disorders. Currently, there is a drastic shortage of speech-language pathologists (SLPs) to identify and instruct students with speech and language needs. AI4ExceptionalEd brings together researchers from multiple disciplines including special education, communication disorders, learning sciences, linguistics, computer science, and AI from nine different universities across the United States to tackle pressing educational issues around the identification of students and the creation of specially designed, individualized instruction for students with speech and language disorders.

By bringing together AI researchers and education researchers, this interdisciplinary research partnership is setting the foundation for cutting-edge AI technologies to be created that solve real-world problems in our schools. A recent example of this is in the creation of flash cards for targeted intervention. It is common practice for an SLP to use flash cards that depict a noun or a verb in their interventions, but finding or creating the exact set of flash cards to target a specific learning objective for each child is very time consuming. Here is where AI comes into play. The Institute’s team of researchers is leveraging the power of AI to help SLPs identify optimal sets of flash cards to target the learning objectives of each learner while also creating the flash cards in real time. To do this effectively, the AI researchers are working hand-in-hand with speech and language researchers and SLPs in the iterative development process, ensuring that the final product is aligned with sound educational practices. This one AI solution can help SLPs optimize their practice and reduce time wasted in creating materials.

Adapting a popular math curriculum to support students with reading disabilities

Another example of how partnerships can strengthen cutting-edge research using AI to improve outcomes for students with disabilities is a 2021 grant to CAST to partner with Carnegie Learning to improve their widely used digital math curriculum, MATHia. The goal of this project is to develop and evaluate reading supports that can be embedded into the adaptive program to improve the math performance, particularly with word problems, of students with reading disabilities. CAST is known for its research and development in the area of universal design for learning (UDL) and technology supports for students with disabilities. Carnegie Learning is well known for their suite of curriculum products that apply cognitive science to instruction and learning. The researchers in this partnership also rely on a diverse team of special education researchers who have expertise in math and reading disabilities and an educator advisory council of teachers, special educators, and math/reading specialists.

It has taken this kind of partnership—and the inclusion of relevant stakeholders and experts—to conduct complex research applying generative AI (ChatGPT) and humans to revise word problems within MATHia to decrease reading challenges and support students in understanding the semantic and conceptual structure of a word problem. Rapid randomized control trials are being used to test these revised versions with over 116,000 students participating in the study. In 2022-2023 the research team demonstrated that humans can successfully revise word problems in ways that lead to improvements in student performance, including students with disabilities. The challenge is in trying to train generative AI to reproduce the kinds of revisions humans make. While generative AI has so far been unevenly successful in making revisions that similarly lead to improvements in student outcomes, the researchers are not ruling out the use of generative AI in revising word problems in MATHia.

The research team is now working with their expert consultants on a systematic reading and problem-solving approach as an alternative to revising word problems. Instead of text simplification, they will be testing the effect of adding instructional support within MATHia for some word problems.

The promise of AI

AI technologies may provide an opportunity to optimize education for all learners. With educators spending large amounts of their day planning and doing paperwork, AI technologies can be leveraged to drastically decrease the amount of time teachers need to spend on this administrative work, allowing more time for them to do what only they can—teach children. Developers and data scientists are invariably going to continue developing AI technologies, many with a specific focus on solutions to support students with disabilities. We would like to encourage special education researchers to exert their expertise in this development work, to partner with developers and interdisciplinary teams to apply AI to create innovative and novel solutions to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. For AI to lead to lasting advances in education spaces, it will be imperative that this development is inclusive of the special education field.

This blog was written by NCSER Commissioner, Nate Jones (Nathan.Jones@ed.gov) and NCSER program officers Britta Bresina (Britta.Bresina@ed.gov) and Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov).

What We are Learning from NAEP Data About Use of Extended Time Accommodations

For students with learning disabilities, many of whom may take more time to read and process information than non-disabled peers, an extended time accommodation (ETA) is often used on standardized assessments. In 2021, IES awarded a grant for researchers to explore the test-taking behavior, including use of accommodations such as ETA, of students with disabilities in middle school using response process data from the NAEP mathematics assessment. In this blog, we interview Dr. Xin Wei from Digital Promise to see what she and Dr. Susu Zhang from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are learning from their study.

The researchers have delved into the performance, process, and survey data of the eighth graders who took the digital NAEP mathematics test in 2017. Their recent article presents a quasi-experimental study examining the differences in these data across three distinct profiles of students with learning disabilities (LDs)—students with LD who received and utilized ETAs, students with LD who were granted ETAs but did not use them, and students with LD who did not receive ETAs.

The key findings from their study are as follows:

  • Students with LDs who used their ETAs performed statistically significantly better than their peers with LDs who were not granted ETA and those who received ETA but did not use it. They also engaged more with the test, as demonstrated by more frequent actions, revisits to items, and greater use of universal design features like drawing tool and text-to-speech functionalities on most of the math items compared to students who were not granted extended time.
  • Students with LDs who had ETAs but chose not to use them performed significantly worse than their peers with LDs who were not granted extended time.
  • Students with LDs who were granted ETAs saw the best performance with an additional 50% time (45 minutes compared to the usual 30 minutes provided to students without ETA).
  • Students who were given extra time, regardless of whether they used it, reported feeling less time pressure, higher math interest, and enjoying math more.
  • There were certain item types for which students who used ETAs performed more favorably.

We recently discussed the results of the study with Dr. Wei to learn more.


Which types of items on the test favored students who used extended time and why do you think they benefited?

Headshot of Xin Wei

The assessment items that particularly benefited from ETAs were not only complex but also inherently time-consuming. For example, students need to complete four sub-questions for item 5, drag six numbers to the correct places for item 6, type answers into four places to complete an equation for item 9, type in a constructive response answer for item 11, and complete a multiple-choice question and type answers in eight places to complete item 13.

For students with LDs, who often have slower processing speeds, these tasks become even more time-intensive. The additional time allows students to engage with each element of the question thoroughly, ensuring they have the opportunity to fully understand and respond to each part. This extended time is not just about accommodating different processing speeds; it's about providing the necessary space for these students to engage with and complete tasks that are intricate and time-consuming by design.

Why did you decide to look at the additional survey data NAEP collects on math interest and enjoyment in your study of extended time?

These affective factors are pivotal to academic success, particularly in STEM fields. Students who enjoy the subject matter tend to perform better, pursue related fields, and continue learning throughout their lives. This is especially relevant for students with LDs, who often face heightened test anxiety and lower interest in math, which can be exacerbated by the pressure of timed assessments. Our study's focus on these affective components revealed that students granted extra time reported a higher level of math interest and enjoyment even if they did not use the extra time. ETAs appear to alleviate the stress tied to time limits, offering dual advantages by not only aiding in academic achievement but also by improving attitudes toward math. ETAs could be a low-cost, high-impact accommodation that not only addresses academic needs but also contributes to emotional health.

What recommendations do you have based on your findings for classroom instruction?

First, it is crucial to prioritize extra time for students with LDs to enhance their academic performance and engagement. This involves offering flexible timing for assignments and assessments to reduce anxiety and foster a greater interest in learning. Teachers should be encouraged to integrate Universal Design for Learning principles into their instructional methods, emphasizing the effective use of technology, such as text-to-speech tools and embedded digital highlighters and pencils for doing scratchwork. Professional development for educators is essential to deepen their proficiency in using digital learning tools. Additionally, teachers should motivate students to use the extra time for thorough problem-solving and to revisit math tasks for accuracy. Regularly adjusting accommodations to meet the evolving needs of students with LDs is vital in creating an inclusive learning environment where every student can achieve success.

What is the implication of the study findings on education equity? 

Our study demonstrates that ETAs offer more than just a performance boost: they provide psychological benefits, reducing stress and enhancing interest and enjoyment with the subject matter. This is vital for students with LDs, who often face heightened anxiety and performance pressure. To make the system more equitable, we need a standardized policy for accommodations that ensures all students who require ETAs receive them. We must consider the variable needs of all students and question the current practices and policies that create inconsistencies in granting accommodations. If the true aim of assessments is to gauge student abilities, time is a factor that should not become a barrier.


U.S. Department of Education Resources

Learn more about the Department’s resources to support schools, educators, and families in making curriculum, instruction, and assessment accessible for students with disabilities.

Learn more about conducting research using response process data from the 2017 NAEP Mathematics Assessment.

 

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