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March 2010

Around the Centers

Murnane lectures IES staffDr. Richard Murnane speaks to IES staff

Harvard Economist Leads Discussion of Education Progress and Challenges with IES Staff

Richard Murnane, a noted Harvard University scholar who has worked closely with schools on improvement strategies and student assessment results, discussed with IES staff some of the most vexing challenges in American schools—from teacher quality to student discipline—in a talk entitled "Educational Policy Research: Progress, Puzzles and Challenges."

About 50 IES staff members gathered last month for the discussion with Dr. Murnane, who made the case that researchers need to better understand schools as "learning organizations." Examining schools as learning organizations is one of IES Director John Easton's five goals, so the talk sparked a lively discussion about how this kind of research might be conducted through IES.

"How do we learn more about the factors that facilitate and those that hinder the creation of learning organizations that educate disadvantaged children well?" Murnane offered. "Some public policy questions likely to affect the development of schools as learning organizations include the rules regarding the selection of teachers . . . and whether the school has the resources to deal with emotionally disturbed children who disrupt instruction. Another set of questions that is even more fundamental . . . concerns the curriculum, how it is taught and what is required of students."

Murnane is the co-author of a soon-to-be-published book that describes how improvements in research design and analysis strategies can help researchers make valid causal inferences in educational policy research. In the afternoon, he led lessons on these methodological issues for about 20 IES research specialists. The staff discussed how to understand the counterfactual, examined issues of selection bias, and explored the examination of impacts on subgroups. The discussion led to a deeper exploration of the relevance and implication of these issues for IES projects.

Postsecondary Experimental Studies: An NCES/NCER Partnership

A new partnership within the Institute of Education Sciences will allow researchers to conduct innovative experiments that examine ways to improve access to, persistence in, and completion of postsecondary education.

The National Center for Education Research, in collaboration with the National Center for Education Statistics, is piloting a grant program for researchers to use the 2012 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), which is expected to contain a sample of more than 100,000 undergraduate students.

When the NPSAS was last conducted in 2008, only a fraction of the student sample was used in NCESís longitudinal studies, and the remaining students are no longer contacted by NCES. Meanwhile, researchers struggle to find a nationally representative sample with which they can do research on college retention and success.

This new grant program will give researchers access to the tens of thousands of NPSAS students who have consented to be part of NCESís data collection but are not involved in any of these longitudinal studies. These research projects could identify the effect of information experiments on student borrowing and repayment decisions, or match sample members to administrative records to examine the influence of selected factors on transfer behavior or graduate school entry.

Research projects will be chosen through a competitive process overseen by both centers. NCES and NCER are helping researchers capitalize on a large sample of students, for whom baseline information has already been collected, while minimizing intrusion into the studentsí lives, enabling a randomized experiment at a relatively small cost.

The research could involve a direct survey or interventions administered entirely through email or postal mail. Informational campaigns would likely be the most prevalent type of intervention. Other interventions focused on retention or on packaging financial aid awards also might be possible. The pilot program could involve other data partners, such as the National Student Clearinghouse and the Office of Federal Student Aid, to help researchers gather outcome data in an inexpensive, easy manner.

The grant application deadline is September 16 and information can be found at

IES Grantees Receive Prestigious Award at a White House Ceremony

Director John Easton welcomes the two IES grantees, both recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientist and Engineers.
Dr. Nonie Lesaux, Director Easton, and Dr. Katherine Rawson after the award ceremony
Two IES-funded researchers, Dr. Nonie K. Lesaux and Dr. Katherine Rawson, received the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers—the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The researchers were honored at a ceremony in January at the White House. Read their reflections below.

Dr. Lesaux is the Marie and Max Kargman Associate Professor in Human Development and Urban Education Advancement at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her NCER grant work, "Increasing Opportunities-to-Learn in Urban Middle Schools," evaluated the efficacy of the Academic Language Instruction for all Students program in a large number of urban middle school classrooms. This program is an instructional intervention designed to improve the reading comprehension of English language learners and their classmates through explicit instruction in vocabulary and word-learning strategies. Details on this project can be found at

Dr. Rawson is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Kent State University. Her NCER grant work on "Developing the Retrieval-Monitoring-Feedback Method for Improving the Durability and Efficiency of Student Learning" investigates methods for helping students to support long-term retention of key concepts. The study includes both middle school students and college undergraduates. Details on this project can be found at

For information on the annual Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) program visit

INTERVIEWS: The researchers reflected on their work and the award with IES Research Scientist Karen Douglas.

Dr. Lesaux:

Tell us a little about your background — how did you become interested in your research topics?
I did my graduate work in Vancouver, British Columbia, beginning in the late '90s. At that time, the city and, therefore, schools had become very linguistically diverse. In focusing on assessment and instruction in the field of learning disabilities and reading difficulties, we had a lot of unanswered questions about the population of children who were coming to the classroom and to the curriculum without full proficiency in English. For example, in the North Vancouver School District, there were 33 different educators, clinicians and researchers, myself included, who had a lot of questions about how reading develops for these children, as well as corresponding questions about appropriate, effective identification of difficulties and appropriate instructional practices to prevent and remediate reading difficulties to ensure they are academically successful.

What questions do you most want to answer in your program of research?
At this time, I am most focused on two related lines of research. The first aims to continue to generate a nuanced understanding of how reading comprehension develops and breaks down for linguistically diverse learners and their classmates. To accomplish this goal, I conduct longitudinal studies that track students' language and reading development over time, from early childhood through adolescence. The second aims to generate and evaluate instructional approaches to increase opportunities-to-learn in settings with children and youth who need additional support to bolster their reading skills. In order to ensure that this research is not only rigorous and sophisticated but equally practical and relevant, it is conducted in collaboration with educational and clinical settings serving children.

How will receipt of this award influence your future work?
The award is a tremendous honor for me, and I am humbled to be recognized at a national level and among such distinguished leaders. I also hope that it's an honor for the field of reading research and research on linguistically diverse students' development, particularly since I have been mentored by some truly outstanding scholars and I have the ongoing benefit of drawing on others' research and scholarly work to strengthen my own work. In accepting this award, I pledge to continue my commitment to the science of children's development and well-being by focusing on their language and reading skills.

Personal thoughts on the ceremony to honor you at the White House.
January 13th was a very memorable day for me. The ceremony was wonderful, and it was great to hear about the fields of study for all of the other winners, including Katherine Rawson (IES). While incredible just to be at the White House that day . . . the highlight was to hear from President Obama when he addressed the group of PECASE winners. He was characteristically articulate and inspiring; he spoke to us about his administration's commitment to advancing knowledge and supporting young scientists, including women, to do their best work. Among other noteworthy points, he explained that he was particularly encouraged and excited about PECASE because it is as much about future work and accomplishments as about celebrating past work and accomplishments.

Dr. Rawson:

Tell us a little about your background — how did you become interested in your research topics?
I actually did not go to college directly out of high school—I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do and I wasn't sure I could afford college. So I worked for a few years, eventually ending up as a restaurant manager. One of my perennial frustrations was with the lack of support or guidance for the best way to train employees (and given the turnover rates of employees in restaurants, we did a lot of training!). This quickly grew into a broader interest in how we educate students more generally. So when I eventually decided to go to college, I knew I wanted to study how people learn and how they can learn better.

What questions do you most want to answer in your program of research?
My program of research actually has two major branches. One branch involves investigating how the cognitive processes involved in reading comprehension become automatic with practice, with an eye toward eventually figuring out what kinds of practice might best help struggling readers become more proficient. The other major branch includes my IES-funded research, which is focused on exploring the effectiveness of different study strategies and study schedules for enhancing student learning. Our major questions there concern how students of all ages can learn more, learn it faster, and retain it longer.

How will receipt of this award influence your future work?
I'm very honored to have been selected as a PECASE awardee, and the recognition alone has really renewed my enthusiasm and motivation to continue to pursue these branches of research, which I believe will have important applications for readers and learners.

Personal thoughts on the ceremony to honor you at the White House.
I can't even begin to do justice to what an awe-inspiring experience it was to see President Obama in the White House and to hear his encouraging words to us as young researchers. I'll remember that for the rest of my life, I'm sure.