Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Types of Communication for Persons with Autism

Headshots of Drs. Ganz, Pustejovsky, and Reichle In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we took a deep look into NCSER-funded research on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and/or moderate-to-severe intellectual disabilities (ID) who have complex communication needs. Principal investigators Drs. Ganz, Reichle, and Pustejovsky discussed their research on AAC (such as communication board or speech output device), which provides an alternative means of communication for persons who are nonverbal or minimally verbal and ensures they have the opportunity to communicate their wants and needs. This research team’s current IES project examines treatment intensity factors (how often or how long an intervention takes place) related to teaching AAC use. In the interview below, they discuss their current project and how it builds upon their previous research on AAC interventions.

What is the purpose of your current project?

Individuals with ASD and/or ID who have complex communication needs typically require intensive, costly, and individualized educational interventions to develop communication. However, there is little information to guide parents and instructional personnel in selecting the most effective dose and duration of treatment. Similarly, there is a lack of guidance about when and how treatment integrity and strategies for generalization (use in various contexts) and maintenance (sustaining treatment over time) affect treatment outcomes. The purpose of this current project is to examine the effects of various treatment intensity parameters on expressive communication outcomes for students with ASD and/or ID through a meta-analysis. This investigation aims to guide the development of protocols for instructional personnel and parents so they can implement efficient, acceptable, and effective treatment for improving communication for these students.

What motivated you to conduct this research?

Educational interventions to treat ASD can be costly. This can lead to disparities wherein wealthier families can access high-quality services while most Americans cannot. Social services—including educational and healthcare services—are typically underfunded, impeding the provision of quality services for this population. For example, behavioral experts have recommended 25-40 hours per week of intensive, one-on-one educational and behavioral services for young children with ASD. However, there has been limited research aimed at comparing the relative efficacy of interventions based on various factors associated with treatment intensity. Not all individuals will need the same level of treatment intensity, but more research is needed to understand how treatment intensity needs can be differentiated by student characteristics, intervention types, and service context. Interventions that are efficient and tailored to individual student need may allow them to be more accessible to a wider range of families. In addition to studying these factors, this project aims to develop a treatment integrity template that can be used by others in determining appropriate treatment intensity levels for a range of interventions and populations. Such investigations hold promise for significant improvements in intervention efficiency, potentially giving schools ways to effectively serve more individuals.

Our goal is to provide information to family members and practitioners to enable them to better individualize AAC interventions, allowing them to match treatment intensity needs to individual characteristics, precursor skills, background, and consumer preferences and needs. By doing so, we can provide guidance for the allocation of services where needs are greatest.

How does this project build upon your previous research in AAC?

In 2021, we completed a research project that examined AAC interventions using similar meta-analytic methods with the same population as those studied in our current research. In that project, we focused on the ways in which instructional features and contexts are associated with learner performance. We found that AAC interventions are commonly implemented in school, home, and community settings with no significant differences in learner outcomes based on the setting. This tells us that AAC use does not need to be limited to one setting and can include caregivers and family members in this process. Across studies, a wide range of instructional strategies were used to teach AAC use, with behavioral and naturalistic strategies the most common.

Similarly, there was a range of teaching formats used during instruction. We looked at instructor- versus child-led, contrived versus naturalistic, and one-on-one versus group contexts, with structured approaches (one-on-one instruction, instructor-led, and contrived learning opportunities) the most common. However, just as with settings, no significant differences in outcomes were observed across instructional strategies or formats, indicating that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to AAC use and it can be individualized to the needs of each learner. The current grant offers a close examination of treatment intensity factors—such as how many sessions of intervention per week, how many minutes per session, and how many communicative opportunities the learner has during each session—and their potential effect on learner performance. Overall, the study asks, “what is the association between AAC dosage and successful learner outcomes?”

What can your research tell us about the relationship between education outcomes and AAC use for students with ASD and ID

We are hopeful that it will provide clarity for successful intervention protocols by specifying aspects of treatment intensity. Factors of treatment intensity and related intervention characteristics we are looking at include dosage rate, duration, form, and frequency; total intervention duration; degree that the treatment is implemented with integrity; and implementation of generalization and maintenance strategies. Additionally, we will explore possible associations between key skills that are important for students with ASD and ID to develop (such as imitation and matching) and choice of treatment intensity parameters.

Communication is the basis for most other learning, including social skills, literacy, and other functional life skills; thus, improving and increasing communication production and comprehension for individuals with ASD and ID who are minimally verbal or nonverbal will build a foundation for further academic and functional progress.

What do families and caregivers need to know about AAC use?

We believe that families should encourage communication in a range of modalities, including aided AAC, but also natural gestures, speech, and speech approximations. Although there is a myth that AAC use discourages speech, research has shown that individuals often learn speech simultaneously with AAC learning. Further, by increasing fluent communication, frustration and challenging behavior are often decreased. Communication in all forms must be targeted across people, settings, and vocabulary to provide minimally verbal and nonverbal individuals with opportunities to learn and use new language.

We hope to provide information to family members and practitioners that better enables them to individualize AAC interventions, allowing them to match treatment intensity needs to individual characteristics, precursor skills, background, and consumer preferences and needs. By doing so, we will be able to target services where needs are greatest and preserve resources for those in most need.

Many thanks to Drs. Ganz, Reichle and Pustejovsky for sharing their work with our readers!

Joe Reichle serves as the PI for this project and is a former Department Chair and current Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication Disorders at the University of Minnesota.

J. Birdie Ganz is a professor of Special Education at Texas A&M University and serves as current Project Director and co-PI for this project.

James Pustejovsky is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and serves as co-PI for this project.

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at IES and graduate student at Texas A&M University. She also serves as a research assistant on this project.


Educational Diagnostician Promotes Knowledge of IES-Supported Research on Measurement and Interventions for Learning Disabilities

This week, Texas celebrates Educational Diagnosticians’ Week. In recognition, NCSER highlights the important work that one Texas-based educational diagnostician, Mahnaz (Nazzie) Pater-Rov, has been doing to disseminate information from IES researchers to practitioners on improving reading outcomes.

Nazzie conducts assessments of students who have been referred for testing within multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) to determine whether they have a learning disability (LD) and makes recommendations for intervention/instruction to improve their literacy and achieve their Individualized Education Plan goals. Working in this field requires an understanding of district/school policies and research-based evidence on identifying students with disabilities. To do this, Nazzie has immersed herself in current research by reading many of the resources IES provides through the What Works Clearinghouse and IES-funded grants so that she can use valid measures and recommend evidence-based interventions. After 16 years in the profession, Nazzie has realized that she is not alone and wants to help other diagnosticians understand the latest developments in LD identification and intervention. Nazzie uses a social media audio application called Clubhouse to share what she is learning, including hosting researchers for chats to present current work on related topics. Nazzie’s chat room is called ED. DIAGNOSTICIANS and has over 900 members, mostly education diagnosticians. Some of her speakers have been IES-funded researchers.  




Researcher (Link to IES Grants)


Are Subtypes of Dyslexia Real?

Jack Fletcher, University of Houston


Efforts to Reduce Academic Risk at the Meadows Center

Sarah Powell, University of Texas at Austin


Bringing the Dyslexia Definition in to Focus

Jeremy Miciak, University of Houston


Pinpointing Needs with Academic Screeners

Nathan Clemens, University of Texas at Austin


Using EasyCBMs in our Evaluation Reports

Julie Alonzo, University of Oregon


We asked Nazzie to share some of her top concerns and recommendations for research.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What stimulated your desire to bring about changes not only in your school but across the state?

When Texas removed its cap on the number of students that could be identified as in need of special education, and districts changed procedures for identifying need, we started to experience a “tsunami” of referrals. Now we are creating a whole population of children identified with LDs without also simultaneously looking at ways to improve our system of policies, procedures, and instruction to ensure we meet the needs of all students through preventative practices.

How has the role of education diagnostician changed since the reauthorization of IDEA (2004)?

Prior to the reauthorization of IDEA, we would compare a student’s IQ with their academic performance. If there was a discrepancy, they were identified as LD. Many states now use a pattern of strengths and weaknesses (PSW) for identification, which is based on multiple measures of cognitive processes.

In Texas, there is also an increased demand for the specialized, evidence-based instruction now that we are better understanding how to identify students as LD and parents are seeing the need for identification and services for their children. However, this has led to doubling the LD identification rate in many districts. This, in turn, is increasing our caseloads and burning us out!

Some experts in the field advocate for using a tiered systems approach, such as MTSS, to identify when a student is not responding to instruction or intervention rather than relying only on the PSW approach. However, the challenge is that there are not enough evidence-based interventions in place across the tiers within MTSS for this identification process to work. In other words, can students appropriately be identified as not responding to instruction when evidence-based interventions are not being used? By not making these types of evidence-based interventions accessible at younger ages to general education students within MTSS, I worry that we are just helping kids tread water when we could have helped them learn to swim earlier.

What are your recommendations for systemic reform?

We need to find a better way to weave intervention implementation into teachers’ everyday practice so it is not viewed as “extra work.” Tiered models are general education approaches to intervention, but it is important for special education teachers and educational diagnosticians to also be involved. My worry is that diagnosticians, including myself, are helping to enable deficit thinking by reinforcing the idea that the child’s performance is more a result of their inherited traits rather than a result of instruction when, instead, we could focus our energy on finding better ways to provide instruction. Without well-developed tiered models, I worry that we end up working so hard because what we are doing is not working.

Are there specific training needs you feel exist for education diagnosticians?

Many new diagnosticians are trained on tools or methods that are outdated and no longer relevant to current evidence-based testing recommendations. This is a problem because instructional decisions can only be as good as the data on which they are based. We need training programs that enable us to guide school staff in selecting the appropriate assessments for specific needs. If diagnosticians were trained in data-based individualization or curriculum-based measures for instructional design rather than just how to dissect performance on subtests of cognitive processing (the PSW approach), they could be helping to drive instruction to improve student outcomes. The focus of an assessment for an LD should not be on a static test but be on learning, which is a moving target that cannot be measured in one day. 

What feedback do you have for education funding agencies?

Implementing a system of academic interventions is challenging, especially after COVID-19, where social-emotional concerns and teacher shortages remain a top priority in many schools. Funding agencies should consider encouraging more research on policies and processes for the adoption of evidence-based interventions. Diagnosticians can be important partners in the effort.

This blog was authored by Sarah Brasiel (, program officer at NCSER. IES encourages special education researchers to partners with practitioners to submit to our research grant funding opportunities

How Enhanced Core Reading Instruction Has Improved Reading Outcomes for Students with Reading Difficulties Through Tiered Supports

A teacher and students work with flashcards

Enhanced Core Reading Instruction (ECRI) is a systemic intervention that researchers at the University of Oregon developed with practitioners to assist educators in providing instruction within multi-tiered systems of supports. ECRI provides teachers with guidance and support for implementing Tier 1 core reading instruction and Tier 2 interventions that align with core reading instruction. Teachers have access to specific instruction methods that enhance their district-adopted core reading program, guided lesson plans, intervention templates, and explicit protocols for data collection and review to inform instructional decisions. Since 2009, IES has funded research projects that examine ECRI’s impact on academic and behavioral outcomes for students with or at risk for reading difficulties.

At the University of Oregon, Hank Fien conducted a study that provided 2 years of professional development (PD) and coaching to first grade teachers to implement the core reading program and use ECRI materials. The results of this randomized controlled trial demonstrated that students who received ECRI Tier 2 intervention made more progress towards reading achievement and reading proficiency than students who received the typical, “business-as-usual” Tier 2 instruction. Findings from the study indicated that schools should consider three factors when choosing an instruction model for struggling readers: 1) increasing specificity of instruction procedures through lesson plans and teaching routines, 2) increasing the intensity of instruction that students receive, and 3) closely aligning instruction between Tier 1 and Tier 2 interventions.

At the University of Alabama, Gregory Benner developed a program, Integrated Literacy Study Group, that provides web-based PD to special education teachers to assist in delivering high-quality reading instruction based on ECRI to students with an emotional/behavioral disorder (EBD). Results from the pilot study showed the program demonstrated promise for teacher and student outcomes. Teachers who participated in online learning modules to learn ECRI strategies demonstrated increases in teaching self-efficacy in the areas of classroom management, instructional strategies, student engagement, and self-efficacy in teaching reading and using behavior management strategies with students with or at risk for EBD. They also demonstrated increased knowledge of the evidence-based behavioral and reading strategies for students with EBD learned through the PD program. Students with or at risk for EBD served by these participating teachers made significant improvements in academic engagement and notable gains on reading scores.

In a collaborative effort led by Nancy Nelson, the University of Oregon and the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Special Education worked in partnership to conduct an evaluation of a state’s multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework that implements ECRI for Tier 1 and Tier 2 reading instruction. The MTSS framework included specific protocols for integrating teaching academic and behavioral content across tiers of support. The reading intervention incorporated ECRI instructional strategies while the behavior intervention used positive behavior supports, including a “check-in/check-out” behavior monitoring and reinforcement system. We hope to share the results and their implications in an additional blog in the near future.

More recently, Dr. Nelson, now at Boston University, is developing a Tier 3 extension of the ECRI reading intervention that is intensified for students identified as needing more intensive support in kindergarten through second grade. This study will develop protocols and training for teachers, collect data on the feasibility of teacher implementation, and study the promise of the Tier 3 intervention for improving student outcomes. Researchers will study how student outcomes are related to reading content, executive function supports, instructional design elements, and instructional delivery features.

In another recently funded study, Elaine Wang at RAND Corporation is conducting an ECRI replication study to measure its effectiveness on foundational reading skills with first-grade students. In addition to examining whether ECRI will improve reading outcomes for students, researchers are also investigating whether features of the intervention can be feasibly implemented within a typical classroom context by classroom teachers under routine conditions, with less support for implementation than was included in prior studies.

The NCSER-funded studies of ECRI to date have demonstrated improved reading outcomes for students at risk of reading difficulties by targeting critical reading content areas (phonemic awareness, blending sounds, fluency, vocabulary) and increasing the explicitness of instruction. An important aspect of these studies is they were implemented in an authentic school environment by school staff, demonstrating that ECRI procedures can fit within the daily routines of a typical school day. NCSER looks forward to learning the results of the current, ongoing ECRI studies that will add to the evidence focused on the impact and implementation of this intervention. We thank all the researchers for their hard work and dedication to supporting students, educators, and our schools.

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at IES and graduate student at Texas A&M University. Sarah Brasiel ( is the program officer for the Reading, Writing, and Language program and oversees most of the research projects that focus on studying ECRI across NCSER programs.

Meeting the Needs of Students in Real World Education Settings

This year, Inside IES Research is featuring a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we interviewed Michael P. Mesa, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Children's Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. His research focuses on examining factors that can maximize children’s academic and behavioral development, particularly in the context of small-group instruction. We recently caught up with Dr. Mesa to learn more about his career, the experiences that have shaped it, and his view of the role of diversity and inclusion in education research.

How did you begin your career journey as an education researcher?

Headshot of Michael P. Mesa, PhD

I became interested in education research while working as an undergraduate research assistant at the Center for Children and Families at Florida International University. I worked on IES-funded research studies focused on behavioral interventions, such as the Summer Preparatory Program for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As part of the primary intervention, I used applied behavior analysis (ABA) in the context of a summer camp. I found supporting the behavioral development of children rewarding and the process of conducting research to be interesting. Over time, I was given opportunities to become more and more involved in the research side of the behavioral interventions.

At the same time, I was also a professional tutor and found that many of the students referred to tutoring for academic support also had behavioral difficulties. I wound up using the same strategies that worked in the behavioral intervention while tutoring students. For example, I was liberal with my use of labeled praise and consistent with my expectations and feedback and found that using ABA helped students stay engaged and motivated during the tutoring session. These experiences supporting students with academic and behavioral difficulties in research and applied settings inspired me to pursue my doctorate at the College of Education at Florida State University. Here I became interested in strategies that can be used to maximize learning and development, particularly in the context of targeted small-group instruction. For my dissertation, I explored the role of classroom management strategies in the context of small-group literacy interventions for children at risk for reading difficulties.

What are you researching now?

Currently I am investigating the role that group composition and peers play in maximizing student learning in the context of targeted, small-group interventions. My research suggests that the language skills of peers is related to their own language development in this context, such that students benefit from interacting with and being exposed to peers with more developed language skills.

What do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

As researchers, I think it is important to focus on research questions with practical implications that meet the needs of students and teachers in real world classrooms or education settings. The development of and participation in researcher–practitioner partnerships is one path towards assuring that we are aware of the needs of the teachers and students we are serving and that our research is relevant for diverse communities. I believe these partnerships should include active participation from diverse stakeholders in various stages of research, including project development, implementation, analysis, and dissemination. Within the context of these partnerships, researchers can solicit research questions of importance and interest to teachers and other stakeholders.

I also believe that one of the ways we can improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities is by increasing the diversity of the research workforce. This means attracting individuals with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences, who will bring fresh and relevant ideas to the field. During my graduate studies, I was part of a department and organizations with colleagues and faculty from diverse backgrounds. For example, I served various roles in an IES-funded Pathways training program, Partners United for Research Pathways Oriented to Social Justice in Education (PURPOSE), focused on increasing the diversity of individuals in education research. As a Hispanic and first-generation graduate student, I found being part of these diverse research teams helped make me feel welcome in the field of education research and supported the development of my professional identity. I also observed that many of the research projects developed by these diverse individuals aimed to support marginalized students that are typically understudied. 

What advice would you give to emerging scholars that are pursuing a career in education research?

Protect your writing time and create a writing routine—find a consistent time and place to write for your primary research task and don’t schedule over it. I would encourage emerging scholars to treat their writing time like a meeting, class, or job that they can’t miss. This may require saying ‘no’ to requests from others in order to prioritize writing. Research requires sustained effort and I have found that protecting my writing has supported me in making continuous progress on my manuscripts and projects.

My next recommendation aligns with my research in the area of peer effects that has found that the skills of one’s peers are related to one’s own skill development. I would encourage early researchers to find colleagues and peers with common goals or interests, particularly peers who are at more advanced stages in their career journey, and to find ways to collaborate and work with them. Throughout my career journey, a constant theme is that I have been part of a supportive village of researchers, and that others have provided opportunities for me to become involved in their projects. I have also found it beneficial to have at least one accountability partner within my village of researchers. An accountability partner is somebody with whom you share your goals and your plans to meet these goals. During times of success, your accountability partner is somebody that you can celebrate with. During times of stress, your accountability partner is somebody that can help with reflection, problem solving, and encouragement. Participating in recurring meetings with a writing group is a way to combine these pieces of advice.

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here, here, and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Hispanic Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Hispanic researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Hispanic students.

Michael P. Mesa, PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Children's Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center. He received his bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Statistics from Florida International University. Dr. Mesa earned his MS and PhD from the Educational Psychology and Learning Systems program at Florida State University, where he also earned certificates in Measurement and Statistics and College Teaching and completed the nationally recognized Preparing Future Faculty program.

This blog was produced by Katie Taylor (, postdoctoral training program officer at the National Center for Special Education Research and Katina Stapleton (, co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.


Congratulations Dr. Roddy Theobald on Winning the 2022 AEFP Early Career Award!

Headshot of Roddy TheobaldEach year, the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) recognizes one outstanding early career scholar whose research makes a significant contribution to the field of education finance and policy. In 2022, Dr. Roddy Theobald was the recipient of the Early Career award from AEFP. Congratulations to Dr. Theobald!

Dr. Theobald is a principal researcher in the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). CALDER, a collaboration among researchers at AIR and several universities around the United States, uses longitudinal data to explore a wide range of policy-relevant topics in education. Dr. Theobald’s research focuses on the teacher pipeline and its implications for student outcomes. Over the years, he has been involved in multiple IES-funded projects. These projects reflect a clear commitment to improving the teacher workforce and promoting positive outcomes for students. Dr. Theobald became interested in education policy research and studying the teacher workforce as a result of his experience as a 7th grade math teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. He is particularly interested in better understanding teacher shortage areas and what schools and districts can do to address them. 

As principal investigator (PI) on a recently completed researcher-practitioner partnership project, Dr. Theobald and his team worked in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to investigate the predictive validity of the state’s pre-service teacher evaluation systems and later in-service teaching outcomes and student outcomes. Key findings showed that teacher candidate performance on the Massachusetts Candidate Assessment of Performance, a practice-based assessment of student teaching, was predictive of their in-service summative performance ratings a year later. In examining the predictive validity of the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure, results indicated that pre-service teacher scores were positively and significantly related to in-service performance ratings and value-added modeling of student test scores.

Dr. Theobald is currently the PI of a research grant that examines associations between pre-service teacher experiences (coursework, student teaching placements, and the match between student teaching experiences and early career experiences), special education teacher workforce entry and retention, and student academic outcomes. Using data on graduates of special education teacher education programs in Washington state, he found that the rate of special educator attrition is between 20-30%, which includes teachers that left public schools as well as those who moved to general education classrooms. Interestingly, the research team found that while dual endorsement in special and general education is positively associated with retention in the teaching workforce, it is negatively associated with retention in special education classrooms specifically. In terms of factors that promote retention, the research team found that better coherence between teacher preparation and early career experiences is associated with greater retention and that being supervised by a cooperating teacher endorsed in special education as part of student teaching is associated with a higher likelihood of becoming a special education teacher. The research team also found a link between preservice teacher experiences and student outcomes: students demonstrate larger reading gains when their district and the program from which their teacher graduated emphasized evidence-based literacy decoding practices and when a more experienced cooperating teacher supervised their teacher’s student teaching placement.

When we asked Dr. Theobald about the direction in which this line of research is heading, he explained, “immediate next steps in this line of work include looking at the employment outcomes of individuals trained to be special education teachers who never enter public school teaching or leave the teacher workforce, as well as better understanding the paraeducator workforce in public schools. It is also essential to understand how the special educator workforce has changed in response to the COVID pandemic, and we hope to study these changes in the years to come!”

This blog was authored by Kaitlynn Fraze, doctoral student at George Mason University and IES intern, and Katie Taylor (, program officer at the National Center for Special Education Research.