Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Message from the NCSER Commissioner on Recent and Upcoming Competitions

On May 28, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) announced plans for our fiscal year (FY) 2025 Special Education Research Grants Program through a Federal Register notice. Careful readers will note that, for this competition, we are focusing on a specific topic: Education Systems. We did so both because it highlights a domain of much-needed research and because, as in years past, we find ourselves in a situation where the field continues to propose more high-quality research than NCSER has resources to support. I offer more details below.

Why is NCSER running a focused Research Grants Program competition in FY25?

The short answer to this question is that, in FY24, the number of proposed projects peer reviewers rated as Excellent or Outstanding outpaced the funds we had available. As some may remember, we faced a similar situation in FY23. At the time, a handful of unfunded projects that had scored in the “fundable” range (that is, below 2.00 in our scoring system)  but were not funded due to a lack of available funding. Fortunately, the vast majority of these FY23 studies resubmitted in FY24 and were recommended for funding. The problem is that we now have a new set of proposals in a similar spot. These applicants could reapply again in FY25, but we worry this is creating a pattern that will be hard to break. Absent a marked change in NCSER’s funding levels, how do we get out of this yo-yo of a cycle?

I want to honor the work—and acknowledge the excellence—that the community displayed throughout our FY24 competition. As such, my first priority in FY25 is to fund as many of the projects as we can that scored at or below 2.00 in FY24. But this decision comes at a cost: the need to focus our FY25 competition in some way. How we’ve chosen to do that—and our rationale for that choice—is described in more detail below.

More changes are likely in the years ahead. We hope we will have more funds in FY26 and beyond based on the interest in our grant competitions. But, in the absence of substantial increases in our funding appropriations, NCSER will need to be more selective in its investments, such as limiting the number of topics we compete in a given year or placing restrictions on the number of projects we intend to support on any one topic. We are at a point where we routinely receive more high-quality proposed research than we can support without making sacrifices to other investments that are critical to improving outcomes for students with or at risk of disabilities. This includes our early career programs that train the next generation of special education scholars, our methods trainings that strengthen special education research, and our research and development centers that provide national leadership on some of the most important issues facing special education today. I am not prepared to abandon these other programs, or close off opportunities to new investments, as each are equally important as our primary research competition in growing the knowledge base underlying high-quality special education.

We all know that every funder operates within resource constraints, and that leaders within funding organizations are responsible for making hard choices about prioritization. But the consequences of the current funding context are not lost on me. I recognize how much work goes into writing a proposal, and in the consequences of delays in funding opportunities—for the research getting done, for the success of partnerships with stakeholders, and for individuals’ own careers. I know from personal experience the feeling of receiving a score in the fundable range only to be notified that there is not sufficient funding for one’s project. There’s disappointment too for our program officers, who have spent countless hours working with first-time applicants and those who have resubmitted their projects one or more times. All these factors are balanced in making decisions about how to make the best use of NCSER’s available funds. And I am proud at how much the field of special education research has accomplished, making the most of our available resources.

Why focus on education systems?

With limited funds for new research awards, NCSER decided to invest in systems-level education improvements for students with disabilities. NCSER has long encouraged systems-level research, but we typically receive a small number of systems proposals each year. While NCSER has generated considerable evidence about individual- and classroom-based programs and practices for learners, we need more research on how programs and services are coordinated within and across the multiple, complex systems of special education. A focus on systems is particularly warranted given the current realities of the education climate, including ongoing staffing shortages, chronic absenteeism, fiscal uncertainties, and school systems that are still recovering from the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As you will see in our forthcoming RFA, we are casting a wide net in how we are encouraging the field to think about systems research.  This is truly a case where we need research across the board—from high-quality descriptive research documenting what special education systems look like in schools today, to research exploring how systems-level factors shape and are shaped by classroom practices and programs, to studies developing and testing systems-level interventions to measure development and validation given the relatively limited existing assessment work at the systems level. We are excited to see how the field embraces this focus.

Looking Forward

NCSER plays a singular role in the education research landscape, dedicated to building rigorous evidence about how to best meet the needs of students with and at risk of disabilities and to support the educators who serve them. I can appreciate that our focusing of the FY25 competition may cause some special education researchers to pursue funding with others this year, including private foundations or different federal partners. But throughout the year ahead—and as they have done since our inception—NCSER staff will continue to support our mission: training the next generation of researchers, building the research base on high-quality special education policies, programs, and practices, and finding more equitable and effective ways of mobilizing our research into practice.

IES is Investing in Research on Innovative Financial Aid Programs in Five States

State financial aid programs have the potential to substantially augment the support that students receive from the federal Pell Grant. Federal programs, most notably the Federal Pell Grant program, have historically played the lead role of providing a solid foundation of financial support to students, with states playing the supporting role of providing additional aid to students who meet specific eligibility requirements. In recent years, states have moved to innovate their financial aid programs in ways that have the potential to increase total aid packages, meet a wider range of needs, and serve a broader population of students. The effects of these recent innovations are mostly unknown yet of great interest to state legislators and policymakers. To address this issue, IES is funding a set of five research projects that assess the scope and effects of innovative financial aid programs in California, Connecticut, Michigan, Tennessee, and Washington state. This blog describes how the five projects are contributing to the evidence base.

State financial aid program eligibility rules differ in ways that can substantially alter total aid awards, the scope of the population that can be served, and the ways in which students can use aid funds to meet their various needs while enrolled in college. For example, one key policy attribute that affects the total aid award is whether awards are calculated independently of the Pell Grant­–as “first-dollar” awards that add to the Pell award if state eligibility requirements are met– or as “last-dollar” awards that supplement Pell awards conditional upon eligibility and appropriate-use requirements. Policies including an eligibility requirement for recent high school graduation within the state tend to limit aid access for older and returning students. In addition, financial need requirements can limit or broaden the pool of eligible recipients, depending on family income thresholds. Policies that require completion of the federal FAFSA Form without offering an alternative state application tend to close off access to aid for undocumented immigrants. Merit and high school GPA requirements can close off aid access to students who are otherwise ready for college. Moreover, appropriate-use requirements in some states limit aid usage to tuition and registration expenses while other states allow aid usage for living expenses such as housing and transportation.

Given these variations in program eligibility rules, state officials want to know if their aid programs are reaching targeted student groups, meeting their needs in ways that allow them to focus on their studies, and making a difference in their academic and subsequent labor market outcomes. In an effort to support decision making, IES is funding five projects that are each working closely with state officials to understand the features of their programs and conducting research to assess which students are accessing the programs, the extent of support provided by the programs, and their effects on enrollment in and progression through college. Below is the list of the IES-funded projects.

We are excited to fund these projects and look forward to the findings they will be sharing, starting in fall 2024.


This blog was written by James Benson (James.Benson@ed.gov), program officer in the Policy and Systems team at NCER.

Leveraging Multiple Funding Sources to Train Special Education Researchers: Part 2

This blog is part of a series that highlights the experiences of graduate students in special education research who receive funding through the Department of Education. In the initial blog, two doctoral students shared their experiences with training opportunities made possible through OSEP and NCSER funding. For this second blog, we interviewed two additional scholars and included varying OSEP training mechanisms funded under the Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results Program, including the Preparation of Special Education, Early Intervention, and Related Services Leadership Personnel grant program (ALN 84.325D) and the National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention funded under the Doctoral Training Consortia Associated With High-Intensity Needs grant program (ALN 84.325). We asked them to discuss their experiences as OSEP Scholars, their work on NCSER-funded research grants, and how both opportunities prepare them to conduct research in special education.

Nathan Speer, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Headshot of Nathan Speer

I have had a great experience as an OSEP Scholar! From the beginning, I was excited about the opportunity to pursue a PhD in special education intervention design, an area I have always been interested in as a professional educator. The funding and support I receive is comprehensive and practical. The OSEP-funded Research Interventions in Special Education (RISE) project funds my tuition, pays a non-work stipend, provides support for expenses associated with completing my degree program (including books, supplies, travel for required meetings or conferences), and helps with research by providing technology, software, and dissertation support.

I have been working on the IES-funded WORDS (Workshop on Reading Development Strategies) for Pandemic Recovery in Nebraska project for approximately a year. The research focuses on investigating the efficacy of professional development intended to aid teachers in implementing a tier 2 reading intervention for students in kindergarten through third grade who are at risk for reading disabilities. For the project, my roles are primarily conducting data analysis and coding. These two experiences have worked well in tandem. I have been able to attend several conferences and trainings thanks to the RISE grant that have positively impacted my work on WORDS, and my work with WORDS has provided me with an opportunity to participate in serious research as a PhD student.

Both experiences are helping me work towards a leadership role in academia and research in special education! WORDS provides me with experience participating in impactful research and RISE provides countless opportunities to learn and grow as an educator and build a professional network both on campus and in my field of interest. In the future, I hope to work in academia, preferably as a professor of practice working with undergraduate and graduate educators in special education. More specifically, I would like to focus my research and instruction on behavior (for example, applied behavior analysis, functional analysis, and behavior intervention planning).

Blair Payne, University of Texas, Austin

Headshot of Blair Payne

The National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention-2 (NCLII-2) training grant prepares special education leaders to have expertise in supporting students with complex and comorbid learning disabilities and behavior disorders. As a cohort of scholars, we meet two to three times a year for small conferences, which are centered around topics such as preparing for the job market, supporting education policy, or conducting and disseminating research. NCLII-2 provides scholars with tuition to one of the universities in the consortium, travel funds, and funding for our dissertation or a small research project. During our meetings, we can meet faculty and students from other universities to create mentorship or collaboration opportunities. 

Over the past 4 years, I've had the privilege of working on three IES-funded research studies. The project on which I have worked the longest is Developing an Instructional Leader Adaptive Intervention Model (AIM) for Supporting Teachers as They Integrate Evidence-Based Adolescent Literacy Practices School-Wide (Project AIM). Project AIM is a partnership with Dr. Jade Wexler at University of Maryland and Dr. Elizabeth Swanson at University of Texas, Austin. As the Texas project coordinator, I have supported material creation, educator training, test administration, recruitment, data preparation, and dissemination. Since the grant is a development grant, it has been a remarkable experience to learn the boots-on-the-ground requirements of working in schools.

My work as an OSEP Scholar has provided me with the background knowledge that I need to conduct research. Through my work on IES grants, I can use this background knowledge to support project implementation. Both funding sources work together, hand-in-hand, and I am incredibly grateful that I have been able to learn so much from both experiences.

My future goal is to work at a research university as a faculty member. Through my IES work, I am getting direct experience on how to implement school-level research. I hope to one day support schools through this research, and when I do, I'll be able to lean on my experiences from various IES projects to support this endeavor. My experience as an OSEP Scholar supports this goal by building foundational knowledge of special education research, which is instrumental to take into a faculty position in which I may wear many hats for a department. The NCLII-2 grant has helped to ensure that the graduates of the training grant are prepared to enter the field of special education with up-to-date knowledge from the field. As future faculty, we will enter the field ready to prepare the next generation of teachers and providers and build their capacity to serve and support children with disabilities and their families.

While OSEP and NCSER are separate funding mechanisms, they can be leveraged to work synergistically by providing student scholars a comprehensive research experience that includes training in research methodologies and opportunities to apply this knowledge within current research projects. Thank you to Nathan and Blair 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.

Integrated Opportunities: Addressing Adult English Learners’ Digital Skill Needs Through Supplemental Videos

In recognition of National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month, we want to highlight an IES-funded research project, Content-Integrated Language Instruction for Adults with Technology Support (CILIA-T). This work focuses on the needs of adult English learners (ELs) to help them build not only language proficiency but also knowledge of U.S. history and civics, akin to what may occur in part of adult education Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education programs while also enhancing digital literacy skills. In this interview blog, Theresa Sladek (Northstar, co-PI of CILIA-T), Aydin Durgunoglu (University of Minnesota Duluth, PI of CILIA-T), and Leah Hauge (Northstar), describe a creative approach to building adult digital literacy skills as a part of their curriculum for adult English learners. To help ensure the learners will benefit from technology-supported instruction, the team has created a series of videos and an instructional guide that are all publicly available and free.

What are the videos about, and why did you make them?

In addition to building  knowledge of English, civics, and U.S. history, we are also building digital proficiencies through CILIA-T. For example, we want to help adult learners become efficient in using digital tools such as Gmail and Zoom as part of their coursework and build digital proficiencies such as digital safety, finding reliable and relevant information online, knowing how to solve technical problems in different contexts and with different tools, and accessing, comprehending and integrating information across multiple modalities and resources.  

To help learners build these skills, we created six short, free videos in partnership with Northstar Digital Literacy, allowing any individual, anywhere in the world, who has a device and internet connection to access them. By partnering with Northstar, we are increasing the reach of this resource, as the Northstar website saw over 800,000 hits in the last year alone, and its YouTube channel has over 2.18k subscribers. Since being posted about three months ago, the videos have already had 900 views. These free tools are a step towards removing the digital divide through clear and concise entry-level video tutorials.

The tutorials cover six topics: Finding Information Online, Zoom, Smartphone Apps, WhatsApp, Quizlet, and Gmail. The videos help learners build entry-level skills in each topic and can also be used to onboard instructors (teachers or tutors) to each topic.

In addition, we also created an instructional guide for teachers or tutors, which is available in the Educator Resources section of the Literacy Minnesota website. The instructor guide that accompanies the video tutorials supports every step of the teaching process, including instructions for teachers or tutors to guide learners before, during, and after viewing the video content. Educator Resources has an extensive national and international reach, getting over 20,000 visits a year. Through our work in the adult foundational skills system (also called adult education), we know that many programs have limited budgets, and free curricula and teaching aids are a key to those programs being able to provide much-needed services. Although we made these materials with ELs and CILIA-T curriculum in mind, these materials can be used in a wide variety of contexts, with both ELs and native  speakers and in settings outside of education.

Why are the videos important for your project?

Because not all learners, teachers, and volunteers are familiar with these tools, we did not want this to be a barrier to accessing the CILIA-T curriculum. Addressing this barrier is an intentional act to bring equity and access to adult learners and those assisting them.

As part of the CILIA-T project, these videos are critical not only because they teach digital skills that can be used in a wide variety of settings and purposes but also because they assist students in learning the civics and U.S. history content in the curriculum and English language through a variety of modalities. Learners will be using these tools to read texts, answer questions, use multimodal resources, make presentations, create and share content, perform self-checks, comment on others’ work, engage in discussions and group projects, and complete internet searches and evaluations.  

What did you learn about making videos and disseminating them as part of this process?

We learned a few things along the way:

  • Consider different operating systems. Because phones are the main device to perform digital tasks for most adult learners, we incorporated variations relevant to different operating systems (for example, iOS and Android) into digital skill teaching tools. For example, the process for downloading apps varies a bit between iOS and Android, so we have modeled both with our videos showing students when processes may vary between devices. 
  • Always consider viewers’ English language level. For example, CILIA-T curriculum was written to support intermediate-level English language learners. So, we had to design the instructional script with digital skill vocabulary for such speakers in mind and use many examples and visuals to define vocabulary in the videos.
  • Build in opportunities for learners and educators to pause, practice, and reflect. To do this, we intentionally divided videos into sections to make finding specific pieces of learning easier. We also added titled chapters to each portion of a video. 

We are excited about this new resource and invite teachers and learners to try them out and reach out to us with any feedback and questions: Theresa Sladek (tsladek@literacymn.org), Aydin Durgunoglu (adurguno@d.umn.edu), and Leah Hauge (lhauge@literacymn.org).


This blog was produced by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), research analyst and program officer for postsecondary and adult education research at NCER.

 

Early Intervention and Beyond: How Experience with Young Children and Special Education Motivated a Career in Autism Research

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we would like to share an interview with Dr. Stephanie Shire about her Early Career Development and Mentoring project. Dr. Shire, associate professor of Early Childhood Special Education at the University of Oregon, focuses her current research on young children with autism and their families. In this interview, she discusses this project as well as her prior experiences in early intervention and special education and advice for other early career researchers.

Please tell us about your IES Early Career project.

Headshot of Dr. Stephanie Shire

My IES Early Career project is titled LIFT: Leveraging Autism Interventions for Families through Telehealth. The idea behind this project—exploring the technology-assisted delivery of an established evidence-based, in-person, one-on-one, caregiver-mediated social communication intervention—began even prior to the pandemic, before the field had to shift service delivery to online family-mediated services for young children with autism. The project focuses on helping caregivers use the existing intervention strategies to advance their children’s social communication and play skills. We’re not changing or testing the established intervention for the children, but rather the way in which we support caregivers in their learning.

The project is being conducted in partnership with early intervention and early childhood special education community practitioners and leaders. Our partners were fundamental in the development and revision of the online intervention program, which took an intervention manual of several hundred pages designed for clinicians and turned it into a series of brief online modules that families can read or listen to at their own pace. Our partners also shaped the implementation strategies that we are now testing in a pilot randomized trial. Families enrolled in the trial are being served by their local early intervention and early childhood special education practitioners in their home communities in Oregon.

How did you become interested in research on interventions to help young children with autism?

I was introduced to young children with autism as a high school student volunteering in a hospital playroom and as a special education classroom volunteer in my first year as an undergraduate student. In both cases, these preschool and school-age children had few or no words. I watched the practitioners try to connect and engage with the children with mixed success. I then spent the next several years as an undergraduate student working as an in-home intervention aide delivering services to young children with autism, many of whom had few or no words. I found myself failing to support the children’s progress, particularly with their communication skills. My desire to do more for these children prompted me to pursue additional resources and learn more about practices to better support them. This led me on a path to graduate school, first at the master’s level and then doctoral-level training, focused on intervention science to learn more about the development and testing of interventions to maximize communication development for young children with autism.

What do you find most rewarding about conducting research with young children with autism and their families?

Children and their families are at the heart of all my research team’s projects. Celebrating the moments when a child shows us a new idea in play, makes a joke, or points to something to share it with us lights up my entire lab! The greatest reward is seeing children shine and experience victories, big and small.

What are your next steps in this line of research?

We’re taking what we’re learning now, as well as the training that I’ve received in implementation science, to work on the next steps in this research project. We need to understand how to personalize implementation strategies for caregivers to help more families advance their children’s social communication skills through play and daily activities. Because this intervention has an adaptive component, we are now looking at combining sequences of supports for caregivers based on their individual progress halfway through implementing the intervention.

What advice do you have for other early career researchers?

Persist. In special education and early intervention, we are still acutely feeling the effects of the pandemic on a system that was already experiencing many challenges. There will be bumps along the way, but children show us every day that they can keep accomplishing small victories even in the face of obstacles. Let’s follow their lead and do the work in partnership with their caregivers and educators to keep building toward big victories for all children and their families. 

Thank you, Dr. Stephanie Shire, for sharing your early career research experience!

This blog was produced by Skyler Fesagaiga, a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NCSER and graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. KatieTaylor, NCSER program officer, manages grants funded under The Early Career Development and Mentoring Program Program.