by Jane Sevier
The National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) has awarded a team of Vanderbilt University professors $10 million to develop new math and reading strategies aimed at improving student success. The five-year grant, which will establish an Accelerated Academic Achievement (A3) Research Center, will enable the researchers to study instructional programs targeting students with the most severe learning disabilities in grades 3 to 5.
Vanderbilt is the only institution to receive the federal grant. NCSER is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.
According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), many students continue to struggle with math and reading. Based on 2011 NAEP data, two-thirds of U.S. fourth-graders with disabilities read below the “basic” level. Almost half scored below “basic” in math. Although academic attainment has improved for many students over the last decade, educational deficits and achievement gaps persist between students with learning disabilities and their peers. These gaps are well-established by the later elementary grades.
In designing the program of research for the new center, the Vanderbilt team relied on the new Common Core State Standards to determine the critical competencies the center’s new interventions will focus on for students in grades 3, 4 and 5. The new instructional programs developed at the center will help educators address challenges such as how to assist students in progressing to more complex subject matter and how to transfer learning between different intellectual tasks.
Over the life of the grant, the researchers will conduct a series of pilot studies to iteratively develop instructional programs, which in the final two years will be tested in randomized control trials. Studies will include children with learning disabilities and other children without a disability label but who experience persistent, severe difficulties in reading or mathematics.
“For all children, but particularly for children who are struggling, there’s a very important qualitative shift as they move from the primary grades to the intermediate grades,” said Doug Fuchs, the grant’s principal investigator and Nicholas Hobbs Professor of Special Education and Human Development in Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. “One of the challenges is the transition from stories to informational text in reading.”
The Vanderbilt A3 center will design more-comprehensive interventions in both lower and higher reading and math skills than are currently available. Literacy components will encompass improving reading at the word level, developing reading fluency, and strengthening comprehension with a strong focus on building accurate inferences.
“In math, we are addressing fractions, decimals, and beginning algebra, which are all reflected in the Common Core Standards,” said co-principal investigator Lynn Fuchs, Nicholas Hobbs Professor of Special Education and Human Development at Peabody. “In fractions, for example, we emphasize being able to appreciate the magnitude of fractions and understanding deeply what fractions are about.”
Because students with learning difficulties may fail to recognize novel reading material or mathematics problems as having common features with the kinds of tasks they’ve learned about in school, the Vanderbilt team will create strategies to help students transfer that newly acquired knowledge between activities. Researchers will also develop and test training regimens to strengthen “executive functioning,” which includes the ability of children to focus on a given task, as well as language comprehension—both cognitive processes associated with learning challenges in reading and mathematics.
“We’re trying to help these kids not only become more academically skillful, but also to be more competent in how they approach academic tasks. We’re trying to get them to become more attentive, we’re trying to get them to be strategic about when to shift their attention, and we’re encouraging them be reflective and deliberate,” said Doug Fuchs.
The Center launches in September of this year and will, over its 5-year span, identify 2,000 to 3,000 students from Nashville schools to participate. In addition to Doug and Lynn Fuchs, the Vanderbilt team includes Donald Compton, professor of special education and chair of the Department of Special Education; Mark Lipsey, director, Peabody Research Institute, and research professor of human and organizational development; Kristopher Preacher, assistant professor of psychology at Peabody; and Melanie Schuele, associate professor, Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences.