A middle school student sits at a classroom computer and slides on a set of headphones. She logs in and chooses a novel, Bridge to Terabithia.
A virtual coach appears on the screen and introduces himself as “Justin.”
The student begins to read. A few pages in, she stumbles over a paragraph. Click—Justin clarifies the excerpt. She doesn’t recognize a word and click—an illustrated dictionary pops up on the screen. She submits an online journal entry reflecting on the chapters she’s read, and finally, it’s quiz time. Justin gives hints, feedback.
This is the picture of individualized instruction given last year to about 1,200 sixth graders in 16 districts across Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—a supplement to their regular curriculum.
The hope? That this interactive computer-based program called Thinking Reader will improve students’ reading achievement. A rigorous, multi-year study of this program is being run by the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI), which is overseen by EDC in partnership with Learning Innovations at WestEd and American Institutes for Research (AIR).
“It was clear to us that adolescent literacy was and is one of the most urgent issues to study,” says EDC’s Jill Weber, director of REL-NEI. “The Thinking Reader study design has been carefully and critically reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education, and we are confident in the quality of this project.”
REL-NEI’s second long-term research project, called Pathways to Math Achievement, grew out of a policy question posed by the Maine Department of Education. This study is examining whether expanding eighth graders’ access to Algebra I improves their math achievement. The study follows students’ math performance and test-taking patterns through 10th grade.
Overall, REL-NEI serves approximately 10,000 schools in New England, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and is part of the network of 10 RELs funded by the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Each provides area educators and policymakers with access to education research to improve student achievement and reduce performance gaps. IES was established in 2002, following the No Child Left Behind Act, to provide rigorous evidence on which to ground education practice and policy.
A rapid response
In comparison to its long-term projects, REL-NEI’s Fast Response Projects and Reference Desk run on shorter timelines. Published by IES as Issues & Answers Reports, Fast Response Projects are rigorous studies on education trends in the Northeast and Islands region. One, for example, explored how state education departments in the region support low-performing schools and districts. Another examined whether gender achievement gaps in Vermont are more pronounced than those in other states.
REL-NEI’s free electronic Reference Desk provides quick responses, in the form of lists of relevant journal articles, research reports, websites, and organizations, to education questions submitted by regional education leaders and policymakers—some 300 to date. Each Friday, REL-NEI highlights a recent question and response on its website.
“The questions have covered a breadth of education issues, from superintendents and principals interested in cost savings and school environment issues, to teachers wondering about methods and curricula, to Department of Education officials looking for information about issues such as graduation requirements and teacher quality,” says Reference Desk manager Heidi Larson.
When the questions have been researched and the studies are complete, REL-NEI does what IES intended it to do from the start: It shares its findings with the region. Educators can register for webinars, download reports, and attend workshops and conferences on the latest research.
Next summer, they’ll learn whether an online coach named Justin is effective in helping middle school students learn to read.
“AIR is currently analyzing the data we collected for the Thinking Reader study,” says Weber. “Then they’ll write up the final report, and we’ll convene state and local educational stakeholders to facilitate discussions about the findings and help them make sense of these findings for their own contexts.”
Ask the Experts
The Reference Desk at REL-NEI provides answers to education questions across the region, for example:
Q: “What are the best ways to measure the effectiveness of afterschool programs?”
Q: “What is the impact of different placement strategies on academic achievement for students with disabilities?”
Q: “How can schools and districts promote parent involvement?”
Find the answers at http://relnei.org/referencedesk.php. Or ask your own question at http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/askarel/index.asp?REL=northeast.
Originally published on January 29, 2010