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Published in Print: October 11, 2000, as Interdisciplinary Studies

Interdisciplinary Studies

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There are no teachers or singsong of children's voices here in the magnetoencephalography laboratory at Memorial Hermann Hospital. The space is filled instead with computers, costly scanning equipment, and ghostly images of human brains tacked on a lightboard. Only a meandering parade of Winnie-the-Pooh characters on the walls suggests that children ever come here.

But research going on in these rooms could one day influence what happens to real children in classrooms nationwide. And if the setting looks different from typical, school-based education experiments, it's all part of the plan.

The researchers studying children's brain activity here are part of a fledgling, $38 million federal initiative to bring together experts from many different fields to conduct education research on a scale that would be hard to match working apart. Run by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the program joins statisticians, psychologists, educators, brain-imaging specialists, computer experts, and others in a common crusade to improve learning.

Just 2 years old, the Interagency Education Research Initiative, or IERI, has already attracted fans among both critics and defenders of a field long disparaged for producing fragmented studies and "soft science."

"This has been and is going to be good for education and good for the education research community," says G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the child-development-and-behavior branch at the NICHD. A frequent critic of education studies, he now oversees his agency's involvement in the interagency initiative.

'Fantastic' Approach

But more important than buffing up education research's public image, researchers say, the program just might be well-funded enough, well-managed enough, long- term enough, and interdisciplinary enough to make a real contribution to the state of knowledge on learning.

"The integration of knowledge across different subdomains—to me, that's the real promise of IERI," says Jack M. Fletcher, the lead researcher for the brain-imaging project based here at the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center. "I firmly believe the frontiers of science are at the cutting edge of the disciplines."

The creation of the interagency program was spurred by a 1997 report by a presidential panel studying the use of technology in schools. Pointing out that less than 0.1 percent of national spending on K-12 schools went to education research, the commission called for more investment in the field.

IERI is a fledgling, $38 million federal initiative joining education researchers from many fields.

But, with a total budget of $824 million a year, the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement was ill-equipped to support such a big, new program on its own. This year, that office is putting up $10 million of the funding for the interagency initiative; the NSF is chipping in $25 million, and the NICHD $3 million. Under President Clinton's proposed budget for fiscal 2001, total funding for the program would rise to $50 million.

"This is a fairly rare effort on the part of federal agencies to work together to tackle the tougher questions that have always plagued us in education," says Frank R. Rusch, a researcher from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana who won an IERI grant. "It's fantastic, really."

In its first year, the program underwrote 14 projects at 12 different universities for up to five years. They range from an automated reading tutor, which "listens" to children read aloud, to a cross-cultural study on how young children in China, Japan, and the United States develop mathematical concepts.

The awards ranged from $254,000 to a little over $4 million—a princely sum for education researchers used to scraping by on much less.

"I couldn't possibly get something like this funded by [the National Institutes of Health]. The study's too large," says Fletcher, who has long relied on that agency to pay for his reading-disability research.

Fletcher, a neuropsychologist, is using his $3.98 million interagency grant to pull together a team of statisticians, brain-imaging specialists, teachers, education researchers, cognitive psychologists, reading experts, and others for a three-year, three-part study on early reading.

Much of that work happens in this brain-imaging lab, the only one in the country capable of scanning the entire head and mapping the brain's magnetic activity as it processes language. Traditional functional brain-imaging techniques pick up indirect measures of brain-cell activity, such as changes in blood flow. Magnetoencephalography, or magnetic-source imaging, measures brain activity more directly by recording the magnetic impulses given off as brain cells fire. And it records that activity as it happens, so researchers know when as well as where it is occurring.

Previous work here revealed that those brain-activation patterns are distinctly different in adults with reading disabilities. When given words to read, such adults show activity primarily in the parts of the brain's left hemisphere associated with visual processing. In non-impaired readers, much of that activity occurs in the right hemisphere.

The University of Texas team is now hoping to find out whether the brain maps charted for reading-disabled adults look like those for children who have not yet learned to read and, perhaps more important, whether good instruction alters those patterns.

"Our hypothesis is that the brain-activation profiles we see will resemble those of kids who essentially don't learn to read," Fletcher explains. "We think brains are malleable and neurosystems get established through experience."

'Shooting in the Dark'

As part of the study, kindergartners identified to be at risk for reading problems visit the lab with their parents over the summer. They lie still on the examining table for five to 10 minutes and try to read nonsense words projected onto the ceiling while the machine records their brains' magnetic activity. In 1st grade, the same children receive intensive reading tutoring. Then they return the following summer for a second scan to see whether the lessons have produced any brain-pattern changes.

So far, the researchers have recorded brain-activity patterns in 40 children.

In a second part of the study, the research team is working with teachers in six Houston schools to gauge the impact of differing reading interventions on 288 struggling 1st grade readers—including those from the brain-imaging study.

Researchers say IERI just might be well-funded and well-managed enough to make a substantial contribution to knowledge on learning.

One group is pulled out of class every day in groups of three for carefully sequenced reading lessons directed by a teacher hired by the researchers. A second pullout group, also working in groups of three, gets tutoring that is based on an approach called "guided reading." They read from simple children's books, learn "word-analysis" skills, write sentences, and use manipulatives to spell words. The third group is getting extra help in reading within the regular classroom.

Both pullout groups receive phonics instruction. But the first group's phonics lessons are systematically sequenced, while the second group gets its phonics doses only as needed.

Researchers are quick to point out, however, that they are not trying to prove that one reading approach works better than another.

"If we can predict what characteristics are important for what kind of child, that's really important," says Patricia Mathes, the co-investigator for the school-based part of the study. Because nothing works with every child, she adds, "right now we're shooting in the dark."

Researchers plan to compare the progress of all three groups with that of children with no reading problems.

In the third part of the overall study, led by University of Houston researcher Barbara R. Foorman, investigators are trying to figure out what properties of words in reading textbooks spur reading progress.

Foorman says she was inspired to undertake the study after several states, through their textbook-adoption systems, began setting percentages for the amount of "decodable" words in those books.

"I was irritated about this because it was based on thin air," says Foorman, a pediatrics professor. She and her colleagues are testing 14 different "word variables," including the frequency of the word's appearance print and its number of phonemes. (Phonemes are the smallest unit of speech, such as the m sound in the word "mat.")

Inside the Classroom

While the Houston researchers have long been associated with a medical approach to research on learning disabilities, other IERI-financed projects come out of education research.

The largest of the grants, in fact, went to three prominent school researchers, Deborah L. Ball, David K. Cohen, and Brian Rowan of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The three are using their four-year, $4.1 million grant to identify the factors that contribute to the success of comprehensive reform programs in schools with high concentrations of poor students. The team is focusing on four such programs: Success for All, a structured reading program developed by Johns Hopkins University researchers; Accelerated Schools, an approach that calls for speeding up learning for slow learners; Communities for Learning, a program that draws the larger community into the classroom; and America's Choice, a standards-based approach devised by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

‘This is a rare effort on the part of federal agencies to work together to tackle the toughter questions that have always plagued us in education.’

Frank R. Rusch,
Researcher,
University of Illinois

Over six years, researchers will track the progress of those improvement programs in 125 schools around the country.

"If you're serious about addressing the real problems that practitioners and policymakers face, it's critical that work be interdisciplinary and that it be focused on practice," says Ball, an education professor and former classroom teacher.

Rather than survey teachers once or twice a year, Ball and her research partners are asking teachers to record daily logs describing the lessons they give to specific students in their classes.

"When teachers tell you in surveys that they teach math 50 minutes a day, they're not lying," Ball says. "It's just that some days there is almost no math at all because of a fire drill or something, and some days it's only for 22 minutes. This will give us much finer-grained data on instruction, but on a very large scale."

Researchers hope that the data, combined with classroom observations, test scores, interviews, surveys, and classwork reviews, will give them a fuller picture of the course of a school improvement program than they've ever had before.

To make sure that researchers from all the varied projects talk and learn from one another, program administrators require all the IERI projects to send a contingent of principal investigators and junior researchers to twice-a-year meetings.

Next month in Research: Economists are playing a more prominent role in debates over education spending.

"We think junior researchers are our future principal investigators,'' says James A. Griffin, an assistant director of social and behavioral sciences in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. "What we're trying to do through this initiative is build a new research community in a way that's never been done before."


The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Vol. 20, Issue 6, Pages 34-36

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