School & District Management

Soft Science

By Debra Viadero — January 01, 2001 6 min read
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There are no teachers or singsong of children’s voices in the brain-imaging laboratory at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. The space is filled with computers, high-tech equipment, and ghostly scans 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 children in classrooms nationwide. And if the setting looks different from typical, school-based education experiments, it’s all part of the plan. The scientists studying children’s brain activity here are part of a fledgling, $38 million federal initiative to bring together experts from different fields to conduct education research. 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 specialists, computer experts, and others in a common crusade to improve learning.

Just two years old, the Interagency Education Research Initiative, or IERI, is seen as a much-needed effort in a field long disparaged for fragmented studies and soft science. The long-term program just might be well enough funded and well enough managed 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 Fletcher, lead researcher for the brain-imaging project, which is based 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 federal report noting that less than 0.1 percent of national K-12 spending went to education research. Responding to the report’s call for more investment, the Education Department, the NSF, and the NICHD each chipped in millions toward the program. “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 Rusch, a researcher from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who won an IERI grant. In its first year, the program underwrote 14 projects at 12 universities for up to five years. These include development of an automated reading tutor, which “listens” to children read aloud, and a cross-cultural study of how young students in China, Japan, and the United States learn mathematical concepts. The awards ranged from $254,000 to a little over $4 million—a princely sum for education researchers accustomed to scraping by on much less. Fletcher, a neuropsychologist, is using his $3.98 million grant to pull together 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 Fletcher’s research happens in the Houston 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 brain-imaging techniques pick up indirect measures of brain cell activity, such as changes in blood flow. But Fletcher relies on magnetoencephalography, or magnetic-source imaging, which measures activity more directly by recording the magnetic impulses given off as brain cells fire. And it detects that activity as it happens, so researchers know when as well as where it is occurring.

Using this technique, Fletcher and his colleagues in earlier work found that adults with reading disabilities have brain-activation patterns that are distinctly different from those of nonimpaired readers. Given words to read, adults with reading troubles show activity primarily in the parts of the brain’s left hemisphere associated with visual processing. Normally, much of that activity occurs in the right hemisphere.


In its IERI-funded study, the University of Texas team is hoping to discover whether the brain maps charted for reading-disabled adults look like those of children who have not yet learned to read. Perhaps more importantly, they also want to determine whether good instruction alters those brain-activation patterns. “We think brains are malleable, and neurosystems get established through experience,” Fletcher says.

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

In a second part of the study, the research team is working with teachers in six Houston schools to gauge the impact of various instructional strategies on 288 struggling 1st grade readers—including those from the brain-imaging study. Researchers say they are not trying to prove that one reading approach works better than another; no strategy works for every child, they say, so they want to identify which approaches work well with which children.

In the third part of the study, led by University of Texas at Houston researcher Barbara Foorman, investigators are trying to add scientifically based alternatives to the word-decoding formulas used by many reading textbooks. Foorman says she was inspired to undertake such work 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 in print and its number of phonemes. (Phonemes are the smallest unit of speech, such as the “m” sound in the word “mat.”)


While the Houston researchers have long taken a medical approach to studying learning disabilities, other IERI-financed projects come out of education research. The largest of the grants went to three prominent school researchers: Deborah Ball, David Cohen, and Brian Rowan of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They are using a 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. Over six years, the researchers will monitor 125 schools around the country. Unlike typical school studies, which survey the faculty once or twice a year, Ball and her research partners are asking teachers at each school to keep 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,” says Ball, an education professor and former classroom teacher. “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.”

To make sure researchers from the varied IERI projects talk and learn from one another, program administrators require all the studies to send a contingent of principal investigators and junior researchers to twice-a-year meetings. Such collaboration, IERI leaders hope, could spark creative thinking and unforeseen breakthroughs. Says James 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.”


“Research” is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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