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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention latest report estimates that 1 in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder. Those are daunting numbers, but there is hope. Produced by the Longhorn Network, this documentary focuses on three innovative researchers in the College of Education who are making an impact in the field of Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

Video by: Longhorn Network

Interested in learning more about the Department of Special Education? Click here

The Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching (TRC) is an award-winning statewide network of 57 P-16 partnerships that provide research-based and high intensity professional development to P-12 teachers of science and mathematics across the state.

TRC’s innovative professional development programs prepare teachers to become science teacher mentors (STMs) and mathematics teacher mentors (MTMs), and nurture learning communities and support networks among P-12 schools, community colleges, and universities.

Texas Regional Collaboratives


October 10, 2014

President Obama and Victor Saenz

President Obama and Victor Saenz

College of Education associate professor Victor Saenz, who is founder and executive director of Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, recently was in Washington, D.C. to discuss education issues and represent UT Austin at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration.

Saenz was among a group of prominent national, state, and local Hispanic educators and community leaders invited to the event at the Naval Observatory. Guests included Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios, and voter advocate Henry Munoz, and the evening culminated with a surprise visit from President Obama.

At the event, Vice President Joe Biden lauded Hispanic education administrators and counselors, calling them “heroes in the classroom” and commending the “brilliance and potential of the Hispanic community.”

While in Washington, Saenz and Luis Ponjuan, a Texas A&M University faculty member and partner in the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, had an opportunity to meet with colleagues at The Education Trust, Excelencia in Education, and the American Council on Education, as well as with Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, and others on Capitol Hill, to discuss Project MALES and the Consortium’s work in Texas.

In addition to being a faculty member in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration, Saenz is affiliated with UT Austin’s Division for Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE), which supports his work to improve academic outcomes for young men of color.

Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success) is based in the DDCE and is a multi-faceted research and mentoring initiative whose goal is to raise awareness about the rapid rate at which Hispanic males are disappearing from the U.S. education system. The Education Consortium is also headquartered in the DDCE, and is a statewide collaboration that focuses on improving young Hispanic and African American males’ education and career success. The Consortium, which includes members from Texas universities and representatives from two Texas school districts, is coordinating the efforts of existing programs that target under-represented male students across the education continuum.

October 15, 2014

Natalie Poulos, a doctoral student in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education’s Health Behavior and Health Education program, was among 15 graduate students awarded a Harrington Fellowship earlier this month. The most prestigious fellowship program at UT Austin, the Donald D. Harrington Fellows Program supports young faculty members and graduate students who have stellar academic records and a broad range of distinctive achievements.

Poulos, whose research focuses on dietary patterns and outcomes in youth, will receive a one-year stipend, tuition, an allowance for student medical insurance, and a fund for miscellaneous expenses.

Poulos received her bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Sciences and master’s degree in Health Education from UT Austin, where she also completed the Coordinated Program in Dietetics to become a registered dietitian. While working in the Prevention Research Lab, Natalie has served as project director on the Outdoor MEDIA project, a study that measured and evaluated the influence of outdoor food and beverage advertising. In the future, she hopes to work with a food-based non-profit that brings local food to underserved communities, as well as teach university-level behavioral nutrition courses.

Special Education Professor Searches for Math Disability, Symbols Connection

Recent studies suggest that between 5 and 9 percent of school age children struggle with some form of math learning disability. Sometimes called “dyscalculia,” difficulty with mathematics encompasses a range of symptoms, including trouble understanding and manipulating numbers, and learning mathematic facts.

Over the last 30 years, copious research has been conducted on reading disabilities, while studies of math-specific learning disabilities are fewer and farther between. Sarah Powell, a second-year assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, is working to change that.

“Math is nowhere near as researched as reading,” said Powell, whose interests include developing and testing interventions for students with mathematics difficulties. “You can ask lots of very interesting questions in math that no one has addressed before. Math has a much larger knowledge base that we need to figure out.”

Powell’s passion for mathematics developed early. “I was always much better at math than reading,” she said. “Which is odd, because my parents are both English teachers. But math makes sense to me. There’s always an answer in mathematics. That’s not always the case with reading. You can interpret ‘A’ in many different ways, but three plus four is always going to be seven.”

After beginning her career as a kindergarten teacher, Powell went on to earn her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University, where she honed her research skills as a project coordinator of grants related to word-problem solving and computation for elementary students. She found herself attracted to the idea of helping kids overcome learning disabilities that impede their math skills.

“Often when kindergartners and first graders experience trouble with math, they start to push it aside,” said Powell. “It snowballs so that you get second and third grade students saying, ‘I’m not good at math. I hate math.’”

“Math makes sense to me. There’s always an answer in mathematics. That’s not always the case with reading. You can interpret ‘A’ in many different ways, but three plus four is always going to be seven.” – Dr. Sarah Powell

Powell’s doctoral dissertation, which won awards from the Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children and the Council for Learning Disabilities, focused on the equal sign as it relates to students with math difficulties. “99 percent of kids misinterpret the equal sign,” said Powell, whose previous research on the subject revealed that when asked to provide a definition of the equal sign, most kids had no idea how to answer. “Equal is almost a word you use that has very little meaning. In Asian countries, when they talk about the equal sign, the interpretation is ‘same sign,’ so instead of six plus two equals eight, it’s six plus two is the same as eight. In the U.S., it’s very different.”

“I did a textbook analysis two years ago and discovered that textbooks don’t do a good job of providing accurate definitions. Some textbooks would actually say ‘Equal sign means where we put our answer.’ That’s not what equal sign means at all. I wondered if we provided instruction on the equal sign as balance – if that would improve kids’ equation solving. We found that kids who received equal sign instruction showed improvement in equation solving, which in turn mediated word-problem performance.”

Since joining the Special Education faculty at the College of Education last fall, Powell has distinguished herself as a motivated interventionist. In recent months she received two prestigious honors: a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Greater Texas Foundation Faculty Fellowship. The Spencer Fellowship will allow Powell to investigate elementary and middle school students’ understanding of math symbols and vocabulary, while the Greater Texas Foundation Fellowship gives her the opportunity to look at algebraic development of college level students with math difficulties.

“Both of these awards are highly competitive,” said Mark O’Reilly, chair of the Department of Special Education. “Sarah’s developing a line of research on interventions to remediate mathematics difficulties is important and timely.”

“I wrote the Spencer proposal not only to study students’ understanding of the equals sign, but to examine their understanding of all math symbols,” said Powell. “I’m hoping to learn which math symbols cause the most difficulty.”

The Spencer Fellowship provides funding for a two-year project. Powell will do assessments during the first year and devote the second year to developing interventions. Research involving first graders will focus on basic math signs like plus, minus, and equal, while work involving third, fifth, and seventh graders will focus on more complex signs like multiplication symbols and inequality symbols like greater than or equal to.

The Greater Texas Foundation grant, which Powell will work on concurrently with the Spencer Foundation grant, will explore very different territory. “During the three-year project, I plan to work with college students with math disabilities or difficulties — a sample of students that is rarely studied,” she said. “I want to learn how the math performance and math experiences of college students contribute to preparation for and success in college.”

Powell hopes her research helps to increase students’ confidence in math by providing better instruction. “The research shows that when students perform better in math they feel better about their math abilities. It’s all linked.”

With classroom teaching experience in her background, Powell has enormous respect for teachers, but she relishes the different responsibilities her career in higher education provides.

“A few weeks ago I was in a fourth grade classroom working with teachers and students,” she said. “But then I get to come back to the office and figure out, ‘Okay, what are we learning from that?’ I love connecting those pieces.”

Photo by: Christina S. Murrey

Special Education Professor Investigates the Positive Effects of Teacher-Student Relationship

“Psychosocial,” the intertwining of the psychological and social aspects of an environment, is a term not usually associated with classroom education. We often think of classrooms simply as utilitarian environments, like offices or conference rooms — places where instruction is dispensed to waiting minds.

The truth is that a classroom is an environment every bit as alive and complex as other social environments and, in fact, is the primary social environment for developing children. The delicate balance of relationships in a classroom – between students, and between teachers and students – can make the difference between academic achievement or disappointment.

This dynamic is no surprise to Jessica Toste, a second-year assistant professor in the Department of Special Education.

“My work is centered on the idea that consideration of psychosocial factors, such as motivational beliefs, is essential to understanding how students learn,” she said. “The focus of my interests is in understanding psychosocial processes for kids who struggle with reading.”

With a background as an elementary school teacher and reading specialist, Toste is passionate about utilizing psychosocial elements of classrooms to better serve students.

Toy Dice“I’m very interested in how we support kids with learning difficulties,” said Toste. “Alongside that, I’m very interested in psychosocial processes. What’s happening in classrooms that makes it more likely that kids will succeed, especially those students who are struggling?”

Toste’s approach to studying teacher-student relationship is unique. While working on her dissertation, she delved into the counseling psychology literature and was intrigued to find that the concept of a therapeutic working alliance (the relationship between a healthcare professional and a client) had clear parallels to the classroom environment.

“The idea of the therapist and client having a strong working alliance is one of the main things that’s focused on in therapy,” said Toste. “The way we talk about teacher-student relationship is usually very focused on an emotional attachment between the teacher and student. I have worked with enough students and teachers to know that this emotional attachment can be very difficult, and that sometimes teachers have a hard time connecting with students in this way.”

Toste focused on borrowing the idea of the therapeutic working alliance, which includes both the affective and collaborative components of the relationship.

“I applied this idea to a classroom context and developed the classroom working alliance. Looing at relationships through this lens sets up an environment where teachers can naturally connect and bond with kids,” she said. “But they can also create collaborative partnerships where students feel very invested in what’s happening in their learning and in the classroom.”

That initial investigation led to some of her recent publications, which examine classroom working alliance for children with and without high-incidence disabilities, i.e. learning disabilities and behavior disorders.

“We looked at teacher and student ratings of classroom working alliances, and then at how they were predictive of different school outcomes,” Toste said. “Not surprisingly, kids who had difficulties had more challenging relationships with their teachers.”

What Toste found particularly interesting was that students with high-incidence disabilities demonstrated greater overall satisfaction with school, as well as exhibited higher academic competence, when they felt they had a strong collaborative relationship with their teacher.

“When kids who struggle in school feel that they understand what they’re being asked to do, it can actually help them in their learning,” she said. “They understand that their teacher has their best interests at heart and, for a variety of reasons, they tend to have better outcomes.”

Toste is also examining psychosocial factors within the context of reading interventions. During the last school year, she ran a pilot randomized field trial that examined the effectiveness of a multi-syllabic word reading intervention for struggling third- and fourth-grade readers. The intervention featured an embedded motivational beliefs training element designed to restructure performance by enhancing and supporting behaviors that then enhance and support learning.

“When kids who struggle in school feel that they understand what they’re being asked to do, it can actually help them in their learning. They understand that their teacher has their best interests at heart and, for a variety of reasons, they tend to have better outcomes.” – Dr. Jessica Toste

“The project has two pieces,” said Toste. “We’re looking at whether or not the reading intervention worked first, and then whether or not having this added motivational training supported students’ learning even further.”

Evidence revealed that children who received the reading intervention outperformed control students on word reading measures. Toste also found that students who had the added motivational training outperformed controls on their sentence comprehension and reading attribution.

“The idea is that this embedded motivational beliefs training will foster an instructional environment that makes it more likely that students will respond to the intervention,” said Toste, who plans to re-run the study next year. “This year was a pilot to see if there’s potential. Next year, we’re going to scale it up with more students, and refine and expand the motivational beliefs training.”

From there, Toste plans to look at the development of psychosocial processes as they pertain to reading skills. Specific reading skills may then be identified as affecting various psychosocial factors like motivation, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.

“Struggling with reading is a huge risk factor for kids as they go through school,” she said. “They’re not able to successfully engage in the primary task of the early grades, learning how to read. And then as they get through third and fourth grade, when instruction is no longer focused on learning how to read, they’re now unable to access many tasks of school that involve text.”

For students struggling with reading, the results of Toste’s work could be life changing.

The Middle School Matters Institute, an initiative of the George W. Bush Institute at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, in partnership with The University of Texas at Austin’s Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin (MCPER), held its annual summer conference June 17-19.

The Honorable Margaret Spellings

The Honorable Margaret Spellings

Educators and administrators from across the country gathered at UT Austin to learn about research-based practices and school improvement strategies from some of the nation’s leading education experts and researchers. Focused on grades five through eight, the Institute helps school districts improve reading, writing, and math instruction, and uses evidence-based practices to enable students to improve their performance, stay in school, and put themselves on a path to high school graduation.

The goals of the conference included sharing knowledge related to the research base of the 13 content dimensions included in the Middle School Matters Field Guide, including reading, performance management, and dropout prevention. Attendees learned how to implement these research-based practices and apply this new knowledge to develop implementation plans for the coming school year.

Conference participants included the program’s eight new Tier II schools, as well as four schools from last year’s cohort. Breakout workshop sessions addressed vocabulary and comprehension strategies to support content area learning, implementing research-based practices in mathematics, and improving student success in the middle grades.

Middle School Matters Conference attendees

Middle School Matters Conference attendees

The conference concluded with a special announcement that the Bush Institute now declares three of last year’s schools, including two from Texas, Middle School Matters Showcase Schools. These schools have observed increases in student attendance, positive behavior, and scores on standardized tests.

An additional highlight of the conference was an appearance by Margaret Spellings, former secretary of education to President George W. Bush and president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Spellings conducted a roundtable discussion with administrators and education experts, including MCPER Executive Director Sharon Vaughn.

“It’s been terrific to work with Sharon these many years,” said Spellings. “She and her colleagues have made a huge difference not only in Texas but all over the country.”

Vaughn’s praise for Spellings was equally glowing. “I have so much admiration for Margaret Spellings,” she said. “I’ve been working with her on education initiatives for 17 years, and she launched many of our Texas education initiatives. She gets things done.”

The discussion focused on how the Middle School Matters Institute’s work can be most effectively administered to make positive changes in all schools. Spellings discussed how a switch from craft-based to evidence-based education could be a key.

MCPER Executive Director Sharon Vaughn

MCPER Executive Director Sharon Vaughn

“It’s about teachers,” Spellings said. “It’s unique because teachers are our largest input in the process, and we’re providing intense professional development that helps change the way they practice.”

While a great deal of time and effort is focused on grades K-3, middle school is often treated as a way station en route to high school. The roundtable attendees agreed that middle school should be treated as importantly as foundation grades.

“These research-based practices have helped,” Vaughn said of the Institute’s school improvement strategies. “Grades five through eight have been a soft spot because we haven’t had the research. Now we have it. What’s really fun is how it brings research to life in the classroom.”

– Jason Gelt, jgelt@austin.utexas.edu

Brian FarrBrian Farr, director of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education’s athletic training education program, has some exciting news to report. The 2013-14 Board of Certification (BOC) examination results revealed that 10 out of 11 students passed the rigorous exam on their first attempt.

The University of Texas at Austin’s passing rate exceeds the national average by 9%. Additionally, UT students’ average scores were higher than the national average in three of the five domains. Of the nine 2014 graduates who sat for the exam, all students passed on their first attempt.

The BOC examination is the national board examination for athletic trainers. “In order to become a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), the gold-standard for athletic trainers, one must pass the BOC exam,” said Farr. “As a program, it is important to have a high percentage of students pass on their first time. First time passing rates are one of the things our accreditation is based upon. Programs like ours must have at least a 70% first-time passing rate for a three year block in order to maintain accreditation.”

The online BOC exam assesses candidates’ knowledge in the five domains of athletic training: injury/illness prevention and wellness protection, clinical evaluation and diagnosis, immediate and emergency care, treatment and rehabilitation, and organizational and professional health and well-being. The four-hour exam consists of 175 multiple choice, drag and drop, multi-select, hot spot, and focused testlet (real-life scenarios) items.

Victor Saenz

Victor Saenz

Two University of Texas at Austin College of Education research groups have been included in a response to a task force report on the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a project established by President Obama. My Brother’s Keeper has a goal of bringing together private sector and philanthropic organizations to improve life outcomes for boys and young men of color.

The response addresses a recently-released task force report Get Adobe Reader about the initiative and is a joint effort of seven university-based research centers:

  • Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color (UT Austin)
  • The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Minority Male Community College Collaboration (San Diego State University)
  • Morehouse Research Institute (Morehouse College)
  • Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male (The Ohio State University)
  • UCLA Black Male Institute (University of California, Los Angeles)
  • Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The centers focus on the study of factors that help and limit educational, social, and occupational opportunities for boys and young men of color.

Dr. Victor Saenz, an associate professor in the UT Austin College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration, is co-founder and executive director of Project MALES as well as the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color.

Below is the task force report that was issued:

As Black and Latino male professors and research center directors, we salute President Obama as well as the many philanthropic and private sector funders for their commitment to improving the conditions of our nation’s boys and young men of color.

The task force report offers a commendable articulation of challenges and opportunities for young men of color and various agents who play some role in their life outcomes. Recommendations offered therein are appropriately informed by research from a range of academic disciplines.

As our nation prepares to enact recommendations from the task force, we call for programs, policies, and services that are guided by research and documented effectiveness. We caution, for example, against the widespread replication of mentoring programs that haphazardly match young men with adults, as evidence concerning the outcomes of such programs is mixed. Moreover, we believe interventions should focus on better understanding and remedying systemic inequities in policies, schooling and social practices, and structures that persistently undermine the success of boys and men of color. More significant investment in the dissemination of existing research on what works, as well as funding new studies on promising policies and practices, would help ensure the success of My Brother’s Keeper and the Americans it aims to effectively serve.

We urge private foundations, federal funding agencies (i.e., the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health), and other entities that invest in projects associated with My Brother’s Keeper to take seriously the evidence base of initiatives that are proposed, as well as rigorous evaluations of newly funded projects. Funds are needed to facilitate productive collaborations among research centers such as ours, and to connect researchers with agents who lead organizations and initiatives for young men of color across our nation. The success of My Brother’s Keeper depends heavily on the quality of research produced about its effectiveness. Ultimately, strong cultures of evidence and efficacy should guide all programs, services, and interventions associated with the initiative.

My Brother’s Keeper affords our country an important opportunity to reframe hopeless, deficit-oriented narratives about boys and young men of color, schools that educate them, and communities in which they live. We are hopeful that the initiative will produce replicable models of success, but doing so requires more investment in studies of what works. To ensure the success of My Brother’s Keeper, our research centers stand ready to serve as resources to its funders and the Obama Administration.

The George W. Bush Institute at the George W. Bush Presidential Center announced the selection of eight new schools to participate in the second year of Middle School Matters Institute.

The Middle School Matters Institute, implemented in partnership with The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin (MCPER), now encompasses a total of 16 schools in four states. The schools receive high quality research-based school improvement strategies from the Bush Institute’s national experts, yearlong professional support from MCPER, and an invitation to the three-day Middle School Matters summer conference.

Using a rigorous selection process, the Bush Institute chose eight new schools, including six Texas schools, from a nationwide pool of applicants:

  • Baytown Junior School of Goose Creek CISD in Baytown, TX
  • Grant Middle School of Corpus Christi ISD in Corpus Christi, TX
  • Lee Middle School of San Angelo ISD in San Angelo, TX
  • Lyndon B. Johnson Middle School of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in Pharr, TX
  • Trinity Middle School of Trinity ISD in Trinity, TX
  • Wilkinson Middle School of Mesquite ISD in Mesquite, TX
  • Woodward Elementary School of Manteca USD
  • Advanced Studies Magnet-Haut Gap Middle School

Sharon Vaughn, MCPER’s executive director, said, “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with such progressive middle schools that are committed to using proven strategies for success in the middle grades with our teachers and school leaders across the nation.”