Home / Posts Tagged "September 2014"

Helicopter parents delaying children’s adulthood…indefinitely

This is a quick, thoroughly unscientific quiz for parents of high school students:

1)   Did your hardworking scholar turn in a research paper he’s never laid eyes on; you know, the one you “helped” him with?

2)   Do you spend more time on Instagram and Twitter than a Kardashian, keeping tabs on little Madison’s BFFs and boyfriends?

3)   Has the principal’s office toyed with the idea of getting a restraining order against you?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you could be a “helicopter parent.” If you answered “yes” to every one, you may want to tweak your strategy before you become the parent of a college student.

Patricia Somers, an associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration at The University of Texas at Austin, has spent years studying this flourishing parent species and was among the first scholars to investigate the trend. Her research illuminates how and why levels of parent involvement have increased worldwide over the past two decades. She has investigated categories of micromanaging parents, and can offer a few reasons it may be better for parents to ease up on the hovering.

Coined in the early 1990s and made popular by the media, “helicopter parent” refers to a parent who tends to be overly involved and hyper-prone to intercede in their children’s lives.

To obtain data, Somers and her fellow researchers surveyed academic and student affairs professionals at four-year universities nationwide. The results serve as a cautionary tale for parents of high schoolers, and a wakeup call for those with “kids” in college.

“Several cultural shifts over the past 25 years or so may explain this change in parent behavior,” says Somers. “First and most obvious are the technological advances that allow people to stay connected 24/7. It’s just extremely easy to cross the line between being involved at a reasonable level in a child’s life and micromanaging.”

“In high school, at a time when it’s critical, developmentally, for youth to be establishing their autonomy, some parents are behaving as though they’re still raising a third grader.” – Dr. Patricia Somers

Because of a steady increase in the number of terrorist attacks and school shootings, a lot of parents perceive the world as a much more dangerous place than they experienced as children. They worry, sometimes to excess, about their kids’ wellbeing and don’t feel entirely comfortable entrusting their children’s safety to others, says Somers. This leads to more hovering.

Also, research suggests that some mothers and fathers may be rejecting the less attentive child-rearing style of their own parents. And, says Somers, people are choosing to have fewer children and, as a result, lavishing much more attention on one or two offspring regardless of age.

The quest for the best may begin with the scramble to score the most exclusive preschool (must teach Mandarin and be gluten-free); then comes calculus tutoring from a MacArthur fellow, chef-prepared organic lunches delivered to school, and demands that the child be catcher on the baseball team.

This gentle guidance and protection often stretch right through college graduation, a job search, and into the “child’s” employment, delaying adulthood indefinitely.

“One of the first things we discovered,” says Somers, “is that helicoptering is not an exclusively middle- and upper-class phenomenon, as many assume. All income levels are represented to some extent, as well as both genders and every race and ethnicity.”

Somers’ research also shows that most helicopter parents fall into five broad categories:

1)   CONSUMER ADVOCATES – They see each phase of the college experience, from application to diploma-in-hand, as a business transaction and want the most bang for their buck. They push hard to get scholarships or other financial awards for their children and may expect what amounts to an assurance from the university that a degree in X will equal a job in Y, with a salary of Z. To keep tabs on their investment, they may expect staff and administration to overlook a minor technicality called the Family Rights and Privacy Act and produce progress reports on demand.

2)   EQUITY OR FAIRNESS ADVOCATES – They might seem to be lobbying for fairness and equality for all students, but more often they are demanding better, not equal, treatment. The fairness advocate may also have become well versed in state and federal entitlements for their child and be well prepared to argue the legalities of what they deem unfair treatment

3)   VICARIOUS COLLEGE STUDENTS – The most well-known, they are simply parents who either did not enjoy their own “golden four” years of college and want to make up for missed time; or they did have a great time at college and are determined to relive the fun. These parents tend to behave more like a best buddy than a guardian and show up for every football game and mixer. They often want to accompany their child to classes, labs, and study sessions.

4)   TOXIC PARENTS – These are parents with considerable psychological issues. They’re controlling, negative, and often try to live their children’s lives while at the same time one-upping the child.

5)   SAFETY PATROL PARENTS – This is a group that’s grown rapidly and includes parents who are notably preoccupied with the safety of their children. They frequently talk with campus staff about safety concerns and may even request copies of floor plans, campus emergency procedures, and safety policies. They can feel very helpless once the child is out of the home, and with each shooting, bombing, or other act of violence that makes the news, they become more afraid, more insular, and feel more protective of their family.

“In high school, at a time when it’s critical, developmentally, for youth to be establishing their autonomy − learning how to handle setbacks, deal with frustrations, and make their own decisions − some parents are behaving as though they’re still raising a third grader,” said Somers. “Before the child even leaves for the university parents can intercept mail containing computer passwords and login IDs, and then go online to fill out the profile for roommate matching, for example.

“We’ve heard that more than a few take the initiative to ‘research’ their children’s roommates on Facebook and Twitter, masquerade as their child online, and ask for a roommate reassignment. It’s not uncommon for the parent to register online for the student, follow the child’s academic progress, monitor most of the online communication from the university to the student, and compose and answer e-mail.”

If you’re scratching your head wondering how a 22-year-old who’s not able to fill out routine applications is ever going to adjust to a real-world job and independent adult life, then you share that concern with university administrators, faculty, and staff who deal with helicopter parents.

According to Somers, many universities have already started using research feedback to educate and support helicopter parents and wean students. There are separate orientations for parents and students, separate social events for “vicarious college students,” newsletters that offer tips for gradually disengaging, lists of suggested reading material, and policies that keep university staff from discussing an issue with a parent without student consent.

As she speculates on the trend reversing, Somers points out that many of the reasons for its appearance are not going away any time soon. Life in the modern world can be dangerous and children’s safety will continue to be an issue. Consumerism and the desire for a good deal probably won’t disappear. Technology advances will likely make “stalking” or intrusion even easier.

“The name for the phenomenon keeps morphing – now we have ‘snowplow parents’ and ‘lawnmower parents,’ who never stop smoothing the path for their kids, and in Scandinavia they’re called ‘curling parents,’” said Somers. “But the behavior largely remains the same. I don’t anticipate the debate over ‘healthy’ versus ‘unhealthy’ parent involvement winding down in the near future.”

Photo by: Marsha Miller

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

Norma Cantu:

Norma Cantu is a professor in educational administration as well as the School of Law. Here, she explains why it’s important to give parents data and allow them to make informed decisions about the schools their children attend.

Richard Reddick:

Richard Reddick is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration. He suggests that if schools invest in the community, build trust, value every student’s culture and background, and maintain high expectations for teachers and students, their students are more likely to academically thrive.

Jennifer Jellison Holme:

Jennifer Jellison Holme is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration, and she argues that reducing the levels of racial and economic segregation in schools is essential to providing high-quality learning experiences for students of color.

Terrance Green:

Terrance Green is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration, and he proposes that shifting from a deficit perspective to an asset-based perspective regarding students of color will help schools better assist these students.

Great education professionals have an enviable skill set – the ability to lead, be empathetic, inspire, motivate, communicate, strengthen, and ignite curiosity. Meet six of our alumni who rise to the challenge, bringing heart, soul, mind, and an indefatigable sense of mission to their work with students.


Alex Olivares

UTeach, B.J., ‘08
Crockett High School

I got out of UTeach and thought, “Wow, none of that stuff’s ever going to work in the real world. It’s great and dandy if you have a special school with magnet and high level students, but in a normal environment it’s not going to apply.” As I taught for more and more years, I realized that it’s simply the way to teach. Slowly I incorporated the UTeach strategies more and more, and at this point almost all of my classes are problem- and inquiry-based. I understand the benefits of teaching this way, that it yields long-term learning benefits for the students.



Educational Psychology, B.S. ’03, M.Ed. ‘08
Bowie High School

I think the fact that my students are part of the post-9/11 generation has made them more resilient and better equipped to handle adversity when it inevitably comes along, and they seem to share this innate desire to better their communities. I learn from them every single day, and I actually feel privileged when they come to me for guidance – they seem so much better equipped, emotionally, than I was at that age.




Kinesiology and Health Education, B.S. ‘08
Wooldridge Elementary School

I am passionate about what I do and where I teach because I know that I can have a huge effect on the lives of all of my students. I am at a low-income, overcrowded school. I know that teaching these kids is not always the easiest thing, but this work is so important and being there to give them a smile every day makes each day worth it.




Special Education, B.S. ‘13
Hill Country Middle School

I’ve always had a unique compassion and place in my heart for individuals with disabilities. I love the underdog. I love looking at a person whom the world has categorized, judged, or dismissed and seeing the power and potential within them. I get to help draw out and develop the treasures inside each individual – those things that even their loved ones, may not see. Educators have been given the gift of eyes to see beauty in brokenness and strength in weakness, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching a student grow in confidence, resilience, and self–esteem, and seeing how that impacts families and entire communities.






Curriculum and Instruction, B.S. ‘11
Hill Elementary School

When I was in middle school, I visited and stayed at an orphanage with my church group in Querétaro, Mexico, to help improve the existing school grounds and living quarters. During my time there the orphanage needed a substitute teacher for the kindergarteners, so a friend and I volunteered. I didn’t know much Spanish at the time but was amazed at how we were still able to communicate and build meaningful relationships with those precious little ones. While sitting on the dirt floor, reading a picture book in Spanish to a little girl, I knew that I had to work with children for the rest of my life – it felt like I was made for teaching.




Educational Administration, M.Ed. ‘99
Stony Point High School

Being a school principal is a little like being a CEO because you have to build sustainable leadership and create systems that foster success. The goal of any business is profit – the goal of my school is student success. We study what our practices are and, like a successful business, we maximize those that lead to success and cease what leads to failure.

Melissa Chavez, Ph.D. in Special Education, 2013, M.Ed. in Educational Administration, 2004, and B.S. in Applied Learning and Development, 1997

Melissa Chavez

Melissa Chavez

Melissa Chavez is associate vice president and executive director for UT Elementary School and the UT University Charter Schools. She began teaching in Austin public schools in 1997, rapidly rose to the position of assistant to the superintendent, and soon was recruited to help open UT Elementary School in 2003. She started at UT Elementary as an assistant principal and created the school’s special education and reading programs. Chavez was promoted to principal in 2006, helping the school win numerous exemplary awards, and in 2009 became superintendent. As executive director, she not only has excelled at academic and operational management and leadership of the school, but also oversaw the development and construction of Phase I of UT Elementary’s permanent school building, which opened in August 2012.

Her Story

While I was in the College of Education’s principalship program and obtaining my master’s degree, I was selected to intern for an associate superintendent in Austin ISD. Although it was a very demanding position for me at the time – I was a full time graduate student and pregnant – I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world. I got to work with 15 very talented principals in Austin ISD. I learned so much from them about managing schools, working with parents, training teachers, collecting and using school data, understanding school law and school policy, and working with budgets. That experience was invaluable.

Why UT?

I had such positive experiences with the professors and instructors in the College of Education during my master’s program and I felt very successful as a student. I also felt that the instructors cared about me. For those reasons, when I decided to get my Ph.D. in special education I knew UT Austin was the place for me. As far as faculty who were particularly influential, Dr. Norma Cantu, Dr. Martha Ovando, and Dr. Terry Falcomata definitely stand out. Dr. Cantu’s passion for civil rights through the public education lens made me appreciate the job I do every day. Like Dr. Cantu, I believe high quality education for all children is important and that this goal deserves our complete attention. Dr. Ovando taught me how to be an instructional leader by modeling the instruction I wanted to see for my teachers, and modeling how respectfully children and parents should be treated. Dr. Falcomata taught me how to make meaningful, data-driven observations of students and how to use that information to implement behavioral or instructional interventions. I loved that class!

Life After UT

My story is pretty straightforward – I have simply continued to do what I love, which is work in public education. In addition to being a school administrator, I have done some guest lectures, committee work, served on dissertation committees, and written some articles about UT Elementary School.

Advice For Students

First, build strong relationships. The education you get at The University of Texas at Austin is of the highest quality, but it’s the relationships you build with your peers and professors that are crucial in order for you to thrive in the real world. Your peers become your colleagues and your professors become your mentors. Second, create opportunities to learn more and gain new experiences. Volunteer to guest lecture in a class you love, tutor a student in an elementary school, or volunteer to support a research project. Once you leave the Forty Acres, it ends up being your experiences, along with your degree, that help you do well! And, finally, never stop learning. Learning shouldn’t cease once you leave school. I still learn something new almost every day.

Kim Nelson

Kim Nelson – UT Urban Teachers graduate student

On entering a teacher preparation program, one quickly acquires a new language: familiar terms and phrases like “my kids” and “planning” take on strange and special meanings, while once foreign acronyms—STAAR, ESL, LEP, ADHD—begin to trip effortlessly off one’s tongue. Beyond vocabulary, one also begins to understand the importance of tone and tenor when discussing teaching and learning—especially regarding urban schools.

As a pre-service English Language Arts teacher and a graduate student in language and literacy, I’ve spent quite a bit of time meditating on the beyond-the-surface meaning and sociocultural significance of the language we use to describe urban education. All too often it is a language of desperation and deficit. A language of “high stakes” and “low performance.” A language of “benchmarking,” “accountability,” and “AYP.” Not, in other words, a language that invites or elucidates.

And yet, there is a counter-language we can use to discuss urban education. It is a language of hope and anticipation, of expectation and diligence, of possibility. This is the language spoken by the faculty, program directors, and students in the UTeach Urban Teachers (UTUT) program. This language infiltrates every course, assignment, class discussion, and teaching placement, and it is this language that makes the UTeach Urban Teachers program unique.

I came to the program from a job in higher education, ready to make a difference at an earlier point in students’ educational lives. When I entered the program, I wasn’t focused on urban education per se, but instead on gaining a marketable teaching credential from a top program. One year in, I’m convinced that UTUT’s urban education focus has been absolutely critical in preparing me to become a frontline advocate for one of the most pressing issues in this country.

From the faculty and administrators to fellow students in my program cohort, everyone involved in the UTUT program is committed to the belief that all students deserve an excellent education and a fair chance in life. In seminar-style classes with nationally recognized scholars, we investigate issues spanning special education; language learning; race, class, culture, sexual orientation, and diversity; literacy; and technology in the classroom.. During these discussions we gain fluency in the language we will need to make our belief a reality.

There are certainly less time- and effort-intensive ways to become a teacher in Texas. But UTUT’s melding of scholarship with real-world teaching practice in Austin area schools makes it particularly effective at addressing the critical needs of today’s urban teachers and students. Every day I feel as though I’m not just part of a program but also of a movement that seeks to speak about urban education in a new language.

I’m excited to see the changes our words and actions will make as we progress through the program – and beyond it.



September 2, 2014

Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards

Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards

Keisha Bentley-Edwards, PhD, a University of Texas at Austin Assistant Professor in the College of Education, has received a $100,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to study the effectiveness of current bullying assessments and to examine socialization practices for African-American students.

RWJF is the nation’s leading philanthropy working to build a Culture of Health in America. The two-year grant is awarded through the New Connections program and addresses RWJF’s Vulnerable Populations program priority area by focusing on how health is “diminished by all forms of violence.”

“Right now, assessment tools and interventions for bullying don’t seem to do a very good job of targeting African-American students,” says Bentley-Edwards. “Researchers on this topic ask African-American children if they’ve been bullied and the children almost always say, ‘No,’ even when bullying has occurred. As it turns out, there are cultural factors that determine how children define and perceive bullying.”

“If you ask African-American students about very specific behaviors they’ve experienced, such as, ‘Are you being picked on by someone?’ they tend to say, ‘Yes,’” says Bentley-Edwards. “Also, students don’t usually think they’re being bullied if it’s not happening every single day. My goal is to develop an assessment resource that takes all of these culturally relevant factors into consideration.”

Bentley-Edwards’ work will address African-American students who are perpetrators as well as victims of bullying because, according to research, the person doing the bullying was often a victim at one time.

“We are so excited to welcome Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards into the eighth cohort of New Connections grantees,” says Catherine Malone, DBA, MBA, RWJF Program Associate. “The program connects first-time grantees to the Foundation, and the new perspectives they bring are essential to solving the critical, complex issues affecting our nation’s health.”

This cohort joins the larger New Connections network of over 1,200 scholars.

New Connections is a national program designed to introduce new scholars to RWJF and to expand the diversity of perspectives informing the Foundation’s programming. The program seeks early- to mid-career scholars who are historically underrepresented ethnic or racial minorities, first-generation college graduates, or individuals from low-income communities.

“The community of scholars garnered by the RWJF New Connections program is unparalleled,” says Bentley-Edwards. “I am honored to be among the grantees, to have access to the mentorship and collegiality of leading health scholars, and to have the opportunity to investigate and facilitate enduring good health for African-American children.”

About The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education

The College of Education is ranked among the top ten in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and includes leading national researchers in areas as diverse as autism, exercise physiology, math disabilities, depression, and literacy.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve the health and health care of all Americans. We are striving to build a national Culture of Health that will enable all Americans to live longer, healthier lives now and for generations to come. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.

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.

August 20, 2014

College of Education professors Kevin Cokley and Jo Worthy were among 27 UT Austin faculty to receive the 2014 Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, The University of Texas System’s highest teaching honor.

The Regents’ recognition program is one of the nation’s largest monetary awards for teaching in higher education, honoring the highest quality instruction and spotlighting innovation in undergraduate instruction.

A total of $2.4 million will be awarded to educators from the UT System’s 15 academic and health institutions during a ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 20, at the Shirley Bird Perry Ballroom in the Texas Union at UT Austin.

“Our excellence in teaching faculty is a critical part of the System’s vision of an institution of the first class,” said UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D. “These awards are a reflection of the Regents placing the highest priority on undergraduate, graduate and professional teaching excellence System-wide.”

Faculty members undergo a series of rigorous evaluations by students, peer faculty members, and external reviewers. The review panels consider a range of activities and criteria in their evaluations including outstanding teaching, mentoring, personal commitment to students and motivating students in the classroom.

“UT Austin places a very high value on classroom teaching,” said UT Austin President Bill Powers. “I am pleased that the UT System is recognizing these 27 individual faculty members for their performance as teachers and their commitment to their students.”

Dr. Jo Worthy

Dr. Jo Worthy


Worthy is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction’s language and literacy and a department graduate adviser. She teaches classes in literacy development and pedagogy and conducts research on children’s reading interests and preferences, alternatives to grouping students according to ability, and bilingual education. In 2006, Worthy won the Elizabeth Shatto Massey Award for Excellence in Teacher Education

Dr. Kevin Cokley

Dr. Kevin Cokley


Cokley is a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology as well as director of UT Austin’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis. He researches African American psychology, with a focus on racial and ethnic identity development and how factors such as academic self-concept contribute to academic achievement. Cokley is a Fellow and Chair in UT Austin’s African and African American Diaspora Studies program. He’s also been honored with the Louise Spence Griffeth Fellowship for Excellence, Elizabeth Glenadine Gibb Teaching Fellowship in Education, and Charles and Shirley Thomas Award for mentoring, education, and training of ethnic minority students.


– Kay Randall, k.randall@austin.utexas.edu

July 11, 2014

The College of Education’s Institute for Public School Initiatives (IPSI) and UT Austin’s Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) recently hosted the first-ever education-focused national summit on big data and data visualization.

The Invitational Summit on Education Data Visualization drew tech gurus, educators, policy makers, and community leaders to Austin to discuss how big data can help education solve problems to the same degree that it’s benefited areas like medicine, transportation, and law enforcement.

Attendees learned about

–       issues of privacy, security, ethics

–       how data visualization can affect policy making

–       tools that are particularly helpful when using data visualization in education

–       global trends

–       selling leadership on the importance of gathering and analyzing data

–       how data visualization can help the learning process and educational research

“Over the past 20 years there’s been explosive growth in learning that happens or is tracked in a computer-mediated environment,” said Paul Resta, who holds the Ruth Knight Milliken Centennial Professorship in Learning Technology in the College of Education. “As a result, educators and scholars have large amounts of data that could significantly improve teaching and learning. Data visualization, which has long been used in the sciences and business, offers a variety of powerful tools that can enhance research and make communication of education reform proposals to the public easier.”

Speakers included:

Paul Resta, University of Texas at Austin

George Siemens (keynote), University of Texas at Arlington

Kathleen Styles, U.S. Department of Education

Eric Newburger, U.S. Census Bureau

Larry Johnson, New Media Consortia

Mark Milliron, Civitas Learning

Richard Rhodes, Austin Community College

Peter Winograd, Center for Education Policy Research

JoAnne Wendelberger, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Ben Glazer, Eduvant

Chris Dede, Harvard University

Experts explained the best uses for big data, how to organize and share the data, and the limitations of data as a silver bullet for all education problems. Several applicable case studies also were presented not only from the field of education but also from areas like the oil industry, the military, and wildlife preservation.

“Regarding big data, it’s both complicated and simple,” said Charles Thornburgh, founder, CEO, and director of Civitas Learning. “You have to provide the correct infrastructure with the right data to the right people in the right way.”

– Kay Randall, k.randall@austin.utexas.edu