Q&A: IES’s Liz Albro Discusses How IES Advances Education Research
Q&A: IES’s Liz Albro Discusses How IES Advances Education Research

October 2017

The following Q&A is the second in an occasional series of conversations with policy and opinion leaders with an interest in and commitment to high-quality education research.

Liz Albro is associate commissioner of the Teaching and Learning Division at the National Center for Education Research (NCER) within the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). She has been part of IES since 2002 and served as Acting Commissioner of Education Research from August 2011 to January 2013. Trained in the behavioral and social sciences, with an emphasis on psychology, cognition, and communication, she offers expertise in the basic sciences of learning and education practice. Her research interests encompass building bridges between basic science and education practice.

Q. Tell us a little about your current role at NCER and what inspired you to be involved in education research as part of the federal government.

A. As the associate commissioner of the Teaching and Learning Division, I work closely with the Commissioner and the NCER team to support the highest quality education research and education research training. Our goal is to generate evidence that can be used to support the achievement of all learners, and to close persistent academic achievement gaps. My professional life has been focused on building knowledge about how students learn, and then building bridges between knowledge generated by the research community and by education practitioners.

When I began at IES, I served as the program officer for our Cognition and Student Learning (CASL) program. The CASL program continues to be focused on challenging cognitive scientists to bring their lab-based findings to the classroom. Over the past 15 years, I have been amazed at the ways in which cognitive scientists are revising their knowledge and understanding of learning as they work in schools with teachers and students. You can see an update on our CASL work in a recent blog post.

Q. You have been working in several policy areas at IES, including efforts to further data sharing and research transparency. What role do you see IES having in promoting data sharing in education research?

A. Over the past five years or so, I have been privileged to work with scholars across government to respond to the call from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for greater public access to the findings of federally funded research and the data behind those findings. The role of IES and other funders in encouraging data sharing is straightforward—IES has included requirements for recipients of our research grants to share their data.

Mindful that this places an additional burden on researchers, and that systems and processes for storing and sharing the data are still being built, IES has not imposed this requirement on all grantees we fund. Rather, data sharing requirements are primarily limited to projects that are testing causal hypotheses, given the critical importance of understanding what works, for whom, and under what conditions. Other projects may also be required to share their data, but those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Over the next several years, I anticipate that we will extend this requirement.

Q. What overall advice would you provide to scholars applying for IES grants?

A. The best advice is to reach out to the program officer who oversees the area of research you work in, send them a one-page description of the research or research training that you are seeking support for, and then set up a time to talk with them. I’d recommend first reviewing the Requests for Applications that are available on our funding page: https://ies.ed.gov/funding/. This can happen at any time during the year, so don’t feel like you need to wait for the RFAs to be active. The second thing I would recommend is to pay attention to your writing. Reviewers appreciate clear and well-written text!

Q. What are some of the findings from the IES research projects that you’ve been involved with that have helped to shift our thinking on teaching and learning? 

A. It is difficult to choose just a few, but I’ll try! One example is the Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships with Karen Thompson, of Oregon State University, and educators from the Oregon State Department of Education. Their work is rethinking the ways in which English learners are described, allowing schools and districts to more accurately track the successes and failures of English learners. The idea is to track data for “Ever EL” students, including those who currently receive English learner services and those who have exited those services. You can learn more in this blog post that Karen and her colleagues wrote.

I’m also very proud of what came out of the Reading for Understanding (RfU) Research Initiative. The RfU research teams designed and tested new interventions that promote high-quality language use and talk among students as a way to build and improve reading comprehension. RfU also supported the development of technology-based assessments to measure reading skills using real-life scenarios.

Q. What are some of the challenges facing education researchers and what is IES doing to address them? 

A. One of the enduring challenges facing education researchers is identifying schools to be a part of our research. Schools and districts are hungry for knowledge that can help them help their students, but researchers are not always coming to the schools with a focus on a problem that is at the top of the schools’ list. IES established the Partnerships and Collaborations Focused on Problems of Practice or Policy competition to incentivize joint identification of problems that could be examined through research. We’ve funded 76 projects in this competition, to date. 

Q. What emerging areas of research do you think need more attention for study or may be currently underrepresented at IES? 

A. The best way to learn about emerging areas of research that need more attention for study is to read our Requests for Applications. Within our Education Research Grants competition, we identify research gaps in each of our topic areas, and have recently added a Special Topics section where we request applications in areas that need more study. In addition, we periodically compete with National Research and Development Centers and Research Networks Focused on Critical Problems of Policy and Practice. Those competitions always focus on areas where we perceive a need for additional research.

Sign up for the IES Newsflash or follow us on Twitter and Facebook so that you can receive information about the next round of competitions as soon as the RFAs are announced!

Albro may be contacted at elizabeth.albro@ed.gov