Dr. Carol Connor

The i3/EIR grant program funds hundreds of organizations throughout the country, all of whom are engaged in forward-thinking, even boundary-pushing work. The InProgress interview series conveys the breadth and excitement of our diverse grantees by letting them explain their work in their own words. These aren’t success stories, exactly, but portraits of ongoing work, with all the inspiration and obstacles that implies.

Today we speak with Dr. Carol Connor, a co-PI for the EIR Scale-Up grantee Digital Promise. Their project United2Read: Scaling Personalized Literacy Instruction to Ensure Strong Student Achievement, has shown measurable improvements to children’s literacy in randomized control trials, and this EIR grant will be used to scale it nationally.

What kind of work is United2Read doing with its EIR grant?

More than 13 years ago, Dr. Carol Connor​​ began exploring how K-3 teachers can best serve all of their students. She focused her research on examining young children’s language and literacy development, with the goal of understanding the difficulties that children with diverse learning needs have in developing basic and advanced literacy skills. To address the challenges faced by these students and their teachers, she developed the "individualizing student instruction" intervention (ISI) and the associated Assessment 2 Instruction (A2i) assessments and software platform.

Learning Ovations, Inc. is now responsible for supporting and scaling Dr. Connor’s research-based products, including the innovative A2i Professional Support System. The A2i Professional Support System integrates online assessments (that provide the data-points necessary to run A2i’s patented dynamic forecasting intervention algorithms), classroom set-up, instructional recommendations, and coaching support from a Literacy Outcomes Specialists. The Literacy Outcomes Specialists work to coach teachers and administrators on the use of the software, as well as how to implement the instructional recommendations from the technology. The A2i technology recommends the specific amount and type of individualized instruction each student needs in order to end the school year reading at or above grade-level.

Using the EIR grant, the United2Read partnership is working to expand the availability and use of the A2i technology and support, increase scalability, and expand the engagement and resources of communities to align and support improving 3rd grade reading outcomes. United2Read is a consortium of researchers and developers from Learning Ovations, UC Irvine, MDRC and Digital Promise, working together for the next four years to help more than 100,000 students in at least 310 schools become proficient readers.

How far along are you in your grant?

We just completed year one of the award on September 30, 2018. This is a five-year grant project.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

There is a much-discussed gap in the field of education research between research study findings and actual practice in the classroom. The United2Read partnership is undertaking the task of bridging that gap. This has proven to be very challenging and complex for reasons that are both historical and related to school resources. There are many factors that can influence what and how districts, schools, and teachers adapt to improve the effectiveness of their instruction. In the absence of research-based best practices, a vast range of ideological and philosophical beliefs related to teaching have taken root over the past few decades. Our challenge in this landscape has been to create and encourage thoughtful discussion while realigning the schools’ focus on more effective evidence-based instructional practices and the goal of supporting students to become proficient readers.

One specific example of this has come up in relation to our assessment information and the skill-specific measures teachers are accustomed to using. Despite the scientific evidence supporting the causal link between A2i and student literacy outcomes, it has been difficult at times for teachers and administrators to fully understand how the assessment data provided by the technology can best be understood.

What’s an unexpected lesson you’ve learned so far?

While it may not be unexpected to some who work closely with the education community, we learned very quickly not to make any assumptions about any aspect of district technology. The variability of the technology resources and support available across our partnering districts and schools is vast, and extends to the actual devices that students used for internet access (required for our assessments). We found that there were additional challenges related to Wi-Fi availability and quality (or lack of Wi-Fi completely), outdated devices, operating systems without updates, as well as a range in teacher/administrator’s interest in technology use in general.

Our goal, as part of the system-wide change we hope to support and promote, is to create a context within schools where technology is valued and supported by both teachers and district leaders. We are committed to working with districts from all corners of this wide technology landscape because we also know our role in improving student literacy outcomes will not be possible for some of our most underserved communities unless we directly face this challenge. We have already taken steps to better reveal and address these challenges as we grow, allowing us to better serve our school partners, teachers, and students.

You can learn more about the project at the United2Read website.