Need to Know: The National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER)

An Interview with NCSER's New Commissioner


Joan McLaughlin

Joan McLaughlin, Ph.D., who has been Acting Commissioner at the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) since July 2013, was named Commissioner this week by the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education

CEC congratulates Dr. McLaughlin on her appointment and is committed to working collaboratively with her on the critical issues facing the field of special education research and ensuring positive outcomes for all students. 

In this exclusive Q&A with CEC Today, Dr. McLaughlin shares her thoughts about the state of special education research today and what resources NCSER has available for you, whether you’re an educator, a special education researcher or an aspiring special education researcher. 

CEC Today:  NCSER was created in 2004 and in just a short time has made some significant contributions to the special education field.  Can you tell us about a few of these accomplishments?

JM:  NCSER has accomplished a tremendous amount in the small amount of time since it began awarding grants in 2006.  Some of the highlights include:

One accomplishment is the breadth and depth of the research NCSER funds. The challenges facing children with or at risk for disabilities, their families and the professionals that support them are enormous, and our grantees are helping to address these challenges through a variety of research activities. 

We have funded rigorous studies that have found meaningful gains in child outcomes measured from a comprehensive reading program for students with intellectual disabilities; an intervention for third grade students struggling to learn fractions; and curricula targeting elementary school-age children’s social problem-solving skills.  

For example, NCSER is developing interventions to help parents of toddlers who are deaf or hard of hearing  play an active role in the development of language in their child’s rehabilitation.  Another great development is a best-selling app on iTunes that uses picture schedules, visual countdown timers, and choice prompts to help teachers set expectations, ease transitions between activities, increase students' attention to tasks, and develop social skills for students with autism.

The second accomplishment is the increase we've seen in researchers submitting applications and receiving grants.  Until our recent funding cuts, we had seen a steady increase in the number of applications and the number of projects funded. In recent years, from 2009 to 2012, the number of applications went up 28% (from 256 to 327); and the number of funded grants rose 36% (33 to 45). We felt especially good about the number of funded grants as it showed that researchers were submitting applications that were rated “outstanding” or “excellent”. 

The third accomplishment is the capacity building we've undertaken.  We have thus far funded roughly 46 researchers through our post-doctoral training program and began an Early Career Development and Mentoring grant program aimed at helping to support those just starting out as special education researchers (within three years of their doctoral or post-doctoral work).

In addition, over a hundred researchers have attended our week-long Summer Research Institute on single-case design, and many special education researchers have attended the two-week Summer Research Institute on Randomized Controlled Trials supported by the National Center for Education Research.

And finally, the fourth accomplishment is NCSER's targeted commitment of resources to some of the most intractable education problems.  Through our Research and Development Centers, we have funded teams of national experts to target problems that are of significant national importance, such as the development and testing of a comprehensive, school-based intervention for high school students with autism; developing practical and relevant methods of accurately measuring academic growth for students with disabilities for use in accountability systems; and improving math instructions for students with math difficulties. 

We are also really excited about our latest initiative that we were able to fund in 2013 called Accelerating the Academic Achievement of Students with Learning Disabilities Research Initiative (A3 Initiative).  This initiative will target the problem of improving the academic achievement, namely reading and mathematics achievement, of students with or at risk for learning disabilities who demonstrate the most intractable learning problems.

CEC Today:  How has this funding cut affected NCSER’s ability to support high-quality special education research?

JM:  The reductions in our budget have thus far limited NCSER in the research and research training projects it could fund under the Federal Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 competitions and prevented us from holding any research competitions in FY 2014.

Up until 2013, we have been able to fund all grants that were rated excellent or outstanding by peer review panels.  This year, we were able to fund only a portion of these highly-rated grants.  In addition, the current budget level for NCSER will not allow for any new grant awards in FY 2014 once we pay out the funds needed to continue our active grants. 

We are working hard to make sure we don’t lose momentum in the progress that we have made in research and research training since we first began funding research in 2006.  We have over 200 funded grants that can contribute to addressing important early intervention and special education issues. 

CEC Today:   What advice do you have for the new special education researchers entering into the field?

JM:  That's an easy one -- I've got several suggestions for new researchers.

  • Get help from your colleagues.  Most researchers are happy to share their experiences and provide guidance when they can.  If possible, look for a mentor who can provide feedback on grant ideas and help you through the process.  Also think about which colleagues would be good team members when you apply for a research grant.

  • Take advantage of IES resources.  For example, we have been able to fund Summer Research Training Institutes in Single-Case Design, Randomized Controlled Trials, and Quasi-Experimental Designs.  These Institutes are taught by leading experts in the field and rated very highly by participants. We also host grant-related webinars each year in the weeks following the release of the Request for Applications for our grant competitions. Our website also has a host of resources for researchers including technical papers to assist in design and methods issues, and videos of prior IES trainings.  Perhaps the best resource of all is NCSER Program Officers. They are willing to discuss ideas for research and provide technical assistance as applicants work through the grant application process.  Don’t be afraid to contact them!
  • Look for ways to build experience in conducting research.  Look locally for grant opportunities, such as small grants supported by your university or other organizations.  This will help you to build the foundation of your research, and to bolster your experience conducting and managing studies in a way that can be helpful in preparing to be an independent researcher on a federal grant.

  • Have patience.  It takes time to build your line of research.   And remember that even seasoned researchers rarely get their grants funded on their first submission.  

CEC Today: What IES/NCSER events are on the horizon that researchers should know about?

We are planning to release a Request for Applications this coming year (for grant awards to start in FY 2015) and are working on that now.  We also plan on holding our Summer Training Institute in Single-Case design this summer.  Anyone who is interested in receiving an automatic notification of these and any other IES or NCSER announcements should sign up for the Newsflash service.

We also will be hosting a strand at CEC’s annual meeting again this year, where we’ll  showcase  some of our recently or soon-to-be completed studies. I look forward to working with the special education community in my new role as Commissioner of NCSER. Thanks for your support!

About Joan McLaughlin

Joan McLaughlin is a developmental psychologist who came to Washington after completing graduate school with a desire to be involved in research that would inform programs and policies to improve the lives of children, especially those who faced challenges due to poverty, familial, or developmental circumstances.  Since that time she has worked both within government and as a consultant to support rigorous research and evaluation that informs policy and practice on a variety of issues including education and special education, maternal and child health, child nutrition, early intervention and early childhood programs.  In 2009, Joan joined the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) as the Deputy Commissioner of the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) and served as Program Officer for Early Intervention and Early Learning in Special Education research grants.  She became Acting Deputy Commissioner in July 2013 and was named Commissioner on Jan. 28, 2014. 

Read the IES press release announcing McLaughlin's appointment.