Evidence-based Practice and Autism

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Evidence-based Practice cake


Katie is an 18-month-old who does not respond when her mother calls her name, likes to watch spinning objects, and does not use words or gestures to communicate.

Jose is a 17-year-old student who gets stellar grades in all his courses, started the cyber security club in his high school, but he does not have anyone he can call his friend.

This toddler and teenager reflect the continuum of abilities and disabilities that is autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

As a society, we in the United States are doing a truly remarkable thing. We have made a commitment to provide an appropriate educational program in the least restrictive environment for children and youth with ASD and other disabilities, and to make sure that the practices in these programs are based on evidence of effectiveness.

But, where do teachers, other practitioners, and parents look to find out which practices are based on research evidence? We would not expect them to go to the research journals to search out the practices that work.

In 2007, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funded the National Professional Development Center on ASD (NPDC) to promote practitioners’ use of evidence-based practices. One of the first activities of the center was to conduct a comprehensive review of the focused intervention research literature. NPDC conducted an updated review in 2014. The review screened 29,000 articles on autism and identified 27 practices as evidence-based.

To identify interventions or teaching strategies by name and definition is not enough information to prepare teachers and others to use them in their work with children and youth with ASD. They need to be translated into specific, practical descriptions, with examples of how to use the practices to support learning and development.

With funding from OSEP, NPDC investigators created online modules for all of the 27 practices. The modules contain clear directions about how to implement practices and include video examples, fidelity checklists, and downloadable PDFs for all the module content. The website is free and has over 45,000 registered users to date.

It has become a major source of information about evidence-based practice for children and youth with ASD in this country and around the world. For example, over 400 teachers are part of the CAPTAIN Project in California and they are committed to incorporating these practices into their programs for children with ASD. The SOTIS program in Warsaw, Poland is using these practices in multiple autism preschool centers. Individuals from China, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Poland have voiced interest in translating the practices into their native language.

Knowledge about effective interventions does not stand still. In the years since the last review ended in 2011, we have located over 26,000 articles published on autism intervention and have launched an update of our previous review through the new National Clearinghouse on Autism Research and Practice at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Over 150 reviewers are currently evaluating the quality of research articles to be included in this updated review. There is always new work to be done in this area and, pending funding, we hope to extend the review to interventions that have been conducted with adults with ASD and to conduct an annual update to the evidence base, including updating the online modules with new information from the research literature.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Project ASD: Special Educator Preparation in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Supporting Children and Youth with Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month, and a perfect time to highlight the OSEP-funded Project Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Since 2004, this innovative personnel preparation project has been addressing the critical need for special educators prepared to serve the increasing numbers of children identified with ASD. A nationwide listing of teacher shortage areas revealed 48 states reporting shortages of special education teachers for the 2016–17 school year, with many states identifying the specific need for special educators prepared to serve students with autism.

What is Project ASD?

Two federal personnel development projects currently support Project ASD at UCF, projects ASD IV, funded 2014–18, and ASD V, funded 2016–20.They represent the culmination of over a decade of research focused on teacher preparation in ASD. Project ASD’s graduate program addresses persistent gaps in services, including the need to (a) increase the number of highly effective special educators serving students with ASD, and (b) prepare special educators with specialized knowledge and competencies for working with students with ASD. Project ASD addresses identified gaps by implementing three primary goals:

  1. Recruit high-quality graduate-level scholars including traditionally underrepresented groups with potential to become highly effective special educators for students with ASD.
  2. Prepare scholars in an evidence-based special education program that includes field experiences in urban, high-poverty settings, and leads to state certification in Exceptional Student Education (ESE) and endorsement in ASD.
  3. Retain scholars through completion of the program and induction into the profession through ongoing advisement, financial and academic support, and mentorship.

Master’s Degree and Certification in ESE and ASD

Project ASD has supported over 300 scholars in earning a master’s degree and full certification in ESE, and State Endorsement in Autism. The success of the project can be attributed to ongoing collaboration between university faculty, school district personnel, agencies, and families. Project ASD employs a multi-faceted recruitment model targeting exceptional scholars dedicated to the field of special education, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups. Scholars receive support to complete a graduate program of study, which prepares them to implement evidence-based practices for students with ASD to increase student achievement across domains including academic, communication, social-emotional, independent functioning, and vocational. Project ASD also hosts a Mentor Demonstration Classroom program that features project graduates who understand the challenges of the master’s program, and the unique needs of beginning special educators in classrooms for students with ASD. These exemplary teachers provide video demonstrations, serve as guest speakers, and open their classrooms to provide Project ASD scholars with opportunities to integrate coursework and field experience.

In addition to its close work with scholars at UCF, Project ASD disseminates information related to teacher preparation in ASD through publications as well as numerous presentations at state and national conferences. Teacher Education and Special Education recently published an article featuring Project ASD’s Quality Indicators for Classrooms Serving Students With ASD instrument. For further information, visit the Project ASD website, or contact the project directors at projectasd@ucf.edu


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Eleazar Vasquez III, Director and Associate Professor for the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute
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Director and Associate Professor for the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute
Cynthia Pearl
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Faculty Administrator in the Exceptional Education Program
Matthew T. Marino, Professor in the Exceptional Education Program
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Professor in the Exceptional Education Program

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Bentley Ponder

Bentley Ponder

Bentley Ponder

Bentley Ponder is the Senior Director of Research and Policy at Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL). Ponder oversees DECAL’s external research studies and manages internal evaluation projects, policy analyses, and ongoing data projects. Past and present initiatives include validation efforts for the state’s tiered quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), longitudinal evaluations of Georgia’s Pre-K program, development of policies related to the state’s Cross-Agency Child Level Data System (CACDS), research projects for the state’s Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) plan, and a statewide early education economic impact study. He helped write Georgia’s Early Learning Challenge grant application in 2013. He received his doctorate in sociology from Georgia State University and has been with DECAL since 2005.


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?

Bentley: The Georgia Pre-K program (GA PreK), a lottery-funded educational program for Georgia’s four-year-old children designed to prepare them for kindergarten, recently celebrated a birthday—it is 25 years old! I stumbled into early education during the early years of GA PreK. Early childhood work wasn’t part of my career plans. While I was earning my doctorate in sociology at Georgia State University, I was looking for a graduate research assistantship. I ended up being hired by a research group at Georgia State University that was conducting the first longitudinal study of children who participated in the 1995 GA PreK program. At first I was just a data collector, but in 2001 the director of the study went on sabbatical and there was an opportunity for me to move into more of a leadership role. I began to interact with what was then the Georgia Office of School Readiness—it later became the Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL)—and during those interactions, they got to know me and my expertise. When they decided to hire a researcher, they recruited me, and I have been here ever since.

I’ve had the opportunity to see DECAL and its emphasis on early learning grow. Our base is really the GA PreK program. We wouldn’t have a true early learning system without it. Although it isn’t our largest program, it has been foundational in setting high-quality standards, and it has allowed our state legislature to understand the importance of early learning for our state’s preschoolers. DECAL also oversees child care licensing, a federal nutrition program, and Georgia’s quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), Quality Rated. In 2012, we became the Georgia lead agency for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Care Development Fund (CCDF). We also house the state’s Head Start Collaboration Office, and administer an Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grant that was awarded to Georgia in 2013 and an Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant under which DECAL is serving over 200 infants and toddlers. Because we oversee all of these programs, we have the ability to look across programs, coordinate improvement efforts, and build a strong early learning system. It has also been fun to grow our research and evaluation unit. Initially, it was staffed by only me, and my primary role was to do a lot of data analysis. Now we have a team of six and the unit’s role has expanded to support the various early care and learning programs administered by DECAL. We have a robust research agenda and work closely with our early care and learning program directors to see what they need.

ED: What efforts have you and your organization been involved in to improve the quality of early learning?

Bentley: Our research and evaluation team’s primary mission is to ensure that we are using the latest research, data, and evaluation information to inform policy and practices across our early learning programs and grants. We focus on how to use evidence-based information to improve the quality of our programs. Our team is engaged in a number of different activities and projects. We do a lot of QRIS-focused research. At first it was just learning about what other states were doing; we weren’t ready to implement a QRIS but wanted to learn from others. We funded a quality study that took a sample of classrooms across the state, including infant-toddler, preschool, and GA PreK classrooms. Findings indicated that the majority of our infant-toddler programs fell in the low-quality range. Our PreK classrooms had good structural quality, but they needed to focus on the quality of teacher-child interactions. DECAL leadership used these results to inform some of our improvement efforts. For example, DECAL developed a cadre of infant-toddler specialists who support our infant-toddler programs to improve quality, and created professional learning communities for preschool and PreK teachers that focus on those critical positive teacher-child interactions. DECAL also used the findings from the quality study to help design our QRIS.

Some of our research and evaluation work is done in-house, and for some we hire outside contractors. When managing these contracts, we place a lot of emphasis on ensuring that the work they do is grounded in our context and connected to our programs.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Bentley: Our research and evaluation team is big enough to be its own unit, but not big enough to conduct randomized control trial studies or manage complex field data collection for DECAL. One of the challenges is figuring out what we can do directly and when we need to bring in outside contractors. Another challenge has to do with embedding research and evaluation into the overall mission of our agency. We have done a good job of asserting our team as an important part of the agency, but this can lead to challenges in being objective researchers. We are attached to our programs and we want them to be successful so this can be hard. This is an example of where it is really important to bring in outside contractors.

Another challenge is ensuring our team has the capacity to address all of our priorities. There is so much work to be done and sometimes we have to make decisions about what is most important. For example, I wish we published more. We have so much to share about the interesting work we are doing but, given our capacity and time constraints, publishing usually doesn’t rise to be a priority. One thing that helps with prioritization is if we have funding for a specific project. Currently, completing the validation study under the ELC is my priority.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities?

Bentley: I really believe that having a research and evaluation unit housed within our agency has infused the importance of research, evaluation, and data as part of our agency’s culture. Our program directors and agency staff embrace and use data and research on a regular basis to inform policy and programmatic decisions. They value the studies and evaluations we conduct, and use the information when deciding how best to use resources and improve programs. I’d encourage other early learning agencies to build a research and evaluation team, or figure out how to bring folks with this expertise into their regular work.

One specific example of how we’ve done this is through our QRIS validation study. We created an internal committee that includes staff involved in our QRIS, researchers, professional development specialists, and infant-toddler specialists. Since the beginning of the study, we have met every two weeks to dive into the data. It has been so beneficial in understanding and being able to use our data. I also encourage others to involve and engage program and other early learning staff in research, evaluation, and data work. If your research, study, or data analysis isn’t beneficial to the program and children being served, then why are you doing it?

A final suggestion is to consider that as researchers we need to be careful and not go overboard with our evaluation efforts. You don’t always need to conduct a survey or do an in-depth study, because sometimes useful information can be found elsewhere!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Bentley Ponder - thumbnail image
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Senior Director of Research and Policy at Bright from the Start, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL)

New at the IRIS Center

IRIS Center logo (an Iris, of course!)

The IRIS Center is a national center dedicated to improving education outcomes for all children, especially those with disabilities birth through age twenty-one, through the use of effective evidence-based practices and interventions. It has recently released two new resources.


Updated IRIS Module: High-Quality Mathematics Instruction: What Teachers Should Know

High-Quality Mathematics InstructionThe newly revised and expanded the High-Quality Mathematics Instruction: What Teachers Should Know Module from the IRIS Center describes the components of high-quality mathematics instruction, including a standards-based curriculum and evidence-based practices. It also highlights a number of evidence-based practices—for example, explicit, systematic instruction; metacognitive strategies; visual representations; and schema instruction—as well as other classroom practices that teachers can use to teach mathematics.

View the Module!


New Resource: IRIS Micro-credentials

IRIS Micro-credentials badge block

Recognized by a growing number of state and district professional development systems for recertification and continuing education credits, micro-credentials allow teachers to master discrete skills at their own pace and in their own classrooms. Every micro-credential earned comes with a digital badge that can be posted on professional social network sites. The IRIS Center now offers micro-credentials in partnership with Digital Promise.

Learn More!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian is a program manager and behavior support specialist for the Merced County Office of Education (MCOE) in California. She has created and helped establish innovative programs that focus on developmental screenings and social skills and behavioral intervention. These programs include Caring Kids, which provides training and support for parents, teachers, child care providers, and social workers. Adrian is an Act Early Ambassador to California for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign. In this role, she helps promote ongoing developmental monitoring; helping children with delays get connected to needed early intervention services in a timely manner.


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?

Monica: Right out of high school I got a job working in a U.S. Department of Defense child care center at the U.S. Air Force base that was in my town at the time. I immediately loved it and knew I wanted a career working with young children. I worked at the child care center while I started college, first earning an associate’s degree in psychology, and then a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with an emphasis on child studies. After college, I worked for five years with children with autism and their families in their homes; at the same time earning my teaching credentials in special education. When my son was born, I had planned to take a few years and stay home with him. However, when he was three months old, I received a call asking if I was interested in working for Caring Kids, a program that works with families to help their young children from birth to age five develop socially and emotionally. I realized that I missed the work of helping young children to build social skills and reduce their challenging behavior. I took the job and have continued to work with various programs that similarly focus on helping all children reach their potential. I also believe that as a professional I have the responsibility to continue to grow and learn. A year ago, I decided to go back and get a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on early childhood and I’m almost done!!

ED: What is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign, and can you describe your role as the Act Early Ambassador to California?

Monica: Learn the Signs. Act Early. is a public awareness campaign that aims to educate families and caregivers about young children’s development and developmental milestones with the ultimate goal of improving caregivers’ support of early development and increasing the early identification of developmental delays and disabilities. Currently, the campaign has 45 Act Early Ambassadors across the country (California has two). Being an ambassador is a two-year commitment. Our role as ambassadors is to promote ongoing developmental monitoring in our state, and to help make sure young children exhibiting developmental delays are connected to early intervention or early childhood special education services as early as possible. We know that many kids with developmental delays or disabilities are often not identified until they go to school at age five, but this is inconsistent with what we know about brain science and the importance of intervening early. We’ve worked hard with different groups of professionals (doctors, social workers, child care providers, and others) to encourage them to move away from the “wait and see” approach, sharing with them the importance of identifying concerns early. This allows for children and families to be connected with appropriate services and interventions. So many different professionals and family members see and spend time with young children regularly and we want everyone to know what typical development looks like. We want to help families promote optimal development and also be able to identify when there should be concerns with development. Learn the Signs. Act Early. has developed evidenced-based and easy-to-use tools and resources for families and professionals which are free and easy to order. Some of my favorite resources are the Watch Me modules developed for child care providers. These modules train providers on why monitoring children’s development is important; what their role in developmental monitoring is; easy ways to monitor a child’s development; and how to talk with families about their children’s development. Child care providers can access the modules for free in English and Spanish and in using them, can even earn continuing education units (CEUs) or professional growth hours. We are working with the California Department of Education so early educators can also access the Watch Me! modules on California Early Childhood Online.

ED: How has your work improved the quality of early learning and development?

Monica: Merced County is in the central valley of California, right in the middle of the state. This is a region of high needs with minimal resources or services. Through our county office of education’s Early Education Department, we administer several programs that help to ensure quality early care and education services for our community. Our programs focus on promoting optimal development for all young children since we know the impact early experiences have on later academic, health, mental health, and employment outcomes. Most of our programs focus on young children at risk for developmental delays and negative outcomes later in school. We work to help families provide safe, stable, and nurturing environments. Many of the families we encounter live in poverty or are dealing with multiple stressors; this work is hard since we usually can’t remove the stressors. Our goal is to help parents build resiliency and provide a buffer from stressors for their children in spite of the adversity they experience. Given many of the children we work with live in families with pervasive—or, wide-ranging—needs, our approach is multi-generational. Our philosophy is that parents are their children’s first teachers, but parents also need support to fulfil this role. We want to implement a process that supports families in being fully present with their children.

I supervise two programs. First is the Caring Kids program I mentioned earlier. Through this program, we provide home visiting services to young children displaying challenging behavior or delays in social skills, and facilitate weekly social-skills-building playgroups and parenting workshops around the county. The second, our Early Connections program, is a collaboration between our county office of education and our county human services agency. This program conducts developmental screenings with children from birth to age five who have had substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect, and then connects the identified kids to any needed follow-up services. In order to act on the federal mandate that requires all of these children to be screened, our county tasked the Merced County Office of Education’s child development staff, who had the most relevant expertise, to conduct the screenings. They work closely with social workers from the human services agency, a collaboration which has been critical for many of the children with the greatest needs in our county.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Monica: One of the challenges is that, as we push to identify more children with developmental delays and disabilities earlier, we need to ensure that the services and service providers who understand how to work with them are available. We really have to look at current systems and policies; identify early learning and intervention champions across disciplines; and empower them to communicate to decision makers the importance of increased funding for mental health and early intervention services, and for programs that are multi-generational. Given the research base, we should be able to make the case to decision makers that investing in these early programs will have long-term financial and social benefits. We really need to think about where we as a community invest our funds. When thinking about how we can better prepare children to enter school on a level playing field, the answer is more than just preschool. We need to look across different systems. As I mentioned before, one useful strategy is to identify champions, like a local school superintendent or principal who understands the importance of early experiences. Individuals in the medical field can also be really helpful advocates. I’m really excited that doctors recently coming out of medical school seem to have a strong understanding of the importance of developmental screenings—we should capitalize on their expertise and the fact that their perspective is one that is likely to influence policy makers.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in promoting developmental screenings?

Monica: Engaging a wide range of stakeholders is really important. Start by having conversations about the importance of developmental screening and how professionals and families can play a role in this. Build a collaborative team of people that represent different agencies and disciplines, be sure to include families, and create and continue to follow an action plan. Consider important questions with this group: What is the vision for children’s future in your community? How does developmental screening fit within this vision? Try not to recreate the wheel; utilize the various resources that are already out there. In addition to resources from Learn the Signs. Act Early., there are great tools available via the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Birth to Five, Watch Me Thrive website. Many states also have a Help Me Grow initiative, which typically focuses on providing resources to best promote developmental screening and monitoring. You can also contact the Learn the Signs. Act Early. ambassador in your state or territory for support.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Monica Adrian
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Program Manager and Behavior Support Specialist, Merced County Office of Education (MCOE), California

Set Your Bookmarks to the New IDEA Site

IDEA Website

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services will automatically direct users from the Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004 site to the new Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) website starting April 30, 2018.

OSERS launched the new IDEA website in June 2017 in order to provide updated department information regarding the IDEA to the public including students, parents/families, educators, service providers, grantees, researchers and advocates.

IDEA website users are encouraged to bookmark the new IDEA website: https://sites.ed.gov/idea.

While the Legacy site will redirect users to the new IDEA site on April 30, content from the Legacy site is available for reference on the new IDEA website on the Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004 historical reference page.

The Legacy site was developed in 2006 as a result of the 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA. The site was developed and updated mostly between 2006 and 2011. It had not received updates since 2013.

OSERS determined it would leave the Legacy site live after the new site launched to provide stakeholders ample time to compare the two sites, adapt to the new site and provide feedback to OSERS.

OSERS has made updates to the site based on the feedback it received from stakeholders since the initial launch of the new IDEA website.

OSERS will continue to gather feedback about the new website in order to enhance and add content to the new IDEA website to ensure the new site remains current.

Stay tuned for video tutorials highlighting features of the new site in the coming months. If you have feedback, comment on the IDEA Website Feedback blog.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melissa Herzig and Melissa Malzkuhn

Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2),
a National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center at Gallaudet University


Melissa Herzig

Melissa Herzig

Melissa Herzig is the Research and Education Translation Manager and the Director of Translation at the National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) at Gallaudet University. She co-founded the PhD Program in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) at Gallaudet and is its Assistant Director. Her role is to facilitate two-way communication between researchers and educators.

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Melissa Malzkuhn

Melissa Malzkuhn

Melissa Malzkuhn, digital strategist and creative director at Gallaudet, directs the university’s development of research-based creative and translational products, including bilingual storybook apps designed for early language acquisition for Deaf children. She leads the VL2 Storybook Creator program that provides training for and facilitates the development of bilingual storybook apps in multiple languages. As founder and Creative Director of Motion Light Lab, she leads projects intersecting creative literature and digital technology to create immersive learning experiences.


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and early literacy?

Melissa Malzkuhn (MM): I have master’s degrees in deaf studies and fine arts/visual narrative, which have given me the opportunity to do a lot of creative and innovative work, while focusing on the importance of narratives. When I started working at Gallaudet in 2008, I led efforts as managing editor of the world’s first peer-reviewed sign language journal, Deaf Studies Digital Journal, which provides articles in American Sign Language (ASL) with printed English. It was fun and challenging to figure out technological capabilities in publishing a visual and spatial language. That led me into my current role with VL2, which is to create innovative resources that help families and teachers promote evidence-based approaches for promoting language and literacy in young children. My work utilizes touchscreen technology to promote a bilingual experience for families with young deaf children. That’s my journey in a nutshell. I also come from a deaf family and I grew up with rich ASL stories. I’m grateful for my access to language, narrative, and word play since birth. My experience has led me to believe in the importance of ASL literacy. The challenge is that since ASL is an oral language, stories are passed on through generations, but can easily disappear. My motivation is to document ASL literature, but to also innovate ways in how we view and interact with ASL storytelling. I’m also the mother of a deaf 5-year-old, so watching his language and literacy development has had real implications for my work.

Melissa Herzig (MH): I’ve always enjoyed working with children and thought I’d be a teacher. I also had a natural curiosity about how the body and the mind worked. I majored in biology in college. After graduating, I worked as a research assistant in language and cognitive neuroscience labs and learned the science behind cognition and language. I started a master’s program in teaching and learning and bilingual education and learned more about language and literacy development. As I began to spend time in classrooms, I found a huge disconnect between what we know from research and what was happening in classrooms, so this became my passion: better connecting research and education. I also better understood the urgency of focusing on early language development in young children. I pursued a doctorate with a strong focus on literacy and motivation. In my current position, I direct the Translation in the Science of Learning Lab. This lab is responsible for translating VL2 research discoveries for applications in various learning environments that deaf children experience. We produce publications and resources for parents, educators, medical professionals, and policy makers as well as offer training for educators on bilingual education and language policy. I am also a mother of three hearing children who have grown up in a bilingual (ASL and English) environment, which has had a positive impact on their development.

ED: What is early sign language acquisition and why should parents of young children know about this?

MH: We know from brain research that there is a critical period for language to develop. For deaf children, there is a serious risk of language deprivation during this critical period. We also know that, for deaf children, including a visual language like ASL in the early years is critical to their later development of strong English literacy and language skills. Most deaf children are born to non-deaf families and many of them don’t have all the information they need to make important decisions about promoting language and literacy development. Research demonstrates that multiple modes of communication have a positive impact on all children’s language development. Sign language helps the child’s brain progress through the normal developmental milestones by activating the part of the brain that spoken language activates. Parents of deaf children are made to think that they must choose ASL or English, but they need to know that they don’t have to choose; they should try it all, and use it all! Bilingualism, regardless of the languages used, makes children’s language and literacy development stronger. Readers can check out our Early Education Literacy Lab website for more information on the latest research in this important area.

ED: How has your work improved the quality of early learning and influenced approaches to teaching early language and literacy?

MM: I’ve been developing bilingual and interactive storybook apps for deaf children using our VL2 Storybook Creator platform. Anyone can create storybook apps using this platform. Its research-based design has three modes:

  1. Watch Mode—the storyteller signs the story from beginning to end with images of the story in the background;
  2. Read Mode—the traditional book where you go from page to page and read the text, and the reader can click to have an individual page or a word signed to them; and
  3. Learn Mode—a list of vocabulary words from the story appear, and the reader can learn and explore words in both text and sign.

This has been a wonderful tool for both educators and families. These are engaging stories for children, and also support parents in learning sign language and sharing reading time with their child. Our goal is to support young deaf children who are learning to read and reading to learn.

MH: This tool has helped boost bilingual teaching in the classroom with deaf children. Teachers have long lamented the scarcity of bilingual resources, so it is a welcome addition to the classroom. We’ve also developed resources to help teachers use the storybook apps, including lesson plans that go along with most storybook apps. Resources provide ideas for how to use the storybook apps for guided, shared, and independent reading and teaching of ASL and English grammar. The best way to help deaf children read is through stories, getting the whole picture, and building background knowledge—not to just focus on English print. We think these visual and interactive storybooks are essential.

MM: Through the VL2 storybook creator program, we’ve collaborated with a number of countries to develop translated versions in their signed and written languages. We’ve worked with Norway, Russia, Japan, Italy, and the Netherlands. On top of this, there is tremendous interest to bring our platform to more countries and to more schools in the U.S. This is really groundbreaking work! Technology has finally caught up to our needs in this area; use of this technology can support literacy for deaf children in a way that hasn’t been an option in the past.

MH: We conducted a usability and efficacy study and found that a diverse group of children were accessing and using the apps, from beginning signers to fluent signers. We also found that participants do learn new English vocabulary words from the stories. The users really liked how the tool allowed for individualization. They can move through the story at their own pace and choose what works for them (watch the story, read the story, click “play” to see videos that aid with comprehension).

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

MH: Overall, one of the major challenges is getting findings from the research base into the hands of families when they are making decisions about early language development. There is a misconception in the medical and education fields that children need to learn spoken language in order to read. This is not true. Visual sign can activate the brain in the same place as oral language. Strong language foundation in any language is best. Strategies we’ve used for countering the misconceptions include sharing our work through research briefs, websites, and presentations. Through our translation lab, we are continually creating resources to translate the research base for families and teachers.

MM: Another challenge is the huge demand for more ASL and ASL/English content because there is limited capacity in the field. We are striving to expand the number and type of visual storybook apps to cover more subject areas and topics. Through collaboration with others, we are building a global digital library of a variety of visual books that teachers and families could access.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting early literacy development in young children?

MH & MM: Reading is fun, signing is fun, and the bridging of two languages in bilingual education is natural. And start early. The earlier we introduce both languages, the better. Language play is so important, and finding ways for all children to be creative with language helps develop the important skills that foster strong literacy skills.

And finally, family involvement is crucial. We encourage schools to engage families in a meaningful way, potentially providing ASL classes at family-friendly times, and encouraging language immersion at home. We’ve developed a VL2 parent package to address this, with helpful FAQs and tips for families on developing language and literacy.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Melissa Herzig
Posted by
PEN Associate Director and Strategic Focus Areas 4 Leader, Gallaudet University
Melissa Malzkuhn
Posted by
Digital Innovation and Media Strategies Manager, Gallaudet University

ED Welcomes OSERS Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett

Johnny Collett

Johnny Collett

The U.S. Department of Education welcomed Johnny Collett, the new U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), on Jan. 16, 2018.

Collett, a former high school special education teacher, has served as the program director of Special Education Outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and as the Kentucky state special education director. Collett has also served as an assistant division director and exceptional children consultant both at the Kentucky Department of Education.

Collett will lead OSERS towards its mission to improve early childhood, educational, and employment outcomes and raise expectations for all people with disabilities, their families, their communities, and the nation.

OSERS comprises the Office of Special Education Programs, which administers the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Rehabilitation Service Administration, which administers titles I, III, VI, and VII, as well as Section 509 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by title IV of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). OSERS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary administers a number of special projects.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo is the 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and was honored to serve as the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year. She has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District since 2002. She has a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in teaching and curriculum, both from Michigan State University. Melody is a wife, mother of three, speaker and presenter, author, and bullying-prevention advocate.


ED: How did you begin your career in education?

Melody: I never planned to be a teacher. I was planning to go into marketing and advertising. I had big plans to live in a city and take a train to work. When I was 19, I found out about a paraprofessional job at a local elementary school. They were looking for someone who spoke Chaldean, which I do, so I applied and was very lucky to get the job. It changed my career trajectory. I loved the school and the principal, and really loved the kids. I quickly realized what a positive impact you can have so quickly on young learners. I enrolled in an associate’s degree program at our community college focused on elementary education and then moved to Michigan State University to complete my bachelor’s (and eventually my master’s) degree in teaching and curriculum.

As a paraprofessional, I worked with kids in kindergarten through second grade, which I enjoyed. But during my year-long student teaching internship, I ended up in a third grade class. I realized I loved kids in third grade. They are independent enough to tie their own shoes and blow their own nose, but are still young enough that we can shape their learning, curiosity, and engagement. After student teaching I landed a job as a third grade teacher in the same district where I started as a paraprofessional, and have been teaching there since 2002.

ED: How did you become interested in the School Ambassador Fellowship program here at ED?

Melody: In 2015, I was honored to be the Michigan Teacher of the Year and spent the year working outside of the classroom. My biggest take away from that experience is that the educator voice is really lacking in critical policy discussions. I wanted to figure out how I could help increase teacher leadership and expand the role of the teacher voice in policy making. When I heard about the School Ambassador Fellowship program it seemed like a perfect next step, so I applied. The program enables outstanding teachers, principals, and other school leaders to bring their school and classroom expertise to the Department and exposes them to the heart of the national dialogue about education. In turn, school ambassador fellows are better equipped to facilitate the learning and input of other educators and community members.

In 2016, I was a part-time fellow for one year. This meant that I still had my classroom in Michigan and engaged and worked with ED remotely. It was an intense year, because I was staying involved at the classroom-level while being engaged in state- and federal-level activities. I am now the lead fellow here in DC and a big part of my work is with the part-time campus fellows, located around the country, who are still working in classrooms and schools. We have a fantastic group of 2017–18 fellows and my role is largely to support and connect them to work going on here at ED. I also have the goal of strengthening ED’s outreach to, and engagement with, educators. To accomplish this, we have been hosting monthly conversations on important educational issues to engage educators in the field. For example, one of our recent monthly topics was STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), particularly how teachers are incorporating STEM in the classroom. For each conversation, we pose a question about the topic via Twitter to generate conversations among educators, encouraging them to share examples of innovation. We then collect their input and feedback, and develop a toolkit of resources around that topic. Additionally, we are tapping into teachers by asking them to write for ED’s Homeroom Blog on each of the monthly topics. I also work with our fellows to promote and encourage teachers to sign up for ED’s monthly newsletter developed for teachers, The Teachers Edition. We have involved each of the fellows in Teach to Lead, an initiative that expands leadership opportunities for teachers and further develops their ideas.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a teacher and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Melody: I am a general education teacher, but I am also a parent of children with special needs. Through struggling to navigate special education as a parent, I have realized that I am ill prepared to teach children with disabilities and see there is a huge need to bring the special education and general education worlds together. We really need to rethink teacher training; general education teachers need more training on how to teach children with disabilities and to work with special educators. I realize now that if I had known more about some of the best practices in special education, such as positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS); how to do functional behavior assessments (FBA) and behavior plans; universal design for learning (UDL); and response to intervention (RTI), I could have had a more positive impact on not only students with disabilities in my class, but could have better met the needs of all of my students.

In my experience, co-teaching isn’t used widely. Children with disabilities are often pulled out of classrooms for their special services and I think that because of this we are missing an important opportunity to bring special educators and general educators together. After my twins began having challenges, I became more active in the disability community and realized how limited my experiences had been in a classroom. I never had a student with autism, cerebral palsy, or other more noticeable disabilities. As a parent, I’ve realized how important it is for children with disabilities to be included in general education classrooms and schools. As a teacher, I’d really like to learn different strategies and different techniques that would benefit all of the students in my class. I think we can do this by better connecting the professionals; it is a disservice to children to have those two worlds—special education and general education—segregated.

ED: What suggestions do you have for improving the quality of early learning and education?

Melody: I believe one of the most important things we can do is to raise the importance of the educator’s voice in making policy decisions. Teachers need to be part of the conversation. The educator’s voice is there but typically only in the policy discussions. Educators need to also be part of the decision-making process, since they are the ones who know what’s realistic and what’s not. I also hope that more educators will become policy makers. From the parent perspective, I think family engagement is critical and we need to do a better job making information easily accessible for families. When my kids were first diagnosed with developmental delays, I mainly relied on other parents, which was wonderful because it created a support network for us. I believe we need to do more to connect families with other families when making educational decisions—families are more powerful and informed when they are connected.

My specific advice for educators interested in becoming part of important local, state, and national conversations is to start looking for leadership opportunities in your community, district, and beyond. Develop your leadership skills, brand yourself as expert in an area, and let policy makers know. For example, based on your expertise and experience you could be an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) expert, or a STEM expert, or an expert in best practices for increasing positive social emotional and behavioral skills. Engage in social media by following other teacher leaders, ED, state-level policy makers; develop your own website and blogs; and build an audience. It is okay if your audience is small at first, but you have to put yourself out there to engage. I really like the teacherprenuers initiative, where teachers think of themselves as innovators but also take on entrepreneurial leadership outside of the classroom. I would love for this to be part of teacher training. It is really empowering for teachers that think this way and have already begun engaging outside of their classrooms. So I encourage teachers to think like a teacherprenuer. This can be as simple as having a business card or presenting at a conference, and will begin to shift their idea of what it means to be a teacher and a leader.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Melody Arabo
Posted by
Melody Arabo, 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.

Challenges and Barriers to Successful Employment for Man with Visual Impairment

By Louis Herrera

Louis Herrera

Louis Herrera

I was born with normal eyesight, and at the age of three and a half it was determined that I had a visual impairment. By the time that I was about seven years old, I had lost most of my eyesight.

At the inquisitive age of four, I wanted to know how things work and how a box could have different voices coming out of it. Learning about radios was the beginning of a path to a career in the technology industry.

At the age of 15 I built my first computer at a time when components were starting to decrease in size.

Jerry-Rigged IT Systems

In the early 80s, I went to work for a Fortune 500 aerospace company. I was hired as an “experimental employee” because they had never hired a blind person before.

Back then there was hardly any assistive technology to speak of. Several companies were starting to develop a screen reader for MS-DOS, but in many cases these screen readers only worked with some specific programs.

Some of us with visual impairments, in order to maintain our jobs, had to be creative and figure out a way to generate speech output.

For me, I used an old Votrax speech synthesizer like a printer driver. Every time I wanted to know what was on the screen, I executed a print command that would convert the data on the screen to a format that Votrax could read and then speak aloud in probably the worst speech synthesizer voice that one would want to hear. Nevertheless, I was able to get the job done.

As technology continued to evolve in terms of processing speed and better video graphics, it paved the way for the beginning of a graphical user interface, which today is commonly known as Windows. This progress made it difficult for the blind user to keep up with the new changes because the screen reader at that time could not accommodate off-the-shelf hardware and software improvements. Partially-sighted people had to modify video settings to accommodate their visual requirements.

Mobile Devices

As technology continued to move towards a touch screen environment with no real interaction solution for the blind consumer, it seemed as though the blind and individuals with various degrees of visual impairment would not be able to move away from conventional mechanical user interface technology like the flip phones with the tactile keypad.

Once multilayered technology was introduced to hardware and software developers, companies like Apple and Google started to develop a user interface that consisted of gestures and tapping concepts that allowed for the interaction and execution of commands and operations.

As part of their Universal Access initiative in 2007, Apple introduced VoiceOver, a screen reader output interface for the iPhone 3GS. Apple demonstrated that touch technology could be made accessible for everyone, and in today’s work environment mobile technology is something that we all depend on.

We still have to deal with third-party applications that have the potential to be used by the visually impaired community, but we can’t use these apps because the developers either are not familiar with accessibility coding guidelines or choose to make apps more visually appealing in the hope that screen readers will provide a level of accessibility for the blind or visually impaired user.

One of the first barriers that we had to deal with had to do with educating the developers on what text-to-speech technology is and how it differs from speech recognition. This has been a problem for a long time and will continue to be a problem that affects us because developers believe speech recognition programs meet our needs. The reality is that these programs make it possible to receive speech input, but they do not read what appears on the screen.

In the case of smartphones, many app developers feel that built-in artificial intelligence (AI) programs are the same as the devices’ built-in screen readers (Apple’s Siri vs. VoiceOver, Android’s Google Assistant vs. TalkBack, Windows’ Cortana vs. Narrator) and that the built-in AI programs are all the visually-impaired user requires. Unfortunately, these AI programs are voice-driven search services that will in most instances provide audio feedback, but they are not screen readers that function without internet connectivity.

The issues described above are quite common in the desktop environment as well. The best way to resolve this issue is by requiring developers to submit their applications to a level of accessibility compliance verification before an application is deployed.

Technology in the Workplace

While technology has come a very long way and has made it possible for the blind and visually impaired to be competitive employees, there are many road blocks to still overcome for equality in the workplace.

Even with all the new advances in technology and software development today, blind or visually impaired professionals are still encountering barriers with their ability to carry out their job duties.

For example, the idea of providing PDF file attachments so that anyone, regardless of the platform being used, should be able to open the file can sometimes be an issue for some of us that use screen readers or screen magnification tools.

Often because of company policy, we are issued a computer equipped with a common commercially-available PDF reader, which does not do well making PDF images accessible. Some companies, like my employer, have smart printers/copiers that can scan a document and generate a PDF image that is not easily converted to text that can be read by the screen reader. Sometimes it is easier to print the image file and then use an optical character recognition tool to scan and read it. This is time consuming and a waste of paper.

Another on-the-job issue that we face is a lack of quality interaction and support with Information Technology (IT). While the IT staff is able to maintain and support staff using the general issued computers and software, they often don’t have the knowledge or experience to install, configure and maintain the adaptive technology.

If the IT specialist installs the specialized adaptive software, many times they do not install it correctly causing the program to fail to operate properly or at all due to the lack of the resource requirements needed for the software to run efficiently.

This is like keeping a car engine pristine with four flat tires.

In many cases, permission to update the software as needed is denied due to company policies, which leaves the assistive technology unable to keep up with the many updates and changes that the operating system and other programs the IT department regularly update to keep the hardware and software running at peak performance.

Support in the Workplace

My previous job as well as other companies will hire an assistive technology specialist to install the needed software and provide specialized scripting for the software to run on the company created software.

The software runs great until the first major update the IT specialist pushes to all computers on the network. This can affect scripting performance that was created so that the disabled user could fulfill his/her job. Often the assistive technology user has to make due with inadequate software accommodations until the company will bring in the assistive technology specialist again at a substantial fee to reinstall the scripts or create new ones if needed.

These costs and roadblocks could be minimized if employers include the employee who will be using the assistive technology so that he or she can provide input during the discussion and planning phase up to the point that it gets delivered and installed.

Developing and implementing all-inclusive collaborative meetings to address assistive technology needs will yield a more positive interactive communication and success among all participants.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.