Leilani Sáez, Research Assistant Professor
Leilani Sáez (Ph.D., Educational Psychology) conducts research focused on the roles of executive functioning, classroom behavior, academic skill, and teacher practice factors in learning to read. She is particularly interested in the prevention and support of learning difficulties across the lifespan. Leilani has written and presented in the areas of working memory processing, measurement, and reading. She has extensive experience developing educational assessments (measuring cognitive, academic, and behavioral domains), and more recently, developed preschool teacher training, curricula, and supports to enable meaningful “assessment-guided” teaching practices. Leilani is currently interested in multi-dimensional approaches to strengthening children’s self-regulated and resilient learning.
Data Science Initiative Seed Funding Program Grant
Community Health and School Readiness: Closing the Gap
A team of researchers in the College of Education will use a new grant to look at why some groups of children are at risk for performing more poorly in school.
Known risk factors contribute to poor academic achievement; poverty, exposure to environmental toxins, and minority ethnicity or racial status are just a few. By identifying the challenges associated with lower academic achievement before children enter kindergarten, researchers hope to reduce systemic inequities and improve outcomes from education into adulthood.
Daniel Anderson, Leilani Sáez and John Seeley received a $50,000 grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation to launch the research project “Community Health and School Readiness: Closing the Gap.” They used the seed funding to hire a graduate student to assist with data collection, which will allow them to identify risk factors contributing to poorer academic outcomes for some groups of children.
The study will primarily examine economic gaps, especially pertaining to Oregon students. Studies have shown that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds generally perform worse in school than students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
Whatever the cause of the gaps, experts say, they lead to disadvantages not only in education but also in life.
“Part of the problem,” Anderson said, “is these gaps are actually present upon kindergarten entry.”
A primary focus of the project is promoting kindergarten readiness. Readiness will be measured by reading and math scores, as well as scores on interpersonal and self-regulation tests. Researchers hope that sending well-prepared students into kindergarten will reduce the development of achievement gaps.
Emerging research shows that early intervention in addressing achievement gaps effectively changes the trajectory of children’s lives. Confronting risk factors while children are most responsive to change leads to better long-term outcomes.
“Our project aims to help these types of prevention efforts by more precisely identifying neighborhood disadvantage and other early adverse risk factors associated with children’s underachievement in school,” Sáez said.
Right now, the team’s research is exploratory. Team members are pulling data on rates such as poverty, neglect and abuse and comparing them across geographic zones. When the data collection is complete, the team will create models to determine how social factors can predict life outcomes.
After identifying combinations of risk factors that lead to achievement gaps, the team hopes to work with existing organizations to help address children’s specific needs. Organizations like the Department of Human Services and social service agencies are effective in their interventions, but they often operate on limited resources.
Anderson, Sáez and Seeley want to identify trends that cause poor outcomes and then determine how to target resources most effectively to resolve existing risk factors.
“We’re trying to help build some sort of system where we could better target and identify where people are going to go to actually provide the services,” Anderson said.
Addressing this problem at only the community level, however, will not create change significant enough to effectively tackle the problem. Instead, researchers have found that a response from both communities and schools is necessary to close achievement gaps.
Anderson anticipates continuing to apply for funding to continue his research because it will take time to meaningfully address its causes.
“I’m just going to keep applying for funding as long as I can, so I don’t see an end in sight,” Anderson said.
—By Meghan Mortensen, College of Education
The University of Oregon recently recognized Dr. Leilani Sáez’s contributions to research and practice with a promotion to the Research Professor ranks. “The promotion marks an important milestone for Dr. Sáez here at UO in that it moves her to the most prestigious of trajectories available for career NTTF research faculty,” explains BRT Co-Director Julie Alonzo. “Leilani’s work as Principal Investigator on Project Iceberg and the pivotal role she has played in the development of the Learning Receptiveness Assessment, as well as her success publishing in peer-reviewed journals and presenting at well-respected research conferences were among the many reasons she was successful in being moved to the Research Professor ranks.”
Dr. Sáez obtained her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of California, Riverside (2004), with an emphasis in cognitive processing and learning disabilities. Her research focuses on the interaction between student cognitive functioning, classroom behaviors, and academic skill level contributors to learning difficulties. She has written and presented on reading skills development and measurement, and the impact of working memory functioning on achievement.
Prior to joining BRT, Leilani led the development of a K-12 comprehensive reading assessment system, instructed pre- and in- service K-12 teachers, and taught students with learning disabilities. Currently, she is developing a tablet-based Learning Receptiveness Assessment (LRA) tool designed to screen early risk for learning difficulties through a multi-time point measurement of emergent academic skills, learning-supportive behaviors, and working memory cognitive functioning. She is currently in the second year of a five-year OSEP-funded project using the LRA to develop implementation strategies and resources for facilitating data-based decision-making to prevent reading disabilities across the preschool-kindergarten transition.
“Leilani is one of the strongest project managers I’ve ever met. She is incredibly well-organized, detail-focused, and committed to quality,” adds Dr. Alonzo. “We are very fortunate to have her as part of the BRT team.”
Congratulations, Leilani, on your recent promotion!