little preschool children isolated on white standing

What comes before reading?

In year six, CEHD’s first tech start-up continues to grow

In the early 1990s, Scott McConnell was a young faculty member working alongside professor Stan Deno in the Department of Educational Psychology. Deno was the inventor of curriculum-based measurement (CBM), a tool already transforming special education for school-age children, and McConnell and his colleague, the late Mary McEvoy, were looking for ways to improve early childhood education.

Deno and his students had graphs of elementary students’ early academic performance. The graphs served as indicators for children’s preparation for success in reading, writing, and math. Generally, McConnell noted, kindergarteners began with a score of 0 and their scores increased steadily over time.

“I asked Stan, ‘What happens before zero?’” says McConnell. “‘Really, they can’t do anything?”

“Why don’t you figure it out?” Deno challenged him.

From their conversation that day, the idea for Individual Growth & Development Indicators (IGDIs) was born, later leading to the first technology start-up in the College of Education and Human Development.

Rising to Stan Deno’s challenge

By 1998, McConnell and McEvoy were full professors. They and colleagues across the country received a grant from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) to fund the Early Childhood Research Institute on Measuring Growth and Development. Their goal was to develop measures of progress for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary kids—measures they later named IGDIs.

It was a time when the National Literacy Panel had started identifying domains of early literacy development, McConnell explains.

“So we narrowed our focus at the U of M to early language and literacy measures for preschoolers,” he says, “and that’s an emphasis that continues.”

Examples of the early literacy measures used in IGDIs include picture naming (a measure of oral language), rhyming (a measure of phonological awareness), sound identification (a measure of alphabet knowledge), “Which doesn’t belong?” (a measure of comprehension), and alliteration (a measure of phonological awareness).

A tech start-up for the college

Stan Deno believed that general outcome measures—like CBM and IGDIs—should be short and easy to use, meaningful, accessible and inexpensive, connected to long-term outcomes, and able to produce data that teachers can act upon. And they should be widely available.

IGDIs had all those features—except wide availability.

“We initially offered IGDIs online for free, but they just weren’t getting out,” McConnell says. “Kristen Missall, one of our former students, pushed us to consider the idea of making them more accessible through commercialization. We agreed that creating a company might be one way to speed dissemination.”

The company, Early Learning Labs, was established in 2012 as the College of Education and Human Development’s first tech start-up. It offered a combination of web-based management and reporting frameworks for schools, teachers, and early childhood specialists. Early Learning Labs eventually spun off into a private company.

Today, myIGDIs is the licensed commercial arm of the research of the Department of Educational Psychology’s McConnell, senior research associate Alisha Wackerle-Hollman, and professor Michael Rodriguez, IGDILab’s measurement expert, along with IGDI colleagues across the country. Teachers can access IGDIs through the company more easily because of its distribution and customer service capabilities.

“Our role as IGDILab researchers is to push the boundary of what’s available and what can be done, while the company emphasizes increasing the base of users,” says McConnell. “The company and IGDILab share the focus on making tools teachers can use.”

Alisha Wackerle-Hollman and Scott McConnell collaborate on Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) research and applications.
Alisha Wackerle-Hollman and Scott McConnell collaborate on Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) research and applications. Photo by Dawn Villella.

IGDI evolution

Wackerle-Hollman was an assistant director in a childcare center before coming to the University of Minnesota to get her PhD in school psychology. With McConnell as her adviser, she wrote her dissertation on IGDIs and then continued working with him as a coordinator for IGDILab.

“I grew up on IGDIs,” says Wackerle-Hollman. “I was nurtured by a lot of researchers—Stan, Scott, and our IGDI colleagues across the country. At the end of my work as coordinator, I started to figure out what my own path would be.”

She now co-directs IGDILab with McConnell. Her focus has been on expanding IGDIs to different audiences and new technologies. That work began with Spanish IGDIs, continued with development of the tablet-based application IGDI-APEL, and recently entered into a partnership with St. Paul schools developing IGDIs in Hmong.

“Today, our work leans toward interventions and solutions rather than just assessments,” she explains.

Looking to the future

Kayne Lussier is an undergraduate student majoring in early childhood education. This summer, as a TRIO McNair Scholar, Lussier worked with McConnell on IGDIs for three-year-olds. When the summer ended, he continued working for IGDILab as a data collector.

Undergraduate Kayne Lussier, center, answered questions about his research with the IGDILab at the 2017 TRIO McNair Poster Symposium.
Undergraduate Kayne Lussier, center, answered questions about his research with the IGDILab at the 2017 TRIO McNair Poster Symposium. Photo by Patrick O’Leary.

Lussier thought he would become a teacher, but his experience working with McConnell sparked his interest in research.

“Should I be a teacher or pursue research?” Lussier says. “If a teacher, I know I must be willing to keep trying new methods.”

New methods are the future of CBM and IGDIs, says McConnell, and he sees a productive future for this work.

“As time goes on, I need to step back, get out of the way, and let innovations happen,” he says. “It’s Alisha and her students that will continue the work. I’m confident that Stan Deno’s general outcome measures, logic, and principles will carry on.”

Learn more about the Department of Educational Psychology, Early Learning Labs/myIGDIs, and other CEHD start-ups.

Story by Sarah Jergenson | Top photo by Serr Novik of Getty Images | Winter 2018