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David Bills Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award

The Iowa Academy of Education David Bills Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award is presented annually to the author of an outstanding dissertation written by a student at an Iowa University that focuses on an issue of significant policy importance to education in Iowa. The recipient will receive a $500 award.

IAE is composed of outstanding Iowa scholars whose work has earned respect and recognition among peers for making a significant contribution to the broad field of educational studies. The Academy’s principal function is to inform educational policies and practices in the state of Iowa through the scholarly consideration and analysis of significant educational issues.

Eligibility Criteria

The nominated dissertation must have been completed between May 2019 and May 2021.

Selection Criteria

The Award Committee will consider several aspects of the nominated dissertation, including:

  • Importance of the research - including educational benefits to Iowa
  • Originality of the work
  • Quality of the research
  • Potential for publication

Nomination Materials

To nominate a scholar for the David Bills Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award, the nominator must submit the following materials electronically:

  • A cover letter that includes the nominator’s and nominee’s contact information, the title of the dissertation, the dissertation committee members, and the conferring institution
  • An additional letter of support from a member of the dissertation committee of the nominee
  • One copy of the completed and approved dissertation, including an abstract

Nominators should submit all materials by July 1, 2021 to David Bills Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Chair Ann Thompson at

    Award and Presentation

    The recipient will present his or her research at a meeting of the Iowa Academy of Education, either physically or virtually.  The award recipient and a summary of the dissertation will be posted on the IAE website.

    Award Recipients

    Year Recipient, Institution, Dissertation Title and Abstract
    2021 Dr. Jeanne Connelly, Iowa State University, Cultural work: Whitepower-normalcy and knowledge-power intersections in special education practice and scholarship

    This dissertation interrogates three educational structures in a set of three manuscripts: (a) Technologies of Behavioral Intervention: Systematizing Control and Constructing Identities for BIPOC Students, (b) Parent Advocacy: Black Family Cultural Wealth and Special Education Structures, and (c) Ethics Review for Critical Special Education Research: Disqualified or Official Knowledge. Knowledge-power relationships and hidden ideologies of Whitepower-Normalcy within the cultural work of special education teachers and scholars are explicated. Understanding of the politics of knowledge and structural oppression within educational institutions informs critical praxis, transformational resistance, and a structural ideology. Connections to practice for special educators and scholars are made.

    2020 Dr. Kristen Chmielewski, University of Iowa,  In Any Way Physically or Mentally Unfit to Teach": City Teachers and Disability, 1930-1970

    This dissertation is a historical examination of how narratives of disability affected the careers and experiences of city teachers between 1930 and 1970. Archival sources from New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit revealed that school and city leaders explicitly linked good teaching with lack of a disability, requiring that teaching candidates pass extensive medical examinations and meet strict physical standards in order to enter and remain in the classroom. City boards of education also manipulated social fears about disability to erode teacher tenure and pension rights. Teachers and teaching candidates protesting these disability policies attempted to distance themselves from disability diagnoses, and teachers’ unions seemed willing to allow city boards of education to weaken tenure and pension protections for certain teachers rather than to risk accusations of defending incompetent teachers. This exploration of how school leaders have historically reinforced and constructed narratives of disability expands our understanding of how educators and administrators have attempted to define and promote standards of normality in teachers and in students, in ways that affected everyone—disabled or nondisabled—in the city school system while contributing to discrimination against disabled individuals.

    2020 Dr. Kate Dower Lechtenberg, University of Iowa, Human Frames for Controversy: How Teacher Identities Inform Four White Teachers’ Text Selections, Instructional Framing, and Discussion Facilitation about Sociopolitical Issues

    In this qualitative study informed by post-critical ethnographic methods (Noblit, Flores, & Murillo, 2004) and participatory action research (Torre, 2014), I researched with four White teachers in a large suburban high school in a midwestern state to explore how they navigate pedagogical decisions related to text selection, instructional framing, and discussion facilitation about sociopolitical issues often labeled as “controversial.” Together, we explored the following research questions: 1) How do teachers’ text selections, instructional framing, and discussion facilitation choices about “controversial” sociopolitical issues relate to their ongoing identity construction processes within their school contexts? 2) How do students perceive and respond to teachers’ text selections, instructional framing, and discussion facilitation about “controversial” sociopolitical issues?

    I frame this study around critical and poststructuralist theories of teacher identities (Clarke, 2009) and identity in figured worlds (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, and Cain, 1998/2001), as well as a theory of framing controversy rooted in critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1989/2015; Gee, 1999/2014) and critical pedagogy (Apple, 1979/2004; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977/1990; Freire, 2000; Giroux, 2011). This study builds on existing research empirical research that examines how teachers select texts, frame instruction, and facilitate discussions about sociopolitical issues by going beyond previous research’s focus on individual teachers in individual classrooms to examine how teachers engage with collegial relationships, school contexts as they make pedagogical decisions. I use qualitative data analysis methods and critical discourse analysis methods to analyze audio transcripts from small group discussions with the four teacher-researchers, multiple teacher interviews, and field notes from classroom observations. In addition, in response to the second research question, I interviewed 42 students to address the teacher-researchers desire to learn more from students’ perceptions of their pedagogical choices.

    Findings suggest that teachers’ identities are informed in dialogue with both individual and social factors which both support and constrain teachers’ pedagogical choices about text selection, instructional framing. Moreover, analysis of classroom discussions suggests that a single classroom discussion about a contentious sociopolitical issue illustrates a teacher’s dynamic, in-the-moment improvisation based on teacher identity resources. Finally, patterns in student interview data suggest that students recognized and valued the individualized, contextualized nature of teachers’ pedagogical decisions about discussing sociopolitical issues in literature. This study has implications for how teacher identity work can inform teacher reflection, teacher communication about their approaches to controversial issues, professional development, and discourses of “best practices” and standardization in school U.S. schools.

    2019 Dr. Reuben Vyn, University of Iowa, Promoting Curricular Innovation through Language Performance Assessment: Leveraging AAPPL Washback in a K-12 World Languages Program

    This study examines the how the implementation of an external standards-based foreign language assessment in an urban Midwest K-12 district may influence the content and methods of language teachers’ instruction, thereby also improving students’ learning outcomes. The assessment was initially introduced in the world languages program three years prior to this study, and was intended to complement ongoing innovation that emphasized a communicative approach to language teaching. Survey and interviews were conducted with teachers in order to understand the nature of their classroom instruction, as well as any changes in their practices that were attributable to the assessment. Next, students’ test scores were used to demonstrate the overall performance of the world languages program and to explore the relationship between teachers’ instructional practices and students’ outcomes.

    Findings indicated that teachers intentionally refined their practices with the goal of enhancing students’ language ability. In particular, teachers reported increasing their use of the standards to guide instructional planning and adjusting the amount of classroom time devoted to the four skills (listening, reading, writing, and speaking). Furthermore, the assessment appeared to serve as a catalyst for teachers across all languages and levels to more closely align their instruction. This positive influence was aided by the close link between testing and teaching and the administrator’s collaborative approach to encouraging innovation and supporting teachers’ development. Findings connecting teachers’ instructional practices with students’ outcomes were inconclusive, yet signaled the potential benefit of adopting a communicative approach to foreign language teaching. Based on these findings, world language programs should be encouraged to implement standards-based external assessments as a means by which to promote teachers’ adoption of innovative and reflective practices.

    2018 Dr. Jihyun Hwang, University of Iowa, Bridging the Gap between Cognitive Attributes and Mathematics Achievement: Which Cognitive Attributes for Mathematical Modeling Contribute to Better Learning in Mathematics?

    Mathematical modeling is a thinking process that applies various sets of cognitive attributes – one component of intellectual resources (i.e., cognitive resources). Students are able to develop cognitive attributes when they engage in mathematical modeling activities. Furthermore, using many of the cognitive attributes developed during the mathematical modeling process, students solve mathematics problems, for example, in assessments. Examining students’ mastery of these cognitive attributes, we can investigate relationships between students’ cognitive development through mathematical modeling practices in classrooms and their performance on mathematics assessments.

    The purpose of this research is to quantitatively and empirically investigate the relationships between students’ development of mathematics cognitive attributes and their achievement. For the current study, we selected the four cognitive attributes representing different stages of the mathematical modeling practices – select, analyze, compute, and represent. The generalized DINA (deterministic inputs, noisy “and” gate) is applied to generate students’ mastery profiles of the cognitive attributes from their responses to test items. Using students’ mastery profiles as datasets, three secondary analysis studies are conducted with linear regression analysis and multivariate approach to repeated measure ANOVA. The findings show that development of the four cognitive attributes in mathematical modeling is positively related to mathematics achievement. In addition, students, who developed select and compute throughout 4th to 8th grades, scored higher in mathematics assessment with large degrees of effects. The findings suggest important implications to teachers: Students need to have opportunities develop a wide range of cognitive attributes of mathematical modeling, which would result in higher achievement. Teachers need to have instructional emphases on different stages of mathematical modeling depending on grade levels: students’ representing a solution at elementary-school levels; and analyzing a problem situation and selecting strategies at middle-school levels. The study also suggests teachers shift an instructional emphasis from learning mathematics contents to high-order thinking like mathematical modeling to accomplish higher mathematics achievement.

    2017 Dr. Mason Kuhn, University of Northern Iowa, Do Teacher Judgment Accuracy and Teacher Feedback Predict Student Achievement in Elementary and Middle-School Science?

    The quest to find the most effective approach to teach science has challenged teachers and scholars for decades (Ford, 2012; Kuhn, 2010a; Duschl, Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007). Unfortunately, the recent push for quality science education in schools has not yet resulted in higher achievement on standardized science assessments in the United States. The increased focus on science in school and the lack of growth on national and international standardized assessment has led to reformed-based policies, such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), that ask teachers to teach in a way that emulates the practices of scientific inquiry, including argument-based inquiry. Current literature suggests that using dialogic feedback is an effective way to promote scientific argumentation in classrooms (Chin, 2007), yet we know very little about what teachers need to know in order to provide effective dialogic feedback in an argument-based inquiry classroom. A type of knowledge that may be essential for teachers to access and use, especially when providing feedback, is one about which little is known: teachers’ task-specific knowledge of learners’ understanding of science concepts. In this study, I used a method for capturing this type of teacher knowledge and explored its relationship to instructional decision-making and, ultimately, to student achievement in science.

    Specifically, I examined the links among teachers’ knowledge of students’ understanding of scientific concepts, the type of feedback teachers gave, and students’ science achievement outcomes in classrooms that encourage argument-based inquiry. Teachers’ knowledge of science learners was measured using a teacher judgment accuracy task. Teachers in the study predicted how well their students would perform on specific items on a science assessment. To tap into teachers’ instructional decision making, the dialogic feedback they provided in a video-taped science lesson was measured using an observational coding scheme developed for this study. Thirty-three third-through eighth-grade teachers in two moderate-size school districts in the mid-west United States participated in the study. Hierarchical multiple regression analyses were conducted to examine the relationships among the variables, and dialogic feedback was found to be a significant predictor of student outcomes on the science section of the Iowa Assessments, accounting for a large amount of the variance in those scores. Judgment accuracy was not a significant predictor of student outcomes and accounted for much less variance in the scores than did dialogic feedback. Interaction effects were investigated through separate moderation and mediation analyses, and neither produced statistically significant results.

    Results of this study are discussed in terms of their potential to provide insights into teacher knowledge of learners and an instructional decision-making practice (dialogic feedback). These results have the potential to add to our understanding of teachers’ knowledge of learners, its relationship to instructional decision making, and its role in student achievement. Implications for both preservice teacher education and inservice professional development are discussed.

    2016 Dr. Deirdre Egan, University of Iowa, Haunted by the Bell Curve

    This dissertation is a feminist study of concepts of race on one Midwestern university campus. Through participant observation, face-to-face interviews with biologists, biological anthropologists and sociologists, and an examination of different ways of teaching about race and genes, I investigate how and for what purposes race is configured as both culture and biology in research and teaching. I also look at how ideas of race have been shaped by the particular history of each discipline and the social context within which different kind of researchers work.

    What I ultimately conclude is that race emerges from a deep and abiding belief among Americans that despite living in the same country, sharing a common set of traditions, and participating in what to an outsider is a recognizably American culture, black and white Americans are fundamentally different. More specifically, I argue that the thick concept of culture that was circulating in the US around the middle of the twentieth century and which intellectuals of all stripes hoped could banish racism from American life has mostly disappeared. When grappling with race, academics in both the social and biological sciences talk about human difference in terms of statistical means, averages and variations, which blur race at the edges but ultimately leave it intact. What wins out in translations of statistical thinking, in other words, is the relevance of difference and the importance of averages, and this is as true for discussions of racism and inequality in the social sciences as it is for discussions of the biological basis of race.