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The Q&A: Stephanie Cawthon

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Stephanie Cawthon, an associate professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Stephanie Cawthon is an associate professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Stephanie Cawthon is an associate professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin. Cawthon’s research focuses on issues including standardized testing and the experiences of students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: What attracted you to your field of study, specifically, researching standardized testing as it relates to accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing students?

Stephanie Cawthon: I always start with the fact that I’m hard of hearing myself. I grew up largely not accommodated because it was before IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and it was before ADA, Americans for Disabilities Act, so I had a pretty interesting time of it on my own. My kind of “aha” moments when I was first learning about language development and academic development for deaf and hard of hearing kids was certainly trying to figure out what we do now that we have an at least codified language, if not an understanding, of what direction we need to go.

The second thing was really that I am very interested in school systems and macro level policies and federal and state and even district decisions about what we hold as standards for education, how we measure that, and what we do with those scores, that three-step process. How does that affect kids who maybe have different linguistic access, access to communication, and what we call opportunity to learn some of those things that are goals for school systems? That’s always been an interest of mine and it’s played out rather robustly in this interest about assessment and deaf kids.

Trib+Edu: Could you tell me a bit about your most recent research project?

Cawthon: My most recent project is really looking at the transition from middle school to high school and then into things after high school — we call it post-secondary opportunities. That can be going straight to work, or it can be in a training program, or it can be going to a college or university. It’s looking at the diverse range of transition processes and outcomes that happen for deaf students. And it really begins early. Legally it’s supposed to be 16. Now we’ve seen the shift of going toward age 14 to start talking about transition planning. Many of the predictors of academic success begin even younger.

The project is really looking at predictors of academic and employment and also life satisfaction — are you happy with the goals that you have, do you feel that you have the community support to achieve them, those types of things — for deaf individuals. We’re just at the end of five years and we’re looking to start a new national study beginning in the fall.

Trib+Edu: Do you have any idea yet what that study might look like?

Cawthon: We have identified a number of key areas that we want to follow up on. The first is mental health — the real importance of mental health. A more positive way of describing it is just “well-being.” What contributes to well-being for deaf individuals has really been kind of a shift in our thinking. What are the supports, what are the resources, how do we create a system that doesn’t require so much resilience?

Right now, deaf and hard of hearing kids and adults have to work really hard to make the system work for them. What are some things we can do to make it so that so much energy doesn’t go into just getting an interpreter or getting an accommodation, so you can just show up and learn like your peers, not exhausted from the process of making sure you have your rights met and your needs met?

Trib+Edu: Is there anything else you would like to add? Perhaps out of your research, something a reader might not know about an interesting finding you haven’t already mentioned?

Cawthon: We have found that parent expectations have a really foundational role in academic outcomes for deaf children and adolescents. It’s less about the behavior things that we tend to measure, like do they come to parent-teacher conferences, or do they come to field trips? It has more to do with the messaging that they give about their expectations for success — this idea that you can do what you want to do, and we will help you get there. There has been such a negative, pervasive societal discrimination and attitude against deaf individuals, and parents pick up on that. We’re all part of that milieu, that culture.

We’ve documented some of that. When those [expectations] are a positive outcome or a positive idea about what your child will do in the future, kids tend to exceed even the expectations the parents have. We’ve found that parental expectations are more important than involvement, but we’ve also found that when there are high expectations, kids tend to exceed even those expectations. Deaf individuals tend to have a high expectation of themselves if others do as well.

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