IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Building a Better RFA

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is committed to continuous improvement and that includes the process by which people apply for and access grants.

Since its authorization in 2002, IES’ research centers—the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER)—have  been making efforts to improve the Requests for Applications (RFAs) we put out each year. In this spirit, we have conducted surveys of applicants the past few years and used that feedback to improve the current RFAs.

In Fiscal Years (FY) 2014 and 2015, all Principal Investigators (PIs) who submitted an application to the Education Research Grants Program RFA (CFDA # 84.305A) or the Partnerships and Collaborations Focused on Problems of Practice or Policy Program RFA (CFDA # 84.305H) were contacted via e-mail and asked to participate in the web-based survey. In FY 2015, applicants to the Special Education Research Grants Program (CFDA #324A) were included in the survey request.  The response rates were good for all surveys:

Grant Program FY 2014 FY 2015
Education Research Grants Program 62% 66%
Partnerships and Collaborations Program 59% 73%
Special Education Research Grants n/a 55%

 

Survey respondents generally provided positive feedback in both years. Most respondents indicated they felt the RFAs were clear and helpful, though there were some areas that generated some confusion and criticism.  For example, in FY 2014:

  • Applicants to the Education Research Grants program thought it was inconvenient to have to refer to two separate documents, the RFA and the Application Submission Guide, in order to complete their application.
  • Applicants to the Partnerships and Collaborations program reported some confusion about the distinction between partnership activities and research activities.

In response to the FY 2014 RFA survey results, the Institute made a number of changes. For the FY 2015 Education Research Grants and Special Education Research Grants, changes included combining the RFA and the Application Submission Guide into one document to provide all the necessary information in one place. According to responses from the FY 2015 RFA survey, this change was positively received. The majority of the respondents to the Education Research Grants and Special Education Research Grants surveys (n=398; 83%) reported that combining the RFA and Application Submission Guide was much better or somewhat better than having two separate documents. Overall, a majority of respondents (n = 161, 56%) felt the FY 2015 RFA was much better or somewhat better than in previous years, while another 43 percent felt that it was not better or worse.

For the Partnerships and Collaborations RFA, a number of changes were made to the FY 2015 RFA in response to the surveys. For example, the requirements for the research activities were disentangled from the requirements for the partnership in order to reduce redundancy within the application. Most respondents to the FY 2015 RFA survey (n = 53; 73%) felt this change made the RFA much better or somewhat better.

Respondents to the FY 2015 RFA survey also had some criticisms, and the Institute addressed those concerns in the FY 2016 RFAs. Specifically, in the Education Research Grants and Special Education Research Grants RFAs, more detail was added to the requirements for the dissemination plan and for the cost analysis plan.  For the Education Research Grants RFA, the language around research gaps was expanded to clarify that these are not priorities. Changes made in the Special Education Research Grant RFA in response to the feedback from the survey included streamlining application requirements related to student disability, age range or grade level, outcomes, and settings across its 11 research topics.  More details were added about the partnership tracking strategy (an area of confusion for many applicants) in the Partnerships and Collaborations FY 2016 RFA.

IES continues to strive toward improving RFAs and welcomes comments and suggestions for improvement. More information on the RFA results is available here: https://ies.ed.gov/ncer/projects/.

New FY 2017 RFAs are being posted on the IES Funding Opportunities page. If you have comments, please write to us at IESresearch@ed.gov.

By Christina Chhin (NCER), Rebecca McGill-Wilkinson (NCER), Phill Gagné (NCER) and Kristen Rhoads (NCSER)*

* Since this blog post was written, Dr. Rhoads has taken a position with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. 

Coming Soon to a Research Center Near You!

The summer movie season is still a couple of months away, but the trailers are already popping up on social media and in movie theaters, building anticipation and excitement. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has released its own preview, of sorts, this week.

One of the most important roles IES serves is as the engine for rigorous education research across a wide array of important areas. In the spring, IES will put out its Requests for Applications (RFA) for research grants and will begin accepting proposals from researchers and research organizations.

But an entry on the Federal Register, which went live this week, is sort of a preview for the competition. For instance, it includes the competition areas for each IES research center:

  • National Center for Education Research (NCER): Education research, education research training, statistical and research methodology in education, partnerships and collaboration focused on problems of practice or policy, low-cost, short-duration evaluations, and research networks.
  • National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER): Special education research, special education research training, and low-cost, short-duration evaluations.

The Federal Register entry also includes specific topic areas where NCER and NCSER will be accepting applications in each competition area. It’s a long list and some of it will look familiar to the research world. But there are some new areas of focus. For instance, NCER has introduced three special topics in the education research competition – arts in education, career and technical education, and systemic approaches to educating highly mobile students. And NCER will be accepting applications for a new network to that will study science teaching in elementary school classrooms in an effort to improve practices and student outcomes. This is similar in structure to the Early Learning Network that was announced earlier this year.  

NCSER applicants should note that in FY 2017, only applications that focus on teachers and other instructional personnel will be considered in the special education research competition.

Other information available on Federal Register includes the approximate range of funding in each competition area, information about the process, and the expected timeline for submitting applications. In the coming weeks, IES will be updating its funding opportunities website with the full RFA information and the research centers will be hosting webinars on a variety of topics related to RFAs. You can view previous webinars on the IES website.

To be notified of important dates in the RFA process and new webinars, sign up to receive IES newsflashes or follow IES on Twitter.

This grant competition may not be as funny as the Ghostbusters reboot, as exciting as the next Captain America movie, or as thrilling as latest chapter in the Jason Bourne series. But in the research world, it’s going to be a blockbuster! 

By Dana Tofig, Communications Director, IES

SREEing is Believing: Conference Shows Range of IES-Supported Work

By Ruth Curran Neild, Delegated Director, IES

Spring brings cherry blossoms to Washington D.C., turning the District into a city in bloom. The spring will also bring two major education research conferences to the city and, while these events may not offer breathtaking views like the cherry blossoms, the potential impact of the research being discussed is powerful.

The Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) kicks things off this week (March 2 – 5), with the theme “Lost in Translation: Building Pathways from Knowledge to Action.” Of the 60-plus presentations, courses, and forums at the SREE conference, more than 40 involve research funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), feature IES staff, or demonstrate products that have been developed with IES support. These sessions show the many ways that work supported by IES is being used to improve education across the country.

(The second conference, the American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting, will also include IES-supported work, but more on that later).

Research Studies, Large and Small

The core business of IES includes funding research studies on important topics of policy and practice. Funded work ranges from small pilot studies that test innovative approaches, to studies that are appropriately large – for example, evaluations that examine the impact of major Federal initiatives.  At one Thursday afternoon session, “Improving Mathematics Instructional Practice,” two of the studies being presented were funded through IES research centers—the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER). Later on Thursday, you can attend the “Reading for Understanding: New Findings from the Catalyzing Comprehension for Discussion and Debate Project,” in which all three studies being discussed were IES-funded.

And on Saturday, the “Evaluating the Scaling of Curriculum and Policy” session will feature three IES-funded studies, including a national, large-scale evaluation of the Teacher Incentive Fund pay-for-performance program, which is being conducted by our National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE).

Partnership and Collaboration

Many of the sessions at SREE feature IES-supported work done through alliances and partnerships that bring researchers and practitioners together. Much of this work is being done through our Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs), which are a key way that we help connect research to policy and practice every day.

For example, on Thursday morning, a session on “Pathways to Algebra Success” will feature studies that grew out of a REL research alliance. For all three studies, the questions that were asked came from practitioners and policymakers in the field.

Friday morning, the “Making Meaning of Research Study Findings” session will focus on how you “translate research into action.” The session will cover four studies from REL research alliances across the country, from New England to Indiana to the state of Washington. The studies cover a broad array of important topics in education—the academic performance and reclassification of English learner students; the effectiveness of teacher evaluation systems; and college enrollment patterns of high school graduates.

(If you’re not familiar with the RELs, read this blog post by Joy Lesnick, acting commissioner of NCEE, which oversees the REL program).

Making Science Better, Making Results More Accessible

Another big bucket of IES work that will be featured at SREE is resources and tools that are improving the research field and making it easier for people to access and use research.

For instance, a workshop on Wednesday featured the IES-funded CostOut tool, which can be used to determine return on investment. Another workshop featured the “Generalizer,” a privately funded, web-based tool that improves generalizations from experiments and uses data from IES’s National Center for Education Statistics.

On Thursday afternoon, attendees can preview software intended to make it easier for states and districts to conduct randomized controlled trials and quasi-experiments.  At another session, there will be a demonstration of the new “Find What Works” tool to help practitioners and policymakers find effective programs in the What Works Clearinghouse.

On Friday morning, NCER Associate Commissioner Allen Ruby will be a part of a panel discussing plans for a new “Registry of Effectiveness Studies in Education,” which will be developed with IES grant support. Study registries can contribute to increased transparency in studies of what works.

There is terrific work going on to connect research to practice.  Don’t miss out -- follow us on Twitter at @IESResearch to learn more about IES-supported work at the SREE conference.  

Looking Beyond the Label to Better Help English Learners

By Karen Douglas, NCER Program Officer, English Learners

The education of English learners (EL) continues to be a topic of great interest across the country. But there has been little research to identify what steps to take in order to best serve this diverse group of students.

In recent years, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has funded a number of grants that are using data to better describe EL students and study the factors that are related to better educational outcomes. Findings from these studies are included in a recent policy brief by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) entitled “Improving the Opportunities and Outcomes of California’s Students Learning English: Findings from School District-University Collaborative Partnerships.”

Although these studies all took place in California, the key findings likely have implications across the United States.

(Editor’s note: In some places you will see EL students referred to as English language learners (ELL), language minority, or limited English proficient (LEP) students. However, English learner (EL) is the term used by IES).

Defining ‘English Learner’

The term ‘English Learner’ seems pretty straightforward. It denotes a student that doesn’t speak English as a first language and whose lack of English skills serves as an impediment to learning. However, this simple term belies the diversity of this group of students.

Many EL students were born outside the U.S., but some are American citizens who were born in this country. Some arrive in the U.S. having gone to school starting at a very young age, while others come to the U.S. as teenagers and may not have had access to regular instruction in their previous country. And some EL students—such as the recent influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America—come from war-torn countries, where they have experienced significant trauma and have social emotional needs, as well.

Some EL students do not speak any English, but others come to our schools with basic English skills. And while a majority of ELs speak Spanish at home, many others speak European, African, and Asian languages.

Given all the ways that EL students differ from each other, there is a pressing need to move beyond the simple “EL” designation in order to better address the educational needs of these students.

You can learn more about the characteristics of EL students in a recent post to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) blog.

Meeting the Needs of EL Students

The context in which students designated as EL attend school is equally varied.  Schools differ greatly in the criteria they use to identify students as ELs, as well as the rules for deciding that a student is no longer an EL.

In addition, some students attend schools at which the majority of students are ELs, whereas others are one of a handful of ELs in the school. Instructional programs, even among those that provide support for the home language, vary widely in regard to the amount of instruction in another language a student will receive and the manner in which it is integrated across content areas.

Leaving EL Status

The complexity of reclassification out of EL status is a central issue in the PACE brief because there is a concern that EL students may not have the same access to the full curriculum as their non-EL peers.  The brief shares study findings in which EL students are overrepresented in lower-track classes, less likely to take important gateway math courses, and are more likely to be in classes with a higher percentage of ELs.

The studies in the PACE brief suggest that it is beneficial for students to be appropriately reclassified out of EL status, but these studies show that there is great variability in the stated criteria used by schools and districts as well as inconsistency in implementation. The report also highlights the potential benefits of bilingual and dual language programs both for learning in English as well as maintaining the first language.

Key Findings
 
The PACE policy brief makes three broad recommendations. Again, while these recommendations are directed at serving EL students in California, these are ideas that can be used throughout the country:

  • Improve the ways in which students who need language supports are classified and reclassified in order to improve alignment across districts, and alignment between classification and services;
  • Be more systematic in how data on EL students are collected and used, by tracking students’ progress over longer time periods and including all students who were ever EL students in accountability metrics; and
  • Improve EL students’ educational opportunities in school by expanding access to core content, bilingual instruction, and well-prepared teachers. 

Through better attention to the diverse characteristics of students designated as ELs, schools across the country will stand a better chance of both improving educational opportunities, as well as benefiting from the many contributions that EL students can provide to our school communities. 

IES Grantees Receive Award for Early Career Scientists and Engineers

By Dana Tofig, Director of Communications, IES

President Obama has named two Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grantees as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. This is the highest honor given by the U.S. Government to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Christopher Lemons, of Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, and Cynthia Puranik, of Georgia State University, will be honored at a White House ceremony in the spring, along with 103 other recipients of the award. They were nominated for the award by the leadership of IES and the recipients were announced Thursday.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. According to a White House statement, “the awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.”

Lemons and Puranik have both served as principal investigators for IES’ National Center for Education Research and National Center for Special Education Research.  Among the IES-funded research they have conducted together are “Enhancing Reading Instruction for Children with Down Syndrome: A Behavioral Phenotypic Approach” and “Peer Assisted Writing Strategies.”

Dr. Puranik, who was at the University of Pittsburgh when she was nominated, is currently an associate professor of Communications Sciences and Disorders in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is also an affiliate faculty for the Research on the Challenges of Acquiring Language and Literacy Initiative at Georgia State. In addition to the IES-funded research above, Dr. Puranik, was also the Principal Investigator for grant that sought to develop a test of emergent writing skills.

Dr. Lemons is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University and a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville. He is also co-director of the National Center for Leadership on Intensive Intervention, a senior advisor for the National Center on Intensive Intervention, and serves on the board of a number of scholarly journals, including his work as associate editor for the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.