By Tom Brock, NCER Commissioner
In April 2015, NCER announced a new funding opportunity: Research Networks Focused on Critical Problems of Policy and Practice (84.305N). The purpose of the Networks is to focus resources and attention on education problems or issues that are a high priority for the nation, and to create both a structure and process for research teams who are working on these issues to share ideas, build new knowledge, and strengthen their research and dissemination capacity. In this blog, I want to provide some background on how the Networks program came into being and what NCER hopes to achieve.
Over the past year and a half, NCER and NCSER have undertaken a variety of efforts to elicit feedback from education researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders on IES research and training programs, and to identify problems or issues on which new research is most needed. These efforts have included Technical Working Group meetings with practitioners and researchers, and a call for public comment that was issued in August 2014. One theme that emerged was the desire for NCER and NCSER to dedicate funding to particular issues or problems that are widely recognized as important and that seem ripe for research advances. Strengthening preschool education and boosting college attendance and completion rates for students from low-income backgrounds were frequently cited examples. Another theme was to consider funding strategies that would encourage greater collaboration among researchers to tackle difficult education topics. These themes were echoed during meetings with Department of Education staff.
NCER’s plans for the Networks emerged from these discussions. The Network on Supporting Early Learning from Preschool through Early Elementary School Grades (or Early Learning Network for short) was motivated in part by the significant expansion of prekindergarten programs in many states and cities across the country, and by the growing body of evidence on the effectiveness of interventions designed to improve outcomes for early learners. Despite these advances, a persistent academic achievement gap between children from different household income levels and educational backgrounds is present at kindergarten entry and widens during the school years. The Early Learning Network is charged with conducting in-depth, exploratory research to investigate how selected states and localities are implementing early learning policies and programs, and to identify malleable factors that facilitate or impede children’s academic progress as they move from preschool through early elementary school grades. This research is intended to generate reliable information and useful tools that policymakers and practitioners can use to assess their efforts to build effective early learning systems and programs and to make improvements as needed.
The Network on Scalable Strategies to Support College Completion (or College Completion Network for short) was conceived in response to studies showing that large numbers of degree-seeking students who attend community colleges and other open- and broad-access institutions fail to earn a degree six years after enrollment. To date, most of NCER’s postsecondary education research has focused on efforts to increase college access or to help students complete developmental (or remedial) education requirements; much less has focused on assisting students to earn diplomas once they are in college and taking college-level courses. The College Completion Network will address this gap. Specifically, it will support researchers who are working with states, postsecondary systems, or postsecondary institutions to develop and evaluate interventions that address possible impediments to college attainment, including high college costs, insufficient advising, and social/psychological barriers, to name a few. The Network will study interventions that are already operating or have the potential to operate on a large scale. The ultimate goal of the College Completion Network is to provide evidence on a range of strategies that policymakers and college leaders may consider adopting or expanding in their states and institutions.
The Early Learning and College Completion Networks will each be made of up to four research teams, plus a Network Lead that is responsible for coordinating Network activities. (The Early Learning Network will also include up to one assessment team that is responsible for developing a new or improving an existing classroom observation tool that is predictive of children’s school achievement.) Each team will be funded to carry out a project of its own design, and will meet periodically with other teams to discuss research plans and progress and identify ways that they can strengthen their work through collaboration. For example, members of the Early Learning or College Completion Networks may decide to work together on some common data collection tools or outcome measures, and to produce a research synthesis at the end of their projects. NCER will set aside additional funding that each Network can use toward supplementary studies and joint dissemination activities that are useful to policymakers, practitioners, and other researchers.
The ultimate objective of the Networks is to advance the field’s understanding of a problem or issue beyond what an individual research project or team is able to do on its own, and to assist policymakers and practitioners in using this information to strengthen education policies and programs and improve student education outcomes. While the composition of the Networks will not be known until proposals are received and evaluated by scientific review panels, NCER hopes that they represent a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives and include both senior and early career researchers. Over time, the Networks may lead to new collaborations and lay a foundation for new lines of inquiry.
The Early Learning and College Completion Networks build on the lessons learned from the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative program and represent one strategy that NCER is taking to address critical problems of practice identified by education researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders. If you have comments on this year’s Request for Applications – or if you have other feedback you would like to share – please write to us at IESResearch@ed.gov.