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New Directions for Next Year's Funding Opportunities

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | May 27, 2020

IES just released RFAs for its largest grant programs. A guiding principle has been to simplify the substance of the RFAs to allow researchers more freedom to pursue new ideas and approaches that will lead to improved education outcomes within budget constraints. Even as we are simplifying the RFAs, we continue to emphasize the need for cost analysis and are asking for more dissemination activities. Given these heightened demands, most RFAs have higher funding limits than in the past.

We continue to use SEER principles as the bedrock upon which the RFAs are built. We are slowly turning these principles into more specific guidelines, and we continue to encourage and increasingly require applicants and grantees to follow SEER. I will write more about SEER soon; in the meantime, please check out for the latest information.

IES has recently committed to increasing the use of common measures and has now incorporated them into SEER. My May 5th blog laid out the case for why the field needs more of them. This year we are encouraging the inclusion of common measures. Next year, we will be moving to require common measures in certain subject/grade bands—and depending on the results of that field test, we will expand this requirement.

A key SEER principle emphasizes the importance of long-term changes in outcomes. State longitudinal data systems (SLDS) are among the richest U.S. data sources for tracking student performance over time. While legitimate concerns for privacy have often limited their use, many researchers have developed relationships with states to gain access to these data. In a new RFA, we are encouraging such partnerships to use SLDS to investigate long-term outcomes from interventions, programs, and policies.

As many of you may remember, last year I raised the issue of changing the topic structure of the two research centers. I continue to be concerned that the current topic structure is too siloed and fails to stimulate innovation. While the topic structure remains in NCER, NCSER's stakeholder feedback suggested that its topic descriptions limited the kinds of work that applicants proposed and often implied eligibility restrictions that NCSER never intended. In response, NCSER eliminated topic descriptions this year and introduced fewer, broader topics to encourage a wide variety of research under this RFA. This is an interesting experiment that we will monitor closely.

Because IES is in the business of improving education outcomes, the research we support needs to be widely disseminated to a range of audiences. We are now requiring applicants to describe their history disseminating results from previous research, an addition to the long-standing requirement for a dissemination plan. To give dissemination even more weight, peer reviewers will use dissemination as a separate review criterion and will consider both the proposed dissemination plan and the research team's record of disseminating research findings and products commensurate with the number and scale of their past projects.

Over the past few years, IES has raised its commitment to having researchers document the costs of interventions. We have increased our technical assistance to help the field develop the muscle to do the heavy lift of cost and cost-effectiveness analysis. In April, we released the Cost Analysis Starter Kit. We have set up a help desk to support cost analysis as part of a technical assistance collaboration between Fiona Hollands at Teachers College, Columbia University, and SRI International. The Cost Analysis in Practice Project will provide free, on-demand tools, guidance, and technical assistance to researchers and practitioners who are planning or conducting cost analysis, giving priority to IES-funded work. As we move down this path, we have clarified requirements for cost analyses that must be proposed for Development and Innovation projects. Cost analysis is no longer required for Measurement projects, but applicants are encouraged to propose a cost analysis when appropriate.

Recognizing that replication is core to any science, IES has emphasized replication for the last few years. For a second time, NCER and NCSER are issuing separate replication RFAs. We have also broadened the kinds of replications that we will support. Previously, only interventions developed with IES funds were eligible for this RFA. This year, any education intervention with strong evidence of effectiveness is eligible for replication funding.

In addition, we are interested in learning how well digital learning platforms can support the systematic delivery and replication of interventions to identify better and more quickly what works for whom. Kumar Garg of Schmidt Futures and I wrote about the need for education sciences to move from our standard, expensive, and slow process of RCTs to faster and cheaper ways of running experiments. IES is now involved in a multi-pronged effort to explore the use of platforms to test and replicate interventions. Stay tuned!

We have also made changes to our training program RFAs. NCSER, consistent with its less restrictive approach to topics, is also giving applicants the freedom to propose training on any method that is important for researchers focused on learners with or at risk for disabilities. NCER is inviting new applications for Pathways to the Education Sciences training program. Awarded to minority-serving institutions and their partners, this program supports pipelines for talented education researchers to bring fresh ideas, approaches, and perspectives to the issues and challenges facing the nation's students and schools.

We are rerunning the Postsecondary Teaching and Learning R&D Center competition. The importance of funding an R&D Center to take a national leadership role in this area has become even more critical with higher education's rapid transition to online learning in response to COVID-19. We hope this re-issued competition will attract a broad array of researchers, policymakers, and entrepreneurs who recognize the opportunities and the challenges posed by the expanding world of distance learning that we now live in.

Finally, NCSER has launched a new RFA for proposals to use NAEP process data to help better understand how students with disabilities solve math problems. We are hoping that researchers will combine forces with data scientists to help us learn more about the use and effects of accommodations. We look forward to supporting the expanded use of other modern data analytic and research techniques in education sciences.

There are other changes in the RFAs, but these are the ones that best reflect the strategic vision that IES is pursuing. As always, please feel free to write me: