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Some Thoughts on the New IES RFAs

Mark Schneider, Director of IES   |   June 19, 2019

IES is in the process of releasing this year’s RFAs. Here’s a link to the Federal Register announcement. I thought I would share our perspective on a few themes in this year’s grant competitions.

We are embedding the Standards for Excellence in Education Research (SEER) throughout the RFAs. SEER codifies good science practices and we envision these standards as moving education research to the next stage, building on the revolution in strong methods Russ Whitehurst and IES launched in 2002. Right now, SEER is mostly a set of principles with varying degrees of specificity. We will continue to refine the components of each standard, but there is enough information already available to guide research proposals.

One component of SEER, cost effectiveness analysis, appears throughout the RFAs. IES recognizes the need for TA for measuring cost effectiveness. Unfortunately, the wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly fine, and we could not offer help in time for this year’s grant competition. However, there are several extant paths toward good cost effectiveness work. And since IES has emphasized its intention to require cost effectiveness for over a year, I hope potential applicants have been exploring various methods to include in their applications.

As part of SEER, IES is interested in supporting work that identifies long term outcomes of interventions.  Finding interventions that have short term effects is hard enough; we know that sustaining effects over the long term is an even greater challenge. Ideally, we will receive applications for identifying and measuring interventions for improving student achievement that persist over time. State Longitudinal Data Systems may provide opportunities for measuring long term effects, but there are other promising ways to do so.

We look forward to proposals in response to the RFA on systematic replications. We all know that replications are essential to moving our field forward. This year’s replication grants are focused on IES-supported interventions in math and reading. We are considering how to support further replications in the years to come. We could, for example, broaden the topic areas from reading and math to include investments in social and behavioral programs. Or we could loosen the requirement that the programs being replicated are IES-supported interventions. Here’s why: the programs that we are interested in replicating this year have evidence of effectiveness but often limited distribution. In contrast, there are many education programs that have wide distribution, but their effectiveness has not been subject to rigorous review. We are considering how such programs could be systematically replicated and tested in the service of identifying what works for whom.

As researchers consider applying for the systematic replication grants, we are particularly interested in technologies that can test many more students more quickly and more cheaply. New platforms are emerging that can do this, perhaps leading to changes in our “standard” model of RCTs.

As always, IES is interested in building a pipeline of new researchers, as evident in the RFAs for pre- and post-doc programs. We want to support much closer relationships between budding scholars and LEAs, SEAs, schools, and IHEs. IES is an applied science agency—and our work needs to be translated into practices that affect the institutions that deliver education to millions of students who are the ultimate “consumers” of what we do. As part of our commitment to growing the next generation of education researchers with field experience, our pre-doc RFAs require apprenticeships in which IES-supported pre-doc fellows will spend time working in education agencies/institutions.

While IES has always supported research in postsecondary and adult education, the Institute’s focus has clearly been on preK-12. To increase the opportunities for postsecondary/adult education research, we eliminated grade restrictions on most of our topics. Because this is such a new (albeit overdue) idea, we retained the separate postsecondary/adult education topic area—just in case there are issues that aren’t covered by the other topics.

Perhaps most exciting is the expansion of our investment in postsecondary research to include students with disabilities in several areas, such as STEM and career/technical education. NCSER funding will also let researchers follow and examine student outcomes from secondary to postsecondary education.

Finally, note that almost all topic descriptions are 1 page or less! Following the IES style guide (which in its entirety reads: “Short sentences. Strong verbs.”), I hope you find these easier to read.

I have touched on only a few of the themes in these RFAs. Of course, there is a lot going on across the NCSER and NCER research programs as evident in the breadth and quality of the RFAs (and in the breadth and quality of the proposals I know we will receive).

As always, please let me know what you think about these themes and any ideas you have about how we could further improve our grant program.

Mark Schneider
Director of IES