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Report co-authored by Cohen-Vogel encourages IES changes to meet new education needs

Faculty member Lora Cohen-Vogel is part of committee charged with rethinking the future of education research

new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) should update the structure and policies of research activities run by the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) to better meet changing priorities in education — including improving equity and the usefulness of research. The report also encourages Congress to re-examine the IES budget, which does not appear to be on par with that of other agencies that fund education research.

UNC School of Education faculty member Lora Cohen-Vogel, Ph.D., Frank A. Daniels Jr. Distinguished Professor, is one of 15 leading education researchers who served on the committee that authored the report.

NCER and NCSER support a wide range of research activities related to education quality in the United States. Both programs are administered by IES, the statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education. NCER and NCSER fund individual researchers and research teams through competitive grants, and by funding a number of training programs for education researchers. Since the programs’ founding, however, the landscape of education and education research has changed substantially, the report says.

“Education, like health care and employment, has been profoundly shaped by the events of the past few years,” Cohen-Vogel said. “Educational issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial reckoning are emerging at breakneck speed and demand assistance from the educational research community.

“Our charge, as a committee, was to consider what research and research capacity is needed to meet this moment and the future educational needs of the nation.”

Updating Research Grants at IES

The report, The Future of Education Research at IES: Advancing an Equity-Oriented Science, says IES needs to revise the structure of its competitive grant process so that it is more responsive to the needs of educators, learners, and communities.

IES should prioritize new research topics for NCER grants, including civil rights policy and practice, teacher education and education workforce development, and education technology and learning analytics. New research topics for NCSER grants should include teaching practices and outcomes for students with disabilities, among others. The report recommends IES implement a systematic and transparent process to regularly assess adding or removing new study topics moving forward. IES should also expand the types of studies and study designs it funds, which will better ensure that IES-funded research is useful for education stakeholders.

The report also encourages new research to better understand implementing interventions at the school and district level with a focus on local context. Cohen-Vogel is a nationally recognized leader in the field of improvement science as it relates to education, and has served as associate director and co-principal investigator of the National Center for Scaling Up Effective Schools, an effort to develop understandings around how to deploy improvement approaches and the associated challenges.

“Since the 2002 authorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education has helped disseminate a funding structure developed around the fundamental assumption that problems facing schools and colleges could be met by developing and testing interventions that could be packaged and delivered across different schools and community contexts,” Cohen-Vogel said. “The committee concluded that twenty years into this model, it’s clear more must be done to understand the complexities of implementation and adaptation to local settings and contexts.

“The report provides specific recommendations for doing just that.”

The report also recommends IES review and fund grants more quickly, making two applications cycles available every year. IES should create a working group that represents education practitioners and policymakers, along with the education research community, to ensure their perspectives are included in IES’s processes.

Equity in Research Grants

IES does not regularly share information on its applicants, reviewers, and grantees, the report says, making it difficult to track whether awards are being distributed equitably to education researchers.

NCER and NCSER should conduct an investigation of their grant processes to identify possible inequities, says the report. This investigation should examine all aspects of the process, from application through review, scoring, and monitoring — and provide insights into the barriers specific demographic groups face in receiving funding. IES should also regularly collect and publish information on the racial, ethnic, gender, disciplinary, and institutional backgrounds of grant applicants and all principal investigators.

Equity in Research Training

Training for education researchers offered by NCER and NCSER serves an important and vital function for the field, says the report, but there is a lack of transparency into the indicators of training success, and who is participating in training. IES should collect and report data on the racial, ethnic, gender, disability status, disciplinary, and institutional background of all training applicants and participants — as well as develop measures of success.

The report recommends IES also implement a range of other strategies to achieve greater diversity in the racial, ethnic, and institutional background of all training participants, such as by supporting early-career mentoring or funding short-term research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students.

This is the second in a series of three reports about the Institute of Education Sciences.

The study — undertaken by the Committee on the Future of Education Research at the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education — was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

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