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Grants Awarded for E.D. Centers Will Set U.S. Research Agenda for Years To Come

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Washington--The Education Department last week announced plans to award grants for 12 research centers next year in a competition that will determine a significant portion of the federal education-research agenda for years to come.

Grants for 14 of the 19 centers now funded by the department's office of educational research and improvement will lapse in 1990. The $17.8 million spent on all of the centers in fiscal 1989 accounted for more than half of oeri's nonstatistical research budget.

The grants awarded in next year's competition will represent nearly 80 percent of the agency's budget for center-based research.

"This is the most significant single event in shaping the research agenda," said Jerry Sroufe, director of governmental and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association. "It's nearly the whole enchilada."

The grants competition will be oeri's largest since 1985, when all nine of the then-extant centers were reconsidered. Of that group, only four retained research agendas similar to their previous ones.

The proposal published in the Sept. 12 Federal Register includes nine subject areas similar or identical to those covered by existing centers, although the "mission" of some were revised substantially. (See list on page 18.)

Five centers would be eliminated under the department's plan, which would also create three centers on entirely new topics--adult literacy, education in inner cities, and "families, communities, and young children's learning."

In addition to naming 12 proposed center topics, oeri also identified four "pervasive themes" that all centers would be encouraged to address "in constructive ways that are consistent with the centers' particular research missions."

The themes are cultural diversity; factors that encourage "student and teacher engagement" in the education process; "student transitions," or the impact of changes students undergo as they progress from home to school and between institutions; and the "mismatch" between the organization of middle and high schools and the needs of young adolescents.

The department will accept comments on the proposal until Oct. 31, and plans to issue a final request for applications in December or early in 1990. Grant awards will not be announced until late next year.

Milton Goldberg, director of oeri's office of research, said the agency had not yet decided how much each center would receive or how long the grants would last.

The department may "stagger" the awards to let the new centers lapse at different times because a huge competition causes logistical difficulties and "presents something of a problem to the field," he added.

"We want to get the best people writing the best proposals so we get the best work done," Mr. Goldberg said. "If so many activities are being competed at the same time it may cause some people in the field to limit their participation."

Researchers last week praised the extensive consultation process oeri used in making its decision, including planning meetings and solicitation of written suggestions from interested individuals and organizations.

The result "reflects a broad-based planning process," said Susan Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University. "I think the list really reflects the input they got from the field."

"I was encouraged that the department invited reasonable people in and tried to accommodate what people told them," added Mr. Sroufe. "Some people will be unhappy, but I think that's a reflection of not having enough money and trying to squeeze a lot of things into small packages."

The main criticism researchers leveled at oeri's proposal involved the decision to eliminate two centers that examine a variety of issues related to the organization of elementary, middle, and secondary schools.

"I think it's a major mistake, because some problems that only come into focus at the school level will surely be overlooked," said James McPartland, co-director of the Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools at Johns Hopkins University.

He cited grading, departmentalization, scheduling, and remedial instruction as "organizational-context issues that are very important to making schools more effective."

"It's a good list over all, but it's piecemeal now," Mr. McPartland said. "We might get a very effective curriculum, but not more effective schools."

Mr. McPartland acknowledged his views reflect the fact that his center is among those whose mission would be dropped under the proposal. But, he added, his position has been echoed by researchers with no stake in the topics and by organizations representing elementary- and secondary-school principals.

"Those centers had an opportunity to look at a lot of school-related programs in an integrated kind of way, in a real school setting," said Jim Keefe, director of research for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"They developed some very significant research, and it's a crime to cut off that research now when it's beginning to pay off," he said.

Several researchers said the school-level centers attracted the most competition and some of the most talented education researchers.

Mr. Goldberg said department officials intend for the issues studied by those centers to be addressed by others, noting that some are covered under the "pervasive themes" in the department's proposal.

Other criticism from researchers centered on the lack of a center to study language-minority issues.

The department funded one until last year, when it terminated a grant for the Center for Language Education and Research to help fund a center on the teaching of disadvantaged students. Attempts to block that move failed in the Congress. (See Education Week, April 20, 1988.)

Several Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee were displeased by aspects of the proposals, aides said last week.

The staff members, however, declined to mention specific criticisms. They said the problem areas would be raised next month during a hearing before the Select Education Subcommittee.

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