Department Proposes Standards for Awarding Research Grants
The Education Department this month proposed for the first time a common set of standards for awarding grants for education research.
The new standards, published in the June 7 Federal Register, are part of an ongoing effort to revamp the office of educational research and improvement, the department's major research arm, and to improve the quality of the research that it finances.
Critics have long contended that federal educational research is conducted in a piecemeal fashion and that studies are vulnerable to partisan manipulation.
Under the proposed standards, however, all of the research-grant proposals funded by the Education Department would have to meet the same standards. In some cases, those standards may be tougher than they were in the past.
"When you have standards that were built by a huge consensus process, they tend to withstand changes in political parties, ideologies, and atmosphERIC changes caused by influential groups making an announcement or issuing a report," said Dena G. Stoner, the executive director of the Council for Educational Development and Research, an umbrella group for department-funded regional research laboratories.
The proposed standards were among several big steps the department took this month to carry out the reorganization that Congress mandated last year in reauthorizing the O.E.R.I. (See Education Week, 2/8/95.)
On June 9, the department also officially opened the competition to award five-year contracts for 10 regional education laboratories whose job is to help put research into practice in schools.
According to the department's notice in Commerce Business Daily, bidders must outline in their proposals how they would network with other labs, with schools, and with the national research centers the department also supports. The department is also requiring some of the laboratories to focus on the same broad research themes that the new national centers do, such as early-childhood education or children at risk, to get a better fix on critical, cross-cutting issues.
"We're nurturing independent expertise, and we want that expertise to be part of a system," said Sharon P. Robinson, the department's assistant secretary in charge of the O.E.R.I.
Controlling for Quality
In the past, the regional laboratories operated in a more fragmented way, competing a~gainst one another more often than cooperating. Likewise, criteria for reviewing and awarding research grants were set on an ad hoc basis.
"In a lot of the areas where the department really lost credibility, people were never quite sure how awards would be made or what the conditions of the awards would be, or whether the peer reviewers would be enough to represent the subject and what is known about it," said Gerald Sroufe, the director of government relations for the Washington-based American Educational Research Association.
Under the proposed new standards, however, all research-grant proposals of $100,000 or more would be reviewed by a panel of at least three outside peer reviewers. These reviewers would also have to be either experts in the area of proposed study or have in-depth knowledge of policy and practice in education. And, in their decisionmaking, they would have to weigh the national significance of the project, the quality of the research design, and the expertise of the investigators, among other criteria.
The deadline for comments on the proposed standards is July 24.
Quality-assurance concerns were also built into the call for bidders on the regional-laboratory contracts. Contenders must outline how they would put in place mechanisms, such as an editorial board or a review panel, to make sure the products they produced were backed by sound research.
The department has asked for $41 million in the next fiscal year to pay for the new laboratories--an increase of $8 million over current levels. Bidders have until Aug. 8 to submit their proposals; the winning contracts will be announced by December.
All of the changes at the O.E.R.I. come at a time when the climate for federal funding for research has grown increasingly hostile. Some Republican lawmakers in Congress, for example, have called for cuts in long-untouched programs in the National Science Foundation and other agencies.
In education, the situation is complicated by efforts to dismantle the Education Department. In an article in Forbes magazine last month, Diane Ravitch, who head~ed the department's research operations during the Bush Administration, joined the chorus of prominent voices calling for abolishing the department and its research functions along with it.
And the House Budget Committee's spending plan for fiscal 1996 proposes cutting spending for the research office by $273 million--a 77 percent reduction from current levels.