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In Reorganization of Research Effort,E.D. Seeks Proposals for 7 New Centers

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Washington

The Department of Education last week opened a $107 million competition for seven new education-research centers.

The retooled centers are important building blocks in the department's effort to revamp its long-criticized research operations.

The reorganization plan for the office of educational research and improvement, approved last year by Congress, calls for setting up broad institutes, much like those at the National Institutes of Health.

The new centers, which are slated to be bigger and less narrowly focused than the 20-plus centers the department supports now, will be the intellectual engines driving the institutes.

The new centers will focus on enhancing young children's development and learning; improving student learning and achievement; improving student assessment practices and educational accountability; meeting the educational needs of a diverse student population; increasing the effectiveness of state and local education-reform efforts; improving postsecondary education; and improving adult learning and literacy.

'Becoming Partners'

In another departure from previous practice, the competition guidelines also give the department a stronger hand in the research it pays for by requiring the centers to set aside 5 percent of their funds for projects that the department and the centers decide on together.

"We're saying we want to become partners, but at the same time not get in the way of the work," said Sharon P. Robinson, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

More than 100 of the 248 comments the department received on the proposed centers complained that research in traditional subject-matter areas like language arts and mathematics would get lost in the more broadly based centers.

Seeking the Three R's

"A lot of the research findings over the last couple of years suggest that knowledge is not generic but is embedded in content areas, and we call that situated learning," said Miles Myers, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English.

His subject area stands to lose centers in three areas: writing, reading, and literature.

"To put all the research money into generic centers and to ignore the research that needs to be done seems to be a mistake," he said.

"We were all impressed with that line of argument," Ms. Robinson said.

In response, federal officials decided to reword the guidelines for the new student-achievement center to specify that studies on teaching and learning "within a content area" should be part of that center or centers.

Given the budget-cutting drive in Congress, some supporters of education research had feared the new centers might never get off the ground.

While the House's 1996 spending proposal for the Education Department would increase the oeri's education-research funding by $15 million, programs that previously had been supported by other parts of the agency are now under the purview of the research branch and will compete for that money.

Other oeri programs would also see their budgets cut.

The proposal actually amounts to a cut in departmentwide research and development funding of as much as 40 percent, according to an analysis by the American Educational Research Association.

And the appropriations bill approved by a Senate subcommittee last week would provide $10 million less. (See story, page 22.)

But Ms. Robinson said that enough money should be available to pay for all the new research centers.

The guidelines for the competition, which were published in the Federal Register on Sept. 14, invite colleges, universities, and private nonprofit organizations or public agencies that work with them to apply for five-year contract awards.

Applications will be available after Sept. 29. The deadline for proposals is Dec. 15.

Selection Standards

In the same issue of the Federal Register, the Education Department also issued new depart~ment~~wide standards for selecting research proposals. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

Under the new rules, for example, grant proposals of $50,000 or more will have to be reviewed by a panel of three reviewers, and five evaluators are required for proposals over $1 million.

The standards also set out the criteria that officials should weigh in judging proposals, such as whether the project is nationally significant or if it is well designed.

Those rules are intended to counter past criticisms that department-supported projects lacked scientific rigor or were politically influenced.

Also in the Sept. 14 Register, the department announced a competition for another $9.9 million in grants that are to be available next year for independent research projects. No funds were set aside for such efforts last year.

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