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Published in Print: March 29, 2006, as Control of Regional Education Labs Shifting

Control of Regional Education Labs Shifting

Group that lost contract to a for-profit company files formal complaint.

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Four of the Department of Education’s 10 regional educational laboratories will be run by different contractors, and all of them will have a revised mission, under a round of newly awarded five-year contracts worth more than $326 million.

Scattered around the country, the labs were created in the 1960s to help local educators bridge the gap between research and practice. Though President Bush and other policymakers have often called for their elimination, the labs have staunch supporters in Congress and have remained largely intact through successive federal administrations.

This time around, though, control of the labs changed hands in four regions, and the turnover included two labs that had been in business since 1966. They are the Southwest Education Development Laboratory, or SEDL, based in Austin, Texas, and the Appalachian Educational Laboratory, which has been run by a Charleston, W. Va.-based group known as Edvantia.

Contracts at a Glance

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded new five-year contracts to various organizations to run its 10 regional educational laboratories. The labs carry out applied-research, development, dissemination, and technical-assistance activities under terms of the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002.

*Click image to see the full chart

SEDL filed a formal protest last week with the Education Department over the Southwest contract award. It went to a newly formed San Antonio firm called Edvance Research Inc., which may be the first for-profit group to hold a contract to run one of the federal education labs.

Wesley A. Hoover, SEDL’s president and chief executive officer, said his organization was challenging the contract award on procedural grounds.

The Appalachian contract went to the CNA Corp., an Alexandria, Va.-based organization that was formed 60 years ago to do defense-related research. The nonprofit group has since moved into the social sciences as well and began branching out to education studies seven years ago. That lab serves education agencies in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

“There certainly have been changes in the labs in the past, but I would guess a 40 percent turnover is higher than usual,“ said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the arm of the Education Department that oversees the laboratory system. “This certainly wasn’t business as usual.”

Mission Shifting

Under the terms of their contracts, which run from this year to 2011, the labs will be focusing more on conducting research and less on translating it.

Mr. Whitehurst said the labs will undertake two types of studies: fast-response research that might track the effects of policy changes in their regions, and experimental work aimed at trying out interventions and teaching strategies.

The latter reflects, in part, the department’s campaign to transform education into more of an evidence-based discipline, akin to medicine.

“In the past, we did a lot of development work,” said Patricia Hammer, the director of communications at Edvantia, which laid off 18 of its 80 employees this month after losing its contract for the Appalachian lab. “It was really more about knowledge utilization,” she added.

Now, the technical-assistance work will fall largely to 20 new federally funded comprehensive centers—one of which Edvantia also runs—that the department launched last year. Created under a 2002 law, the new centers were designed to provide advice to states and districts on meeting the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. ("Contracts Awarded for NCLB Centers," Oct. 12, 2005.)

In addition to those labs and centers, the department has plans to underwrite what will eventually be eight research centers around the country that conduct programmatic studies on specific topics.

The five of them that are already up and running focus on assessment, data-driven education reform, English-language learners, rural education, and school choice.

The labs are also being required this time around to use new strategies to assess the educational research needs for their regions. Edvance Research, for instance, plans a series of marketing surveys.

The CNA Corp. is embedding full-time researchers in some of the state education agencies in its region so that they can work directly with chief state school officers.

“This is not about just talking to three or four people on your board,” said Mr. Whitehurst.

Changes in the East

The other two regional labs that turned over serve the Mid-Atlantic states and the Northeast, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

Held for the past 10 years by Brown University in Providence, R.I., the contract for the Northeast and Islands Regional Education Laboratory has now gone to Education Development Center Inc., a nonprofit research group based in Newton, Mass.

The Massachusetts organization will operate that lab together with WestEd of San Francisco and the Washington-based American Institutes for Research. Besides Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the lab serves education agencies in New York state and the six New England states.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., have taken over the Mid-Atlantic contract from Temple University in Philadelphia. That laboratory serves Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.

The labs serving the Pacific region, the Western states, the Northwest, the Midwest, the Southeast, and the central or mid-continental United States all remained in the same hands.

Vol. 25, Issue 29, Pages 32,34

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