IES Seeks Strategies to Rescue ‘Chronically’ Failing Schools

By Debra Viadero — June 24, 2009 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

More than 3,500 schools—around 4 percent of the nation’s schools—are classified as “chronically low performing” under the federal No Child Left Behind law. And 12 percent of the nation’s high schools are considered “dropout factories,” where students stand a chance of graduating of only 50 percent—or less.

Yet, when it comes to finding evidence-based strategies for turning around all these struggling schools, principals have a pretty limited arsenal from which to choose.

In an effort to strengthen that arsenal, the Institute of Education Sciences yesterday unveiled a five-year research program designed to encourage researchers to develop some promising practices to address the seemingly intractable problems facing persistently low-performing schools. The feds are not after a comprehensive school reform package like Success for All or High Schools That Work for this competition, though. The aim instead is to provide grants of $250,000 to $650,000 a year so that researchers can develop some fairly specific practices that principals can implement with a little bit of support from their districts. The hope is to accumulate enough of those strategies over time so that school leaders have a decent-sized menu from which to select practices that best fit their needs.

One example of the kind of intervention the institute has in mind: The on-track indicator developed for use in the Chicago school district. It’s a data-collection tool that lets high school educators know, by the time students reach 9th grade, which students are at risk of dropping out, so that they can intervene early. (For more on how Chicago’s high schools are using the indicator, see this EdWeek article by my colleague Catherine Gewertz.) Is it a coincidence that this indicator was developed by researchers from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the independent research group once headed by John Q. Easton, the IES’s new director? I think not.

In fact, I think this request for proposals departs from previous practices at the IES in several ways. For one, program administrators are clear in that they do not intend to use the program to fund any “efficacy studies using group designs” (read randomized controlled studies). Scholars may, however, evaluate their strategies using single-subject experiments, much like those used in special education research.

The proposal also stipulates that researchers will have to demonstrate that they plan to use an iterative process of developing, testing, and refining—and then doing it all over again. From the start, scholars will also have to collaborate closely with districts and low-performing schools in forming their intervention strategies.

The emphasis, in this request for proposals at least, is clearly on the D in R&D. Will this be the M.O. for the IES’s research programs for the next six years? Time will tell, but this proposal, in some respects, echoes the “Reading for Understanding” proposal request that the research agency posted in May. (You can read my blog entry on that here.)

In the meantime, interested researchers have until Aug. 3 to submit a letter of intent for the competition. Applications are due Oct. 1. The total amount of funding for the program will depend on how many “high-quality” applications the IES receives.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.