Vanderbilt University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have won contracts from the U.S. Department of Education to head the first of a new generation of national education research centers.
The centers, focusing separately on school choice, improving the academic performance of low-achieving students, and rural education, are the first of eight new federal research centers to come out of the department’s new Institute of Education Sciences.
With grants of $10 million each over five years, the centers are markedly smaller than the generation of federal education research centers that preceded them. But they also break ground by covering new territory, enlisting non-university-based research partners, and offering more focused research programs.
Vanderbilt’s new Center on School Choice, Competition, and Achievement, for instance, will be the first such federal research center to take a wide-ranging look at school choice and all its implications, according to Kenneth K. Wong, the center’s director.
“It will be a multidisciplinary research program that will address aspects of choice at both the individual student level, in terms of student achievement, and the institutional level,” he said. “We’ll examine the cost-effectiveness of choice, what happens to schools under the choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, and what happens to the traditional neighborhood public school system.”
The Nashville, Tenn., center has also recruited nontraditional research partners, such as the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and the Northwest Evaluation Association, a Portland, Ore., nonprofit organization that provides testing services to 1,200 school districts.
Addressing New Issues
Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University was awarded a grant to start the Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education, which will be based at the Success for All Foundation in Baltimore, according to Robert E. Slavin, a Johns Hopkins professor who is a co-director of the foundation.
The new center will focus on low-achieving districts, develop benchmark tests to help them pinpoint their weaknesses, and draw solutions for them from a stable of research-based, off-the-shelf improvement programs, such as Success For All, Direct Instruction, and America’s Choice.
Mr. Slavin said the research group also plans to test its approach by randomly assigning some of the districts to either implement the improvement recommendations immediately or wait a year.
The third new facility, the Center on Rural Education, based at UNC in Chapel Hill, N.C., is focusing on the transitions that students in rural areas make from home to school and from elementary to middle school.
Director Thomas W. Farmer said his center would also study distance-learning programs that can bring rigorous coursework, such as Advanced Placement courses, to secondary school students in remote areas.
“So much of the focus on rural education has been at the early-childhood level,” he said.
Less Money, Tighter Focus
In describing the Education Department’s new approach, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, said: “In a nutshell, it’s the focus that is different between the old [research and development] centers and the new centers.”
The centers also have to be more focused because they are getting just a fraction of the federal funding their forerunners received-a reduction that has disappointed education research advocates.
For instance, Mr. Slavin’s previous research center, the Center for Research on Educating Students Placed at Risk, received $33.5 million in its last, five-year run as a federal education center.
Mr. Whitehurst contended, however, that the amounts are in keeping with those for other research centers that the department underwrites.
The competition for the three centers drew a total of 50 applicants. The department decided to postpone until 2006 plans to finance a fourth center-on higher education-after reviewers rejected the applications submitted this time around.