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IES Unwraps Two New Education Research Centers

Two new multimillion-dollar research centers were unveiled yesterday by the federal Institute of Education Sciences.

The centers—one on teacher effectiveness and the other on rural education—each received a five-year grant of almost $10 million to carry out their work.

The National Center on Teacher Effectiveness will be housed at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and headed by Tom Kane and Heather Hill. (Kane, by the way, is apparently a very busy man these days. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also named him deputy director of their U.S. education program last year.)

Zeroing in on math teaching, that center has two broad aims: identify the practices and characteristics that distinguish successful teachers from less-successful ones, and develop and test some tools that principals can use to figure out which teachers are which.

Yes, that means center researchers will make some of those determinations using "value-added" measures, which measure the gains students make from fall to spring. But, according to Lynn Okagaki, who oversees the work of all of IES's research centers, the plan also calls for researchers to spend time making detailed observations in classrooms in an attempt to identify the kinds of instructional practices that make successful teachers so effective.

Potentially the most interesting part of the center's work, though, is an experiment in which teachers with high "value-added" scores are randomly assigned entire classrooms of students the following year. It's an attempt to test the idea that "value-added" models are flawed because students, in real life, are not randomly assigned to teachers. Veteran teachers, for instance, might get first crack at the high achievers, or parents might lobby to get their children placed in particular classes. (See my story on this topic in EdWeek.) But the case for the validity of "value-added" measures would be strengthened if the teachers in this experiment produce the same magnitude of student gains under both conditions. I'd call that research to watch.

The mission of the National Center for Research on Rural Education, based at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, is to investigate differences between professional development practices in rural and more-populated settings. As part of that center's work plan, principal investigator Susan Sheridan and her research partners will do an experiment comparing two types of coaching—on-site or distance-learning— in a professional development program focused on helping teachers use response-to-intervention approaches in reading.

"The idea is how you figure out models of professional development that can be used in rural areas where you might not have a master teacher in every school or where the district is so widespread that you can’t have on-site coaching or mentoring," Okagaki said.

The two new centers bring the number of IES's research centers to 15. Three of those centers, though, are due to wrap up their work next year.

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