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Updated: IES Announces New Regional Educational Lab Competition

Researchers with the nation's regional educational laboratories got a half-breath of relief on Tuesday, with the announcement that the U.S. Department of Education will open a new competition for five-year contracts for the RELs at the end of the month.

It's not the full request for proposals that had been expected this past weekend, but the department's announcement includes a preliminary description of what it's looking for in the next iteration of the labs: "research alliances" across schools, districts, and states that build off the state longitudinal data systems.

"It looks like the networks or alliances that he's talking about are around specific topics, rather than broad general problem-solving, and that's great," Jim Kohlmoos, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which represents the RELs, told me this morning. Helping people try to use and understand the flood of data that is descending upon them is really important."
Kohlmoos told me he was a little surprised that there seems to be far less focus this time around on the RELs translating research into tools for districts. "There wasn't any mention of analyzing, translating, applying existing knowledge, serving as a broker of knowledge or translator of knowledge, which many people see as a strength of the labs," Kohlmoos said.

The priorities for the competition echo Institute of Education Sciences Director John Q. Easton's call for more partnerships with and research relevant to practitioners, including:

• Development of a cohesive and potentially deep body of knowledge in core, priority areas for each region and nationwide, rather than spreading REL work thinly over many issues;

• Increased use of evaluation, data, and analysis in how officials identify problems, choose programs and strategies, and learn from initiatives;

• Completion of a range of rigorous evaluation and research studies, methodologically appropriate to the questions the studies attempt to answer;

• Expansion of state and local capacity to use their own data, conduct high quality research and evaluation, and appropriately incorporate findings into policy and practice;

• Distribution of REL work across the region, with a transparent and equitable process for REL assistance; and

• Establishment of strong partnerships among practitioners, policy makers, and researchers that are not dependent on ongoing REL support.

The announcement offers a bright spot in an otherwise grim spring for the labs, after a "technical glitch" that eliminated the labs' funding in December turned into a true cut in the current continuing resolution funding the federal budget for fiscal 2011. The Senate had passed a one-year extension to the existing REL contracts, but the Office of General Counsel rejected it, noting that the labs' authorizing statute specifically requires five-year contracts.

The Senate's proposed final fiscal 2010 budget bill, expected to be voted on (and rejected) today, would reinstate the labs' funding, but at this point it's looking like the labs' immediate future will rest in whatever compromise bill comes next.

"There's much larger politics at play here that have nothing to do with the quality of the program itself, and that's really frustrating," Kohlmoos said.

I'll be watching to see if the RELs' hazy future clears by March 25, when the full contract request for proposals is due out.

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