I’m sure everyone has been studying the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to determine what the next few years might hold for your district. There is a phrase in the act that I believe could have a significant impact on the grants arena, and it is the subject of this article: “scientifically-based research.”

A Page One story in the Jan. 30 edition of Education Week discusses the concept of “scientifically-based research” and what the inclusion of this phrase in the new ESEA might mean for a variety of education-related activities, ranging from “the provision of technical assistance to schools to the selection of anti-drug abuse programs.” As a matter of fact, I have already seen this concept in a request for proposals (RFP) issued a few years ago, but I’ll get back to that shortly.

According to the Education Week story, “scientifically-based research” is defined in the new ESEA as follows:

“The term … (A) means research that involves the application of rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs; and (B) includes research that: employs systematic, empirical methods that draw on observation or experiment; involves rigorous data analyses that are adequate to test the stated hypotheses and justify the general conclusions drawn; relies on measurements or observational methods that provide reliable and valid data across evaluators and observers, across multiple measurements and observations, and across studies by the same or different investigators; is evaluated using experimental or quasi-experimental designs in which individuals, entities, programs, or activities are assigned to different conditions and with appropriate controls to evaluate the effects of the condition of interest, with a preference for random-assignment experiments, or other designs to the extent that those designs contain within-condition or across-condition controls; ensures that experimental studies are presented in sufficient detail and clarity to allow for replication or, at a minimum, offer the opportunity to build systematically on their findings; and has been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent experts through a comparably rigorous, objective, and scientific review.” (Whew!)

The issue of who will determine whether studies are “scientifically based” will be important in the months to come, but that’s a topic for another column. I’d like to focus here on what the inclusion of this concept might mean for grant seekers at the state and federal level.

According to the Education Week story, several efforts already are underway to identify what “works,” based on the results of research and quality criteria. The federal Department of Education plans to set up a What Works Clearinghouse that will determine whether specific educational products and programs have the research to back up their claims of being effective.

I believe it’s safe to assume that some state education departments will follow suit. It is entirely possible to envision a future in which districts will be highly encouraged (I don’t know if we can go so far as to say “required” yet) to select those products or programs that are deemed “effective” and to request grant funds to use these products and programs in a project that is designed to meet the district’s needs for students and teachers.

As I stated earlier, I have seen this occur already. I assisted a school district with a reading grant two years ago, and the reading program that applicants chose to implement was required to be effective based on “scientifically-based research.” At the RFP workshop, district staff noted that a small number of reading programs were mentioned over and over as possible choices to select for the grant application, and they came away from the meeting feeling that their proposal would stand a better chance of being funded if it included one of the programs that had been mentioned.

Similarly, I watched an RFP workshop via satellite two years ago, and the program staff mentioned three or four specific reform models and recommended them as being extremely effective based on research. My advice to my client was to explore the models that were mentioned to see if one of them would be a “good fit” for the district.

This is not to suggest that using research as a gauge of effectiveness is right or wrong. But I believe savvy grant seekers should keep themselves apprised of any news regarding this concept and be prepared to look for it in future RFPs. Pay close attention to research-design features of potential programs and products, and choose those with a solid research basis for inclusion in grant-funded projects wherever possible. Depending on the outcome of current discussions, choosing a solution that has been scientifically proven as effective might become required in the future.