Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Message from the NCSER Commissioner on Recent and Upcoming Competitions

On May 28, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) announced plans for our fiscal year (FY) 2025 Special Education Research Grants Program through a Federal Register notice. Careful readers will note that, for this competition, we are focusing on a specific topic: Education Systems. We did so both because it highlights a domain of much-needed research and because, as in years past, we find ourselves in a situation where the field continues to propose more high-quality research than NCSER has resources to support. I offer more details below.

Why is NCSER running a focused Research Grants Program competition in FY25?

The short answer to this question is that, in FY24, the number of proposed projects peer reviewers rated as Excellent or Outstanding outpaced the funds we had available. As some may remember, we faced a similar situation in FY23. At the time, a handful of unfunded projects that had scored in the “fundable” range (that is, below 2.00 in our scoring system)  but were not funded due to a lack of available funding. Fortunately, the vast majority of these FY23 studies resubmitted in FY24 and were recommended for funding. The problem is that we now have a new set of proposals in a similar spot. These applicants could reapply again in FY25, but we worry this is creating a pattern that will be hard to break. Absent a marked change in NCSER’s funding levels, how do we get out of this yo-yo of a cycle?

I want to honor the work—and acknowledge the excellence—that the community displayed throughout our FY24 competition. As such, my first priority in FY25 is to fund as many of the projects as we can that scored at or below 2.00 in FY24. But this decision comes at a cost: the need to focus our FY25 competition in some way. How we’ve chosen to do that—and our rationale for that choice—is described in more detail below.

More changes are likely in the years ahead. We hope we will have more funds in FY26 and beyond based on the interest in our grant competitions. But, in the absence of substantial increases in our funding appropriations, NCSER will need to be more selective in its investments, such as limiting the number of topics we compete in a given year or placing restrictions on the number of projects we intend to support on any one topic. We are at a point where we routinely receive more high-quality proposed research than we can support without making sacrifices to other investments that are critical to improving outcomes for students with or at risk of disabilities. This includes our early career programs that train the next generation of special education scholars, our methods trainings that strengthen special education research, and our research and development centers that provide national leadership on some of the most important issues facing special education today. I am not prepared to abandon these other programs, or close off opportunities to new investments, as each are equally important as our primary research competition in growing the knowledge base underlying high-quality special education.

We all know that every funder operates within resource constraints, and that leaders within funding organizations are responsible for making hard choices about prioritization. But the consequences of the current funding context are not lost on me. I recognize how much work goes into writing a proposal, and in the consequences of delays in funding opportunities—for the research getting done, for the success of partnerships with stakeholders, and for individuals’ own careers. I know from personal experience the feeling of receiving a score in the fundable range only to be notified that there is not sufficient funding for one’s project. There’s disappointment too for our program officers, who have spent countless hours working with first-time applicants and those who have resubmitted their projects one or more times. All these factors are balanced in making decisions about how to make the best use of NCSER’s available funds. And I am proud at how much the field of special education research has accomplished, making the most of our available resources.

Why focus on education systems?

With limited funds for new research awards, NCSER decided to invest in systems-level education improvements for students with disabilities. NCSER has long encouraged systems-level research, but we typically receive a small number of systems proposals each year. While NCSER has generated considerable evidence about individual- and classroom-based programs and practices for learners, we need more research on how programs and services are coordinated within and across the multiple, complex systems of special education. A focus on systems is particularly warranted given the current realities of the education climate, including ongoing staffing shortages, chronic absenteeism, fiscal uncertainties, and school systems that are still recovering from the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As you will see in our forthcoming RFA, we are casting a wide net in how we are encouraging the field to think about systems research.  This is truly a case where we need research across the board—from high-quality descriptive research documenting what special education systems look like in schools today, to research exploring how systems-level factors shape and are shaped by classroom practices and programs, to studies developing and testing systems-level interventions to measure development and validation given the relatively limited existing assessment work at the systems level. We are excited to see how the field embraces this focus.

Looking Forward

NCSER plays a singular role in the education research landscape, dedicated to building rigorous evidence about how to best meet the needs of students with and at risk of disabilities and to support the educators who serve them. I can appreciate that our focusing of the FY25 competition may cause some special education researchers to pursue funding with others this year, including private foundations or different federal partners. But throughout the year ahead—and as they have done since our inception—NCSER staff will continue to support our mission: training the next generation of researchers, building the research base on high-quality special education policies, programs, and practices, and finding more equitable and effective ways of mobilizing our research into practice.