Florida State professor wins $5M grant to train next generation of education researchers

Christopher J. Lonigan

A researcher at The Florida State University has been awarded a $5 million, five-year federal grant to train doctoral students to conduct advanced research on the best ways of teaching reading, math and science to the nation’s schoolchildren.

Psychology Professor Christopher J. Lonigan received the grant renewal from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to continue Florida State’s Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training (PIRT) program. Lonigan and Christopher Schatschneider, both associate directors of the Florida Center for Reading Research, established the PIRT program in 2004 with a primary focus on reading research. Lonigan is the director of PIRT and Schatschneider serves as co-director.

"Reading skills make up the cornerstone of children’s academic success and, unfortunately, there are still a large number of children who fail to acquire adequate reading skills," Lonigan said. "The renewal of our grant will allow us to continue to help fill the need for well-trained researchers who can identify, develop and evaluate better ways for teachers and schools to increase the number of students who become skilled readers."

While significant progress has been made in recent years, 33 percent of fourth-grade students and 26 percent of eighth-grade students scored below basic levels of reading, according to the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress report.

The overarching goal of the PIRT program is to produce doctoral graduates from psychology, education, communication disorders and other disciplines who will pursue careers in educational research in order to expand our knowledge about how children learn and the best ways to teach them. PIRT will continue to focus on reading research but has expanded to include math and science.

PIRT is housed in the Florida Center for Reading Research, a multidisciplinary organizational unit of Florida State, but brings together faculty, students and resources from multiple university departments, colleges and institutes. In addition to specialized coursework, the doctoral students will work on ongoing research with program faculty members, who have about $20 million in ongoing, federally funded research and $10 million in state-supported projects.

The Department of Education grant is expected to support 28 fellows over the next five years. The students will receive a certificate in education science upon completion of the program. They will be trained in methodology and statistics and will gain expertise in educational sciences research related to reading, math and science.

Along the way, the students are expected to gain knowledge of politics and pragmatics of research in educational settings and have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their productivity to potential employers in the nation’s top-tier research agencies and academic departments, according to Lonigan.

"We expect our graduates to go on to careers in educational science and to provide meaningful answers for educators and policy makers about what works for whom," he said.

Fellows who were certified during the first five years of the program have already met with success, Lonigan said. They have given presentations, had their papers published and found tenure-track academic or other research positions. One fellow was selected as the inaugural recipient of the Institute of Education Sciences’ Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow Award.

"The renewal of this grant speaks highly of the national reputation that The Florida State University has established with respect to research in reading and early childhood education, working with educators and policy makers both in Florida and across the country, and our success in training the next generation of education scientists who will continue to advance the field," Lonigan said.