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What Should Be the Federal Role in School Research?

By Alyson Klein — September 10, 2013 5 min read

By guest blogger Sarah Sparks. This item is cross-posted at Inside School Research.


Research experts and congressional lawmakers seemed to agree this morning that the U.S. Department of Education’s research agency has become considerably more rigorous since the passage of the Education Sciences Reform Act in 2002. The question that concerned House Education and Workforce Committee members at a Hill hearing on reauthorizing the law is whether that more rigorous research is actually being used by anyone.

“Relevance” was the word of the day, from the research experts called to testify and from the members themselves.

“Until ESRA and [the Institute of Education Sciences], education research was allowed to function at a standard that would never pass muster with public health, employment, and training or welfare policy, let alone medicine or agriculture,” said James Kemple, the executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University.

IES is in some ways “still burdened with the legacy of more than two generations of ineffective education research,” Kemple said, but this may have made the research agency too single-minded in its early days: “It’s a work in progress. In some cases, IES has forwarded rigor at the expense of education policy and practical relevance.”

Bridget Terry Long, the Harvard Graduate School of Education academic dean and the chairwoman of the National Board for Education Sciences, IES’ advisory board, noted that IES under Director John Easton has required more partnerships between researchers and practitioners, and has launched a new center devoted to evaluating how well research is being translated into usable knowledge. Both she and Kemple argued that IES should be strengthened in the next authorization of the law.

By contrast, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., questioned whether ESRA should be reauthorized at all. “I’m not hearing strength in the answer that this could not be done in a market-based approach,” he said. “If we’re talking about [research based on] trust and independence in the federal government, we have a major hurdle to get over.”

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rush Holt begged to differ: “We badly need rigorous research. We’ve been hampered for decades, maybe forever, because every policymaker, every school board ... was a student and therefore an expert in education, and so we end up with the same old things, with overlays of fads.”

Holt asked Kathy Christie, vice president of knowledge and information management and dissemination for the Education Commission of the States whether the state education agencies could take over producing rigorous research without IES; she responded that most could not, because they “don’t have the capacity.”

Similarly, Holt asked whether private groups could take over for IES, but the witnesses warned that not many private groups would be able or interested in pursuing only purely independent research.

“So the conclusion I draw from this is we need this,” Holt said—though by that time Walberg had already left the hearing.

Regional Labs in the Crosshairs Again

If the lawmakers’ questions were any indication, the federal regional educational lab system and other networked centers could be in for yet another rough ride in the reauthorization process.

Preliminary results of a Government Accountability Office study on the Institute of Education Sciences were presented at the hearing. (The full report is expected later this year.) Among the initial findings, George A. Scott, the director of GAO’s education, workforce, and income security issues, testified:

• Some of IES’ initiatives, such as the research and development centers, do not have clearly defined audiences or ways to measure whether they are responding to their users’ needs.
• Results of research often come too late for them to be of use to policymakers or practitioners. In particular, GAO noted that IES’ average peer review time has lengthened from 117 days in fiscal year 2011 to 175 days in fiscal year 2012.
• IES does not routinely translate all of its research into language easy for non-academics to understand.

Scott specifically criticized IES for not having clear accountability measures and public reporting of progress by the regional labs. “Certain RELs are more productive and more relevant than others,” he said. “At what point are we going to have more public accounting for the [labs]?”

House Education Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., referring to the GAO report, suggested that there could be too much overlap among IES’ regional lab and research and development center networks and the Education Department’s comprehensive and content centers. “As we develop policies to strengthen the Institute, we should consider streamlining the federal research structure to reduce duplication, enhance accountability, and make it easier for states and school districts to access important information,” Kline said.

Coincidentally, I’m sure, the IES Newsflash, the agency’s alert service, sent a positive blizzard of updates on new practitioner-focused studies and products this morning, including updates to the State Education Reforms database and strategies for using its longitudinal databases to study new teachers’ retention and progress.

House lawmakers were definitely looking for specific examples of useful policy suggestions coming from IES research.

“I’ve been in this business for a long time, and this panel, we could be in a time warp here,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., “I first heard this kind of discussion back in the 1960s, when I was on a school board. ... We’ve been dealing with this issue forever, in terms of how do we get the research, the knowledge we have, applied appropriately in the places it could do the most good? It seems we still haven’t figured that out yet and we have people decrying the fact that people in education just ignore the research and results.”

The debate on IES’ future is just starting. Alexandra H. Sollberger, the committee’s communications director, said she expects some legislative language on the next iteration of ESRA to be drafted in the next few weeks, but so far there’s no word on the Senate beginning discussions of the research law this session.


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