Corrected: An earlier version of this article gave an incomplete description for the positions of Ruth Curran Neild, Peggy Carr, and Joy Resnick. They are serving in acting roles at IES.
Of all parts of the federal Education Department, the Institute of Education Sciences may be among the best positioned to adapt to the massive shift to state and local accountability for education under the Every Student Succeeds Act, thanks to years of quiet efforts to build bridges among education researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.
Yet the research agency will have to ramp up its support structures for states at a time when it is in considerable flux itself.
While ESSA passed this winter, more than eight years late, researchers are still awaiting IES’ own, equally long-delayed reauthorization. The Strengthening Education Through Research Act, which would help align IES to ESSA’s new multitiered approach to judging research quality, still must pass the U.S. House of Representatives.
The legislative changes also come as IES adapts to new leadership—Ruth Curran Neild replaced John Q. Easton to be acting IES director barely six months ago—a crosstown office move, and a major Website overhaul set to begin rolling out in March to make the agency’s 30,000 pages’ worth of online reports and databases easier to use.
Helping states and districts understand how to develop their own research and evaluate other evidence for education programs will be a priority, according to IES leaders.
“I think what ESSA gives us is a push to get really serious about what you might think of as evidence-use 2.0,” Neild said.
As states consider the evidence most important to their local contexts, she said, researchers will need to take a more comprehensive approach to looking at programs and policies.
“Decision-making is really complex in education, and we need to be cognizant of that,” Neild said. “It’s not enough to just compare whether you have a larger effect size for one approach over another, because maybe the one with the larger effect size was 10 times the cost but had only 5 percent larger effects.
“I think this is moving us into smarter territory, though it’s definitely going to be a challenge to scale this kind of support up, " she said.
IES has already launched a five-year, $5 million research and development center at the University of Colorado-Boulder to study how research works its way into instructional decisions and education policies. Since the passage of an omnibus spending bill last month, IES’ fiscal 2016 budget is $195 million. All but one of its research centers have returned to the budget levels they had before the 2013 across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester.
The agency is also working to support more researchers who are taking an iterative approach to developing education programs. Of 1,000 active grants supported by the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research, more than a third have been directly linked to prior grants. Likewise, about 1 in 5 grants to study effectiveness focus on interventions or programs developed through prior work supported by IES.
Joy Lesnick, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Technical Assistance, said the research approach in ESSA reflects a broader “culture shift” in how states and districts think about using data. “They have to have the research and the data to be able to use it, but they also have to think about the research in a way that’s going to be able to inform their decisions and will be productive,” she said. “That technical capacity-building is something that all of us across all the centers are working towards—in addition to producing research so people can then use it.”
The institute was created in 2002 in the Education Sciences Reform Act, a companion law to the No Child Left Behind Act. It was intended to improve the rigor of education research, largely through a focus on the use of randomized controlled studies.
ESSA, by contrast, describes three and in some cases four tiers of progressively more rigorous evidence, leaving it mostly to states to decide what level of rigor to accept. While IES will continue to support randomized controlled trials—considered the “gold standard” and the top tier of research under ESSA—it is looking for ways to use them to answer policymakers’ questions more quickly.
For example, back in September, IES launched a competition to support low-cost, short-turnaround evaluations, which will gauge interventions of no more than a single academic year and use administrative data so that “high-quality experiments can be conducted, but also produce evidence in a quick way to inform local policymakers about what things are working,” according to Thomas Brock, the commissioner of IES’s National Center for Education Research. The first awards are expected in a few weeks.
ESSA “pushes responsibility back to the states, which gives a great opportunity for research on the conditions that make state accountability effective,” said Adam Gamoran, the president of the William T. Grant Foundation and a former chairman of the National Board for Education Sciences, which advises IES. “One will hope some of the new research out of the IES will take up that challenge.”
IES’s four research center commissioners agreed that they will support cross-state research, but they argued that the agency’s larger role will be setting up the infrastructure and partnerships to help states and districts do that work themselves.
“As I read ESSA, a lot of it is about giving more responsibility to states and districts to design and evaluate their own programs and figure out what is important to them,” NCER Commissioner Brock said. “I think we will emphasize that ... even more.”
For example, Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said states are already working with each other through networks like the State Longitudinal Student Data System working group, to find and spread promising practices.
“The effort with common data standards and definitions will be very important, so we can talk across [states] and have the same language … and measure things the same way,” Carr said.
The research agency is still waiting for federal regulations and guidance on the law to shape how it will be enforced. In the short-term, at least, the agency plans to use the networks established through the state longitudinal data systems project. It will also beef up the regional educational laboratory system, which supports 79 local research alliances nationwide, to help states implement ESSA’s research approach.
Place-based and topical research centers, as well as those supported by philanthropies and think tanks, have exploded in popularity in the last decade, and could bolster the research capacity of state and local education departments.
“Over the past few years, we have been making a continual effort to encourage researcher-practitioner partnerships, to make sure the local school district officials are not only at the table but actively engaged in setting the questions, designing the research, and figuring out how the research will be applied,” Brock said.
“That said, there are only so many researchers to go around, and these partnerships will never be the answer for everyone,” said, adding, “the critical role that IES plays is to provide technical assistance and be a national place for gathering information ... not just to see how you compare to others but to see what you can take away for your situation, even if you don’t have all the infrastructure of a Chicago or a New York City.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Amid Its Own Changes, Research Office Gears Up for New ESSA Duties