School & District Management

Ed. Dept. Research Reauthorization Gains House Attention

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 27, 2013 6 min read
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The first reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act—six years overdue and counting—finally seems to be gaining some Hill traction in the ashes of the latest attempt to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

As EdWeek‘s resident Congress expert, Alyson Klein, reports over at Politics K-12, the House Education Committee expects to hold its second hearing on the federal education research law in mid-September (though no witnesses have been announced). An associated bill may be introduced later this fall, but the Senate has no plans to take up education research this year. (For more on the politics of the situation, check out Politics K-12.)

As you’ll recall, at the time of the first hearing back in November 2011, most research-watchers thought ESEA and ESRA would be reauthorized together, with some thinking education research might be collapsed into the larger education bill.

“But reality has a way of intruding,” said Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences and one of the witnesses to testify at the 2011 hearing, “and the reality is ESEA is not going to happen. I think [ESRA] is less contentious than ESEA, so there’s a possibility it will get done. If it’s just a little nip and tuck on the previous legislation, I think the chance of it flying under the radar is pretty high.”

And the fact that ESEA faces such a bitter partisan path to enactment may actually help the smaller, more technical education research law’s chances of reauthorization, suggests Jon Baron, the president of the Washington-based Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy.

“It’s my educated guess that they may be looking for something that can be enacted here, rather than getting in just another stalemate,” he said. “I don’t know that many members are familiar with ESRA, as opposed to ESEA. There’s a sense IES has been working well, and to the extent people have been looking into it, my sense is there’s agreement on the general principles and not much controversy. But I could be wrong about that.”

Common Definitions

In many ways, federal education research is in a stronger position politically than it was when ESRA was first adopted in 2002. IES has beefed up its grant criteria and peer review process, aligning them more closely with the formats used for education-related research in the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The hotly contested label “scientifically based research” in the original law—which dubbed randomized controlled trials the “gold standard” of education research—is likely to have a subtler role this time around. In place of the label, many expect the next iteration of the law to adopt a more flexible definition of “scientifically valid research,” a term already used in the new Head Start and Higher Education Act authorizations which “includes applied research, basic research, and field-initiated research in which the rationale, design, and interpretation are soundly developed in accordance with accepted principles of scientific research.”

Baron argues that the Head Start and Higher Education laws focus on criteria for funding programs, but ESRA, which focuses on developing research itself, should retain its current criteria for “scientifically valid research evaluations,” which give a preference for randomized controlled trials where possible and quasi-experimental methods when RCTs cannot be used. “The one in ESRA now is better because it describes evaluation methods that are more likely to provide the true answer about whether a program is working or not,” Baron said.

Steve Fleischman, the chief executive officer of the research group Education Northwest and board member of the Washington-based Knowledge Alliance, an advocacy group for education research organizations, said he appreciates Baron’s concern but, “I think it’s more important to be consistent across the board.”

“I highly value the causal inferences that randomized controlled trials and very high-quality quasi-experimental studies provide,” Fleischman said. “But I recognize the importance of providing a variety of methods to answer different kinds of questions. It’s important to identify what kinds of questions RCTs are good for, but also to recognize their limitations. ... Causal inferences aren’t the only thing folks look for when they are in the process of decision-making.”

In the end, Whitehurst said he doesn’t think “it’s worth a big fight over the details” of a federal research definition. “I think there’s a much greater shared awareness of what the rules of the game are than there was 10 years ago,” he said. “There’s an implicit assumption that the scientific community is able to police itself and decide what constitutes rigorous research. We’re not in a position that we have to worry about backsliding to the way things were 15 years ago. Therefore there’s less reason for Congress to define it.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean members of Congress won’t want to get their two bits in about prioritizing certain types or topics of research, as already has happened with political and social science earlier this year. If the new ESRA bill veers too far or too “radically” away from the current bill, Whitehurst warned, the bill could lose its bipartisan support pretty quickly.

Tiered Evidence?

The Obama administration has taken a more holistic approach, pushing a “tiered evidence” format in programs like Investing in Innovation, in which different levels of evidence are used at different stages in the development and evaluation of a program or intervention. That approach has gained traction in both new IES grant criteria as well as new Education Department operating rules.

Jim Kohlmoos, the former executive director of the Knowledge Alliance, who now heads up EDGE Education, a Washington-based education policy and strategy consulting firm, thinks that the tiered-evidence format is likely to make it into the final ESRA bill, as well. “I definitely think the idea of tiered evidence has a strong future to it,” Kohlmoos said. It “transcends partisan politics, the idea that there are different levels of evidence, at different levels of development.”

The Future of Education Labs

Congress may also reevaluate the structure of the nation’s research networks: including the regional educational laboratories, comprehensive centers, and research and development centers. The regional labs had a strong voice in the creation of ESRA, but have faced major contract changes and some budget turmoil in recent years.

“I think now the RELs and R&D centers are less politically powerful than they were and more accustomed to the new rules of the game,” Whitehurst said.

Fleischman said while Congress may take the opportunity “to think about how the whole system of education research and development can function most efficiently,” he thinks IES has already been improving the networks through new contracts and changes in the way the regional labs and comprehensive centers coordinate services.

Moreover, Fleischman thought that the research partnerships that IES Director John Easton has encouraged among regional labs and school districts, state education agencies, and community organizations will strengthen the political support for regional labs during reauthorization.

“There’s a lot of folks out in the field who are really engaged in the activities right now,” he said. “I don’t think it matters whether the RELs as organizations have clout; I think it’s a matter of whether the RELs are doing work that is valued by educators and policy makers in the field. That ... is going to translate into ongoing support. I think that’s where the strength of the RELs is going to continue to reside.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.