School & District Management

Federal Board Sets Priorities for Education Research

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 04, 2010 3 min read
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The Institute for Education Sciences last week officially set a new research agenda for the U.S. Department of Education, as its advisory board approved the first revised priorities in five years.

The institute’s topics of study won’t change much under the new priorities. They include educational processes, instructional innovations, and teacher recruiting, retention, training, and effectiveness. The latter is in line with the federal economic-stimulus law’s focus on “teacher effectiveness” over the older “teacher quality.” But the new priorities put greater emphasis on placing federally supported education research findings into context “to identify education policies, programs, and practices that improve education outcomes, and to determine how, why, for whom, and under what conditions they are effective.”

The document is intended to guide for the foreseeable future the discretionary grants made through the institute’s $660 million research budget. It’s also likely to change the shape of the regional education laboratory system, which provides technical assistance and research services in 10 regions across the country.

National Board for Education Sciences members and research stakeholders voiced general support for the IES’s increased focus on making research relevant to educators and building their capacity to use data, but some were concerned that the document is too general to create measurable goals.

“As a statement of principles, they’re a good first step and they clearly indicate the direction in which John [Easton, the IES director] hopes the institute moves, but … I don’t see how this document can be used for anything except a set of principles; it doesn’t give preference to anything; it’s all good,” said Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the Washington-based American Educational Research Association.

Hard to Measure

A few members echoed Mr. Sroufe’s concerns before they voted to approve the priorities. “When do we see these again, and will you measure your success a year from now based on these priorities?” asked NBES member F. Phillip Handy, the former chairman of Florida’s state board of education.

Mr. Easton said the priorities are being incorporated into the 2011 research-competition requirements, adding that the 14 to 15 topics are likely to be trimmed in number before requests for proposals go out in January.

Even if the priorities are woven into IES grants, Mr. Sroufe noted, “whether [the priorities] will provide any accountability for what happens with federal funds is another matter. I don’t think the grant that comes in with the best partnership is necessarily going to be the winner.”

Mr. Easton disagreed, arguing that one of the IES’s top priorities will be building partnerships with educators and the community to develop more “analytic capacity” at the local level—something that Mr. Easton said will be part of the next iteration of regional education laboratories, as well.

Margaret R. “Peggy” McLeod, a board member and the executive director of student services for Alexandria, Va. city schools said she “particularly appreciate[s] the fact that [the IES] included the stakeholders’ parents and students themselves.”

James W. Kohlmoos, the president of Knowledge Alliance, which represents public and private research institutions, approved of the more-collaborative approach. “Everybody should be involved in R&D in some part of the process,” he said. “We’re trying to constantly build the knowledge base, and it can’t just be built in the ivory towers.”

Clarifying Collaboration

Former IES director Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who developed the research agency’s first set of priorities, said he was glad the final priorities clarified language from earlier drafts that seemed to require researchers to partner with educators for every study. Some board members argued last month that such a requirement would be tough to implement.

“There is a lot of research that ends up being very relevant to practitioners that doesn’t seem relevant to practitioners at the time it’s being conducted,” Mr. Whitehurst said. “If you did that, you would cut off many lines of very productive research.”

Ultimately, board members felt economic pressures in most states would both foster and hinder research-practitioner collaboration.

“Many local districts ... have simply eliminated any analytic capacity, or have moved any analytic capacity to accountability and testing,” said NBES Chairman and Stanford University economist Eric A. Hanushek. “The ideal of leading capacity in local districts is nice, but I wonder if it fits the reality.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Priorities Approved for Guiding Federal Education Research

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