School & District Management

Federal Officials Seek to Reshape Regional Education Labs

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 29, 2011 7 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is set to launch a redesign of the nation’s regional educational laboratories—right in the teeth of a budget fight to determine their future.

The network of 10 geographically distributed labs, originally authorized in 1964, is one of the longest-running federal education research programs. The Institute of Education Sciences, the department’s research arm, was expected to open bids for a new round of five-year contracts for the labs last week but ongoing Congressional budget debates have rendered the timing of the competition less certain. The Institute of Education Sciences estimates contracts would provide roughly $67 million a year, divided among the labs, to conduct and support research based on local, state and district needs, and develop “research alliances” with local policymakers to make better use of the maturing state longitudinal student databases.

Each lab and its governing board would select three to five key research topics appropriate for its region, such as recruiting high-quality teachers in rural schools. As they stand now, the labs are “spread very thinly and they’re not really digging deeply into any set of topics,” said Ruth Neild, the associate commissioner for knowledge utilization for the IES. “This is not a huge sea change, but it is a slight change in emphasis and tasks.”

For specific questions, the labs also would be required to develop alliances of education officials, other researchers and stakeholders, similar to but potentially more short-term than partnerships like the long-running Consortium on Chicago School Research, which enlists Chicago-based researchers to conduct studies focused on that city’s school system.

“I definitely think [the RELs’] unique role is in supporting and developing this analytic capacity in the state and local agencies,” said IES Director John Q. Easton, who once headed the Chicago consortium. “I think the RELS will do some of [the research], but we’d like to do it in a way that leaves something behind besides a report,” Mr. Easton said.

The IES knows state and district research staff “have been pretty decimated, but we still think we can work in a way that helps people in leadership roles think differently about their work,” he said.

Supporters of the labs say the new iteration will allow them to support research capacity for states and districts, which have seen their research and data budgets squeezed by the economic downturn.

Time of ‘Great Risk’

However, at a time when the labs’ future is being threatened by funding cutbacks, critics argue the labs also have to do more to develop sufficient internal evaluations to prove their place in IES. The fiscal 2011 budget, as set in the current continuing resolution, eliminates funding for the program, though the White House budget proposal for fiscal 2012 would provide $69.7 million.

If the final continuing resolution for fiscal 2011 includes funding for the RELs but authority has not been provided for extending the existing contracts, IES will be prepared to award new REL contracts before the end of the fiscal year, according to Matthew Devine, an IES spokesperson. However, If the extensions can be provided, IES will not award new REL contracts until the second quarter of fiscal year 2012.

“This is a period of great risk for them,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and the former director of the IES. “A lot of freshmen leading [House budget cuts] are not part of this circle of influence that has saved [the labs] during previous attempts” to cut their funding.

With longterm funding uncertain, IES is working to extend the contracts of the current labs. “For various reasons, many of the larger evaluation studies undertaken by the RELs could not be completed before their five-year contracts expired,” Mr. Devine said. “We hope to protect that investment, and complete that work, by extending the existing contracts.”

Members of the National Board for Education Sciences, which advises the IES, praised the proposed changes but voiced concern that the labs might still be spread too thin, particularly if they end up with less money to work with.

“I see a lot of up-front work; I wonder if we have the capacity and time to do that,” said Bridget T. Long, the board’s vice chair and an education and economics professor at Harvard University. “Five years in some respects seems long, but if you are trying to start from scratch and build the relationships, you could spend three to four years doing that before producing anything of value.”

Fellow NBES member Anthony S. Bryk, the president of the Stanford University-based Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said labs must also plan for evaluations to prove to Congress they are working.

The last formal evaluation of the labs came in the 1990s, when they operated under the Education Department’s now-defunct office of educational research and improvement. Over the years, critics questioned the quality of the labs’ research, and Congress repeatedly tried to eliminate funding for them.

Maris A. Vinovskis, a professor of policy history at the University of Michigan and evaluator of the labs under then-OERI Assistant Secretary Diane Ravitch, said that at the time, of a sample of five labs, only the Regional Educational Laboratory West, operated by WestEd, produced rigorous studies. None of the labs produced large-scale, long-range research, he added.

“All of this showed to me that we did not pay attention to research quality and development,” Mr. Vinovskis said. “We’re about to go through this process again, and where is our honest evaluation of what the labs can do and where we ought to go from here?”

The Office of Management and Budget’s Program Assessment Rating Tool, intended to evaluate the evidence of effectiveness of federal programs, has not yet rated the labs. The IES is conducting a separate evaluation of the labs, but Mr. Easton said delays in hiring the evaluator got the project off to a late start. The first report on the evaluation is due out later this year, and the final to be released in late 2012—far too late to affect this round of contract decisions. Moreover, IES has not incorporated evaluations of the effectiveness of the new REL contracts into the forthcoming request for proposals, according to IES spokesman Matthew Devine, though the contracts would require the labs to participate in any future evaluation if IES decides to do one.

However, Mr. Easton said, “There’s a feeling the scientific rigor of the RELs has increased in this last generation.”

Four of the labs’ major effectiveness studies have been published by the What Works Clearinghouse, IES’ database of top education research, another four are set for publication and 18 are in review for publication, Mr. Devine said.

Ludwig “Ludy” van Broekhuizen, the executive director of the REL Southeast at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, added that his and other labs have worked to provide rigorous research, but it is harder to measure what was most effective among all of the labs’ activities nationwide when they are lumped under a single program. “Our constituents have come to the conclusion that what the RELs are giving is rigorous,” he said. “It really raised the trust factor in what we’re doing.”

Rigor vs. Relevance

The labs went through a major overhaul for the current contract, which came as the OERI was restructured into the IES with Mr. Whitehurst as its director. The labs since have produced 25 randomized controlled trials, plus contributing to practice guides and other work.

Mr. Whitehurst, who fought for more experimental design studies throughout the IES, agreed the labs’ work has become more rigorous, but he too argued for a formal evaluation. In hindsight, he worried that the focus on multiyear, randomized trials may have undercut the labs’ greatest strength: responsiveness to local research needs.

“It required a disproportionate amount of their resources for an activity the results of which wouldn’t be visible or usable for four to five years,” Mr. Whitehurst said. “It took a resource designed to help with the ongoing policy actions of governance, and took it off-line.”

Mr. Whitehurst’s opinion was shared by James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a Washington-based group that represents the labs. He recalled the regional governing boards that set research agendas for the labs were deeply angry when the current contract forced so much of the labs’ budgets to go toward federal research priorities.

The lessened focus on state concerns in the current contracts may make the labs’ budget fight harder, Mr. Whitehurst said, because the labs have been able to call on support in congressional districts in previous budget battles. Yet Mr. Kohlmoos said he has been surprised at the broad state support for the labs that turned out during the current budget fight.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week

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