Education researchers could soon have an easier time finding and using federal data on everything from child health to school finances, under the newly passed Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act.
The law, which President Trump signed earlier this week, is one bright spot for education researchers at a time when other long-awaited bills—among them reauthorizations for federal education data privacy and education research—have shown no signs of gaining traction in Congress soon. It lays out several steps to improve federal data privacy and use across agencies.
“I think it elevates the roles and the opportunity for researchers to participate in our field in education research and education policy,” said Felice Levine, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association.
Education research advocates including AERA and the American Statistical Association hit the Hill this week, hoping to build on bipartisan support for the law to encourage Congress to take up more education research-related legislation and to expand on recommendations made by the Bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policy, whose final report provided the bones of the law. (The Bipartisan Policy Center has written a detailed analysis of how closely the law hews to those recommendations.)
“Although it embodies only half of the commission’s recommendations and is more about the production than the use of evidence, it still represents meaningful progress towards using the data we already collect to make smarter policy decisions,” said Adam Gamoran, the president of the William T. Grant foundation and a former chair of the National Board for Education Sciences. He noted that the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education already uses its own data for policy evaluations regularly; it was held up as an example of data use by some during the original commission’s research period.
IES Director Mark Schneider said he doesn’t expect the law to cause any issues within the research agency, but added, “some of the implications of the law for [the Education Department] still need to be worked out. ... We will need to figure out how to best coordinate all the different data collections that go on across the department in light of this law.”
Each federal agency will name an evaluation officer, tasked with developing an inventory of all the data the agency has, all the data it plans to collect for research and evaluation purposes, how and why it plans to use those data, and which policy questions it plans to study in the next year. Overall, the law pushes agencies to make federal collections data public wherever possible, and to provide clear confidentiality protections for administrative data so that researchers can use them. The law also calls for federal agencies to develop a common application system and a one-stop-shop Web site for researchers who want to use restricted data for evaluations.
“Part of what I liked in the commission report was the recognition of how much we’ve been able to learn through the state longitudinal administrative data systems in education,” Levine said. “One of the things that I think comes from this [law] is an improvement in record keeping and administrative data systems, and in how these data can be linked in important ways. I see possibilities not only for the knowledge that we can produce in terms of evidence and evaluation, but also how systems of administrative records can be strengthened or evolve in ways that will produce more robust findings for policymakers and decisionmakers.”
Being able to leverage data from disparate agencies can be a powerful tool in education research. For example, Harvard University professor Raj Chetty has been able to analyze the effects of teacher quality, social mobility, and other education issues over decades and generations by pulling together data from IRS tax returns, federal patent applications, and other data sets.
John Baron, the vice president of evidence-based policy for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and a longtime research advocate, said the law could be useful, but “it remains to be seen how it will be implemented and what the guidance will ultimately look like. I think if it is just sort of general guidance that, you know, ‘agencies should do more evaluation’ without more of a push toward rigor and more credible evaluations, then it may not be that meaningful, because a lot of evaluations that are done—including a lot of federal evaluations—don’t generate credible evidence.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.