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School & District Management Opinion

Why We Need State-Based Education R&D

By Arthur D. Sheekey — July 09, 2013 6 min read
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In recent surveys, state education officials have indicated that they recognize that better decisions require better information, but few said they have the capacity to analyze the education-related data they are required to collect. This year, research from the Government Accountability Office and the American Institutes for Research corroborated the state surveys, revealing that states rarely use research and analysis in their decisions to reform and improve schools. Although this problem is unlikely to be resolved soon, and certainly not by every state, a makeover of the federally supported regional research-and-technical-assistance infrastructure into a state-based arrangement could make a big difference in fostering the adoption of research- and evidence-based programs and practices.

Education officials have long acknowledged a research and relevance gap. More recently, state officials have admitted to suffering from an analysis gap: collecting huge quantities of school- and student-performance data with insufficient time and expertise to analyze and interpret the data.

A $600 million federal investment in state longitudinal-data systems in recent years has undoubtedly helped state and local agencies build databases for tracking school and student progress. However, there has been little evidence, to date, that the vast accumulation of data on school and student performance is being used to choose more effective state education policies and programs.

Surveys over the past decade have found that state education agencies do not have direct access to the expert talent and technical assistance that are needed to analyze the complex body of school- and student-performance data. Few examples can be found where evidence-based data has supported statewide decisions for allocating scarce resources to failing schools, for selecting curricula, or for making judgments about tolerable risks and trade-offs between targeting too many and too few schools or students.

Rethinking the regional research infrastructure. As serious discussions on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently the No Child Left Behind Act) and the Education Sciences Reform Act, or ESRA, get underway, lawmakers should ponder the arrangement of the national educational R&D infrastructure. In particular, the effectiveness of the current national network of regional research laboratories and technical-assistance centers should be reviewed based on what has been learned over the past decade.

Since the ESRA was first adopted in 2002, Congress has appropriated more than $1 billion to support regional educational research laboratories and comprehensive technical-assistance centers.

The regional-lab program (run by the Institute of Education Sciences, or IES, within the U.S. Department of Education) has, the IES website says, “advanced the quality and reliability of available evidence through its focus on producing and disseminating high-quality, rigorous research.” Ten such labs serve the education needs of designated regions of four to six states each, using applied research, development, dissemination, training, and technical assistance.

Twenty-two comprehensive centers, funded by the Education Department’s office of elementary and secondary education, provide technical assistance to states, school districts, and schools, especially those in need of improvement. The comprehensive-center program supports 15 regional technical-assistance centers and seven content centers, which the department says provide “research-based information and products in their specific [geographic] area” for regional centers working with states.

A system that promotes a genuine collaboration between independent researchers and educators needs to be state-based."

After nearly five decades of federal support for this infrastructure of regional lab and centers, there is considerable evidence about how to make research relevant to practice. Notably, the W.T. Grant Foundation has conducted studies that offer insights about how research can be transferred into policy and practice. And recent GAO interviews of regional-lab directors shed additional light on more effective ways to engage state and local educators to understand and interpret research, and to act on evidence about what works and under what conditions.

Research generated by the regional labs and the network of national research centers continues to improve. Grants and contracts to these federally funded entities exerted pressure to beef up the quality of their research and program evaluations. The ESRA also encourages state and local officials to “apply rigorous, systematic, and objective methodology to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs.”

The quality of research by the IES has also climbed over the past 10 years, and recent competitive federal Investing in Innovation grants have advanced the adoption of research-based programs. These are significant federal accomplishments that could contribute to the formation of a new national education R&D infrastructure that fosters a sustained working relationship between researchers and state-level administration and program managers.

A state-based infrastructure. Each state education agency operates within a unique set of political and economic conditions, and each needs to prioritize its strategic school intervention strategies. Recognizing the diversity of states and the varied approaches they take to policy, policymakers should consider creating a new R&D infrastructure that is state- rather than regionally based.

The advantages are obvious when it comes to building more direct links between the nation’s education research infrastructure and individual states. A state-centered infrastructure would also enable researchers and technical-assistance professionals to develop sustained relationships with state officials to better understand and interpret longitudinal-data collections. States and their districts would also benefit from gaining a single independent research laboratory and technical-assistance center; each one would be tasked with bridging the education research and relevance gap and strengthening a state’s capacity to make more productive use of its longitudinal data.

State officials acknowledge that the basic arrangement of the public education enterprise and the educational research community is extraordinarily weak for effectively translating and using good research. They accept the evidence of independent surveys and investigations that infer there must be better ways to improve the coordination of the disparate education research and technical-assistance support-service agencies.

Interestingly, federal legislators appear to have been influenced by evidence suggesting there are better ways to allocate ESEA funds for improving education for our lowest-performing schools and students. Yet, few, if any, officials seem aware of studies that should guide the writing of new provisions for the ESRA, including those that could improve the states’ capacity to access and use research and evaluation findings.

Having sufficient funds for a 50-state-based R&D infrastructure should not represent a major problem. Thanks to the ESRA, the regional-lab and -center programs receive a combined annual appropriation of more than $100 million. Moreover, this level of federal funding could be increased, if, for example, states were encouraged to match their federal grant awards with private contributions, or authorized to contribute part of their ESEA administrative dollars for evaluation and technical assistance.

The next set of ESEA and ESRA mandates should not assume that most state and local education reform initiatives are being influenced by the availability of high-quality research. A system that promotes a genuine collaboration between independent researchers and educators needs to be state-based. A new national network of state-based research and technical-assistance centers managed by the IES could advance the goal of sharing research-related information that is more timely, relevant, and useful to the states and the jurisdictions they serve.

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as We Need a State-Based R&D System for Education

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