After a three-year gestation, a proposal to replace the Department of Education’s main research office with a more independent “Academy of Education Sciences” sailed through the House last week.
But the measure as written could be stillborn in the Senate, where education leaders are planning to start from scratch in crafting their own bill for reauthorizing the department’s oft-criticized office of educational research and improvement.
If approved by the full Congress, however, the House-passed measure would wipe out the existing federal research office and replace it with an academy headed by a director working in tandem with a national advisory board. The bill also proposes standards governing the scientific quality of department-sponsored education research and calls for loosening federal hiring restrictions that make it difficult for the agency to recruit top-flight scientists.
All of the changes are aimed at improving the quality of education research, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican from Delaware.
“Educators need to know what works if they are to improve student achievement and narrow the gap between our lowest and highest performing students,” he told the House. “Unfortunately, too much of what we recognize as education research is simply opinion buttressed by anecdotes.”
Mr. Castle’s views were echoed by Democratic colleagues in the Republican-controlled House, where the bill came up on a “suspension calender,” a mechanism for expediting approval of noncontroversial proposals, and passed on a voice vote. The bill has also won backing from the Bush administration, which has been waging its own campaign to make education into an “evidence-based practice” not unlike medicine.
“A strong research focus at the Department of Education is vital to improving the educational achievement of our children,” Rep. Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Subcomittee on Education Reform chaired by Mr. Castle, said as he endorsed the bill.
In addition to the envisioned Academy of Education Sciences, the bill calls for creating three centers: one each on research, evaluation, and statistics. Each center would be headed by a commissioner, chosen by the academy’s director to serve six years.
The president would select both the director of the academy—whose position would supplant that of assistant secretary for research—and the 15-member national advisory board. Like the three center commissioners, the director would serve six years. All four still could be removed from their jobs by the officials who appointed them.
By distancing the research functions from the agency’s highest ranks and lengthening the terms of the officials who oversee those operations, the bill’s architects say they hope to shield the work from changing political winds.
To pay for the new structure, the Castle bill recommends authorizing $400 million for the academy in the first year—twice the amount that goes strictly for education research now. Another $301 million would be authorized for regional technical assistance, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the NAEP governing board.
As critical as the Congress has been of their work, groups representing researchers see some benefits in the proposed changes to the current setup.
“Over time, we may see this building a culture of sufficient independence so that the agency can achieve its objectives, " said Gerald R. Sroufe, the government-relations director for the Washington-based American Educational Research Association.
Enter the Senate
A few of the bill’s provisions, however, remain controversial with some segments of the research community.
One is its call to combine the federal money earmarked now to support a wide array of regional education laboratories, clearinghouses, and technical-assistance centers. Under the House plan, the money would finance at least two entities in each of 10 regions around the country to provide technical help and research-and-development services for local education agencies. Lawmakers said the idea behind the new arrangement, which would temporarily “grandfather” the regional education labs operating now, is to inject competition into the system.
But some defenders of those organizations worry that by eliminating specified funding levels for many of those programs, their existence could be threatened.
“This legislation is missing two important initiatives, the Eisenhower Regional Mathematics Consortia and Eisenhower Clearinghouse,” said Rep. Rush D. Holt, D-N.J.
Another point of concern for some: Under the proposed bill, the commissioner of education statistics would be appointed by the academy director, rather than by the president, as is now the case. Some see that change as a step down for the National Center for Education Statistics.
Those concerns may re-emerge in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where lawmakers could begin their chamber’s hearings on the reauthorization of the Education Department’s research operations as early as this week. While declining to comment on Mr. Castle’s House bill, Senate aides said education leaders plan to make a fresh start on the subject in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
“You can expect the committee to mark up its own bill,” said Jim Manley, the press secretary to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads that committee.
Lobbyists said the Senate’s late attention to the research issue, however, could mean delays for the reauthorization, which is already three years overdue.
Rep. Castle, who has been dogged in his efforts to remake the research agency, said he will take his case to Sen. Kennedy and other Senate education leaders.
“It’s important that he and the majority staff understand the importance of this and what we’ve done, and the reasons we’ve done it,” Mr. Castle said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2002 edition of Education Week as Research Bill Clears House Without Fuss