School & District Management

UPDATE: Congress Chides Education Department’s Research Agency for Delay in Reports, Oversight

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 20, 2019 7 min read
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This post has been updated with additional reactions and responses from IES Director Mark Schneider and National Board for Education Sciences Chairman Larry Hedges.

It’s been years since the Institute of Education Sciences had formal research priorities approved or reported on its work to Congress, and lawmakers are getting impatient.

In a letter to IES Director Mark Schneider, Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chair of the House education appropriations subcommittee, and House Education Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., are demanding that the Education Department’s research agency produce, by April 1:

  • Formal research priorities, as well as its process for choosing them and a timeline for getting public feedback on them;
  • Two years of backlogged annual reports, or explanations of why they are delayed;
  • An alternative to the public-private partnerships program that Schneider has criticized;
  • Proposed changes to the National Assessment of Educational Progress and large-scale surveys and a plan to make those changes; and
  • Plans for research dissemination and postdoctoral training.

In response, Schneider said this week the agency’s research priorities have been in the works and would be published in the Federal Register for public comment next Monday or Tuesday.

Clarifying Research Priorities

In the meantime, Schneider has made clear that he plans significant changes in the agency’s research approach, including refocusing more research on postsecondary and career and technical education, which he said have not been given enough weight compared to K-12 issues. But he said he believes these would be in keeping with previous priorities under prior IES directors Grover “Russ” Whitehurst and John Easton.

“What we do at IES has been remarkably consistent for 17 years. I think that’s a testament to the stability of the mission of the division,” Schneider said.

But Congress wants a clearer plan from IES on how to get feedback on its research priorities first.

For example, lawmakers questioned Schneider’s “skepticism” of the agency’s research-practitioner partnerships and regional educational laboratories programs. The regional labs were eliminated in the fiscal 2019 White House budget proposal, and Schneider launched a new evaluation of the research-practitioner partnerships last summer, arguing previous reports on the programs did not answer “the most important question: what did the partnerships change, not just in terms of research use or service delivery, but in what matters the most, which is improved outcomes for students.”

In their letter, Reps. DeLauro and Scott asked for IES to propose an “alternative vision for how to ensure that the critical viewpoint of education stakeholders is included in research funded by IES.”

Schneider said he remains skeptical of the Research-Practice Partnership grant program and wants more data on how the partnerships improve specific education outcomes, such as high school graduation rates or the number of students persisting through college. He said IES will continue to support “lowercase research-practice partnerships” and wants to explore new models, such as online delivery systems, to share research among districts.

Advisory Board in Dissarray

A big cause of the delays has been that the National Board for Education Sciences, intended to act as IES’ advisory group to approve priorities for the Education Department’s research agency, has been virtually invisible during the Trump administration.

The board has only three of the 15 members required by law. (A correction here: In the original version of this post I wrote that there were three remaining board members, but the terms of several of those members have expired, though they remain on the board’s web site. NBES Chairman Larry Hedges said he believes there are three remaining members including himself—though he said he couldn’t be sure of that—and his own term as chairman “is either already expired or about to expire.”)

“Nobody anticipated this sort of hiaitus,” Hedges said. “I think it was really a casualty of having so few [education] positions filled in the administration. They were sufficiently busy that ... it was impossible to get on someone’s calendar.”

The board has not met since 2016, when one federal government shutdown and the threat of another delayed its quarterly meetings and a single meeting was held via a conference call. The group’s former executive director, Kenann McKenzie-Thompson, is still listed as a contact on the board’s web site though she left the Education Department in 2017 and there are no plans yet to update the site for those who have questions for or about the board.

“The role of NBES is to serve as an expert advisor to IES and Congress. Neither Congress nor IES can make use of NBES’s expertise if the board does not meet and produce the required work products,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “While we are very supportive of the mission and work of the Institute of Education Sciences ... we expect that you will submit your priorities in order to have confidence that resources are being used effectively and appropriately.”

There were a few replacement members nominated before the Obama administration changed over to the Trump administration, but they were not confirmed. Schneider, who was confirmed as IES director only a year ago, said he has put forward three new members for nomination who have made it to “final stages of the clearance process,” but said he could not name them and was not sure when they would be formally nominated and approved by President Trump. Unlike the IES Director, NBES members do not require Senate approval. “This is a White House appointment, a presidential appointment, so therefore I have no control over it,” he said.

Existing NBES members Jeannie Oakes, professor emeritus for educational equity at the University of California Los Angeles, and David Chard, NBES member and dean of Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education, both said they had had no news about research priorities or when new members would be nominated or a new meeting called since 2016.

“With the change of administrations, I expected a lapse in communication for a few months while a director was identified, etc.” Chard said in an email. “Unfortunately, there has been no communication from the IES director since his confirmation. The Board has not been called to fill any of its current functions.”

Existing board members have not even had a routine contact from an attorney with the department to disclose potential conflicts of interest for the last two years, Chard said. “I have not been contacted by anyone in the administration regarding current policies or priorities at IES.”

Schneider and Hedges both said they have spoken about the research priorities and other issues for IES, but did not call a meeting to ask other members to weigh in. “While we legally could have had a board meeting with three people and have two people then approve any item, I would have been really uncomfortable with doing that,” Hedges said. “You’d like [the board] to be as full as possible, but surely, you know, three people is way too small for making a substantive decision.”

Hedges said he now would be comfortable calling a meeting with six members, if they are approved by the time the research priorities are published and go through a 60-day comment period.

Judith Singer, a Harvard University education professor, said her own term expired in November without being able to attend another meeting or participate in developing new research priorities, but added, “I’m optimistic that Mark Schneider will be able to get [NBES] back in gear.”

The agency has started requiring more comprehensive dissemination plans and cost-effectiveness studies from future research evaluations. “We need better dissemination plans,’ Schneider said at a meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness this month in Washington. “It’s not, ‘My five best friends read my work,’ it’s ‘I have 500,000 students using this.’ ”

You can read the full letter from Congress below:

IES DeLauro-Scott 3.18.19 by Sarah Sparks on Scribd

Photo Source: Getty


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.