School & District Management

UPDATED: House to Discuss Education Research Reauthorization

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 14, 2011 4 min read
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UPDATED 7:33 a.m.

Education research is finally getting its moment in the legislative sun this Wednesday, as a House education subcommittee holds its first hearing on reauthorizing the Education Sciences Reform Act, which created the Education Department’s research arm in 2002.

The hearing, “Education Research: Identifying Effective Programs to Support Students and Teachers,” will include a research-savvy politico, former Florida education commissioner Eric Smith, as well as a trio of policy-savvy researchers:

• Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, the first director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences and now director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution;
• Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford University economics professor and a former member of the National Board for Education Sciences, IES’ advisory board; and
• Steve Fleischman, the director of the Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest in Portland, Ore., and the chairman of the board of the Washington-based Knowledge Alliance, which represents regional federal research laboratories.

Education research “has made some steps forward” since the Institute of Education Sciences was created in 2002, said Fleischman, who will be speaking on behalf of Education Northwest, which runs the regional educational lab. Federal education research law has helped educators clarify the difference between good and bad, relevant and irrelevant research, he said, and “I think IES helped to create and environment where evidence mattered more, so people started to look for it.”

Education-watchers have been waiting for some sign of life in ESRA, which has been overdue for reauthorization since 2008, but Jennifer Allen, press secretary for the Education and Workforce committee, noted that Wednesday’s hearing will be the start of a “broad discussion on the appropriate federal role in education research.”

“Subcommittee members will have an opportunity to review what’s working in current law, while also examining various challenges that may need to be addressed in future legislation,” she said.

With reauthorization on hiatus for so long, various research groups have been quietly trying to plant ideas on the Hill. In June, the Knowledge Alliance recommended increased capacity to help school districts use research, and in April, the American Educational Research Association called for Congress to separate the National Center for Education Statistics from the rest of IES.

AERA refrained from offering specific legislative language because leaders were uncertain whether ESRA would be wrapped into the next authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, discussion of which has also ramped up in recent weeks. A Senate draft for ESEA reauthorization definitely raised the profile of education research, but Allen told me there are no plans at this point to combine the two laws.

Whitehurst told me he thinks the laws should be kept separate, both because he doesn’t want ESRA to be sucked into the inevitable controversy around ESEA—"It would be relatively easy to pass a reauthorization of ESRA in a bipartisan way, I believe,” he said—and because the education research law is “a pretty good piece of legislation and congress should be wary of the fixes being proposed.”

For Whitehurst, “there’s a fundamental distinction in what IES should be doing in ESRA in structuring a research strategy that is relevant, and what Congress should be doing in ESEA,” and he believes Congressional efforts to require districts and providers to use education research, such as the now-defunct Reading First grants, have been “a fundamental mistake.”

“Creating an incentive is very different from saying you are required to use one of these four school improvement strategies or this way of evaluating teachers,” Whitehurst told me. “The research is rarely that definitive. Every place you look, there’s a chance to get it wrong. Even if you could get Congress to write the perfect law, you’d hope [the research] would be out of date long before the law came up for reauthorization.”

That said, Whitehurst still plans to take the opportunity Wednesday to once more call for education research to get a bigger slice of the budget pie—closer to the 40 percent of the Health and Human Services budget dedicated to research and development, in contrast to the 1 percent of the Education Department’s budget now spent on research.

Fleischman believes the next iteration of ESRA will need to help cultivate a market for research and evidence in schools, and, “if you’re going to build a market, you have to talk about where the consumers are—what they want from education research.”

The somewhat meta field of research on the use of research, Fleischman said, has three key findings Congress should keep in mind. To be used:

• Research should be contextualized. “If all politics is local, all research is local too,” he said. “People want to know how the research applies to them in their situation.”
• Research should be easy to read, straightforward to absorb and able to give recommendations. “This is not an academic exercise; people want to know how their behavior should change based on evidence,” he said.
• Most people don’t find out about research directly, so planners should take into account the intermediaries, like technical assistance providers.

The hearing is scheduled to be held Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET in room 2175 of Rayburn house building, or you can view the hearing live online.

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