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Bipartisan Research Bill Rockets Through House Panel

By Alyson Klein — April 15, 2014 4 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education’s research arm—the Institute of Education Sciences—would get a makeover under a bipartisan bill passed unanimously by the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee last week and aimed at providing more relevant, but equally rigorous, research.

The Education Sciences Reform Act would make it clear that all IES research needs to be distributed in a timely way, so that educators can take quick advantage of the findings to improve classroom and district practice. The theme builds on recommendations to bolster IES in a report released by the Government Accountability Office, the fiscal investigative arm of Congress, last fall. The bill would also ensure that practitioners have a stronger voice in the research process, by beefing up their role in the peer-review process.

And the measure would make some important changes to federally financed statewide longitudinal data systems. That has been a hot area of federal policy during the Obama administration, which called for states to bolster their data systems in order to be competitive for Race to the Top grants.

Focus on Outcomes

The measure would shift the focus of grants away from just building data systems, since most states already have robust systems in place, to actually using them to improve student outcomes. States are just beginning to do so on their own, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates using data to improve student achievement. States would be encouraged, for example, to use federal funds to train teachers on how to use data to inform their classroom practice. Right now, just a dozen states are doing that, up from three in 2011, according to the campaign.

“We think now that it’s incentivized under these funds we’ll see more states doing this,” said Kristin Yochum, the director of federal policy for the organization.

And the bill would require states to link up K-12 data systems with early-childhood, postsecondary, and workforce systems, as well as open up the grants to districts, rather than just states. It would also beef up privacy protections for student data. Student privacy has been a flashpoint in state legislatures this year.

The legislation also calls for new or improved collection of data in areas such as high school graduation rates, school safety, discipline, and teacher preparation and evaluation. And it would add a new focus on examining the implementation of a particular policy or strategy, not just its impact.

That will help practitioners and researchers get a better grasp of the reasons why a particular strategy is working, or not, said Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Washington-based Knowledge Alliance, which supports the legislation, and represents many of the research centers and laboratories that work with the federal government.

The bill also makes a shift, from “scientifically based research” to “scientifically valid research.” That language is consistent with other recent federal laws, such as the 2008 renewal of the Higher Education Act, and gives IES more options when it comes to research methodology.

And importantly, the measure would continue to make clear that IES and related organizations, including the National Assessment Governing Board, are independent, keeping them above politics.

Political Landscape

The bill has the support of Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat. It is sponsored by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y.

There was plenty of cross-aisle fist-bumping during committee consideration of the bill. Rep. McCarthy, the author of the measure, called the research proposal a “shining example” of what bipartisan collaboration can achieve.

Still, the negotiations didn’t always proceed smoothly. Although committee Democrats and Republicans were able to come to an agreement on nearly all of the key policy questions late last year, the two parties were at odds when it came to authorization levels. Those help Congress decide how much funding a particular program should get, but they aren’t binding.

That clash temporarily put the brakes on discussions over ESRA. But lawmakers were able to get past this issue, thanks in part to a broader budget deal, approved late last year.

The measure is the latest in a round of more limited bills that the education committees have decided to turn to, since it’s been so difficult to get agreement on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Rep. Kline said he would like the full House to consider ESRA soon, preferably on the “suspension calendar,” which allows for limited amendments and debate. The decision will ultimately be up to Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who controls the House floor schedule. The bill could be on the floor by the end of the month, advocates say.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Bipartisan Research Bill Rockets Through House Panel

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