Federal What the Research Says

Education Research Has Changed Under COVID. Here’s How the Feds Can Catch Up

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 05, 2022 5 min read
Graphic shows iconic data images all connected.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The last two years of the pandemic have not been kind to education research. Data collection and studies were disrupted as schools and universities shut down and went remote. Now, the priorities for research have fundamentally shifted to the urgent need to help schools and students recover from the extended disruptions.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which calls for both structural and topic changes to the research funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department’s research agency.

“When research is grounded in the needs and experiences of communities, then that community’s district and educators are more likely to use the findings of the research in their daily work,” said Adam Gamoran, the chairman of the National Academies committee that wrote the report.

Among other things, the report calls for IES to focus more research on areas of pressing concern in the last two years, including education technology, teacher education and workforce development, and civil rights policies and practices in schools. It also calls for IES to provide a clearer process for supporting grants, to improve the diversity of education researchers.

Education Week spoke with Gamoran about how federal education research can adapt to changing needs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you think the last two years have changed priorities for education research?

Gamoran: I think the pandemic has both sharpened our attention to existing inequalities and exacerbated the inequalities that already exist in our education system. Inequality has always been the number one problem of U.S. education, and the pandemic has made that clearer than ever. And it has made inequalities worse through disrupted learning and through stress and trauma on students, parents, and educators. So that’s the first big consequence of the pandemic with implications for research. And then, technology has always been a major focus of IES, but we’ve seen the use of technology in education during the pandemic, and that has intensified the need for new research on technology and education. We know that administrative data collections were greatly disrupted and we know that opportunities to carry out classroom-based research were greatly disrupted during the pandemic.

The National Academies report notes that although teacher education has long been a research priority, IES has only funded a handful of studies explicitly around teacher education. Why do you think it fell through the cracks?

Gamoran: The topics for research offered by IES are very broad and practically anything within the field of education research could be proposed. But in fact, some don’t get proposed because of the way the project types and the topics intersect. Teacher education is an example. It’s very difficult to study the effects of teacher education on student outcomes, because they’re so far downstream. Consequently, the full focus on student outcomes as the primary outcome makes it less likely that teacher education will be successfully proposed as an IES research study. So one change that we recommend is to broaden the outcomes that are allowed to allow outcomes at other levels: the teacher level, the classroom level, the school level as the primary outcome. Loosening restrictions like those will help to foster research in areas that are already possible, but rarely done and will bring research to where it’s needed.

What kinds of outcomes can we study now that we wouldn’t have been able to five or 10 years ago?

Gamoran: Administrative data is increasingly available, accelerated by the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which has encouraged government agencies to make those data available for researchers inside and outside of government. And of course, the availability of state data in education—which is a direct result of IES’s national longitudinal data system funding—is certainly new within the past decade. We have new approaches to artificial intelligence, new approaches to data scraping, new approaches to the use of big data that are improving all the time, and we need both research that uses those techniques, and we need research on the techniques themselves.
IES has for a long time recognized the importance of understanding, not just what works, but what works for whom and under what circumstance. But the way the research proceeds is first, the what works question is asked, and then the heterogeneity questions—what works for whom, where, under what circumstances—get added on later. And our committee is recommending that that attention to variation be built in from the start, so that it’s not an afterthought, but rather the heart of the problem.

The National Academies found a lack of diversity when it comes to who is supported to study education. Where do you think the pipeline is breaking down?

Gamoran: The committee is also very interested in that question, but we do not have the answer. We don’t have the data. IES has released a little bit of data on who gets funded, but we don’t have data on who applies so we are not able to discern at what point in the pipeline the inequities are being introduced. That’s why we call for [a] comprehensive [grant funding] review.

Many of the National Academies’ recommendations, such as having more frequent research application cycles and more monitoring of funding equity, require manpower. Do you think the IES has the staff capacity to make these changes?

Gamoran: Some of the recommendations could be implemented with few additional resources. However, all of them will require staff time, and that is a scarce resource at IES. We have recommended that Congress re-examine IES’s budget, recognizing both that it is modest compared to other scientific research agencies and that it is not enough to allow all the recommendations of this report to be implemented. Indeed, staffing resources are essential for implementing these recommendations.


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Miguel Cardona in the Hot Seat: 4 Takeaways From a Contentious House Hearing
FAFSA, rising antisemitism, and Title IX dominated questioning at a U.S. House hearing with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
6 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill on May 7 in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP
Federal Arming Teachers Could Cause 'Accidents and More Tragedy,' Miguel Cardona Says
"This is not in my opinion a smart option,” the education secretary said at an EdWeek event.
4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Federal Opinion Should Migrant Families Pay Tuition for Public School?
The answer must reflect an outlook that is pro-immigration, pro-compassion, and pro-law and order, writes Michael J. Petrilli.
Michael J. Petrilli
4 min read
Image of a pencil holder filled with a variety of colored pencils that match the background with international flags.
Laura Baker/Education Week via Canva
Federal New Title IX Rule Could Actually Simplify Some Things for Districts, Lawyers Say
School districts could field more harassment complaints, but they can streamline how they handle them, according to legal experts.
7 min read
Illustration of checklist.
F. Sheehan for Education Week + iStock / Getty Images Plus