Federal

Lawmakers Question Education Research’s Usefulness

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 17, 2013 4 min read
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Federal education research has gotten more scientifically rigorous, but in a time of shrinking agency budgets, Congress is debating whether it is practically useful.

The first reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act—six years overdue and counting—gained some Hill traction last week, as the latest attempt to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act limps in the Senate. The House Education and the Workforce Committee heard testimony Sept. 10 from top researchers on ways to improve the U.S. Department of Education’s research agency, the Institute of Education Sciences.

“As we develop policies to strengthen the institute, we should consider streamlining the federal research structure to reduce duplication, enhance accountability, and make it easier for states and school districts to access important information,” said U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the committee’s chairman.

The House panel is expected to draft language to reauthorize the education research law in the next several weeks, and the Senate seems to be letting the House take the lead; it has no plans to hold its own hearings on education research this session.

The fact that the ESRA reauthorization faces a bitter partisan path to enactment may actually help the smaller, more technical education research law’s chances of reauthorization. The research community are hoping Congress keeps an even keel on IES and provides more funding flexibility for the $600 million research agency.

“Things have improved a great deal at IES, and while there’s certainly room for progress, I think Congress should think about making changes for improvement, not starting with a blank page again,” Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the American Educational Research Association, after the hearing.

Scientific Significance

Witnesses and congressional lawmakers at the hearing Sept. 10 seemed to agree that federal education research has become more valid and credible since the passage of the 2002 act that created the institute.

The institute has beefed up its grant criteria and peer review process, aligning them more closely with the formats used for education-related research in the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. This week, it released common guidelines with the National Science Foundation for six different types of education research and development, from studying new theories of learning all the way to figuring out how to scale up a successful reading intervention from one school to 500.

“Until ESRA and IES, education research was allowed to function at a standard that would never pass muster with public health, employment and training, or welfare policy, let alone medicine or agriculture,” said James J. Kemple, the executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University.

Building Relevance

IES is in some ways “still burdened with the legacy of more than two generations of ineffective education research,” Kemple testified at the hearing, and this may have made the research agency too single-minded in its early days: “It’s a work in progress. In some cases, IES has forwarded rigor at the expense of education policy and practical relevance.”

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report previewed at the hearing found, for example, that IES does not routinely translate all of its research into language easy for nonacademics to understand. It also criticizes the agency for long turnaround time for many studies, noting that IES’ average peer-review time has lengthened from 117 days in fiscal year 2011 to 175 days in fiscal year 2012.

Bridget Terry Long, the Harvard Graduate School of Education academic dean and the chairwoman of the National Board for Education Sciences, IES’ advisory board, noted that IES under Director John Q. Easton has required more partnerships between researchers and practitioners, and is launching a new center devoted to evaluating how well research is being translated into usable knowledge. Both she and Mr. Kemple argued that the institute should be strengthened in the next reauthorization of the law.

More Authority?

Many of IES’ research programs are determined by Congress, although the agency does set topic priorities. By comparison, research agencies such as NSF or the National Institutes of Health have more power to shift their research programs to respond to issues identified by researchers in the field.

“In IES, you really don’t have that freedom,” Mr. Sroufe said.

Moreover, while Congress does require specific evaluations for some initiatives, most Education Department program evaluations are paid for with a 2 percent set aside from each program’s budget for “national activities.”

“That means IES has to get in there and argue that the evaluation needs to be done and IES needs to do it,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the institute’s former director. “It would be better if IES simply had the authority” and could work with new programs at the beginning to set up the data collection and observations that would help support research down the road.

By contrast, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., questioned whether the federal education research law should be reauthorized at all. “I’m not hearing strength in the answer that this could not be done in a market-based approach,” he said. “If we’re talking about [research based on] trust and independence in the federal government, we have a major hurdle to get over.”

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rush Holt begged to differ: “We badly need rigorous research. We’ve been hampered for decades, maybe forever, because every policymaker, every school board member ... was a student and therefore an expert in education, and so we end up with the same old things.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2013 edition of Education Week as House Panelists Question Relevancy of Education Dept. Research

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