A national advisory board signed off last week on a flurry of far-reaching recommendations—some of which may prove controversial—for strengthening research on education.
Among the proposals approved Sept. 21 by the 14-member National Board for Education Sciences was a call for the Department of Education to give accountability waivers to schools and districts that take part in randomized experiments.
“The No Child Left Behind Act created strong demand among schools and districts for research-proven strategies to improve achievement,” said board member Jon Baron, who is the executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy. “And there’s not much out there right now.”
Educators are sometimes reluctant to take part in studies now because they fear that, under the No Child Left Behind Act, they could be held accountable for poor results. The advisory board’s proposal would relieve that concern by allowing schools and districts to report whether they are meeting their test-score improvement targets under the law in two different ways: They could either omit performance results for students in control groups from those calculations or include them, whichever calculation produced more favorable results.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, meanwhile, has waived federal accountability rules for Virginia so it could launch a pilot program that allows the state to flip the order of consequences the law imposes on low-performing schools.
Under the program, which the federal Education Department is expanding, the state permits such schools to offer free supplemental educational services as a first remedy, rather than first offering parents in those schools the option of transferring their children to other public schools. In the future, the advisory board added in a second part to its recommendation, the department should require states with such waivers to try variations in NCLB rules to evaluate their efforts by conducting experiments in which some schools are randomly assigned to try out the changes and others conduct business as usual.
Though the proposal to promote research-related accountability waivers won unanimous approval from the congressionally mandated board, some members raised questions about it during deliberations.
“These are very expensive experiments,” said board member F. Philip Handy. Speaking as the chairman of the Florida state board of education, he said, “if we had to pay for all of it, we wouldn’t do it.”
Members of the advisory board also predicted the proposal could run into opposition from advocates of strict enforcement of the law concerned that underperforming schools could use the waiver as a loophole to avoid sanctions under the NCLB law.
But Mr. Baron said the Education Department could mitigate that concern by allowing waivers only for programs or practices seen as having a good chance of helping schools meet their “adequate yearly progress” requirements under the federal law.
Another proposal the board signed off on called on the Education Department to weigh in on a controversy pitting education researchers against the officials who administer states’ growing databases on student achievement.
Considered a potential treasure trove for researchers, the databases let scholars track the educational growth of individual students over time. But, board member Eric A. Hanushek, a Stanford University researcher, said some states are balking at sharing the data for fear of violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a 22-year-old law aimed at protecting student confidentiality. (“Scholars Cite Privacy Law as Obstacle,” Jan. 18, 2006.)
“The people who are concerned about confidentiality are perhaps confused about what can be done with encryption,” said Caroline H. Hoxby, a Harvard University scholar on the panel. Encryption techniques are used to “scrub” data, before researchers even get their hands on them, of any personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers, names, and addresses.
The proposal approved by the board specifically calls on the Education Department to clarify the confusion over the student-privacy law, promote the importance of such studies, and issue guidelines for protecting confidential records in state databases.
NCES Studies Eyed
The advisory panel also:
• Called on Congress to formally designate the Institute of Education Sciences, or IES, as the lead agency for all congressionally authorized evaluations of department programs, which now are spread among different offices;
• Recommended a change in federal law that would let the department pool pockets of funds set aside for evaluations of small federal programs so that it could conduct larger, “more meaningful” program evaluations; and
• Expressed its desire to keep the department’s statistical branch, the National Center for Education Statistics, from publishing or commissioning analyses exploring the “causal effects of policies.”
The last recommendation is a response to controversies over a pair of reports published by the NCES—one comparing student achievement in public and private schools, and the other comparing achievement in charter schools with that of regular public schools. Because the reports made statistical adjustments for socioeconomic differences in the comparison groups, critics—including the department’s top two research officials themselves—said the studies went beyond the agency’s mission as a purely statistics-gathering agency. (“NCES Calls for Sticking to the Stats,” Aug. 30, 2006.)
The recommendations are the first substantive batch of proposals to come from the board, which was created by Congress four years ago to provide independent advice to the newly established IES.
The recommendations are not binding. However, the board’s chairman, Robert C. Granger, who is also the president of the William T. Grant Foundation of New York City, said he planned to circulate them widely to key people in the Education Department and Congress.
A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as NCLB Waivers Urged as Spur for Research