Federal Commentary

Congress Must Advance the Ed. Sciences Reform Act

By Michele McLaughlin & Wes Hoover — January 02, 2014 5 min read

With an education policy debate that seems as divided as ever, Congress has reached a crossroads. Practically every major federal education law is overdue for reauthorization, and, while reasonable people may not always agree on how to improve education in this country, there has been tremendous progress in research that measures the impact of new policies and practices. There is also broad support for a vigorous federal role in education research. Lawmakers should take notice of this bright spot in American education and seize the occasion to pass legislation promoting evidence-based practices.

Both the House and the Senate education committees have conducted hearings on the Higher Education Act. Revisions of the No Child Left Behind law (the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and the Workforce Investment Act have been brought to the floor of the House of Representatives. Leaders in the Senate promise to do the same, but haven’t taken action yet. Meanwhile, a host of other programs—including the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the Child Care Development Block Grant, and the Head Start Act—await action.

Congress would do well, however, to make a priority of reauthorizing the Education Sciences Reform Act, or ESRA, which is important because it creates a base structure for evidence in our educational system. Although bipartisan negotiations on the bill broke down in early December, that doesn’t mean progress isn’t possible.

ESRA turns hard evidence into good practice by authorizing the production of research for educational leaders to use in assessing policy and practice."

ESRA turns hard evidence into good practice by authorizing the production of research for education leaders to use in assessing policy and practice. Under ESRA, comprehensive centers help states use evidence in the implementation of policies and programs. Federally funded regional educational laboratories, meanwhile, support research, as well as data analysis in the field to assess the strength of policies and programs being implemented at the local level. The result is a network of institutions whose purpose is to provide information on how particular school systems can best address the needs of their students.

Now, more than ever, educators are under pressure to deliver results. A knowledge-based economy requires a more highly skilled workforce. And because public resources remain constrained, schools, districts, and state education agencies need to operate more efficiently. The curricula, instructional programs, and management practices they adopt must produce cost-effective results.

Healthy businesses and institutions of all types measure what works and what doesn’t and use the results to improve performance. Unfortunately, our education system has not historically been an evidence-based endeavor. Schools too often have adopted programs and practices that have little grounding in scientifically valid research, and they invest too little in assessing the adaptations they make in implementing them. This tendency has left educators particularly vulnerable to impulsive calls to do whatever is new or well hyped, instead of what has an actual record of efficacy.

Recently, the Common Core State Standards have been adopted by all but four states. While these standards are intended to be more robust and relevant to the real world, higher standards also are, at least initially, likely to translate into lower rates of student success. Consider that when the percentage of students achieving proficiency falls, the amount of public scrutiny will go up. As it should.

To improve, schools will need more than a new program of standards. They will need better information on the most effective instructional programs and teaching strategies in reading, language arts, math, and other content areas. States and districts will have to sift through the claims of “effective” programs by vendors of all types. To do so, they need an unbiased source of information on what is really proven to work, and in what contexts, while paying close attention to the details of implementation.

Fortunately, the tide has been turning toward evidence-based practice, thanks to activities funded under ESRA. Since 2002, the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education has awarded several hundred grants for rigorous studies in such areas as early-childhood education; instruction in reading, mathematics, and science; effective teaching; the use of educational technology; school leadership; and access to, and retention in, postsecondary education. The earliest of these efforts have begun to bear fruit, yielding clear evidence of what works and what doesn’t, in what types of schools, and for which populations. And, since 2002, the Education Department’s What Works Clearinghouse has assessed, against rigorous evidence criteria, the research supporting programs, practices, and strategies—and made this information publicly available. To date, the clearinghouse has released more than 700 publications in such topic areas as literacy, dropout prevention, and educational technology.

These recent investments have real-world implications. They enable education practitioners to make informed decisions on programs and curricula. For example, a trial of 14 preschool curricula determined which of the programs demonstrated the most significant effects on reading and math outcomes. Another recent study on how to integrate different aspects of instruction into interventions appropriate for readers of different ages and skill levels found 17 practices, programs, or interventions that demonstrably improved reading outcomes. Such information is precisely the kind of critical research that education leaders can learn about from the ESRA-created comprehensive centers and regional educational laboratories.

As Congress and the Obama administration make tough budget and policy decisions on education issues in 2014, they should place their energy and resources behind efforts to learn and share evidence on programs and practices that deliver results. ESRA is the most potent legislative tool available for helping states and districts identify those programs and practices. It is a defense system against guesswork and salesmanship, arming school systems with research on what is best for their students. And it helps educators think seriously about the problems of implementation that can make or break a new program. ESRA, in short, educates the educators and helps build smarter school systems.


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