Federal Opinion

Making the Most of Federal Ed. Research

By Christopher T. Cross, Joaquin R. Tamayo Jr., Sarah McKibben & Marisa Goldstein — May 01, 2014 6 min read
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Includes updates and/or revisions.

Last year, when we and others at the Aspen Institute set about cataloguing federal investments in education research, development, and dissemination, we made the disturbing discovery that, when it comes to federally funded education RD&D, not only does the left hand not work with the right, but too often one hand doesn’t even know the other exists.

This may be because education research is conducted by myriad federal agencies. Did you realize, for example, that the U.S. Department of Defense has its own education research agenda, including work in science, technology, engineering, and math, as well as on the impact of tutoring? One does wonder how often the paucity of communication and coordination in education RD&D results in duplicative and wasteful work that ultimately diminishes its impact on student outcomes. The U.S. Department of Education has made strides in improving the rigor of education research, but the reach and usability of dissemination vehicles like the department’s What Works Clearinghouse are limited at best.

Our work illuminated inefficiencies worth addressing in light of the recent bipartisan proposal to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA). The siloed and bureaucratic nature of the existing education research landscape is a problem that can and must be solved. As reauthorization of the ESRA winds its way through Congress—the bill known as the Strengthening Education through Research Act was introduced in April—the federal government should also consider and act on all the ways the coherence and impact of education RD&D can be improved without additional congressional authorization and funding.

While there is broad acknowledgment within policy and practice circles of the important and long-standing federal role in education research, there is no agreement on how to focus limited federal dollars on our nation’s most pressing education needs. Indeed, despite all the activity in multiple federal agencies, you’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher, principal, or even a district superintendent who points to the value of federally funded research in his or her day-to-day work.

Our exploration of the federal investment in education RD&D was both fruitful and challenging, leading to Aspen’s release last December of “Leveraging Learning: The Evolving Role of Federal Policy in Education Research.”

 Common sense dictates that we account for what we invest in learning about what works to improve student outcomes and then leverage limited resources to scale the most promising solutions.”

In the report, we chronicled a portion of the federal government’s most significant investments and mapped the current organizational landscape of some of the agencies responsible for education RD&D. Our main finding was that the constellation of organizations and agencies conducting and disseminating education research is too fragmented and disjointed, rendering the enterprise much less helpful than it could be to policymakers and practitioners alike. In a time of tremendous academic need and tight budgets at every level of the system, we must be increasingly intentional about building coherence in this arena. Common sense dictates that we account for what we invest in learning about what works to improve student outcomes and then leverage limited resources to scale the most promising solutions to the everyday challenges of teaching and learning.

To provoke discussion and debate, Aspen commissioned four papers from leaders in the education research and practice communities for release with the “Leveraging Learning” report.

In her paper, Vivian Tseng of the W.T. Grant Foundation urges strengthening the use and usefulness of education research. She raises the issue of relevance: How can education research be made more relevant for the practitioners who make decisions that impact daily teaching and learning? Moreover, Tseng pushes us to rethink the research-to-practice pipeline, including the role of the federally supported regional education labs, to ensure that the urgent information needs of practitioners are more expeditiously met by the research community.

To that point, it’s promising that the ESRA reauthorization bill would add two educators to the National Board for Education Sciences. Having practitioners at the table when important decisions are made should help address concerns about the relevance of education research.

In his essay, Robert Slavin, the co-founder of Success for All, puts the Education Department’s research budget in sharp relief by noting the astounding comparison between federal research investments in education versus health care. It gave us pause to discover that the Institute of Education Sciences’ total 2014 appropriation amounts to a mere 1.9 percent of the annual appropriation for the National Institutes of Health, our government’s premier medical-research agency.

Even without a significant increase in federal funding, however, Slavin argues that the impact of the federal investment in education RD&D could be significantly improved if, among other things, a reauthorized ESRA elevates the Institute of Education Sciences to a lead position in the evaluation of all federal education programs, including the Investing in Innovation, or i3, initiative, and promotes the use of “proven programs in all department grant funding.” Slavin challenges us to consider why any significant amount of federal education dollars should go to initiatives that lack a credible research base.

Another essay in “Leveraging Learning,” by Tim Knowles and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, proposes that the Institute of Education Sciences invest in what they call “mechanism experiments”: testing the various causal mechanisms underlying a policy intervention rather than the policy itself. Mechanism experiments, they suggest, could improve the efficacy of scarce research funds by signaling which strategies are likely to yield significant positive impact—and which ones are not—before full-blown and very costly randomized controlled trials are initiated.

The final and fourth essay, by Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, proposes the creation of a virtual evidence-based school district staffed by expert researchers and deeply experienced practitioners who would be charged to consider the best evidence in research and develop practical recommendations that states and districts could apply within their local contexts. Petrilli contends that while there is no shortage of proven “policies, programs, and procedures” that districts and schools could implement to great effect, what the field needs is a credible broker whose essential mission is to wade through all the emerging evidence and create concrete, eminently useful guidance for front-line educators.

Keeping all this in mind, there are at least two things the federal government can do immediately to inspire more effective approaches to education RD&D.

First, President Barack Obama should direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, to convene the relevant federal agencies involved in education RD&D so they can develop an inventory of federal investments in the area and create mechanisms that inspire the appropriate sharing of information among federal agencies and with the broader public. We view this idea as a relatively inexpensive way of promoting a healthier dynamic within the federal education research enterprise.

Second, Congress should commission the National Academy of Sciences to review the OSTP results and issue practical recommendations that would ensure policymakers and practitioners get the maximum benefit from all federal investments in education RD&D.

The fundamental issue we raise in “Leveraging Learning” is the urgent need to rethink how we capitalize on federal investments in learning. We are hopeful that through thoughtful dialogue, careful listening, and inspired deliberation, the federal government and, indeed, the nation, can move much more effectively to leverage its investment in education research, development, and dissemination.

The biography of Christopher T. Cross has been updated to reflect his affiliation with the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education within the National Academy of Sciences.


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