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Every Student Succeeds Act

Research Agency Awaits New Chief, Legislation

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 20, 2015 4 min read

The U.S. Department of Education’s research agency continues to wait for new leadership and legislative direction, even as it faces rising demand for education research from practitioners.

The Institute of Education Sciences, or IES, is still searching for a researcher-in-chief and statistician-in-chief to replace, respectively, IES Director John Q. Easton and National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, both of whom left last year. Deputy Policy Director Sue Betka is serving as acting IES director, while Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner for the assessment division, is temporarily leading the NCES, which is one of the IES’ four research centers.

“At one level, the agency is functioning reasonably well and able to operate with integrity, … but at another level, it’s going to suffer if it doesn’t get new permanent leadership,” said Adam Gamoran, the president of the New York-based William T. Grant Foundation and a member of the IES’ congressionally mandated advisory group, the National Board for Education Sciences. “If it doesn’t happen soon, we’re in danger of it not happening until after the next election.”

The White House has put forward no potential nominations for either position, Ms. Betka said, and neither she nor NBES members or professional research groups have received a short list of candidates.

“We’ve had several opportunities for input, but so far no output,” Mr. Gamoran said.

By delaying the nominations, “it seems to me the administration is intentionally avoiding having to deal with confirmation” in a Senate now held by Republicans, said Christopher T. Cross, the chairman of the Bethesda-based consulting group Cross & Joftus.

“In many cases, that can work pretty effectively, but in the case of IES, which is set up as a semi-independent entity, not having a permanent leader is a real handicap, particularly when you also don’t have an NCES commissioner,” said Mr. Cross, a former Education Department research official. “I think the leadership issue is a bigger struggle in the long run than not having reauthorization.”

Felice J. Levine, the executive director of the Washington-based American Educational Research Association, agreed that election-year politics and priorities likely contributed to the delay in permanently filling the top posts at the IES and the NCES, but “the one sentiment we’re all feeling is, IES is a very important entity and how it evolves … should transcend executive branch and legislative politics.”

The vacancies in the top posts came in the same year that the IES had its best shot—and most frustrating near miss—at reauthorization since it came due in 2008. In spite of high hopes and bipartisan support, in its last session, Congress did not pass the Strengthening Education through Research Act, which would have reauthorized federal education research through 2020 with more flexibility for the agency.

ESEA Bill

Moreover, fallback hopes that the bill might be wrapped into a broader reauthorization for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have not come to fruition; the IES was barely mentioned in the reauthorization draft introduced last week by Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

“I absolutely would have anticipated it would have moved quickly with the new Congress,” said the AERA’s Ms. Levine. “Now, it sits in the queue with other priorities.”

Ms. Betka agreed that the federal education research law “has been in need of reauthorization for quite a number of years, and it will be very helpful to have it done. … It just removes any uncertainty about the near-term future of the organization."Yet Mr. Easton, the former IES director and now a distinguished senior fellow at the Spencer Foundation in Chicago, said he doesn’t think the delay will hamper the agency. In part, Mr. Easton and other education watchers noted, that’s because the IES has already begun changes in response to criticisms and recommendations from reports and Congressional hearings.

“IES is part of a wider movement,” said Steve Fleischman, the chief executive officer of the Portland, Ore.-based research group Education Northwest, “of different agencies trying to coordinate how they use evidence and portray evidence.”

During Mr. Easton’s tenure, the agency and its regional educational labs began to incorporate a wider array of research methods and form partnerships with practitioners to ensure studies are more useful for those in the field—both directions recommended in the proposed reauthorization and a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

“I hope they don’t retreat from the emphasis on relevance and usability,” Mr. Easton said. “We heard the message loud and clear from the GAO report that this was important, and I think even the [education] field itself is responding to the fact that this is a better way to do research.”

Ms. Levine argued, however, that “the importance of reauthorization alone shouldn’t be understated: Fudamentally, reauthorization enables the agency to move forward. ... It sends a very strong signal about the importance of education research.”

Call for Support

The acting director, Ms. Betka, said the agency is moving forward with new regular and special education research grant awards this year as a previous grant cycle closed, freeing up research money.

But Mr. Gamoran noted that the IES’ $574 million budget is still more than $30 million below its 2011 funding levels.

The latest Senate proposal to reauthorize the ESEA would require the education secretary to cite “substantial, high-quality education research” that opposes a state’s education plan or waiver request in order to deny it, and would require a state to do the same to reject a district’s school improvement plan. At the same time, new rules proposed this past fall for federal School Improvement Grants also would call for those partnering to improve struggling schools to back their plans with research approved by the IES’ What Works Clearinghouse.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as IES Operating Without Top Leaders, Legislative Direction

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