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House Education Panel Could Take Up School Research Next

By Alyson Klein and Guest Blogger Sarah Sparks

Now that the U.S. House of Representatives has approved a totally partisan bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the next education item on the panel's to-do list could well be the renewal of a much lower-profile and less-controversial piece of legislation: the Education Sciences Reform Act, or ESRA for short.

This will be the first reauthorization of the law, which was first developed in 2002 with the aim of reinventing the U.S. Department of Education's role in school research, in the wake of the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The GOP-controlled House education committee has held one hearing (way back in 2011) on ESRA reauthorization. There will likely be another hearing coming up in mid-September, and a bill could be released sometime this fall. It's unlikely, however, that the Senate education committee will take up the measure anytime soon—that panel has other pending priorities, including higher education and career and technical education.

ESEA renewal has been anything but a smooth process. But ESRA could provide lawmakers with a pretty easy, bipartisan victory, said Jim Kohlmoos, the former executive director of the Knowledge Alliance, who now heads up EDGE Education, an education policy and strategy consulting firm.

"There's not a lot of controversy out there," when it comes to ESRA, Kohlmoos said. "It would be a good win to demonstrate that Congress can get something done in a bipartisan fashion." And he notes that even conservative Republicans have said that the federal government can have a key role in giving school districts access to the best possible education research, so that they make good decisions when it comes to policy implementation.

Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, former director of the Institute of Education Sciences and one of the witnesses to testify at the 2011 hearing, had a similar take.

"I think [ESRA] is less contentious than ESEA, so there's a possibility it will get done. If it's just a little nip and tuck on the previous legislation, I think the chance of it flying under the radar is pretty high," Whitehurst said.

In many ways, federal education research is in a stronger position politically than it was when ESRA was first adopted in 2002. IES 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 National Institutes of Health.

The hotly contested label "scientifically based research" in the original law—which dubbed randomized controlled trials the "gold standard" of education research—is likely to have a subtler role this time around. In place of the label, many expect the next iteration of the law to adopt a more flexible definition of "scientifically valid research," a term that term already is used in revised versions of the Head Start and Higher Education Act.

Whitehurst said he doesn't think "it's worth a big fight over the details" of a federal research definition. "I think there's a much greater shared awareness of what the rules of the game are than there was 10 years ago," he said. "There's an implicit assumption that the scientific community is able to police itself and decide what constitutes rigorous research. We're not in a position that we have to worry about backsliding to the way things were 15 years ago. Therefore there's less reason for Congress to define it."

Of course, that doesn't mean members of Congress won't want to get their two bits in about prioritizing certain types or topics of research, as already has happened with political and social science earlier this year. If the new ESRA bill veers too far or too "radically" away from the current bill, Whitehurst warned, the bill could lose its bipartisan support pretty quickly.

Want much more on the ins-and-outs of ESRA? Check out this blog post on the renewal, over at Inside School Research.

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