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Bipartisan House Bill Would Make Research More Timely, Relevant

The U.S. Department of Education's research arm—the Institute of Education Sciences—would get a makeover under a bipartisan bill released today aimed at providing more relevant, but equally rigorous research.

Unveiled by lawmakers on the House Education Committee, the bill would make it clear that all IES research needs to be distributed in a timely way, so that educators can take quick advantage of the findings to improve classroom and district practice. The theme builds on recommendations to bolster IES in a report released by the Government Accountability Office last fall. The bill would also ensure that practitioners have a stronger voice in the research process.

Under the bill, educators would take a greater role in peer review—and quite literally, have a seat at the table in setting research policy. The bill calls for two educators to sit on the National Board for Education Sciences, which helps to advise IES.

And the measure would make some important changes to federally-financed Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems. That's been a hot area of federal policy during the Obama administration, which called for states to bolster their data systems in order to be competitive for Race to the Top.

The measure would shift the focus of grants away from just building data systems—since most states already have robust systems in place—to actually using them to improve student outcomes. That's something states are just beginning to do on their own, according to the Data Quality Campaign. States would be encouraged, for example, to use federal funds to train teachers on to use data to inform their classroom practice, for example. Right now, just a dozen states are doing that, up from three in 2011, according to DQC.

"We think now that it's incentivized under these funds we'll see more states doing this," said Kristin Yochum, the director of federal policy for the DQC. 

And the bill would require states to link up K-12 data systems with early childhood, post-secondary, and workforce systems, as well as open up the grants to districts, not just states. It would also beef-up privacy protections for student data. Student privacy has been a flashpoint in state legislatures this year.

The legislation also calls for new or improved collection of data on areas such as high school graduation rates, school safety, discipline, and teacher preparation and evaluation. And it would add a new focus on examining the implementation of a particular policy or strategy, not just its impact.

That will help practitioners and researchers get a better grasp of the reasons why a particular strategy is working—or not—explained Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which supports the legislation. 

Otherwise, "you get results that are trustworthy" but you can't always see inside the "black box," she said.

The bill also makes a shift, from "scientifically-based research" to "scientifically-valid research." That's consistent with other recent federal laws, such as the 2008 renewal of the Higher Education Act, and gives IES more options when it comes to research methodology. 

And importantly, the measure would continue to make clear that IES, and related organizations, including the National Assessment Governing Board, are independent, keeping them above politics.  

Some politics: A bipartisan ESRA bill is a kind of victory all on its own. Although committee Democrats and Republicans were able to come to an agreement on nearly all of the key policy questions late last year, the two parties were at odds when it came to authorization levels. Those help Congress decide how much funding a particular program should get, but they aren't binding.

That clash put the brakes (temporarily) on discussions over ESRA. But lawmakers were able to get past this issue, thanks in part to a broader budget deal, approved late last year. ESRA is just the latest in a round of small, more limited bills that the education committees have decided to turn to, since it's been so difficult to get agreement on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. More here

The bill has the support of Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House education committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. the top Democrat, but it's sponsored by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y.

What happens now? ESRA could head for committee consideration as early as next week. It's unclear whether House leaders would decide to debate the bill on the floor—or simply place it on the suspension calendar, a congressional maneuver that's used for non-controversial, bipartisan legislation. Meanwhile, aides in the U.S Senate have said that chamber is beginning to tackle ESRA overhaul, too. It's not clear at this point to what extent the House version will inform their work. 

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