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New Federal Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking Approved by Obama

Cross-posted from the Inside School Research blog

By Sarah D. Sparks

President Obama has signed a bipartisan bill creating a 15-member commission to figure out how to coordinate and use federal data without risking personal information privacy.

The commission could help to give broader and more permanent approval to the White House's push to use more tiered-evidence systems—like those used in the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Investing in Innovation program—to evaluate federal programs. It could also provide a context to hash out longstanding arguments over protecting data privacy which have complicated moves to update the 40-year-old Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The commission will have $3 million and at least initial support from both major political parties—the bill was championed by GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. "As we work to create jobs, grow the economy, and tackle all of our deficits fairly and responsibly, it is so important that we understand what is working in federal programs and the tax code, and what needs to be fixed," Murray said in a statement.

So, what exactly would the commission do, and what does it mean for education?

What Will the Commission Do?

First and foremost, it will take a massive inventory of all administrative, survey, and statistical data as well as tax-spending information from all federal programs. It's expected to consult with the heads of most of the federal agencies with research sections, including the Education Department.

The group must come up with ways to integrate rigorous evaluations of effectiveness—including randomized controlled trials—into the design of federal programs. At the same time, members must figure out what structures and policies must be in place to protect personal data during those evaluations. 

From there, the group will decide whether and how to create a clearinghouse of federal data across agencies and how the data could be released to public or private researchers for "program evaluation, continuous improvement, policy-relevant research, and cost-benefit analyses."

It has 18 months to make final recommendations to Congress. 

Who's on the Commission?

Ever had to solve one of those logic problems, where you have to sit five people at a table but boys in yellow t-shirts couldn't sit next to girls in red dresses and anyone wearing a green hat had to sit at the front? Choosing the commissioners will be a little like that.

All of the 15 commissioners will be expected to have expertise in economics, statistics, program evaluation, data-security, confidentiality, or database management, but the White House and Congress will have the opportunity to put their own slants on the issues.

In the next 45 days, President Obama will appoint three of the 15 members, including: the director of the Office of Management and Budget or one of the OMB's top aides; an academic researcher, data expert or administrator; and an expert on protecting personally identifiable data and limiting the amount and length of time that data are stored. President Obama also will appoint the chariman of the commission.

Speaker Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate majority and minority leaders will appoint another three commissioners each—for a total of 12—including two academic researchers or data experts each and one data-privacy expert each. Ryan will also appoint the co-chairman of the commission.

What Should Educators Look for?

Thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act's evidence standards, the commission may look to the Education Department to model program evaluations for other agencies, rather than suggesting many changes for evaluating education programs. 

However, the debate over student data privacy has only intensified in the last year, and the commission's recommendations are likely to inform the long-awaited FERPA reauthorization. It will be interesting to see what education-related researchers end up on the commission, and how much access social-science researchers can get to data needed to evaluate politically sensitive programs, such as private-school vouchers.


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