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Education Research 'Evolving,' but Hindered by Fragmentation, Report Finds

Going just by the money spent, the Institute of Education Sciences is nowhere near the center of federal education research, according to a new Aspen Institute analysis, but it has so far been difficult for the widely disparate agencies that investigate teaching and learning to leverage their findings effectively.

The report was part of a slew of studies and commentary on the history and potential future directions of American education research and development released by Aspen and originally intended to coincide with a symposium on the subject at the the Senate this week on reauthorizing the Education Sciences Reform Act, which governs IES. That meeting was snowed under by the ongoing winter storm in Washington this week—fitting, as negotiations over the bill froze up last week in a political fight over funding levels—but the reports are still worth a read.

The report serves as a solid primer on the history of education research initiatives from the 1950s on, though it's ironic that the cycles of concern over research quality, relevence, and political independence are still going after more than six decades. I found the map of education-related research funding in different agencies (also shown above) to be particularly useful, though it does not include all education-related projects that might have research, such as those at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There's no central inventory of education-related research initiatives, and no ultimate coordinator for the various programs, Aspen found.

"If [the National Science Foundation] is doing brain research and the Department of Naval Research is learning how to train people for professions, where is all that in helping schools teach young people? There's a lot of knowledge in there that could be very, very useful in a school setting. That would be a tremendous advantage," said Christopher T. Cross, the project director of Aspen's senior education congressional staff network and chairman of the Danville, Calif.-based consulting group Cross & Joftus. "These are all taxpayer-funded activities, and there should be ways to leverage all that to improve learning—and there is no mechanism to do that."

The report calls for more formal coordination of federal research programs, both in planning studies, sharing the results, and considering the implications of findings in one agency for other populations. For example, military-based training research, Cross noted, often works with students who have not succeeded well in traditional school settings, and its findings could provide best practices for high schools.

There have been efforts to coordinate research among different agencies, but, he said, "it  tends to be more based on personal relationships than anything else, and when you think about the size of the issues here, we need to harvest the findings to benefit society, not just individual agencies."

Insight into ARPA-Ed

The report also provides the  most fleshed-out description to date of the proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency-Education which has been floated at various times by the Obama administration and U.S.Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee.

The initiative has been envisioned as mirroring the Department of Defense's longstanding Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is responsible for creating a forerunner of the Internet and other innovations. Yet a chapter on ARPA-Ed in the report discusses differences between the two initiatives, such as the need to research for a more diverse array of practitioners than in the military. The initiative could help develop new ways to disseminate innovative research, create markets for promising interventions, and build partnerships with districts and others that want to adopt or test  cutting-edge materials, for example.

Photo: The Aspen Institute mapped funding for education research and development at federal agencies. Source: Aspen Institute.

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