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In Wake of ESSA, Senate Passes Long-Overdue Education Research Bill

It's Christmas a week early, education research watchers!

The Senate passed the Strengthening Education Through Research Act by unanimous consent last night to reauthorize the structure for federal education research in the Institute of Education Sciences. It's the first real movement on reauthorization—awaited since 2008—since a bipartisan bill fell through last year, and the sense on the Hill is it may finally be a done deal. The House still must pass the bill, but it passed a nearly identical version last year.

"Reauthorization of IES is long overdue," said Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association. "SETRA sends a signal from Congress that research, statistics, and data on education and learning are essential to evolving an educational system that works for the students it serves."

The bill would match the Every Student Succeeds Act in easing mandates for prioritizing randomized control trials in education studies in favor of a tiered research framework adapted from the Investing in Innovation, or i3, grants. The No Child Left Behind-era "scientifically based research" language would be replaced with "principles of scientific research," which would focus on ensuring that researchers claim findings and results that are appropriate to the methods they use. Experimental designs would be included to identify whether a particular intervention or policy caused a student outcome, for example, but IES would also be encouraged to support "observational methods that provide reliable and generalizable findings."

The key here seems to be a push for a better fit between research methods and the questions that schools want answered, rather than trying to hit every research question with the experimental-design hammer. The Senate language also would require IES to set research priorities around expanded access and improvement of early-childhood education, college and adult education, as well as improving low-performing schools—complex topics that are likely to require several different research methods to dig out the issues of who has access to different programs, who succeeds in them, and why. 

Building Support for States Using Education Research

Likewise, the bill would heighten IES's already-evolving focus on disseminating research "widely" to help educators and policymakers translate results into actual classroom practices. That's likely to be increasingly urgent as states begin to implement ESSA.

"States differ in their capacity and the approaches they are taking. It is going to probably be something of a free-for-all," said Adam Gamoran, the president of the William T. Grant Foundation, which studies research implementation issues. 

"What we've learned since the ESRA was implemented in 2002 is, the quality of evidence is neither necessary nor sufficient to get evidence used," Gamoran said. "I certainly agree the quality of evidence has improved and the range of high-quality evidence has improved. But what we've learned is that it's not just about the quality of evidence: It's about the relationships between producers and consumers of evidence and the mediators connecting the two; the structures that support those relationships, and the degree of trust that characterizes those relationships."

Budget Disconnect for Special Education Research

The bill would also prioritize research to "close the achievement gap between disabled and nondisabled students. It would add new requirements for NCSER to study, including:

  • disabled students' participation and outcomes in high school and college technical education programs;
  • emerging models for special education, such as multitiered systems of support; and 
  • education for disabled students who have additional learning needs, such as English-language learners and gifted students.

The new responsibilities seems out of allignment with the budget for the National Center for Special Education Research, which has been getting short shrift in the last few years of federal appropriations.

Other Issues in the Bill

Separately, in an effort to ease sometimes extended leadership transitions at IES, the bill also allows the director to be appointed for an additional six-year term, or serve up to one year beyond her term if a successor has not yet been appointed. Similarly, members of IES's advisory group, the National Board for Education Sciences, could serve an extra year to keep the board running when replacements take longer than expected to find.

Levine voiced AERA's continuing concern that the National Center for Education Statistics remains a center under the IES umbrella rather than an independent group, but, she said, "for now, SETRA is more than good enough. That in itself is worthy of praise, and, in the end, a strong and independent IES also serves the interests of NCES."


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