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Researchers Push Congress for Better Data Sharing in Education Partnerships

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Washington, D.C.

Researchers organized by the Data Quality Campaign converged on Capitol Hill Thursday and Friday in hopes of convincing Congressional lawmakers to support education research partnerships and ease data sharing for researchers in the next iteration of the Federal Education Research and Privacy Act.

While the Every Student Succeeds Act specifically encourages states and districts to use research-backed approaches to improve schools—and to evaluate the interventions they already use—the researchers argue that states and districts do not have the capacity to keep up with the research demands on their own, and need more flexibility and support to work with outside research groups. 

"In terms of [research] infrastructure investment, Massachusetts, for example, started with a higher baseline, but it still substantially leverages partnerships with researchers to answer questions ...," said Shaun Dougherty, an assistant professor of education policy and leadership at the University of Connecticut. "So even in places that are tooled up to do [education research] on their own, they still recognize there is much more that they want done and can achieve only through these partnerships."

Smaller states and districts are even more reliant on partnerships, said Bi Vuong, the director of the Proving Ground, an initiative of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. "To get them to the point of doing longitudinal research, of doing short-cycle research—that capacity at the district level is rare. There are some school districts and some states that can do them, but only for a very limited number and subset of issues."

Vuong, who works with a network of districts in Ohio to study chronic absenteeism, argued that most districts, particularly in rural areas, have too few students to conduct a rigorous study of an intervention under the Every Student Succeeds Act's evidence rules on their own. She argued that current federal research and privacy laws need stronger structures for data sharing among researchers and networks of schools and community groups. 

The researchers, organized by Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, submitted a letter to lawmakers calling for the next iteration of federal privacy law to provide:

  • flexibility for more states and districts to create partnerships to study ways to improve student outcomes;
  • technical assistance to build state and local capacity for both research and data protection;
  • support for schools and community organizations to share data to evaluate the effectiveness of programs such as tutoring or after-school activities; and
  • connections between education and workforce data to allow researchers to study how the two areas affect each other.

Student Privacy a Roadblock

Rachael Anderson, associate director for federal policy and advocacy for the DQC, said education research and privacy remains an "evergreen issue" for legislators on both sides of the political spectrum, but researchers need to do a clearer job of explaining how changes to FERPA or the Education Sciences Reform Act—both long overdue for updates—would affect how well researchers can work with education agencies.

For example, the most recent bill to reauthorize the federal education privacy law last year included a provision that said any data  shared with researchers had to specifically benefit the students whose data was shared—useful in theory, but difficult when researchers want to analyze longitudinal data on students who have already grown up, or to study broader problems of practice, according to Reg Leichty, the founder of Foresight Law and Policy, an education consulting firm. 

"There are 51 different interpretations of FERPA within all these different state agencies, and that's been a problem," said Josh Cowen, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who came to meet with lawmakers Thursday. "North Carolina thinks it means one thing and Michigan thinks it means another." 

Best Practices for State Research Support

While Leichty said members of the House education committee hope to introduce a new bill to reauthorize FERPA this fall, it will have to compete for attention with other major education legislation, including career and technical education and the Higher Education Act. In the meantime, the DQC released a report on steps states can take to build sustainable research groups to improve education, including:

  • Governance policies to provide consistent, transparent, and secure access to student data for researchers;
  • Model agreements to set how data are be shared and how students' privacy is protected;
  • Active education of the public about what research is being conducted and how it will be used to support education policy decisions; and
  • Support to build capacity at the state and district levels to design, conduct, and use education research. 
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