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New Education Research Chief Signals More Focus on College Over K-12 Studies

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Mark Schneider wants the Education Department's research agency to get down to the nitty-gritty.

As the first permanent director of the Institute of Education Sciences in four years, Schneider was confirmed a little more than three months ago, too late to make many changes to this year's research priorities for the agency. But he's already moving to make the agency's future research more tightly focused on educators' day-to-day needs.

That means more focus on the costs and implementation issues around school interventions and better understanding of the social and emotional issues that can affect students' learning. And, amid rising concern about students' trajectories in college and careers, it means filling in what Schneider considers major gaps in what we know about what helps students learn best in higher education.

"If you look at our grant programs, they are almost always K-12," Schneider said.  "We're going to change that."

For example, he noted that the majority of career education programs are in community colleges and other higher education programs, but most of IES' grants have focused on high school programs. "There's a whole world of [career and technical education] growing up, and we need to expand our focus from high schools to the new world that's out there," he said, including both traditional community college and university programs, but also industry certifications, online training, and others. 

In addition to changing the career education research program, IES is expanding the scope of its postsecondary and adult education research grants, which now work to understand things like the relative benefits for students earning professional certificates versus college degrees, or how adult students balance their education with family and work responsibilities. But Schneider said research should also identify what works to help students complete higher education with the skills they need for jobs and citizenship, and how less career-oriented subjects like philosophy or art contribute to those skills. Matthew Soldner, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, also has a background in higher education research and likely will incorporate more evaluations of higher education programs and interventions. 

"How do you instill in students that learning is a lifelong process? I'm very interested in how to extend the use of labor market information and, not surprisingly, how we identify and communicate to students the hot skills needed in the labor market," Schneider said. "I don't expect schools to stop teaching math or music or art in lieu of advanced manufacturing, but schools do have the responsibility to act on [career and higher education] information and help students get the skills they need."

That approach could make for a smoother transition for IES if the Trump administration's proposed consolidation of the federal Education and Labor  departments goes through; Schneider said that provided the National Center for Education Statistics remains with IES, "I don't expect it would affect our work at all."

Clarity on Costs and Benefits

The director is more concerned about states' and districts' ongoing efforts to find evidence-based interventions for school improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act. IES now supports four "goals" for grant projects: identifying potential strategies to improve student outcomes; developing and testing interventions; and evaluating the effects of interventions both at first and as they are used in many different contexts. The agency is expanding its supported studies replicating successful evaluations and tracking differences in program's implementation. It also now requires evaluations to register their methodology in advance to avoid statistical manipulation like "p-hacking," or combing through an intervention's effects on a wide variety of measures until finding one that shows a benefit. 

For example, the evaluation of the Investing in Innovation program  required all its studies to preregister their methods, and only counted inverventions as showing a benefit if researchers also showed they had been implemented faithfully across different school sites. 

Similarly, the agency will now require evaluations to include a cost-benefit analysis, not just a general assessment of costs. In addition to changing grant requirements, IES is exploring whether to use the What Works Clearinghouse to promote research that offers a strong cost-benefit or evidence of longterm results, rather than just looking over a year or two of evaluation.

"For me, it is actually surprising that we've not paid attention to cost much," Schneider said. "Everybody else in the world lives on cost information. I say, 'Here's a wonderful intervention, very effective—it costs a million dollars.' [Districts say] 'I can't. Thank you very much.' That is, to me, malpractice: It certainly reduces a lot of our recommendations to irrelevance."

Schneider plans to do the same in-house, evaluating what has worked or failed in IES' rapid expansion of research-practioner partnerships. The agency now supports more than 45 nationwide, but the director said it is still working to understand how newer partnerships can repeat the success of longterm partnerships like the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has been credited with helping the district improve its struggling schools. 

While IES has for years required researchers to lay out how they plan to get out news of their findings, Schneider said future grants will also change their priorities: "The first thing on the dissemination plan is, tell me your audiences and tell me how you're going to reach them. And the first audience listed was always 'researchers.' We want that at the bottom. If we want to change practice on the ground, then we need to be talking to practitioners, talking to the [National Conference of State Legislatures]; we need to be dealing with the National Association of Teachers of Mathematics. People love to read papers at [the American Educational Research Association] or [the Society of Research on Education Effectiveness] and that's fine, but that's not our priority."

Photo Source: Mark Schneider 

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