Congress’ Back to School Assignment: Fully Fund U.S. Education Research | Commentary

Posted September 5, 2014 at 3:54pm

As America’s young people go back to school, we’ll hear lots of discussion about how “our kids need to know more.” As an educator, I would add that my colleagues and I also need to know much more about how to teach different children in different contexts.

Compared to medicine, education has been slower in embracing evidence-based methods. Educators need a knowledge base that helps them move beyond one-size-fits-all policies to target teaching methods and support children of an ever-more diverse society.

In the absence of proven practices, too many states and school districts are instituting policies that reflect recent fads, not rigorous research. We are also witnessing a divisive debate about Common Core when the urgent question is not whether but how we can teach to the high standards that most states have adopted to ensure that all Americans have access to knowledge that will propel us forward as a country.

American educators need a knowledge base. That is why it is crucial for Congress to improve, approve, and fully fund the Education Sciences Reform Act, which provides for research evaluating the programs, practices, and outcomes in our nation’s schools.

Since the ESRA was enacted in 2002, the Department of Education’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, has begun the hard work of building the trustworthy evidence we need. The IES has sponsored hundreds of studies of such important issues as early childhood programs, effective teaching, and reading math and science instruction. These studies have produced useful findings about what works in different schools serving different populations.

The ESRA needs to be reformed as well as renewed, however. Its data and findings need to be conveyed more quickly and comprehensively to educators at every level, from state agencies to local schools. And more should be done to evaluate education policies and programs, as well as IES’ own efforts.

While voting by a large bipartisan margin to reauthorize the ESRA, the House of Representatives has also revised the law, incorporating recommendations by the Government Accountability Office.

Now known as the Strengthening Education through Research Act, the legislation takes strong steps to ensure that research findings will be relevant and timely, not filed away on a bookshelf or on a hard drive.

The reformed ESRA focuses on urgent national priorities, including improving high school graduation rates, school safety, student discipline and teacher preparation and evaluation.

It prioritizes educational equity as a goal for education research. This means making sure all our children have access to an excellent education and closing the achievement gaps among young people from different backgrounds.

In an effort to ensure that the research findings will be put to good use, the legislation encourages studies to examine how specific strategies and policies have been implemented, as well as measuring their impact. Now that most states have created their own data systems, the legislation shifts the focus for research grants to using data to improve student outcomes.

In addition to fine-tuning the focus of federally funded education research, the House bill calls for the research to be understandable and useful to teachers and parents.

The IES has been effective in establishing a strong process for documenting rigorous research and beginning an evidence base of effective practices. The proposed reforms are essential, and they can’t be achieved without financial support. Our country can’t build a better knowledge base for educators without funding it.

Currently, America’s investment in educational research is insufficient. The good news: The bill would generally restore funding for education research to the levels before the federal budget “sequester” in 2013. The bad news: In some areas, the tight funding from recent years is nowhere near enough to build the knowledge base that our educators need.

For instance, funding for the National Center for Special Education Research was virtually gutted in 2010. If the House bill is passed, funding for special education research will finally increase to 2010 levels by 2020. This is important because most states don’t conduct research and development for children with disabilities. And improving education for people with disabilities is critical: Current unemployment rates for adults with disabilities are nearly double that of adults without disabilities.

By enacting the reformed ESRA, Congress can start providing the research and resources we need to start improving our entire education system. The House has done its part. Now, as our children go back to school, the Senate needs to do its homework, too.

Dr. David Chard is the chairman of the National Board of Education Sciences and dean of the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.