Today, I submitted a letter to Senators Bernie Sanders and William Cassidy, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, offering input on policies that the Committee should consider during the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act. Click here to download a PDF of the letter.
Dear Chairman Sanders and Ranking Member Cassidy:
Thank you for the opportunity to provide input on policies that the Committee should consider during the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA). My feedback and policy recommendations are based on research and analysis that I published in two policy reports over the past year reviewing the history of federal education R&D programs and federal education R&D aiming to improve STEM and computer science education. To summarize, federal education R&D has unfortunately not sufficiently improved American students’ learning opportunities, expanded equal opportunity, or strengthened national competitiveness, given what has been spent on these activities over the past half century.
While my research reports provide background information to substantiate these findings, I will share with the Committee three takeaways for your consideration. First, federal education R&D activities within the Department of Education have historically focused on supporting research, rather than development. Second, education research has guided states’, local education agencies’, and public schools’ practices when research findings align with existing priorities of major interest groups or policymaker goals and objectives. Third, federal agencies, including the Department of Education, have not done enough to report and share lessons learned and potential best practices identified from federal education R&D projects.
With that context in mind, I encourage the Committee to consider substantial reform to federal education R&D activities governed by the Education Sciences Reform Act. To summarize, Congress and the Department of Education should improve the return on investment (ROI) (in terms of improving student outcomes) from funded education R&D activities by improving the transparency about funded education R&D projects, focusing more R&D resources on development and funding scalable interventions that actually improve children’s learning opportunities, and repurposing funding for ineffective education R&D activities. The following are answers to your questions.
- What specific changes could Congress make to improve the efficiency of Federal education research and statistics programs carried out by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES)--including the four National Education Centers, the National R&D Centers, the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems program, and the Regional Educational Laboratories–to ensure IES provides research and evidence back to schools and institutions of higher education in a timely manner to help improve teaching and learning, and postsecondary access and success?
Congress should reform ESRA to require the Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences to improve transparency about all education R&D activities; improve dissemination of lessons learned and best practices; and prioritize activities that are develop new, scalable learning tools and practices that can be used to by parents, teacher, schools, and other education stakeholders to improve students’ learning opportunities and outcomes.
It is an open question whether and to what extent the R&D activities of the National R&D Centers and the Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) are improving student learning in American schools. For example, in 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that “IES does not publicly report on the overall performance of the Regional Educational Laboratories (REL) program, which constitutes one of the agency's largest investments,” and that “IES has not fully assessed REL and R & D Center dissemination efforts. As a result, IES does not know if these efforts are effective in meeting their mandated goal of providing usable research and information to stakeholders.”
The Committee should conduct meaningful oversight of these programs and, barring strong information showing their utility, repurpose funding from them to more productive activities. For example, the REL program will receive approximately $58 million in FY2023. Congress should consider whether there are other ways that funding could be used to advance research and innovation in elementary and secondary education. For example, $58 million in funding could be used to establish a national network of laboratory schools, managed and overseen by the nation’s governors, to establish innovative schools to be created in partnership with researchers who could analyze school and student outcomes to identify scaleable best practices. Providing a $1 million grant to each state and territory to establish a laboratory school would support innovation across the United States, advance research, and improve learning opportunities by students served. This approach, which is just one example of alternative ways of using $58 million, could have a higher ROI than the RELs program, which has faced questions about its utility for decades.
Moreover, Congress should require IES, perhaps in concert with a nonpartisan watchdog such as the Government Accountability Office or the Inspector General, to evaluate to what extent IES funded research activities and evidence-based research are being implemented by states and local education agencies.
- What specific changes could Congress make to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Federal technical assistance centers, including the Comprehensive Centers, operated by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to improve their utility to State and local education leaders and policymakers?
Like the REL and R&D Centers, it is unclear whether and to what extent the Comprehensive Centers are currently providing value to state and local education leaders or policymakers. According to the 2013 GAO review, the Comprehensive Centers “conduct projects primarily for SEA clients and disseminate their work to those clients and to other Comprehensive Centers for their use.” GAO reported that IES conducted an evaluation of the Comprehensive Centers in 2011 and that the evaluation noted positive feedback from the Centers’ primary customers. But there is limited current reporting about this program’s effectiveness. Moreover, Congress should question whether State Education Agencies are the appropriate primary customer of Comprehensive Centers’ work. For example, in 2023, education R&D findings and best practices could be useful for a broader range of constituencies, starting most importantly with parents and teachers who are in a primary position to learn from best practices and help children.
Congress should consider updating the requirements for grants awarded under the Comprehensive Centers program to require that the centers focus on developing scalable technology assistance that could be broadly used by states, local education agencies, schools, teachers, and parents to improve students’ learning opportunities. The Comprehensive Centers program will receive $55 million in FY2023. Congress should consider other ways that this program and funding could be used to benefit students. For example, the purpose of the Comprehensive Centers programs could be changed to focus on developing technologies to assist disadvantaged student populations, such as by supporting high-dosage tutoring, many students could benefit. In December, the School Pulse Panel survey found that: “Thirty-seven percent of public schools reported providing high-dosage tutoring. Fifty-nine percent provided standard tutoring, and 22 percent provided self-paced tutoring,” and “[a]lmost half of the public schools providing high-dosage tutoring reported that a lack of funding to hire staff limited their efforts in providing this type of tutoring.” Requiring IES to use the $55 million provided annually for the Comprehensive Centers to develop scalable technology that can be broadly used for tutoring could address the nationwide need to support students’ recovery and learning losses following prolonged public school closures during the pandemic.
- How could Congress strengthen the functionality, relevance, and role of the National Board for Education Sciences in leading IES research activities as well as education research performed across the Federal government?
Congress should strengthen the functionality and relevance of the National Board for Education Sciences by requiring the board to conduct more vigorous oversight of IES and nationwide efforts to implement research best practices in American schools. For example, the Board’s responsibilities could be expanded to include overseeing the publication of an annual report on federal education R&D activities, findings, and best practices, as well as an independent review of whether best practices are being implemented in American schools. This reporting could increase the return on investment of federal education R&D activities and identify trends in classroom practices to encourage education stakeholders to implement evidence-based practices.
- What policies or practices implemented by other Federal research agencies could inform improvements to IES’ core functions, including policies and practices related to strengthening the researcher pipeline and differentiating the types of institutions that receive IES grants?
Congress should consider other models to fund and manage research and development that are providing a higher return on investment to advance national goals than the traditional approach of federal education R&D, which has traditionally prioritized academic research. For example, consider the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a non-profit organization funded by the State Department’s U.S. Agency for Global Media. OTF’s mission is to promote global internet freedom “through the research, development, implementation, and sustainability of technologies that facility the free flow of information, increase at-risk users’ digital security, and enable free expression.” With a fraction of the funding that has been provided to the RELs and R&D Centers over the past decade OTF has funded open source projects that have had a beneficial global impact. For example, OTF funded the development of Signal, a broadly used secure messaging and communications application.
Congress should consider how a similar model of funding research and development could be used in education. An “Open Education Technology Fund,” for example, could focus on providing initial grants to open source technology products that would be unlikely to receive venture capital funding focused on critical challenges in K-12 education, such as technologies to provide high-dosage tutoring, addressing students social and emotional challenges, and assisting students with disabilities and English language learners.
- How could Congress ensure better coordination among all Federal agencies conducting education research outside of IES?
Just as it is unclear whether and to what extent the Department of Education’s R&D activities are benefiting American students, it is also unclear whether the other federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense, are coordinating with IES. Congress should update ESRA to require the White House to create a five-year strategic plan for education R&D activities, in coordination with relevant federal agency heads or their representatives. Having a national strategy and establishing greater interagency coordination and collaboration would increase the efficiency and ROI of federal education R&D activities.
- How could IES better support field-initiated research that promotes continuous improvement and timelier and more actionable research?
The Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program, which exists within the Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, provides a useful model for field-initiated innovations and research programs aimed at improving student achievement. The EIR program rightly prioritizes the development aspect of R&D by encouraging innovative and entrepreneurial projects. However, Congress should require the Department of Education to improve the transparency and reporting about the outcomes of EIR-funded research projects. The current EIR website provides information about EIR applications, grant awards, and reviewer comments; however, ED does not appear to publish any annual summary of lessons learned, best practices, or other research findings from the EIR program grants. For its part, IES could partner with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to review, report on, and disseminate information about the EIR program, which would encourage more actionable research and increase the ROI of EIR expenditures.
- How could IES support innovative research methods, including more implementation research, to identify how and why interventions are effective or not across varying contexts? How could IES more nimbly allow contracts and programs to change course when strategies and interventions are not working? How could the Federal government better communicate and disseminate the findings of education research to build the capacity of teachers, school leaders, institutions of higher education, and education systems to identify and implement evidence-based practices in ways that support continuous improvement?
There are many ways that the Department of Education could better communicate and disseminate the findings of education research. First, the Department should publish an annual report detailing all of the research projects funded, an update on their status, and, where possible, identify any lessons learned or best practices. This report should be published on the IES website. Second, for each education R&D program within the Department of Education, the Department should clearly publish research findings or evaluations of each funded project. Or, if there has been no such evaluation, the Department should clearly state that. The American public deserves to know what if anything has been learned from the R&D expenditures that have been made on their behalf. Third, the Department and IES should create a website focused on providing information directly to parents to provide actionable information about evidence-based practices to improve student learning. Informing parents would be useful on multiple levels, including to hold schools accountable for implementing best practices, to support evidence-based in-home and other outside-of-school instruction, and to help parents to choose the right learning environment for their children. While the wording of your question overlooks parents, they have a critical role to play helping their children and providing bottom-up accountability to encourage schools to implement best practices.
- How could IES bolster partnership with the full range of partners–including but not limited to educators, school systems, institutions of higher education, including minority-serving institutions, public and private entities, localities and States, researchers, and the federal government–to more effectively utilize, scale, and commercialize education research to improve teaching and learning?
Improving the transparency of current and past federally funded education R&D activities is an important first step to ensure that research findings are broadly used by a full range of partners. All education stakeholders should be able to access and understand the lessons learned and best practices identified by federally funded research. Improving transparency and the dissemination of research findings could help all stakeholders improve teaching and student learning.
- How could education research better inform and evaluate the relationship between artificial intelligence (AI), instruction, and student learning? What should IES’ role by in both developing AI products and evaluating their effectiveness?
Artificial intelligence has the potential to transform education for the better, including by using technology to address some of the most labor-intensive aspects of instruction, such as providing high-dosage tutoring, which is an evidence-based strategy to address learning losses and improve student achievement. As stated above, the December School Pulse survey found that many schools cannot provide tutoring, in part because of insufficient resources. Supporting the development of AI tutors or similar technology that could provide personalized instruction overseen by a master teacher or parent could significantly increase access to high-dosage tutoring, and particularly expand access to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Importantly, an AI tutor technology could be tailored to address students’ specific needs, such as learning disabilities, English language learner status, or other individualized needs. The Department of Education has considered supporting the development of digital tutors in the past. For example, the Obama Administration’s plan for an ARPA-ED initiative referenced developing “[d]igital tutors as effective as personal tutors” as one of the potential outcomes of an innovative R&D initiative. Now, artificial intelligence has the potential to support the development of digital tutors using AI.
- How could the Federal government and IES provide more flexibility to the field of education research to pursue innovative solutions to the challenges we face in education?
Congress should amend ESRA and related laws to shift resources away from R&D activities that are having a limited impact and ROI(such as the RELs and R&D Centers) and redirect those funds to programs that focus on developing tools or methods that will actually benefit students or provide scalable solutions that parents, teachers, and other education stakeholders could implement to benefit students. For example of the types of initiatives that could be created if funding was repurposed, see my answers to questions 1 and 4, which describe a national system of lab schools (led by governors) or an “Open Education Technology Fund” (modeled after the Open Technology Fund) as alternative approaches that could have a much higher ROI than current federal education R&D activities.
- How could research projects at IES and grantees better engage students, parents, and educators in the research process, including through recruitment and informed consent?
IES could better engage parents and students in the research process by taking additional steps to ensure that they are both customers and participants in relevant programs. As mentioned above, IES should improve transparency and reporting about the outcomes of education research to provide information directly to parents and the public, rather than focusing on the research community and education stakeholders as the audience. In addition, IES should continue and extend the valuable survey work, including the School Pulse Panel, to conduct more surveys of parents and students (with their consent) to better understand their views about the condition of American education and potential changes to public policy that would better meet parents’ and students’ needs.
- How could IES improve postsecondary data alignment, review of evidence-based practices and reforms, and utility of research reports and products to provide more transparency around student outcomes related to postsecondary access and completion and interventions that support addressing disparities of such outcomes?
IES should conduct additional research and data analysis regarding American K-12 and postsecondary students’ access to and achievement in STEM and computer science education courses. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics should survey access to STEM and computer science courses and teachers in elementary and secondary schools to identify potential gaps and opportunities to improve access and promote equity. IES could also survey American postsecondary students to identify opportunities to improve access to instruction in certain fields, such as STEM and computer science.
- How could Congress strengthen IES research on early childhood education that could improve and evaluate quality and effectiveness, provide more comprehensive data on access to early childhood education programs, and inform issues of program affordability for families?
Congress should direct IES to oversee an independent evaluation of the Department of Health and Human Services’s Head Start program, which is one of the federal government’s primary interventions to provide preschool and child care to economically disadvantaged children. In 2012, a long-anticipated, Congressionally-mandated national evaluation found that by third grade children who attend Head Start were no better off than their peers who did not enroll in the program by third grade. Specifically, the report found:
In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.
Over the past decade, there have been limited efforts to study or reform the Head Start program to improve its value for the economically disadvantaged children and parents that it serves. The Obama administration wisely attempted to reform Head Start by expanding the minimum number of hours that providers must offer to more closely match the traditional public school year; however, this reform was unpopular with Head Start providers and ultimately withdrawn during the Trump administration. (My 2019 analysis found that the per-child cost of Head Start would be enough to pay for full-time child care for children in 37 states at the time, while Head Start centers were only required to provide 448 hours of care per year.) A 2020 GAO review found that Head Start centers were not regularly testing their water for lead, even though lead was found present at 10 percent of the 26 percent of Head Start centers that did test for lead. This alarming finding raises concerns about the quality of the drinking water at the 43 percent of centers that “had not tested” and 31 percent that “did not know if they had tested,” according to GAO. As of 2023, GAO’s four recommendations to ensure safe drinking water remain open. Another GAO review of Head Start identified significant fraud and improper payments risks. Requiring IES to conduct or commission an independent evaluation of the nation’s largest federal preschool program could yield meaningful insights to improve the program’s value for disadvantaged children and their parents, as well as other early childhood education programs.
Beyond researching and evaluating Head Start, IES should conduct surveys of parents, preschools, and child care providers to better understand the availability, costs, and nature of current preschool and child care programs. As Rachel M. Cohen wrote in Vox this week, there are many reports of a “child care crisis” in the United States, but limited data to identify potential public changes that may need to be made. IES could help improve transparency. For example, IES should survey parents about costs, hours of care provided by program type, and satisfaction with program quality. IES should also survey preschool and child care providers about potential challenges they face to provide affordable care. Trusted statistical information about American preschool and child care programs could provide useful insight for policymakers to reform federal and state programs to provide high-quality and affordable options.
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In closing, thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback as the Committee considers the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act. For decades, Congress has authorized and funded R&D activities aimed to improve American students’ achievement, expand equal opportunity, and promote national competitiveness. But current federally education R&D programs have had an unclear and limited ROI. Reforming these programs to increase their impact will help the nation address our current educational challenges.
Head of Policy