Contrary to Chester E. (Checker) Finn, Jr.’s assessment, the National Academies report The Future of Education Research at IES, which I coedited as chair of the authoring committee, is a landmark publication.
Finn is a venerated leader in education research. Indeed, he was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and led the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), the predecessor to today’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), when I received my first federal grant in 1985. His long experience makes his opinions worthy of attention. In this case, however, his comments are off base in three ways.
First, Checker sidesteps the main thrust of the report, which prioritizes equity both in the research to be conducted and in the allocation of research dollars by IES, and calls for grounding research in the needs of communities, educators, and learners. The report asserts that inequality has always been the central problem of U.S. education and documents how the pandemic has put educational inequality into sharp relief and made it even worse. Moreover, far from “researchers washing each other’s hands,” the report calls for revitalizing IES-funded research by more effectively connecting research with its roots in policy and practice. Until now, IES has supported a structure of project types that assumes that research ideas progress from exploration, to intervention development, to testing interventions at an increasing scale. In practice, however, that progression rarely occurs.
Today, we have good evidence that research is more likely to be used when the questions pursued are ones that matter to those who make decisions in schools, classrooms, and other education settings. Moreover, even though IES has long recognized that “what works” in education is too narrow a question, when what matters is “what works for whom and under what circumstances,” the current structure of projects brings in considerations of heterogeneity at the end instead of where they are needed at the outset. Questions of local adaptation and heterogeneity need to be addressed at the beginning so that they can be built into the design of interventions rather than as an afterthought.
Yet another innovation of the report is to call for projects on knowledge mobilization, which would synthesize bodies of evidence in key areas, describe how evidence is used, and test specific strategies for improving the use of evidence in policy and practice. All this adds up to a more robust education science that maintains the rigor that is the hallmark of IES while increasing the use of research in the real world.
Second, Checker misreads the report in his concern that key topics are not mentioned. The report makes clear that subjects such as early-childhood education, private schools, homeschooling, adult education, and so on are already possible in the IES funding structure. The report is all about these topics—specifically, how to study them in a way that yields more useful evidence. In addition to explaining why a small number of topics need greater attention at the present moment, the report recommends a process, built to engage with the needs of policymakers, practitioners, and the public, for regularly reexamining the research topics for which funds are available.
Third, Checker is mistaken in terming a few recommendations for new research topics misguided. Let’s take each of his callouts in turn.
- The report recommends broadening the focus on student outcomes in two ways: first by encouraging research on student outcomes other than test scores, and second by allowing outcomes at other levels, such as the system or context level, as the primary outcome of research. This is important because at present many topics, while technically possible to pursue, are rarely addressed in funded research because their immediate impact is on key levers of student outcomes rather than on achievement directly—even though they undoubtedly matter a lot for student success. The report uses the example of teacher education to make this case.
- Supporting research on civil-rights policy and practice within IES could hardly be more urgent. How can school discipline be made more fair? How can students with disabilities be served justly? What programs are needed to better serve dual-language learners with disabilities? What responses should schools provide to the educational and personal trauma inflicted by the pandemic? What legal avenues are available to break the link between segregation and poverty in school compositions, and what would be the impact of such policies? These are among the most pressing questions of our time, and they fit squarely within IES’s legislative mandate to “ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education.”
- The report recommends several areas of investigation in which qualitative research would complement the causal studies for which IES is especially known. Indeed, IES already supports substantial qualitative research in its “development” project type. Despite the value of qualitative research, IES has not contributed to methodological developments in that approach. In response, the report calls for a new methods competition and review panel to pursue qualitative and mixed-method approaches in education research. Why should IES not do as much to elevate the rigor of qualitative research in education as it has already done for quantitative research? Past investments in quantitative-methods development have been transformative, and the committee envisions the same for qualitative research methods.
- At present, almost no data are available on the racial, ethnic, gender, disability status, and institutional background of applicants, grantees, and trainees, and what is known hints at substantial disparities. Like other scientific funding agencies, IES should be more transparent about its funding patterns so that targeted strategies to improve equity can be designed. In the meantime, the report recommends specific strategies to increase diversity and inclusion in who receives IES funding and training opportunities. Moreover, advancing equity is not just about who applies and is funded but also who serves on IES review panels. The report reviews research showing that greater diversity on review panels results in more inclusive funding decisions, a valued outcome in its own right.
The recommendations of this report, if adopted, will allow IES to maintain its position as the premier federal funder of education research. They will allow IES to continue its tradition of elevating the quality of research in education, and at the same time they will strengthen the contribution of education research to policy and practice by generating research that is useful and gets used.