It’s been more than two decades since Congress passed and President Bush (43) signed the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA), giving birth to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) as we know it. This happened just months after Congress passed NCLB but, as everyone knows, NCLB got overhauled in 2015 (ESSA). ESRA should have been reauthorized in 2008—its original authority had a six-year timeline—but despite multiple efforts over the years, including separate bills passed by House and Senate in 2014 and 2015, twenty-one and a half years have now gone by with no actual renewal or revision of this important law.
Two weeks before Christmas, the Senate HELP Committee tried again, mustering a near-unanimous (20-1), bipartisan vote to send to the floor S. 3392, the “Advancing Research in Education Act” (AREA). (Senator Rand Paul, who skipped the key mark-up session, voted no by proxy. All others—from Chairman Bernie Sanders through conservative Republicans like Markwayne Mullin and Ted Budd voted aye.)
Whether it goes farther in the present Congress, especially in this fraught election year, naturally hinges on myriad factors, so it would be wrong to overstate its prospects. But just getting it out of committee with broad-based support is noteworthy.
ESRA itself was a considerable accomplishment, a notable improvement over the previous set-up. Perhaps its four most significant reforms are summarized in an excellent December 2023 paper from the Foundation for American Innovation:
- The creation of IES as the federal government’s independent education research arm. IES would be led by a president-appointed and Senate-confirmed director who would serve for six years. (There have been just three such directors to date: Russ Whitehurst, John Easton, and incumbent Mark Schneider, whose term ends a few weeks hence.)
- The establishment of the National Board of Education Sciences (NBES) to advise and oversee the activities of IES.
- The establishment of the National Center for Education Research, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance within IES. (Another center for special education research was later established within IES.)
- The establishment of “scientifically based research standards” including the application of “rigorous, systematic, and objective methodology to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs.”
As the years passed, however, ESRA has been getting long in the tooth. Technology, for example, has become a vastly bigger deal in education since 2002—virtual schooling, AI, phone-addicted kids, etc.—and there’s mounting interest in creating a more venturesome realm of basic and experimental education R & D along the lines of the Defense Department’s DARPA. Mike Petrilli has visualized a “Mars rover for schools.” Schneider has been doing his best to improvise along similar lines but, especially considering the predictable pushback from IES’s long-time constituencies, plus omnipresent budget constraints, it’s been a slog.
It’s disappointing that the HELP committee bill does not include explicit authority for the “education DARPA” (known to its advocates as ARPA-ED)—and I can’t account for the omission. Yet the bill would modernize IES in a number of important ways, both in its substantive mission and mandates and in several worthy structural and housekeeping reforms. It would, for example, “right-size” the National Board for Education Sciences, lengthen and stagger members’ terms, and cause them to be appointed by the Education Secretary rather than the White House—this move likely prompted by a fiasco at the end of the Trump administration.
Other key changes include making education research “more responsive to students and teachers” and producing “more actionable evidence.” At the mark-up session, Chairman Sanders declared that the bill will improve the tracking of student data from pre-K through college while also assigning the NCES commissioner the overdue job of modernizing how student poverty is gauged (now that so many schools give free meals to all their pupils).
Some thoughtful education groups have reservations about specific features of the Committee bill, and not just the omission of ARPA-ED.. Ulrich Boser’s “Learning Agency,” for example, finds the bill’s definition of “evidence-based” research too confining though it’s no secret that a lot of what passes for education research nowadays (outside of IES) is more anecdotal, impressionistic, and subjective than scientific.
Because elected officials also follow the headlines and the Senate is famous for non-germane amendments, a few committee members threw curve balls during the mark-up. For instance, Senator Marshall picked up on two hot issues du jour by convincing his colleagues to prohibit IES dollars from going to entities that “promote” anti-Semitism on their campuses or to entities that also receive funding from China, Russia, or Iran. Worthy impulses, both, in my view, but one can begin to picture the complexities of defining, monitoring and enforcing them.
On balance, though, this was a pretty good day’s work by the HELP committee and—reminiscent of Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray working together on ESSA—a welcome example of constructive bipartisan action while rebooting an important but weary part of the nation’s education infrastructure. Recall that Uncle Sam’s primordial assignment in this realm, dating back to Andrew Johnson’s presidency, is “collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several States and territories, and of diffusing such information respecting the organization and management of schools and school systems, and methods of teaching, as shall aid the people of the United States in the establishment and maintenance of efficient school systems, and otherwise promote the cause of education throughout the United States.”
IES is the primary outfit that does those things. It needs to be good at them. What will happen next to this bill, however, is utterly unknowable.
 The federal government’s education R & D, statistics, and assessment activities had been organized and reorganized multiple times between 1867 and passage of ESRA, including an incarnation called the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), which I had the honor of leading for several years in the late 1980’s. It’s worth noting, though, that a number of other agencies besides the U.S. Department of Education, including NSF and NIH, also engage in education-related R & D and still other agencies, such as the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, gather education-related data.