ESSA could fund crucial shift in education research

ESSA could fund crucial shift in education research
Small-scale studies are the only path to sustained improvement, says expert

Thursday, February 9, 2017—From pharmaceuticals to retail sales, innovators test their ideas before scaling them up. In a new article for Education Next, Thomas Kane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education argues that, similarly, education research must make a fundamental shift toward small-scale, district-level intervention studies in order to support sustained improvement in student achievement. To make that shift, Kane envisions creating a system of efficacy networks: groups of local agencies working together to test solutions to shared problems—such as chronic absenteeism and elementary literacy. The networks would be hosted by universities (or contract research firms), and funded by states’ administrative allowances under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Although the United States spends $620 billion on education annually, it invests less than one percent of that in the research needed to improve how teachers teach and students learn: Across the economy, industries spend 2.8 percent of gross domestic product on research and development. If government invested a similar percentage of public K-12 education spending, it would be spending $17 billion per year on education research and development, rather than the $770 million the federal government now spends (see figure).

At the same time, existing research is under-utilized. In a 2016 survey on research use by state and district decision-makers, only 1 to 4 percent reported that they use federally-funded research sources “all the time.” Kane argues that a key reason is that the current federally-funded, centralized system for efficacy studies is ill-suited to K-12 education, where district and school leaders make the key decisions. Kane says, “There is no federal FDA for education and there never will be.”

Kane argues that a system of efficacy networks, making it easier for district leaders to pilot and evaluate initiatives with their own data, would be better integrated with the way local leaders make decisions. To lower costs, the efficacy networks would pool districts’ data, standardize reports, and evaluate interventions on a continuing basis. Each network would be supported by an analytic partner, such as a university or contract research firm, which would convene the network and provide the analytic infrastructure.

Eighty percent of pharmaceuticals fail Phase II efficacy trials. The same is likely true in education. Given the complexity of learning and teaching, it’s impossible to anticipate every obstacle and side effect. Rather than bet their legacy on a single idea such as universal pre-school or school choice, Kane argues that state policymakers should use the ESSA evidence requirements to create the infrastructure for piloting and testing interventions. “In the long run, a system for testing innovative ideas will be more impactful than any single initiative a political leader or philanthropist might champion,” he says.

To receive an embargoed copy of “Making Evidence Locally: Rethinking education research under the Every Student Succeeds Act” or to speak with the author, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, February 14 on and will appear in the Spring 2017 issue of Education Next, available in print on February 28, 2017.

About the Author: Thomas J. Kane is Walter H. Gale Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research. Between 2008 and 2012, he was deputy director for K-12 research at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit


Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College