Federal Education Research and Development: A Brief, Opinionated History

Half a century has passed since I first fell through the looking glass into the peculiar world of federal education research and development. As an extremely junior domestic-policy aide in the Nixon White House, I helped Pat Moynihan, Jim Allen, George Shultz, and others craft what, in March 1970, became a presidential message to Congress proposing creation of a “National Institute of Education” (NIE). Two years later, it came into existence and it’s been reinvented and reconstructed twice since then—plus innumerable fine-tunings—into what is now the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences (IES). I had the honor to preside for three years—while working with education secretary Bill Bennett—over one of those interim iterations, the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI).

Behind both the first launch and the later rebootings was widespread frustration that, unlike so many other key realms of our national life—health care with NIH, basic science with NSF, the Agricultural Research Service, the Energy Department’s national labs, the Pentagon’s DARPA, and much more—education had no organized, purposeful, and coherent home for basic and applied research. Yet education, even back then, more than a decade before A Nation at Risk, was understood to be in trouble; it simply wasn’t working very well, its outcomes were both weak and uneven, its gaps were wide, and its return on investment was inadequate. The ambitious intervention programs of the Great Society—Title I, HeadStart, Upward Bound, more—weren’t yielding the hoped-for results. Yet there was no clarity of a scientific sort as to what might cause this fundamentally important national enterprise to work better.

Simply throwing more resources at the problem wasn’t likely to do the trick. By 1970, we already had James Coleman’s penetrating (and disillusioning) big study, as well as discouraging early evaluations of the big war-on-poverty education initiatives. Though Nixon was accused of proposing research instead of budgeting more money for such programs, Moynihan and others—including Congressman John Brademas (D-IN)—recognized that more needed to be understood about the mechanisms of teaching and learning and the sorts of interventions (if any) that might yield better outcomes. And to get that work done, the education-research train needed an engine and conductor.

All these decades later, that’s still the goal. IES’s mission today is “to provide scientific evidence on which to ground education practice and policy and to share this information in formats that are useful and accessible to educators, parents, policymakers, researchers, and the public.”

In pursuit of that ambitious mandate, IES has become far more adept, sophisticated and determined to conduct education research in ways that yield trustworthy—and, with luck, actionable—results, at least when the results of a study show that something actually made a difference! Beginning in 2002, the first IES director, Grover J. (“Russ”) Whitehurst, insisted on scientific rigor, preferably via research studies that, like serious appraisals of the efficacy of medical procedures, medications and devices, follow proper experimental procedures, commonly known as “randomized controlled trials.” His successors, for the most part, have continued that emphasis, despite much squawking from the education-research “community,” and mindful that some important issues, such as strengthening school governance and leadership, don’t lend themselves to that form of investigation. Other potentially valuable randomized controlled trials turn out to be politically or morally difficult to mount, particularly when they entail denying the “control” kids an appealing form of help, intervention, or innovation that the “treatment” youngsters are receiving.

Despite notable progress on the research side, however, IES today remains a stunted little tree among the tall timber of federal research agencies. Despite hundreds of informative studies and vast troves of essential data (for it also contains the National Center on Education Statistics and the National Assessment of Educational Progress), it has very little money and enjoys neither the visibility nor the stature among education practitioners and policymakers that, for example, NIH has among doctors.

Nor has IES come close to triumphing over the predilections and practices of the thousands of ed-school professors, think-tank denizens, and Beltway bandits who flock to the annual meetings of the American Education Research Association and its many affiliates. Many of those folks engage in much simpler (and sometimes less costly) modes of research, such as before-and-after comparisons and classroom observations. Much of what they do is subjective and impressionistic. (The polite term is “qualitative.”) A couple of private foundations share the IES commitment to rigorous research designs, but by no means has that approach conquered the field. And when funds are as scarce as they are—IES is funded by Congress in a miserly fashion—there’s much frantic jockeying for the available dollars and plenty of efforts to use lobbyists and friends on Capitol Hill (as well as friends deep in the “peer review” process for reviewing grants) to get scarce funds directed toward oneself or one’s institution.

IES also suffers from too many masters with widely differing priorities—and a dearth of strong political backing to help withstand stakeholder pressures. As education historian Ellen Condliffe Lagemann wrote in Educational Researcher back in 1997—and no less true today—“Members of arts and sciences and humanities faculties still tended to be dismissive of educationists, some of whom retaliated…by urging more professionalization….Still arrogant toward practitioners, many educationists continued purposefully to distance themselves from the diurnal problems of teachers and other school personnel, while large number of practitioners were still prone to dismiss education research as mere theory that had little chance of bringing new insight to their work.”

Given those profound constraints, it’s been difficult for IES to mount the kinds of large-scale, long-term research that might yield major breakthroughs. One can fairly blame infighting and irresolution within the “field” for this unhappy state of affairs, but at least as important are the agency’s skimpy appropriations and the fact that a huge fraction of its limited moneys routinely get gobbled up by a handful of not-very-useful feeders at this trough that have managed to retain friends in the appropriations process even though their contributions to education research have been paltry.

The total IES budget—about $600 million in Fiscal 2018, alongside $7.8 billion for NSF and close to $40 billion for NIH—is predictably complicated, as this agency has multiple units and obligations. Suffice to say, the amount available for general research in education that year (not including special ed, for example) was about $186 million, a sum that had barely changed over at least half a decade. And after all its continuing commitments to sundry projects and dependent organizations were met, that left barely $55 million to support “new research awards and enhance dissemination activities.”

Considering that American education—just the K-12 part—is a $650 billion enterprise, it’s simply laughable that the most explicit federal investment in finding new ways to make it work better is a sum that forces you to get to five decimal places on your calculator before you can even detect its portion of the total.

To be sure, Uncle Sam also puts some money into education research through other agencies, especially the National Science Foundation; other parts of the Department of Education support studies and innovations related to their own missions; and a dozen private foundations view education research as an important component—in a few cases the lead item—in their own spending. IES is not the only game in town. And when we look beyond the “R” portion of “R & D” to the “D” part as well, we find many additional sources in agencies scattered about Washington, including some tucked away elsewhere in the Education Department itself.

“Development” in the education sphere can mean many different things, from creating new products, materials, and techniques that never existed before—innovating or piloting, one might say—to the replication, application, and implementation of proven practices. Although the Education Department is barred by law from direct involvement with curriculum, one of history’s best-known examples of education “D” was paid for by the National Science Foundation through an organization that’s still known as the Education Development Corporation: the celebrated “PSSC Physics” curriculum, spearheaded by MIT scientist Jerrold Zacharias in the 1950’s as part of America’s response to Sputnik. A more recent example is the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts, the development of which was financed by private foundations but the deployment of which by states was “incentivized” with federal dollars (thereby giving rise to great controversy and political maneuvering).

It’s easy for federal development dollars to go for naught, particularly when consumed by organizations with expert lobbyists of their own. The premier example of this in the education space are the Regional Education Laboratories, a collection of (currently) ten entities scattered about the land—each nominally responsible for a “region”—and charged with “putting [education] research into action” in the schools in its area.

Though some members have changed over the years, the “labs” as they’re known have been around since 1966—truly remarkable longevity—and have been funded, year after year, by their friends in the Congressional appropriations process despite repeated efforts by administration after administration to rid the IES budget of this burden—$54 million in 2018, which may be thought a “rounding error” in the vast federal budget, but which actually comprises a sizable portion of total IES funding.

It probably made sense in the sixties, long before websites, the internet, a thousand video sources, webcasting, webinars, and all many of social media, to employ a geographically-based strategy for disseminating and applying the fruits of research to America’s sprawling K–12 system. But it makes scant sense today. And as the Education Department’s Fiscal 2019 budget request politely stated—understated, in my view— “Past surveys and evaluations suggest that the technical assistance currently provided through the RELs may be underutilized or not relevant to State and district needs.”

As the regional labs cling to their line item in the appropriations process, decade after decade, some federal “development” efforts have been far more productive. Most notable is the Education Department’s “Investing in Innovation” (i3) fund, which operated from 2010 through 2016, and continues today as the “Education Innovation and Research Fund,” which received an appropriation of $130 million in Fiscal 2019—and for which the Trump Administration requested $300 million for 2020. Those dollars have gone to create, develop, or expand (“scale up”) a wide array of education improvement projects, including such well-known ventures as the National Math and Science Initiative and the National Writing Project. More than 150 grants were made by 2016, totaling some $1.3 billion in federal dollars and matched—this was a requirement—by hundreds of millions in private philanthropy.

“Development” spending also continues in Washington under other headings, from magnet and charter schools to school safety to the “Teacher and School Leader Incentive Grants” program, funded at $200 million in recent years, which “makes competitive awards to help develop, implement, improve, or expand human capital management systems or performance-based compensation systems.”

A solid—but sadly bobtailed example—of development money doing good when properly deployed was President George W. Bush’s “Reading First” initiative, which directed sizable funds to advance the use of “scientifically based” reading instruction in schools serving poor kids. That venture came to an unhappy end because of an Inspector General finding that some of the Department’s “trainers” had helped create some of the programs they were promoting. Along the way, however, it boosted reading scores in many places—and validated the importance of basing education interventions on strong evidence of their efficacy, which itself helped give rise to the “What Works Clearinghouse,” a federally funded venture to vet such interventions to determine whether, in fact, they can muster convincing proof of their efficacy.

The “Reading First” saga also illustrates one of the hazards of a government that now spends as much time investigating itself and seeking out conflicts of interest as in making things work better: There are only so many experts in the land who are deeply versed in the science of reading—it’s not even taught in many colleges of education—and it’s to be expected that the best of them will also have participated in the creation of effective programs. To bar them from helping schools implement those programs resembles my grandmother’s old saying about “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” That, however, was the lamentable fate of this once-promising venture.

Far beyond the Beltway, and for the most part with little reference to taxpayer dollars, at least in the short run, much development work continues across the sprawling “education industry.” Hundreds of millions of investor dollars are flooding into every sort of technological innovation with the potential to be used somehow, somewhere, in education from early children through postgraduate. All manner of “online” and “blended” learning programs are already on the market. Some 5,000 people from forty-five countries reportedly took part in a big “education and workforce innovation summit” in April 2019 that was sponsored by Arizona State University and an “early stage venture fund.” There’s also much activity and investment in development by traditional curriculum firms, textbook publishers, and big non-profit funders such as the Emerson Collective and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The field, one might well conclude, is bubbling as well as sprawling. Yet the governmental part lacks scale, and the endeavor as a whole lacks coherence. The prohibition against curriculum puts a major crimp in what the Department of Education can do by way of development in what is arguably still the most important education “technology” of all. And nowhere in the Washington world of education is there anything akin to NIH in magnitude and direction, nor anything like the National Science Foundation (with its quasi-independent governing board) to determine priorities, scan the horizon, and visualize different futures.

IES is the closest thing we have to a focal point for research and development in education in twenty-first-century America. Because its budget is de minimis, however, while its clients are numerous and its political support precarious, it cannot come anywhere close to addressing the ignorance gaps in this key realm of our national life or to developing the education equivalent of “moon shots,” “new weapon systems,” “agricultural revolutions,” or “breakthrough cures.” Today it lacks the capacity, the clout, and the vision.

Can this be changed? Or does education R & D in America need to be reinvented yet again?

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This essay is part of the The Moonshot for Kids project, a joint initiative of the Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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