ESRA mischief

If, like most Americans, you haven't the faintest idea what ESRA is, don't feel bad. The Education Sciences Reform Act is a classic inside-the-beltway statute best known by the smallish number of people and institutions directly affected by it.

But it's also home to the Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) so it's not unimportant to American education.

On May 22, I wrote a few paragraphs on ESRA's reauthorization status and said then that the country might benefit if this process took a goodly while and included plenty of participants.

Now I'm sure of it.

For since that writing, the IES policy board (National Board for Education Sciences, or NBES) met again and "marked up" ESRA into the form that it (and, one must assume, IES director Russ Whitehurst) would like to see embraced by Congress during the reauthorization cycle.

Unfortunately, they made a hash of it.

This is a pity, not just because some of my favorite people are members of NBES but also because the changes they want made pose a threat to the future integrity of U.S. education data and to NAEP.

No, that wasn't the goal. Everyone pledges allegiance to integrity. But as with the checks and balances built into the U.S. Constitution, sometimes the machinery of government must be carefully calibrated so that nobody has too much power, too much opportunity to mess things up, or excessive risk that (especially if the wrong people end up in key roles) things will go badly awry.

ESRA today embodies a carefully delineated division of responsibility, authority, and independence among the IES director, the NBES, the Commissioner of Education Statistics, and the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees NAEP. It's a tad clumsy, yes, but as with the Constitution it sacrifices a bit of tidiness and efficiency in the name of long-term integrity, stability, and balance.

In subtle but important ways, the Whitehurst/NBES amendments would mess this up. Here are some important examples:

  • While giving itself more power (to hire its own staff, for example; raise private funds; bar non-board members from its subcommittees), the NBES would reduce NAGB's authority in key ways, particularly when it comes to reporting NAEP results, putting the IES director squarely in command of this and erasing some exemptions that Congress intentionally conferred on NAEP and NAGB in order to maintain their independence.
  • By converting the NCES commissioner from a Presidential appointee with a term of his/her own and subject to Senate confirmation, and placing this position directly under Whitehurst and his successors, the amendments would erase a crucial source of integrity and authority from the federal statistics operation. (The day that a certain Stanford professor who advises Senator Obama on education policy becomes IES director, she could begin cooking the ed-stats books in ways that benefit the administration or advance her own eccentric notions.)
  • The amendments would also subordinate NCES's peer review processes to Whitehurst (and the NBES), which means that the reports of a statistics agency would be controlled by a researcher who is known not to have much interest in statistics per se-even though just about everyone else in the country lives by those statistics. This is like subjecting beef cookbooks to review (and potential revision or veto) by a vegetarian.
  • The new language actually alters the mission of IES in a way that diminishes its role in generating knowledge about education and instead accents its role in encouraging the "use" of "evidence." It also reworks the statutory language about "scientifically based research" and codifies Whitehurst's adoration of "random assignment experiments."

There's more, too much more. This statute runs to 68 pages and proposed amendments appear on at least one third of these. I believe the NBES and Whitehurst were acting in good faith, or at least in time-honored Washington fashion, tidying up chains of command to put themselves more clearly in charge, demurking some intentionally messy or ambiguous features of the law, and adding to their own turf. That may not be reprehensible but in this case it's surely regrettable. In the event, it underscores my earlier point: the ESRA reauthorization process needs plenty of sunlight and transparency and lots of viewpoints expressed. It would be a catastrophe for it to be worked out by small groups in obscure meeting rooms.

And it should take plenty of time. Time, even, for the current board and director and, perchance, their successors, to consider another ESRA mark-up.

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