Imagining IES's future

Unless something unexpected happens during the Senate confirmation process, John Easton, who was just nominated by the White House, should be taking over as Director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in a matter of weeks.

He follows Russ Whitehurst, who as founding director created a respected social-science agency that pushed forward rigorous research, emphasizing randomized control trials (RCTs). In reality, IES has supported a wide range of research approaches, but the focus on RCTs is a defining characteristic of Whitehurst's legacy.

Easton represents a very different research tradition, which has caused much tooth-gnashing over whether his appointment represents a retreat from rigor. It is too early, of course, to tell where Easton will actually lead IES, but here are some milestones to watch for.

Assuming he is swiftly and uneventfully confirmed, it's important to pay close attention to Easton's introductory speech at the IES Research Conference scheduled for the first week of June. He will no doubt seize that opportunity to lay out his vision for the agency.

But we already have a pretty good roadmap. In February 2009, Easton and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research--which he has led since 2002, obviously getting well acquainted with Arne Duncan during that time--issued a report entitled A New Model for the Role of Research in Supporting Urban School Reform. It spells out Easton's approach to education research, at least as developed and implemented in the Windy City.

The report contains several elements worth noting. First, the Consortium's work is almost entirely based on longitudinal data, which represents a different research approach than RCTs. IES is now charged with spending over $250 million to help states develop longitudinal data systems, which hold great promise but also face immense challenges. Easton's deep working knowledge of these types of systems and their potential to spur reform is a major asset in charting the IES research agenda, too. We can expect longitudinal analysis to occupy a larger place in IES's portfolio moving forward.

Another defining characteristic of Easton's experience is the deep relationship among the CCSR, Arne Duncan, and other major players in Chicago education. One tenet of CCSR was "no surprises" when reports were released. Indeed, the Chicago school district is represented on CCSR advisory boards and weighs in on the choice of research topics as well as the development of findings and reports.

The law that created IES establishes its independence and Whitehurst fought many battles to keep the process of writing, reviewing, and releasing IES reports free from the influence of political and policy types in the department and White House. This independence is central to the status and credibility of IES. While many of the CCSR's reports were critical of the Chicago schools and Easton did maintain the integrity of the Consortium, one important thing to watch is the degree to which Easton will succeed in protecting the independence of IES.

Another key indicator will be Easton's choice of leadership at the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE). Who he taps to head that Center when the term of the current commissioner ends in the fall will signal where RCTs will fit in the future of IES.

Another, perhaps subtler, marker is also embedded in that choice, because the NCEE Commissioner supervises the Regional Education Labs (RELs). The Labs have a long, often misunderstood, and sometimes misdirected history, and their scope of work, especially in relation to the development and dissemination of knowledge, changes from administration to administration. Under their current contracts, the RELs have been instructed to conduct RCTs and much of their autonomy and regional responsiveness has been curtailed. That has led some lab staff and constituents to complain that their ability to address the needs of state and local education agencies has been weakened that they have been forced to sacrifice relevance on the altar of rigor.

The CCSR offers an alternate model for the RELs. It emphasizes research that is easily interpretable by the Chicago education and policy communities since, as noted above, its research agenda is developed in conjunction with them. In short, the Chicago model maximizes the impact and utility of research by involving practitioners and policymakers in the process and rooting research in the local policy/political milieu. The REL contracts will be re-competed in about a year. The role RCTs will play (if any) in the next round of REL contracts will be telling, as will the degree to which REL decisions are centrally controlled.

Also, watch the R&D centers. The IES currently funds 13 of them, mostly housed in universities. Like the RELs, they must balance the creation of knowledge with its dissemination. In the past, there was a clear emphasis on producing academic knowledge; getting results into forms that practitioners could use was not always a priority. Easton's background suggests that there may be changes here. Will he establish processes that align the work of the R&D centers with that of the RELs and build a coordinated system whereby research-based tools and resources get to practitioners in usable forms? Stay tuned.

A final signal to monitor will be the call for research applications (RFAs) that are issued by the National Center for Education Research (NCER). The topics chosen for research competitions, the structure of the goals in the research, and who sits on review panels will all affect how the IES shapes education research. It will likely take about a year for any changes on that front to become evident.

The June speech will like lay out Easton's vision--but the actions noted above will be among the milestones marking his progress in achieving it.

Mark Schneider is Vice President at the American Institutes for Research. He is also a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. From 2005-2008, he served as the Commissioner of Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.

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April 22, 2009