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Education Research Gets Results | Commentary

By David J. Chard Whether using a scalpel or machete, Congress makes funding decisions every year that impact programs and people. Budget constraints, which shift each year, have a huge impact on what gets funded and at what level. The past several years have been tough ones as the economy has sputtered along at a slower than hoped for pace. The result has been to short-change the very programs that policymakers rely on to make good policy decisions. Case in point: education research.  

For decades, policymakers wore blindfolds while playing pin the tail on the donkey with the federal investment in education. Little was done to track whether the programs being funded were netting the academic and other outcomes legislators were banking on. That changed in 2002 when Congress authorized the creation of the non-partisan Institute of Education Sciences, to provide rigorous and relevant evidence to ground education practice and policy. During the last decade, the blindfolds have come off and better decisions are being made.  

It’s why I am troubled by the level of cuts IES has endured in recent years and the long term impact on research, including the lag in getting new data into the field. Those who stand to lose the most are our kids. Just as law enforcement now relies on DNA to help solve crimes, the adults in the system — from teachers to parents — must use every tool at their disposal to inform, inspire and guide what happens every day in classrooms across America.  

Recently, the House and Senate appropriations committees considered the budget for education. With $3 billion fewer dollars to spend than last year, the Senate received a slightly higher allocation and recommended a funding level for IES about $150 million higher than the House — but still below what was requested by the Administration. The proposed cuts are in addition to more than $300 million that has already been trimmed from IES since 2009. Once the House and Senate bills are reconciled, education programs may again be cut from last fiscal year’s budget. When America is needing to compete in a global, knowledge-based economy, that’s unthinkable.  

Bottom line: These reductions are resulting in less research. Last year, the National Center for Special Education Research did not fund a single new research project. Cuts to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which provide the critical longitudinal view of the effectiveness of our education system, eliminated the administration of the 4th and 8th grade NAEP tests for civics, history and geography in 2013. And the National Center for Education Research has not been able to support all of the proposals that met its rigorous standards for review over the past couple of years.  

At a time of frustration with U.S. education policy and the pace of academic progress, and in light of huge investments being made in education by other countries, we should be looking to enhance investments in programs that, while not high profile, are critical to actually solving problems and driving policy. While we have access to data today that we didn’t 10 years ago, the field is still relatively new. So too are the instruments being used to measure academic and other progress. More research is needed, not less.  

Gutting the very programs that policy makers rely on to make good policy decisions in order to fit an arbitrary budget number is short-sighted. The only way to make smarter, better and more targeted investments in educational programs that directly benefit students is to understand more fully what works, what doesn’t, and how we can scale initiatives that are having the greatest positive impact.  

Congress made a commitment earlier this century to use data to inform and inspire federal policy making and, in turn, provide educators with the tools they require to support our students. Let’s hold them to it.  

Dr. David J. Chard is dean of the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and chairman of the National Board of Education Sciences.  

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