Congress has a chance to get education research right

In Washington, polarization has become the norm. That now extends to federal education policy, once a sleepy backwater of genial bipartisanship. Yet, even as education policy is increasingly divided along party lines, education research is one place where both left and right can agree on what’s needed. Given that state of affairs, it’s striking that Congress is having so much trouble enacting the nation’s key education research bill — which is nearly a decade past due for reauthorization. In December, the Senate passed the Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA), but the legislation has stalled in the House (though the House passed a nearly identical bill the year before).

{mosads}After all, even principled conservatives skeptical of federal involvement in education can see a role for Washington when it comes to research, and one that is entirely consistent with the genius of American government. Market theory recognizes that markets tend to under-produce public goods like national defense and roads. Basic research is similar: It requires enormous time and expense, it offers uncertain payoffs, and the outcomes are easily put to work by competitors. As a result, such research tends to be under-provided by the private sector.

There is a pressing need for rigorous, unbiased and nonpartisan education research. Crucial questions include: What are the best ways to help children understand the elements of reading, internalize key concepts in algebra, or master world languages? Are there times of day when students learn best, or learn certain kinds of things best? What can we discover about the brains of autistic children that can help their teachers and parents? States, districts and schools don’t have the resources or infrastructure to support and promote rigorous inquiry into these questions, even if they were inclined to steer money out of classrooms and into research.

As passed by the Senate, SETRA takes important steps to streamline Washington’s research bureaucracy and make research more relevant to educators. It should help to combat goofy, agenda-driven education research by prioritizing research into practical challenges. It improves accountability and protects the taxpayers’ investment by requiring regular evaluations of research and education programs. It maintains the autonomy of the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Assessment Governing Board and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as the Nation’s Report Card), to shield those entities from political influence and bias. It empowers states and school districts to implement evidence-based programs by replacing Washington’s old, bureaucratic definition of an “evidence-based” strategy with one that maintains scientific rigor while boosting flexibility for state and local officials.

So, why is SETRA stuck? The stumbling block in the House has been the entirely legitimate concerns that parents and activists have raised about student privacy. While some research enthusiasts pooh-pooh or mock such fears as overblown, parents are wholly justified in worrying about such things in an era when millions of confidential personal records can get stolen from federal databases, Fortune 500 companies are dramatically hacked with worrisome frequency, and technology and social media firms are vacuuming up every personal detail they can.

Parental concerns about data collection and federal overreach are doubly understandable after so many parents were given the back of the hand by advocates in response to questions about the Common Core, the new Common Core tests and other Obama-era education reforms. Safeguards and limits are entirely appropriate and sorely needed.

The thing is, the Senate’s SETRA legislation includes significant, meaningful provisions designed to protect data and privacy. It requires researchers seeking access to student data to describe how the data is relevant to their study and detail “how the data will be protected from misuse or privacy violations.” It makes clear that the National Center for Education Statistics can deny access to data if there are concerns about the research design or the potential misuse of data. The law clarifies the existing prohibition against using SETRA funds to establish a national database of individually identifiable information. It prohibits funds from being used to tell states or school districts what to do when it comes to curricula or testing.

Privacy protections and safeguards against federal overreach are necessary and appropriate. And additional measures are certainly worth full consideration. But Congress should take care that these crucial fights do not ultimately stymie useful research. SETRA makes a good-faith effort to get the balance right while updating, streamlining and improving a law that’s long past its expiration date. Amidst all the big, intractable issues Congress is grappling with, this is one that should be possible to get right.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include “When Research Matters.”

Tags Institute of Education Sciences National Assessment of Educational Progress Research

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