Time to Reimagine Educational Research in America

Time to Reimagine Educational Research in America
AP Photo/The Evansville Courier & Press, Molly Bartels
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In just a few weeks it will be three or more years since the research and data agencies in the U.S. Department of Education have had permanent leaders. Neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration has lifted a finger to make those nominations and appointments. The director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) departed on August 29, 2014. The commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) departed on December 31, 2013.

This time period also means that the blame falls on Arne Duncan, John King and Betsy DeVos, leaders who have neither recognized nor acted to shore up the parts of the education department that are almost universally recognized as being fundamental to any federal role. In fact, the data aspect goes back to just after the Civil War when a much slimmer department of education was created, albeit one with three employees just to report on the condition of education in the land.

Why have the vacancies persisted? One can only speculate, but the fact is that both agencies released data and research that was contrary to the political positions taken in the Obama years by Arne Duncan and the White House. John King, Duncan’s successor, either did not care or simply felt that taking action was not worth the effort, even though both positions are for designated periods that are intentionally designed to transcend presidential terms. Betsy DeVos has but a fraction of her team in place and there is no sign that these positions are priorities.

Research is a function that would be inefficiently done by states. Questions about teaching and learning have no state boundaries and there has been agreement for over 60 years that this is something that the federal government is best positioned to carry out, just as is the case in health, agriculture and science. Unfortunately, with a budget of less than $220 million dollars, far less than a fraction of one percent of its total education expenditures, America spends far less on education than on health, nutrition, agriculture and science. Yet, education is key to a functioning society.

Good and accurate data is vital. No state can make sound decisions without good data and every state wants to know how they stack up against their neighbors. States also need data on birth rates, population growth or decline and information about education costs and expenses.

The experiences of the last several years raise the question of whether the research and data function of the U.S. Department of Education can any longer prosper in the same agency that we now see serves an overtly partisan political purpose. Is it time to consider taking the entire Institute of Education Science and making it a separate agency?

While there is no real model for this in the United States, other nations have models that are worth exploring. Australia created ACER, the Australian Council for Educational Research, a nonprofit that is governed by a board representing a wide cross-section of interests in that nation.

Interestingly, ACER was created in 1930 with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Perhaps it is time for Carnegie to make a similar investment in America. Clearly, a bold move is necessary to move us past the neglect that exists here.

Christopher Cross is a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education for educational research and improvement, former president of the Maryland State Board of Education and chair of Cross & Joftus, an education consulting company.

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