On Dec. 5, 2023, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee leadership released a draft of the Advancing Research in Education Act (AREA), a bipartisan bill set to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) for the first time since it was enacted over 20 years ago.
This is a significant move by the U.S. Senate, introducing long-anticipated updates to the government’s hub for education R&D, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Cosponsored by HELP Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ranking Member Bill Cassidy (R-LA), AREA is forward-thinking in many ways. But it also has major problems, notably not doing nearly enough to support education R&D.
On the positive side, the bill seeks to make IES more responsive to educator and community needs, in part by codifying the School Pulse panel and adding practitioner voices to the National Board for Education Sciences. In an exciting leap toward building the capacity of states as leaders in research and development, AREA would also authorize State Capacity R&D grants and modernize the Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) Grant program. These changes have long been sought after among education champions, and HELP leadership’s bipartisan efforts to produce such a bill should be celebrated.
But, the AREA discussion draft suffers from two significant shortcomings that demand attention. For one, the bill does not authorize the establishment of the National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE) – an informed-risk, high-reward R&D model with immense potential to seed and scale cutting-edge practices and tools to dramatically improve teaching and learning.
Also concerning, the bill’s language around evidence is shortsighted and restrictive, introducing a definition of “evidence-based” that could close the door to just the kind of responsive and actionable research the bill attempts to expand. Rather than working to “support practitioners to improve teaching and learning,” as promised, AREA could jeopardize the relevance, impact, and accessibility of research.
As the HELP Committee prepares to mark up AREA next week, the Senate should take action to better serve the needs of the American education system by fixing these pressing issues, which we dive into in more detail below.
AREA currently overlooks the “development” aspect of “research and development.”
AREA aims to advance the rigor of education research and evaluation but neglects the need for an infrastructure built to drive such work forward and effectively translate findings into scalable new tools and approaches. HELP leadership can fix this issue by authorizing NCADE: a moonshot R&D program for education that builds on the current pilot underway (in the form of the “Accelerate, Transform, and Scale” initiative) at the Institute for Education Sciences, established in the FY23 omnibus appropriations legislation.
Modeled on development efforts at other Federal agencies, NCADE would feature structures and flexibilities that enable it to operate outside of the IES’ standard processes. The value of such a flexible model is that it is uniquely structured to support informed-risk, high-reward projects with the potential to create transformative impact. This model embraces an iterative, multidisciplinary approach to R&D, paving the way for breakthroughs in teaching and learning.
This is important because learning loss from the pandemic is staggering, with recent NAEP scores showing the greatest decline in reading scores among 9-year-olds since 1990 and the first-ever drop in mathematics scores. Results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released today are similarly discouraging. They reveal an unprecedented decline of 13 points in average American math scores, which have never shifted more than five points between assessments. In parallel, the U.S. is beginning to lose its global innovation edge, and our education system is not effectively equipping students to compete with their international counterparts.
AREA’s current definition of “evidence-based” research is overly restrictive and counteracts the bill’s overarching goal of making education R&D more responsive.
As drafted, AREA’s definition of “evidence-based” research would restrict certain IES-funded educational activities to those deemed to have a “statistically significant effect on improving relevant outcomes,” preferencing research designs “capable of causal inference, particularly randomized-control trials.” Ultimately, such a narrow framing risks hindering innovation, increasing research expenses and time, and reducing the impact research can have on schools.
By focusing on high-cost designs like RCTs, AREA’s proposed approach threatens to inflate research expenses and drastically limit the IES’ ability to share potentially groundbreaking findings. This framing of evidence would also discourage implementation studies crucial for understanding what works in diverse educational settings and exacerbate the problem of disadvantaged students’ underrepresentation in studies.
While AREA aims to make IES research more actionable and responsive, its current language risks creating a high-friction environment that discourages rather than stimulates innovation. How can this be avoided? The Senate HELP Committee should instead reference the well-established definition of “evidence-based” in ESSA or the widely respected definition of “principles of scientifically valid research.”
Now is the time to urge the HELP committee to change AREA’s existing language and authorize an NCADE program.
Retaining the restrictive definition of “evidence-based research” would be doing a great disservice to education researchers and innovators, as well as the learning communities they are working to support. With AREA scheduled for mark-up on Dec. 12, now is the time for advocates to contact HELP Committee members (especially if you’re a constituent) and ask for innovation-focused improvements to the bill.
While AREA shows promise in its vision for making education R&D more actionable and responsive, it simply does not offer enough for today’s children. As it stands, the bill’s language raises red flags in its restrictive approach to framing evidence and misses a critical opportunity to bring to the education sector a proven model for catalyzing innovation and impact.
Our students’ futures hinge on the effectiveness of our education system. This means we need incentivizing policies and flexible structures that enable quick-turnaround, high-reward solutions with the power to truly reimagine learning.