The National Center for Education Research convened a virtual technical working group (TWG) of education policy leaders and researchers to discuss strategies for improving K-12 education systems and policy research funded by NCER. The official summary is now posted on the IES website. This blog post provides a snapshot of that summary.
What are the most pressing education systems and policy issues in need of research?
Prior to the meeting, TWG members were asked to identify what policy topics need evidence to inform their decision making, and they identified over 20 issues of pressing concern. The top-identified education policy issues, with at least 3 nominations across both policy leader and researcher groups, are listed below (with the number of nominations in parentheses).
- Equitable access to high quality instruction (13)
- Education technology and online instruction (11)
- Equity in school and student funding (10)
- Diversity of teachers and equity of pay (8)
- Socio-emotional learning (SEL), relationships and student engagement (8)
- Leader Professional Development (6)
- Teacher professional development (5)
- Better capacity for data analysis management, communication (5)
- Early childhood education (5)
- Career preparation/advising/transitions (5)
- Culturally relevant pedagogy/anti-racism/anti-bias (3)
- Special education/English Learners (3)
- Covid-related learning loss (3)
The discussion during the meeting focused on a broad range of policy, research, and dissemination issues, which did not always align with the above issues. NCER staff organized the themes from the day’s discussion below to highlight where the TWG members expressed general consensus. More detail about each area can be found in the full TWG summary on the IES website.
- Understanding and Addressing Inequity in Education Systems: The TWG members agreed that the most pressing issue is equity. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and revealed systemic inequity, which affects students who are from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds, low-income households, or other marginalized groups.
- Improving Use of and Access to Education Technology and High-Quality Online Instruction: With the heavy reliance on online instruction throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 has created new urgency for closing the digital divide. In addition to understanding how systems support or impede access to education technology, TWG members also noted a need for education research focused on questions of teaching and learning in remote and hybrid environments, including professional development and systems-level support for both teachers and students for using and engaging with technology.
- Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Teaching Workforce: TWG members noted that teacher shortages, especially in high poverty districts, have been a concern for years, and that there is a need for evidence on how to make access to high quality teachers more equitable. Researchers could examine how recruitment strategies can diversify the teacher workforce through strategies such as incentives specifically for teacher candidates of color and adopting culturally relevant practices.
- Providing Access to Student and Educator Mental Health Supports: TWG members observed that COVID-19 has been stressful for students, parents, and educators. Remote learning appears to prevent many students from connections that support emotional and behavioral health and to increase the vulnerability of students with high-risk home environments. Research and research syntheses are needed to guide policymakers on what works best in allocating resources to meet student and educator mental health needs and how to connect with community resources and improve systems of support beyond the school.
- Engaging and Re-Engaging Students: Chronic absenteeism is a major problem in many schools, exacerbated by the pandemic. TWG members pointed out that a key policy question for many LEAs and SEAs is how to re-engage these “missing” students. Researchers can help education leaders understand what evidence-based interventions are available to re-engage students and begin to address disparities in pandemic learning loss.
- Preparing K-12 Students for Careers: TWG members agreed that researchers, policymakers, and educators should engage and collaborate more frequently with employers to inform what career-aligned experiences should be offered to students in school. Research could contribute to understanding how best to support local communities of practice that include schools, businesses, intermediaries, and community-based organizations with the shared goal of preparing students for careers.
- Modernizing Assessments: TWG members agreed that education systems should be modernized to assess and address basic skills and learning needs quickly, such as with interim or formative assessments. Research is needed to understand how to use assessment for both accountability purposes as well as to support diagnosis and student progress monitoring. Additionally, research is needed to guide educators on authentic and performance-based assessments.
- Improving Data-Driven Decision-Making in Schools: TWG members noted that education researchers could provide guidance on identifying a set of core variables, systematically collecting data and metrics, and building data sharing platforms and data agreements. TWG members pointed out that, in many cases, education agencies and educators do not necessarily need more data but more training to build capacity to analyze and use the data they have.
- Examining Education Finance: TWG members noted that research can generate high-quality information to help policymakers understand how school systems could leverage financial resources to help the most underserved learners and communities. TWG participants noted that a key question for which additional evidence is needed is how much funding is needed to provide the breadth of services, including wraparound services, required to support learning in the poorest schools.
- Creating Adaptive Education Systems: COVID-19 has shown that education systems must better prepare for emergencies, and TWG members worried that the pandemic will have a lasting effect on student achievement and attainment. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the education and research community with an opportunity to learn from what went well, what did not, and to propose strategies to put in place to ensure rapid responses to future emergencies and moments of crisis.
How can NCER better support research on education systems/policy issues?
NCER staff asked for recommendations on improving its engagement with education systems and policy work. TWG member recommendations are organized according to five themes.
- Support a Systems Approach to Systems and Policy Research: TWG members recommended that NCER encourage researchers to untangle and understand broader, dynamic education systems and processes, and to develop methods that capture and account for changing contexts. The TWG encouraged an interdisciplinary approach with different stakeholder perspectives, methods, and measures to move the field forward.
- Encourage Partnerships with Key Stakeholders: TWG members felt that the relevance of research proposals could be increased with more collaboration between researchers and education leaders. Partnership between researchers and practitioners is one strategy for increasing the local relevance of research and its applicability to specific local questions.
- Support Rapid Research to Practice Efforts: TWG members agreed that education policy research results should be disseminated to the field quickly. Rapid cycle evaluation methods, such as plan-do-study-act continuous quality improvement approaches can help to inform policy solutions, and while not nimble enough to support quick turnaround studies, NCER funding may be appropriate for continuous improvement methods that are applied within a longer-term research project.
- Disseminate Information that is Useful to Policymakers: TWG members agreed that NCER research results should be relevant and presented in easy-to-read formats tailored for specific stakeholder audiences. To address this issue, IES can create easy-to-understand research syntheses, as education leaders do not have time or training to comb through the results of individual studies. In addition, TWG members identified a need for research on what is needed for practitioners to translate research to practice, to support decision making, and to address barriers to implementation.
- Attend to Equity in Grantmaking and Research Focus: TWG members were concerned about equity in grantmaking and broadening participation in the research process. One way to address this is to provide more structured technical assistance to ensure applicants new to IES funding develop competitive research proposals. Active outreach can also help to encourage experts most likely to address equity research questions to apply. TWG members also pointed out that interdisciplinary research teams could help unearth embedded inequities in data collection, measures, and models.
In addition to the ideas discussed above, TWG members suggested specific ideas for how NCER could support research that leads to policy and systems improvement. These are too numerous to include here, but they are described in full in the TWG summary report.
For questions about this blog or the TWG summary, please contact Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov, NCER Program Officer for the Improving Education Systems topic.