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A Year for Reflection and Continued Transformation

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | | January 12, 2021

Happy New Year! In anticipation of our 20th anniversary in 2022, IES has planned a year to identify opportunities for growth and change in education research. I want to bring you up to date on a few such activities.

First, I want to call your attention to the "transformative" research RFA that IES posted just before the holidays.

When I was the commissioner of NCES between 2005 and 2008, Department of Education leadership met several times with DARPA to try to understand their model and import it into ED. DARPA's innovations were impressive, but I was even more impressed with their attitude toward failure—they were clear that the kinds of innovations they wanted to foster had a high probability of failing. Indeed, it was part of their business model. When I left NCES in 2008, ARPA ED had not gotten past the exploratory stage. The Obama Administration pursued ARPA ED with vigor—but it still did not materialize. The Trump administration was less vigorous in the pursuit of this model, and ARPA ED still has not gotten off the ground.

While it is obviously too early to see what will happen to ARPA ED in the Biden years, IES views the "high risk/high rewards" transformative RFA as an effort to move the ARPA ED idea forward. We have received well over 100 letters of intent. I am encouraged that so many researchers are accepting the challenge. (BTW: While the deadline for letters of intent has passed, it is still possible to submit a proposal by the deadline of 25 February.) Hopefully, this effort to support transformative education research will change the field's attitudes toward risk and plant the seeds for another run at ARPA ED.

Next, I am excited to announce that we have just signed a contract with the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to undertake three studies designed to be finished by the beginning of 2022.

The first NASEM task is an exploration of how the research centers (NCER and NCSER) conduct business. As many of you know, I have questioned the superstructure that shapes IES grants—picture a huge matrix with topics listed vertically and research types horizontally. This approach accreted over the years, responding to various issues and trends in play often at a particular moment in time. It does not present a strategic agenda for driving forward education sciences. As a result, we have relied more and more on "off-cycle" special competitions to respond to emerging and future topics. We expect to receive the NASEM report in time to help guide the structure of the 20th anniversary RFAs, identifying new research topics, new methodologies, and new approaches to training programs that IES should emphasize for the next 5–10 years.

The second NASEM study will focus on the future of NCES. The study will be run by the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT), a unit of NASEM. CNSTAT has been investing a lot of time and energy thinking about the future of the federal statistical system. NCES is the third largest federal statistical agency (by budget) and, I believe, the oldest (created in 1867, it predates the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics). That's a lot of history—much of it venerable. But given the changes in our world, especially the technology of data collection, we need a systematic review of NCES to guide us in investing our scarce resources. I am particularly interested in where NASEM will come down regarding the historical prominence of longitudinal surveys in NCES and what insights NASEM will develop regarding the future of administrative data, especially given the Evidence Act, the legislative/regulatory calls for sharing data across agencies, and the improvements in our ability to protect individual rights to privacy even as we merge data across studies and agencies.

The third NASEM study will focus on NAEP, which, with an annual appropriation of over $160m, represents the single largest expenditure in the IES portfolio. The technology underlying NAEP is aging and needs a refresh. NASEM is charged with identifying new technologies, such as automated scoring and auto item generation, that could reduce the ever-escalating costs of NAEP; identifying how to use more modern technologies to reduce the incredible expense of in-person test administration, which is how NAEP is currently administered; and identifying more efficient ways to generate accurate measures of what students know and can do. This last task is particularly important given how many students are below NAEP's basic level in reading and math—and how little information current NAEP technologies generate about students at the bottom of the NAEP scoring distribution. While NAEP has moved along these paths in the last few years, the NASEM report will hopefully generate a blueprint of how to get these changes accomplished in a timely and cost-effective fashion.

We have condensed NASEM's usual timeframe to make sure that these three studies are released in advance of our 20th anniversary and help us craft a roadmap for IES for the 5 to 10 years that follow. We will be getting periodic updates from NASEM as these studies progress—and I will share information with you as we get it.

As always, please feel free to reach out to me—I do read (and respond to) all my fan mail (ditto my hate mail).