The House Committee on Education and the Workforce on March 20 marked up and passed by voice vote H.R. 3801, a bill that would overhaul the federal office responsible for conducting education research, collecting statistics on the status and progress of U.S. schools, and distributing information to those working to improve education.

As it stands now, the bill also would eliminate guaranteed yearly funding for the six Regional Technology in Education Consortia (RTECs), agencies that disseminate technology best practices and offer technical assistance to school districts.

H.R. 3801, the Education Sciences Reform Act, was introduced by Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Michael Castle, R-Del. If passed, it would restructure the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), which is scheduled for reauthorization this year.

According to Castle, the bill would transform OERI into a “streamlined, more independent [agency called the] Academy of Education Sciences. Essentially, this legislation attempts to address what I have come to know as serious shortcomings in the field of education research.”

He continued: “While some labs, centers, clearinghouses, and consortia provide excellent support to our schools, others do not. With the implementation of [the new education law, No Child Left Behind], all states and schools will need help—and they all should have access to quality technical assistance. My bill gives them that chance.”

A press release from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce says the bill would:

  • Replace the current OERI with the new Academy of Education Sciences. The academy would conduct and support research, disseminate findings, and strengthen and promote the coordination of scientifically based research. It would function as a separate office under the direction of the National Board for Education Sciences and would oversee such programs as the National Center for Education Research, the National Center for Program Evaluation, and the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Establish standards to “put an end to education fads that masquerade as sound science.” The bill would require all federally funded activities (including scientifically based research) to meet these new standards of quality.
  • Make technical assistance—including assistance in carrying out the requirements of the No Child Left Behind act—”customer-driven” and accountable to school districts, states, and regions.
  • Inject competition into the current system of labs, centers, and clearinghouses to provide for consumer choice and ensure high quality and relevant services and products.
  • Ensure that research priorities are informed by the needs of parents, teachers, and school administrators, not political pressure, and focus on solving key problems.

For fiscal year 2003, the bill authorizes $400 million for the Academy of Education Sciences, $111 million for the National Assessment Governing Board and the National Assessment for Education Progress, and $189 million for the establishment of a Regional Educational Applied Research and Technical Assistance Program.

The bill authorizes “such sums as necessary” for fiscal years 2004 through 2008. “Basically, [the bill’s authors] created the $189 million Regional Technical Assistance Program to help in matters such as implementing the Reading First and bilingual education programs,” said Jee Hang Lee, senior legislative associate for Leslie Harris and Associates, which represents the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the International Society for Technology in Education with legislative matters.

“Right now, we don’t know how prominently technology will play in that $189 million.” The Regional Technical Assistance Program would be a grant program with 10 regional centers.

While the bill was being drafted, according to a summary of the committee hearing distributed by CoSN, Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., introduced and then withdrew an amendment to authorize RTECs under the new legislation. As it stands now, the bill only authorizes funding of the RTECs for the duration of their current grants.

Once this period is up, RTECs must compete with other, non-technology related groups for funds under the umbrella of the Regional Technical Assistance Program. Lee said the Education Department needs the help of entities such as RTECs to help states and local districts identify and use research-based technology programs that work—but he is concerned that the competitive nature of the new Regional Technical Assistance Program would jeopardize funding for the RTECs.

Rep. Castle noted that further consideration would be given to the RTECs before the bill comes to the House floor, probably sometime in mid-April.

Paul Kimmelman, special advisor to the executive director of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, the organization that oversees the North Central RTEC, located in Naperville, Ill., said he anticipates the bill will be changed over the course of the legislative process, and he is hopeful that his organization will find funding under the new law.

“We believe that the work of our center has been very good work and [has been] well received by the region we serve,” he said. “With that in mind, certainly we’d like to retain our structure as it currently exists, but we recognize that the intent of this act is to improve education research and technical assistance in the country, and we support it.”

However the bill turns out, Keith Krueger, executive director of CoSN, said he hopes the result is “more and better research on the effectiveness of technology” in education. Krueger cited a number of recent studies, most notably the Clinton administration’s Web-based Education Commission, that “have all consistently pointed out that we’re spending less than one-half of 1 percent [of school technology funding] on research regarding what’s effective.”

That’s significant, he contends, because education technology processes within schools are not being improved. “We don’t know how kids learn with technology,” Krueger said. “There has been a huge disconnect between the research community and the user community, which is K-12 technology leaders.”

A large portion of the research that has been done to date has little applicability in the classroom, Krueger said—and what little research that is applicable has not been widely disseminated. He added, “These are huge problems.”

Like supporters of H.R. 3801, Krueger believes that while OERI is important, it is not the only piece in the federal research “puzzle.” “There are dollars being spent at the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Health. They all have larger budgets [than the Education Department] in terms of research,” Krueger said.

He believes that education leaders need to initiate a new dialog with agencies that are not traditionally thought of as being education-focused. These organizations might, in fact, be spending more money on educational technology research—on topics such as childhood cognition and the use of technology to improve learning—than ED.

Links:

House Committee on Education and the Workforce
http://edworkforce.house.gov

Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del.
http://www.house.gov/castle

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory
http://www.ncrel.org

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org