Education Research Has Changed Under COVID. Here’s How the Feds Can Catch Up

The last two years of the pandemic have not been kind to education research. Data collection and studies were disrupted as schools and universities shut down and went remote. Now, the priorities for research have fundamentally shifted to the urgent need to help schools and students recover from the extended disruptions.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which calls for both structural and topic changes to the research funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department’s research agency

“When research is grounded in the needs and experiences of communities, then that community’s district and educators are more likely to use the findings of the research in his or her daily work,” said Adam Gamoran, the chairman of the National Academies committee that wrote the report.

Among other things, the report calls for IES to focus more research on areas of pressing concern in the last two years, including education technology, teacher education and workforce development, and civil rights policies and practices in schools. It also calls for IES to provide a clearer process for supporting grants, to improve the diversity of education researchers.

Education Week spoke with Gamoran about how federal education research can adapt to changing needs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you think the last two years have changed priorities for education research?

Gamoran: I think the pandemic has both sharpened our attention to existing inequalities and exacerbated the inequalities that already exist in our education system. Inequality has always been the number one problem of US education, and the pandemic has made that clearer than ever. And it has made inequalities worse through disrupted learning and through stress and trauma on students, parents, and educators. So that’s the first big consequence of the pandemic with implications for research. And then, technology has always been a major focus of IES, but we’ve seen the use of technology and education during the pandemic, and that has intensified the need for new research on technology and education. We know that administrative data collections were greatly disrupted and we know that opportunities to carry out classroom-based research were greatly disrupted during the pandemic.

The National Academies report notes that although teacher education has long been a research priority, IES has only funded a handful of studies explicitly around teacher education. Why do you think it fell through the cracks?

Gamoran: The topics for research offered by IES are very broad and practically anything within the field of education research could be proposed. But in fact, some don’t get proposed because of the way the project types and the topics intersect. Teacher education is an example. It’s very difficult to study the effects of teacher education on student outcomes, because they’re so far downstream. Consequently, the full focus on student outcomes as the primary outcome makes it less likely that teacher education will be successfully proposed as an IES research study. So one change that we recommend is to broaden the outcomes that are allowed to allow outcomes at other levels: the teacher level, the classroom level, the school level as the primary outcome. Loosening restrictions like those will help to foster research in areas that are already possible, but rarely done and will bring research to where it’s needed.

What kinds of outcomes can we study now that we wouldn’t have been able to five or 10 years ago?

Gamoran: Administrative data is increasingly available, accelerated by the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which has encouraged government agencies to make those data available for researchers inside and outside of government. And of course, the availability of state data in education—which is a direct result of IES’s national longitudinal data system funding—is certainly new within the past decade. We have new approaches to artificial intelligence, new approaches to data scraping, new approaches to the use of big data that are improving all the time, and we need both research that uses those techniques, and we need research on the techniques themselves.
IES has for a long time recognized the importance of understanding, not just what works, but what works for whom and under what circumstance. But the way the research proceeds is first, the what works question is asked, and then the heterogeneity questions—what works for whom, where, under what circumstances—get added on later. And our committee is recommending that attention to variation be built in from the start, so that it’s not an afterthought, but rather the heart of the problem.

The National Academies found a lack of diversity when it comes to who is supported to study education. Where do you think the pipeline is breaking down?

Gamoran: The committee is also very interested in that question, but we do not have the answer. We don’t have the data. IES has released a little bit of data on who gets funded, but we don’t have data on who applies so we are unable to discern at what point in the pipeline the inequities are being introduced. That’s why we call for [a] comprehensive [grant funding] review.

Many of the National Academies’ recommendations, such as having more frequent research application cycles and more monitoring of funding equity, require manpower. Do you think the IES has the staff capacity to make these changes?

Gamoran: Some of the recommendations could be implemented with few additional resources. However, all of them will require staff time, and that is a scarce resource at IES. We have recommended that Congress re-examine IES’s budget, recognizing both that it is modest compared to other scientific research agencies and that it is not enough to allow all the recommendations of this report to be implemented. Indeed, staffing resources are essential for implementing these recommendations.

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