Adam Gamoran is president of the William T. Grant Foundation and a former member of the National Board for Education Sciences. He chairs the Committee on the Future of Education Research at the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The history of education in the United States is punctuated with exigent moments: points in time when the politics of the era intersect with the reality of schools in ways that demand action.
In 2022, we have arrived at one of these exigent moments: COVID-19 has introduced massive disruptions to learning, further increased inequality for learners, and resulted in unprecedented challenges for educators. These events — coupled with a new reckoning with America’s legacy of racism — have challenged education systems to adopt, revise, rescind and reconsider policies of all kinds.
At this fraught moment, the Institute of Education Sciences tasked a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee, of which I served as chair, with providing guidance on the future of research at IES — offering insight on critical problems and issues where new research is needed, as well as new methods and approaches for education research, new and different kinds of research training investments, and new approaches on how best to organize the funding competitions.
Our committee recently published its final report offering recommendations to the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research that, if adopted, will position IES to help lead the nation through this moment and those to come.
At the heart of our recommendations are two parallel goals: to center equity in education research and to make education research more likely to be useful, and to be used, by designing it in response to the needs and experiences of communities, learners and educators.
In our vision, placing equity at the center of IES’ research agenda will call on researchers to articulate how their proposed work would address pernicious inequities in education. Our report recommends new research pursuits for NCER and NCSER, including new topics on civil rights policies and practice, teacher education and workforce development, and education technology.
For NCSER in particular, we recommend a renewed focus on teaching practices for improving outcomes of students with disabilities, research on contexts that support access and inclusion, and studies specific to low-incidence populations.
Our report also emphasizes that funding and training opportunities for researchers must be equitably distributed. We recommend IES collect and publish information on the racial, ethnic, gender, disability status, disciplinary and institutional backgrounds of applicants and participants in training programs, applicants and participants for grants, and review panels. More transparency on these points will allow NCER and NCSER to assess equity and to target strategies for equitable access and participation.
Why does our report focus so much on the usefulness and use of education research? Supporting research that is ultimately used has always been central to the aims of NCER and NCSER, and recent empirical studies point to a new way to organize the types of projects funded to increase the chances research findings get used.
First, the committee recommends IES ask researchers to ground their studies in the real challenges of education as experienced by communities, learners and educators. Second, research designs should account from the outset for the varied environments in which education takes place, allowing for adapting interventions for those environments and prioritizing the study of heterogeneity in intervention impacts.
Third, in the largest departure from current practice, our report encourages a new project type focused on knowledge mobilization to support evidence syntheses, to deepen understanding of how evidence is used by education decision-makers, and to test strategies to improve the use of evidence in education policy and practice.
Many of our recommendations can be implemented with little or no additional cost to IES (although all will require staff time, a scarce resource for IES’s limited personnel). Some changes, however, such as collecting annual equity data, could be costly.
In light of this, and recognizing IES receives far less funding compared to other federal science agencies, the committee has made one recommendation to Congress: to re-examine IES’ budget in light of these concerns.
NCER and NCSER have an opportunity to support research that will help education stakeholders around the nation emerge from this exigent moment with renewed commitments to meet the needs of learners at all levels. Our committee has every confidence in their ability to respond.