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Aurora Institute

A Step Forward in ESRA Reauthorization

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Aurora Institute

Issue(s): Federal Policy, State Policy

Group Of Three Third Graders smiling
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

On December 5, 2023, Senate HELP Committee Chairman Sanders (D-VT) and Ranking Member Cassidy (R-LA) released the Advancing Research in Education Act (AREA) to modernize the research and data collection programs and activities authorized by the Education Sciences Reform Act. ESRA has not been reauthorized since it was enacted over 20 years ago. ESRA provides significant grant funding for research, supports the creation of regional and comprehensive centers intended to provide technical assistance to educators, and includes the authorization for the National Center for Education Statistics, the entity responsible for overseeing NAEP, long thought of as the nation’s report card.

Effective research and development strategies, designed and implemented in partnership with educators and communities, are critical to supporting the type of transformation to competency-based education Aurora seeks for the nation’s students. The draft AREA is an encouraging step toward ensuring meaningful research and data can inform teaching and learning. We found the following improvements in AREA particularly helpful:

  • Explicitly working to make the R&D process inclusive and relevant to the field.  Ensuring a diverse range of practitioners are engaged in the research process will help make the law’s outcomes more meaningful and useful to the field. We particularly appreciate AREA’s aim to prioritize research questions that practitioners develop in consultation with researchers to produce actionable information and to appoint practitioner voices to the National Board for Education Sciences.
  • Building state capacity. Authorizing grants to directly support state capacity for R&D is an important step in ensuring state and local leaders can meaningfully engage in the R&D process. Providing resources and support to more directly involve them in the process will also help to improve the R&D’s utility. 
  • Improvements to Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS). The AREA proposes invaluable improvements and updates to the SLDS program, including transitioning the program to focus on helping states develop multi agency integrated data systems. We also appreciate the bill’s proposal to authorize new innovation grants to design, develop, implement, and improve SLDS. The proposed planning grants are an important signal about the work it takes to develop effective SLDS and shows responsiveness to the field. 

These and other improvements to ESRA will have a significant impact on current practice. As AREA moves through the reauthorization process, however, there remains room for improvement. First, the initial definition of “evidence-based” is more restrictive than definitions codified in other federal statutes, notably the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While it is important for research to have a sound basis, it is also important for it to be timely and inform practices in a way that will impact students in the short term and the long term. An expanded definition that aligns with ESSA and many state laws can meet both of those goals.

In addition, the AREA can go farther to support inclusivity. Aurora believes that change cannot be done to communities, it must be done in partnership with communities. While AREA improves upon ESRA by working to engage a broader group of practitioners, we also hope the language is strengthened to move beyond equitable research to include strategies that foster research that explicitly and consistently involves the communities it is designed to support.

The HELP Committee’s bipartisan collaboration on AREA is a promising sign of what can be accomplished when differences are put aside and policymakers focus on improving our education system for students. We appreciate the work of Chairman Sanders and Ranking Member Cassidy, working with the full Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, to advance this bill and look forward to seeing it move through the reauthorization process and become signed into law.