Q&A with Mark Schneider, IES Director

April 15, 2020

Before joining IES, Mark Schneider was a vice president and an Institute Fellow at American Institutes for Research (AIR) and President of College Measures. Prior to joining AIR, Dr. Schneider served as Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005–2008. In 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education selected him as one of the 10 people who had the most impact on higher education policy that year.

For those who aren’t familiar, what is the role of the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) and what research do you fund?

IES is an applied science agency. While we support basic research, our mission is to improve learner outcomes across the entire lifespan, by identifying what works for whom under what circumstances.

IES is one of the largest sources of funding for education research in the world. IES houses two research centers: the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER). The Institute also houses the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Besides its statistical data collections,  NCES runs the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and major international assessments, including PISA (the OECD assessment of 15–year old students). The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) is the Institute’s fourth center and houses the Regional Education Laboratories and the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC).

IES thus covers a wide gamut of work involving research, statistics, and evaluation.

The best information on current funding opportunities is found at https://ies.ed.gov/funding/ and overviews of the research supported by the two IES research centers can be found at  https://ies.ed.gov/ncer/research/ and  https://ies.ed.gov/ncser/research/

How have IES operations been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak?

We are still in the middle of assessing the extent to which the extensive school closings will affect research in the field. Much of our funded research relies on cooperation with schools and school districts to gain access to students to test interventions. We will need to undertake reviews of projects that have had to discontinue their work because of school closings. We need to see if the projects can be modified or pivoted to newly emerging questions flowing from the pandemic. At this stage, we don’t have enough information to judge how many projects will be affected. We will be as flexible as possible within the constraints of the law and evolving government- and department-wide guidelines.

Several large-scale assessments have been affected. For example, we are postponing for a year the assessment of 17-year old students as part of NAEP’s Long Term Trends program. The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), coordinated by the OECD, will be delayed by a year. Similarly, it’s likely that PISA will be delayed by a year.

Internally, IES staff, like everyone across the nation, is making the adjustment to 100% telework. It’s hard, to say the least.

What does the research tell us about what educators, parents, and students can do to be successful at distance learning?

Unfortunately not enough. We have evidence that blended instruction (mixing on ground with online) instruction works better than purely online instruction—but we don’t have enough information about the extent to which that is true for all students and for which subjects.

We are conducting a giant natural experiment nationwide about delivering instruction—and whatever evidence we have shows wide variation in what (and how well) schools and school districts across the nation are doing in delivering education. We are beginning to see the research community step up with ideas about how to monitor and evaluate this variation. We are trying to figure out ways to accelerate the review and funding of those proposals. Education research can often take a long time, so we need to careful that the research we fund goes to learning more about how to deliver effective online instruction rather than how the nation’s schools have responded to the pandemic.

One of the most exciting proactive projects is being run out of NCEE, trying to identify the relevant studies that are in the What Works Clearinghouse and to extract actionable lessons from the ones that have the most relevance to informing effective instruction in the world we now face.

NCEE has identified over 730 studies in its bibliography that are now being reviewed and then put in a separate database. We will try to identify actions that will be of the most use to teachers as they try to deliver online education. Again, we need to construct these lessons keeping in mind that the immediate crisis will pass—but that online education is likely to stay around.

In response to COVID-19, the RELs have collaborated to produce this series of evidence-based resources and guidance about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations brought by the pandemic.

The Office of Management and Budget released guidance on federal funding agencies on dealing with grants affected by the novel coronavirus. Does IES have specific guidance for its researchers at this time?

You can access our FAQs at: https://ies.ed.gov/Covid_FAQ.asp