Dr. Mark Schneider, Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Department of Education, USA

With an impressive background in education policy and research, Dr. Schneider brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to his role. Prior to joining IES, he held prominent positions such as Vice President and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), President of College Measures, and Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. Dr. Schneider’s contributions to higher education policy have been widely recognized, earning him a spot among the Chronicle of Higher Education’s top 10 influential individuals in 2013. As an accomplished author, he has published several books and articles, including “The University Next Door” and “Getting to Graduation.” With his extensive experience and profound insights, Dr. Schneider offers valuable perspectives on the current landscape of education research and the future of evidence-based practices.

Can you tell us about some of the most significant global education trends you have observed in recent years?

Of course. In the last few months, there has been worldwide discussion about AI and the potential impact of AI, particularly generative AI such as ChatGPT, on various aspects of society. I recently returned from a week at OECD in Paris, where AI dominated almost every discussion.

Another significant trend is the rise of remote online instruction and its comparison to in-person learning. This has sparked a broader conversation about teaching and learning, topics that have long been fundamental in K-12 education but have gained more attention in higher education, especially after the pandemic.

A shift away from diplomas and formal credentials towards a focus on skills is also a notable trend. Many discussions in the U.S. and other countries, particularly those within the OECD, revolve around the concepts of “upskilling” and “reskilling” rather than solely focusing on degrees. It is crucial to measure the return on investment for both formal credentials and other training programs, and there is a growing recognition of the need to identify such ROI.

Intense discussions about the appropriate duration required to master skills or obtain degrees are also apparent. The concept of right-sizing the time needed for skill acquisition or degree completion is being actively debated.

The Institute of Education Sciences is responsible for conducting and funding education research in the United States. How do you see your work fitting into the broader landscape of global education research?

While the United States has been at the forefront of advocating for research and policy based on strong evidence, many countries are also recognizing the importance of creating a robust evidence base. There is a widespread belief in the need to modernize data collections and accelerate the research process.

In the past, there was a prevailing belief that education research followed a “build it and they will come” approach, akin to the famous “field of dreams” concept. However, there is now a growing recognition that this strategy is not effective for education researchers in general, much like it worked for Kevin Costner in the movie. Consequently, there is an increasing concern regarding how to translate complex research into more accessible and reader-friendly reports.

Another ongoing concern is the challenge of obtaining survey responses and the rising cost associated with conducting surveys. To address this, IES has been actively identifying “administrative” data systems that can provide answers to topics that were traditionally covered by surveys. Shifting towards these administrative data systems ideally allows for more regular and faster data updates compared to the lengthy lead time required for survey data. While there will always be some questions that necessitate surveys, the reliance on surveys is diminishing.

Parallel to the shift towards administrative data, there is a growing recognition of the significance of merging diverse data systems. Instead of having separate silos for education data, labor market data, social welfare data, and so on, linking these systems together is crucial for obtaining detailed and accurate assessments of social conditions. Naturally, as data systems are integrated, privacy concerns become more pronounced. However, efforts are being made to develop increasingly sophisticated methods to safeguard privacy while leveraging linked data systems for research purposes.

You have authored several books related to education, including The University Next Door, Getting to Graduation, Higher Education Accountability, Charter Schools: Hope or Hype? and Choosing Schools. Can you discuss some of the key insights or arguments you present in these works?

The last two books on the list focused on K-12 education and examined how parents gather and utilize information in the face of increased school choices for their children compared to the traditional model of neighborhood schools. Although the rate of growth in charter schools has slowed since I worked on those books, other forms of choice, such as education savings accounts and homeschooling, continue to expand. The future of K-12 school choice is closely tied to the importance of information in how parents gather and utilize it.

In contrast, higher education has always provided more options for students and their families compared to traditional K-12 schooling. The aforementioned higher education books also emphasize the significance of information flow and the decision-making processes of students. Additionally, they highlight the vital role that non-selective colleges and universities play in education. While prestigious institutions like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and similar elite schools receive considerable attention, the percentage of college students enrolled in these institutions is far smaller compared to those attending less- or non-selective regional campuses. These “universities next door” serve as the backbone of the American higher education system. Factors such as the skills students acquire, the pace and completion of their studies, and their post-graduation outcomes in the labor market significantly impact both student well-being and society as a whole.

Thankfully, efforts to measure post-graduation outcomes have improved, largely through the linkage of employment data with information about the school and the program of study in which students were enrolled. This allows for a better understanding of what happens to students after they leave higher education.

In your view, what are some of the biggest challenges facing higher education today, both in the United States and globally? How can these challenges be addressed?

The U.S. higher education system, known for its rigidity, high costs, and outdated practices, poses a significant problem. This issue is increasingly recognized not only in the U.S. but also in other countries. The value and worth of a higher education degree, considering the effort and expense involved, have come into question. Both public and private employers are beginning to doubt the extent to which a degree is necessary. As the focus shifts towards emphasizing skills rather than degrees, higher education institutions will face challenges to their traditional approaches.

Furthermore, there is a looming demographic crisis across OECD countries, where the number of children progressing through the education system is declining. While countries like Korea and Japan have been grappling with this issue for some time, the U.S. and European nations are also experiencing a shortage of “traditional-aged” students to fill university seats. Attempts to address this gap have been made by attracting international students. However, immigration policies and perceived hostility towards foreign students have made it more challenging for the U.S. to fill enrollment gaps with international students. Given that it is not possible to instantly increase the number of 18-24-year-olds, many colleges and universities are considering how to enroll older students. Accommodating the needs of this older population requires a different mindset regarding scheduling and available topics of study. Additionally, institutions may face the challenge of maintaining expensive physical facilities that may be too large for the potential student body size.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on education systems around the world. How do you see this crisis affecting the future of higher education, and what can educators and policymakers do to mitigate the negative consequences?

The long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education are still unknown. While there is substantial evidence showing that students have experienced significant cognitive setbacks, particularly in K-12 education, the exact duration of these deficits remains uncertain. Some estimates suggest that students may have lost up to two years of learning during the pandemic. However, emerging evidence indicates that student cognitive skills are showing signs of recovery.

In contrast, the social and behavioral losses that students have encountered during the pandemic have received less attention. Nonetheless, there is evidence suggesting that these losses were substantial and may have equally significant negative consequences as the well-documented cognitive declines. Although most of the evidence pertains to K-12 students, it is important to consider that these students will eventually transition through the elementary and secondary education system and many will pursue post-secondary education. The resilience of students in overcoming both cognitive and social-emotional losses remains uncertain at this stage. A slow recovery in these areas could impact colleges and universities in the years to come. However, we can hope that students will exhibit high levels of resilience in overcoming the challenges they have faced during the pandemic.

The field of education research is constantly evolving. What are some of the most exciting new developments or approaches you have seen emerge in the past few years, and how do you see these shaping the future of education research and practice?

Harnessing AI for the betterment of education is an incredibly important and exhilarating challenge that I have witnessed in recent years, and it may be one of the most significant challenges ever faced. AI presents an unparalleled opportunity to develop personalized approaches to teaching and learning, enabling every student to reach their full potential. Additionally, AI has the potential to alleviate teachers from the burden of administrative tasks, which often consume their time and energy, allowing them to focus on their core responsibilities of teaching.

The field of “big data” also holds great promise for education research. As previously mentioned, there is a shift occurring from relying on survey data to utilizing administrative data in order to address key research questions. The realms of big data and AI are closely intertwined. AI systems, particularly the latest large language models that underpin generative AI, require extensive amounts of high-quality data. Some of this data can be sourced from national assessment systems, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the US, while other data may come from states or private companies. Regardless of the data source, it is crucial that we exert considerable effort to safeguard learner privacy. However, it is encouraging to observe the development of new privacy protection protocols that can assist us in fulfilling our duty to ensure privacy.

The convergence of AI and big data presents transformative opportunities in education research and practice. It has the potential to revolutionize individualized learning, enhance efficiency, and inform decision-making processes. Nevertheless, it is of utmost importance to navigate these advancements responsibly, adhering to ethical data usage and prioritizing the privacy and well-being of learners. By integrating these emerging technologies and methodologies thoughtfully, we can shape a future of education that is more inclusive, effective, and tailored to the needs of every student.

The Institute of Education Sciences is located in the United States, but education is a global issue. How do you collaborate with international researchers and organizations, and what do you see as the benefits of such collaboration?

IES is a full participant in every OECD education/skills initiative. I am a member of OECD’s CERI governing board and attend OECD’s Education Policy Committee meetings. Peggy Carr, commissioner of NCES, chairs the PISA governing board. We participate in PIAAC and TALIS. IES staff are central to discussions of OECD data collections and work with OECD to make sure the Education as a Glance is reliable and presents valid data. IES also participates in TIMSS and PIRLS, run by the IEA. We also work closely with the EEF in the UK, sharing information about how to structure toolkits to help education stakeholders identify what works and for whom. Our What Works Clearinghouse was one of the first and most comprehensive education clearinghouses in the world and has served as a model for others.

How do you keep yourself updated with the latest trends in education?

Lots of reading! I have not yet mastered YouTube for scholarly work. I find it amazingly useful for getting information about repairs (most recently for how to descale my espresso machine) but haven’t cracked the code for using it more broadly. IES has been moving more and more of our work onto YouTube videos, so I guess I will have to get with the program.

I am also playing around with ChatGPT to see how well it can generate high quality information about education trends. More importantly, IES has been working on how best to make available large data sets (such as NAEP mentioned above) available for generative AI models, so that they report more accurate information than they would without ingesting large high quality data sets.

What projects or goals are you working on or leading currently?

Perhaps the most exciting is the support IES has received from Congress and the Administration to move toward DARPA-like functions in the Institute. DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Project Agency, emphasizes high-risk/high-reward product development aimed at breakthroughs in technology and capabilities. DARPA-like units have been set up in several government agencies, most notably the Department of Energy (ARPA-E) and the Department of Health and Human Services (ARPA-H). Smaller ARPA-like investments have been made in other branches of the U.S. government and we are hoping to have IES join that list.

Another high impact project focuses on updating the State Longitudinal Data Systems that we have funded and supervised for close to 20 years. These systems were first built to house data about K-12 education but over the years have supported links “downward” to early childhood education and “upward” to postsecondary education and, in many states, employment outcomes. As noted above, the next version of these systems will act as a “backbone” which other data, for example, from social welfare agencies or from the criminal justice system, to help provide a fuller picture of student lives.

Finally, for those who are interested in pursuing a career in education research, what advice would you offer? What skills or attributes do you think are most important for success in this field?

Clearly, education research has become more technical over time, requiring a set of modern analytic skills. But education research has also become more demanding, involving many more disciplines and larger teams than earlier work. So, team management skills matter. Researchers must also master communications skills. This will often require dropping all the jargon and tendentious writing that is all too often rewarded in graduate training.  Learning how to write concisely and powerfully is essential. IES’ style guide can be summarized as: “Short sentences. Strong verbs.”

Research skills are foundational, but researchers need to know how to increase the visibility of their work (beyond simply publishing it in journals) if they wish to improve conditions on the ground and to feel rewarded and recognized for their contributions.

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