FEDERAL EDUCATION RESEARCH
Searching for Science to Guide Good Teaching
Monday, April 28, 2008
The Bush administration's chief of education research says teachers too often rely on "folk wisdom" instead of proven methods to help students learn reading and math. Just as doctors consider data from drug trials and clinical research when they treat patients, he wants educators to think more scientifically in their quest for the right textbooks, technology, teacher training and lesson plans to raise student achievement.
The Education Department's push to elevate the role of rigorous research in public education could become one of the most important legacies of the No Child Left Behind era for schools in the Washington area and nationwide. The point man in this effort is a former psychology and pediatrics professor named Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst.
Whitehurst, who in late 2002 became the founding director of the department's Institute of Education Sciences, has discovered that his vision for the role of research sometimes conflicts with the turbulent forces of politics, policy and public opinion.
Consider the institute's recent attempt to study Upward Bound, a federal program that helps teenagers from low-income backgrounds and those who would be the first in their families to pursue college. The proposal called for recruiting double the number of students that Upward Bound is able to serve. Half would participate in the program, and half would become a control group. Researchers would track the progress of both groups.
Scientifically, it was sound. Politically, it was a non-starter.
Critics said it was unethical to introduce at-risk kids to Upward Bound's opportunities if officials knew they couldn't participate. At a February hearing on Capitol Hill, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) called the evaluation design "discriminatory."
After lawmakers proposed legislation to halt the study, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings agreed to scrap it.
Whitehurst called the congressional intervention a "terrific mistake" that could affect future research. But he also took some blame, calling it a "case study in how the federal government should not go about evaluation."
"We took on a program that was highly popular and was going to continue to be funded regardless of what kind of evaluation is done on it," Whitehurst said in a February speech to education experts at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. "If we find that the program works, what will happen? The program will continue. If we find that the program does not work, what will happen? The program will continue, except we will have spat into the wind, and the wind will blow that back in our face."
The No Child Left Behind law requires reading and math tests for all public school students from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, with a goal of universal proficiency in those subjects by 2014. The law has sparked calls for better tools to help teachers and has given researchers mountains of new test score data to analyze. Demand for more research is high. In March, a presidential National Mathematics Advisory Panel lamented that there is "no research or insufficient research relating to a great many matters of concern in educational policy and practice."
Not all researchers agree with Whitehurst's preference for randomized trials over other methods, but many academics say he has brought needed scrutiny to a field in which glossy reports often masquerade as solid education research.
Margaret Goertz, a University of Pennsylvania education policy professor, said that, under Whitehurst's leadership, federally funded education research has been taken "out of the political arena." Jim Kohlmoos, president and chief executive of the Knowledge Alliance, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that supports education research, called Whitehurst a "protector of rigor."