Searching for Science to Guide Good Teaching

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Whitehurst's zeal for research sometimes has landed him in awkward spots. Two years ago, Spellings went to Capitol Hill to pitch a $100 million plan to fund vouchers to help low-income students in poorly performing public schools pay for private school. Just a few days earlier, Whitehurst's Institute of Education Sciences had released a study that found that most public school students did as well in math and reading as their private school peers. Spellings told reporters she hadn't yet read the study.

Whitehurst, 63, was chairman of the psychology department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook before he moved into the administration. His academic career has been devoted to studying how children learn to read, and he believes science can save schools. Always precise, Whitehurst notes the phrase "scientifically based research" appears 111 times in the No Child Left Behind law. (He reminds a visitor that anyone checking that total should know the phrase appears in the statute with and without a hyphen.)

The institute's What Works Clearinghouse acts as a Consumer Reports of education products, vetting studies to help schools decide which programs are worth investment. In one case, it found a reading program that bills itself as a "universal literacy system" had done some good but had a "potentially negative" effect on comprehension.

With a $575 million annual budget, the institute funds studies at major universities on reading, math, teacher incentive programs and other topics. Whitehurst said a major insight has emerged from such studies: The success of students depends more on who teaches them than on nearly any other factor. Teacher quality trumps curriculum and education funding. With a good teacher, children from poor families overcome the odds.

"You can take all of these risk factors and have the child in a class of a highly effective teacher, and it makes a world of difference," Whitehurst said. "People are surprised by how powerful it is."

What makes a teacher good?

"We don't know," Whitehurst said. That's the next question for research.

Some people see all the studies as wasted effort. Gary Ratner, founder of Bethesda-based Citizens for Effective Schools, thinks the recipe for a good school is simple: a challenging curriculum, teachers who know their subject and how to teach, and family support.

"Most of this research, the educators don't read it. They don't use it," Ratner said. "Why are they doing it?"

Kevin Welner, professor and director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said many education studies are bunk. He even helps give out annual awards for shoddy research.

Welner also said the institute's strong preference for one research method can be limiting. "If this works out so that all we're looking at is a narrow outcome -- such as 'Have test scores gone up in reading?' -- we might be missing understanding of what it is, for example, about a curriculum that results in the higher performance," Welner said.

Robert C. Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, which gets some funding from the institute, said the work Whitehurst oversees is "helping us gain traction on complicated questions."

Whitehurst's six-year term ends in November. He said he hopes the rise of data-driven decision-making in education will continue when a new administration begins. He drew a comparison to a shift he observed as a child on his grandfather's North Carolina tobacco farm. His grandfather, Whitehurst said, went from seeking advice from neighbors to seeking information from scientists at agricultural conventions.

"It is the work of a generation we're involved in," Whitehurst said, "not the work of a few years."

He added: "Everybody's been to school, and most people have opinions about what's good and what's bad. But the promise is here to move forward in a way that was not here a decade ago."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company