[EDLING:151] Education Researchers and Policy Makers Still Not in Sync, Scholars Say

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at CCAT.SAS.UPENN.EDU
Tue May 22 13:47:34 UTC 2007


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Education Researchers and Policy Makers Still Not in Sync, Scholars Say


Education researchers have begun to do more work that is relevant to
policy makers, and policy makers have begun to pay more intelligent
attention to education research -- but there is still a long way to go on
both fronts, scholars said on Monday during a conference at the American
Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The conference was held roughly five years after the signing of the No
Child Left Behind Act, whose authors hoped to coax education research and
policy into alignment. In dozens of different provisions, the law requires
federal education money to be spent only on programs that conform to
"scientifically based research."

During Monday's conference, several speakers expressed guarded optimism
that No Child Left Behind, along with the reorganization of the Education
Department's research wing, has improved the transmission belt between
education research and education policy. But most of the speakers said
that scholars still had too few incentives to produce useful research, and
policy makers still had too few incentives to pay attention to such

Politicians and school superintendents tend not to pay careful attention
to education research because they are in office for only a short time,
because they are constrained by donors and activists, and because the
governance of the American education system is highly fragmented, said
Kenneth K. Wong, a professor of education and political science at Brown

On the "supply side," education researchers in academe are too often
rewarded for sheer scholarly output, rather than for answering the
questions that are most urgent to policy makers and schoolteachers, said
Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a professor of the history of American education
at Harvard University and a former dean of Harvard's Graduate School of

"Usable knowledge generated from research is not likely to be tenurable
research," said Ms. Lagemann. "So there are many disincentives to doing
such work. Overcoming those incentives will require fundamental reform of
the university."

Kathleen McCartney, Ms. Lagemann's successor as dean of Harvard's
education school, agreed. Colleges of education "need to reject the
arts-and-sciences model, where success equals research productivity," she
said. "We need to accept our roles as professional schools, where success
should equal impact on policy and practice."

But Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, a major
supporter of education research, said he was uncomfortable with such
formulations. "It makes me a little nervous to hear how skeptical we are
about tenure," he said, "and how important we think it is that people
should orient their research to the public-policy problems of the day, as
they are defined by major social institutions."

One important role for academe, Mr. McPherson said, is to raise questions
about the basic premises of those social institutions. "We need to have
people in the academy who can say, 'Well, who says that higher test scores
are really what we need? Why do we think that is the fundamental mark of
what makes a good education?' Now, that doesn't mean that there isn't a
lot of self-indulgent nonsense being done in the name of those kinds of
questions. But I don't want to casually stride away from the independence
of academic life."

Mr. McPherson added that he was proud that his foundation sometimes
finances research projects that have no obvious policy applications.

Several speakers suggested that federal agencies that support education
research should emulate the National Institutes of Health, which they
described as prestigious and well insulated from political pressures. But
here, too, Mr. McPherson offered a dissenting note. "We need to be careful
not to idealize what goes on in other domains, including medicine," he

Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education
Sciences, the research arm of the Education Department, also urged people
to be cautious about the NIH analogy. The Education Department's research
work was organized along NIH-style lines during the 1990s -- with small
institutes dedicated to specific topics -- and "it did not work," he said.
The number of centers grew from 11 to 23, and the entire apparatus lacked
a sense of focus, he argued.

Mr. Whitehurst agreed with his fellow panelists, however, about another
proposition: There should be much more federal support for education

"It's embarrassing," he said. "If you go to the Department of Health and
Human Services, 42 percent of its discretionary budget is invested in the
National Institutes of Health. And of course there are other research
institutes housed under HHS as well. Go to the U.S. Department of
Education, and less than 1 percent is invested in research."

The scholars made a variety of other concrete suggestions:

Scholars on opposite sides of a dispute -- say, about the educational
effectiveness of charter schools -- should work together in a process of
"adversarial collaboration," said James S. Kim, an assistant professor of
education at Harvard. The scholars would agree in advance on a methodology
and on what sorts of evidence would confirm or disprove their hypotheses.
If done well, Mr. Kim argued, such collaborations would reduce the public
perception that education research is financed and conducted by ideologues
with predetermined conclusions.

Blue-ribbon committees on education topics should include a roughly equal
balance of classroom teachers and academic researchers, said Mr. Kim. He
contrasted the National Reading Panel, a federally supported committee
that released a controversial report in 2000, with a similar high-profile
committee in England in the late 1990s. The two committees made similar
recommendations, Mr. Kim said, but the English report had a much easier
time gaining acceptance by teachers. In the United States, he said, "there
is not much opportunity now for teachers to work together to define
excellence in their practice," as doctors did when medicine became
professionalized in the early 20th century.

When No Child Left Behind is reauthorized, the law should tighten its
language related to scientifically based research, argued G. Reid Lyon,
executive vice president for research and evaluation at the Whitney
International University system, a for-profit institution affiliated with
Best Associates, a Texas merchant bank. Instead of allowing money to be
spent on programs "based on" scientific research, Mr. Lyon said, the law
should restrict spending to programs that have actual "evidence of
effectiveness," based on randomized trials or other careful studies. Mr.
Lyon, a former White House education adviser, tried and failed to place
that more-restrictive language in No Child Left Behind in 2001. With the
tighter standard, he said, the controversies surrounding the federal
Reading First program might have been avoided.

The federal government should create national tests of student academic
achievement, argued Dan D. Goldhaber, an associate professor of public
affairs at the University of Washington. "This might seem far afield" from
the conference's topic, Mr. Goldhaber said. But he said that such tests
would create a uniform "outcome measure" for studies of education reform.
So a study by a local university of reforms in Cincinnati, for example,
could easily be compared with studies of similar reforms in other cities.

The field of education research should develop a prestigious, high-quality
flagship journal, argued several speakers. Mr. Goldhaber said that a
flagship journal would make it easier for policy makers and the news media
to quickly assess the quality of controversial education studies. Jeffrey
Henig, a professor of political science at Columbia University and a
professor of education at its Teachers College, agreed that such a journal
is needed, but worried that no association or university was in a position
to make it happen. "Who has the incentive to create such a thing?" he

The formal papers presented at the conference are available at the
institute's Web site.

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