Finn Names E.D. Research Chief

By Tom Mirga — February 12, 1986 4 min read

Sally B. Kilgore, one of the authors of a controversial 1981 study that asserted the superiority of private schools, has been named director of research for the Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement.

Ms. Kilgore, now an assistant professor of sociology at Emory University, will oversee the office’s educational laboratories and centers. She will also coordinate research projects in areas such as teaching, the education of disadvantaged students, postsecondary assessment, and the effects of recent state-initiated education reforms.

Many of the post’s responsibilities were previously handled by Manuel J. Justiz, who stepped down last spring as director of the National Institute of Education. The institute was abolished and its functions transferred to other offices within the O.E.R.I. four months ago, after the reorganization of the department’s research and statistical activities.

In announcing the appointment of Ms. Kilgore last week, Chester E. Finn Jr., the assistant secretary who heads the O.E.R.I., called her “a first-rate sociologist as well as an authority on many areas of educational research.”

“She is also a savvy, energetic executive who knows how to enlist the additional expertise that will prove vital to improving the quality an usefulness of O.E.R.I.'s research enterprise,” he said in a prepared statement.

Ms. Kilgore has been involved in a variety of education studies for such sponsors as the National Catholic Educational Association, the Markle Foundation, and Abt Associates of Cambridge, Mass. She is currently one of the principal investigators for a two-year study--titled “School Effects on the Learning of Science and Mathematics"--sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

But she is perhaps best known for her work with the sociologist James S. Coleman on the report “Public and Private Schools.” The hotly debated study concluded that private school&-in part because they were found to have lower rates of absenteeism and to require more rigorous courses and more homework--do a better job of educating children than do public schools.

In one of their most controversial findings, Ms. Kilgore and her collaborators also concluded that black and Hispanic parents, if given government education subsidies of some $1,000 a year, would be more likely to choose private over public education for their children. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1981.) The report, which was commissioned by the National Center for Education Statistics as part of its massive longitudinal study “High School and Beyond,” came under fire from a number of sources almost immediately after its release in draft form in 1981.

Following criticism of the study’s methodology, the researchers acknowledged “several reporting deficiencies” in their work. A revised draft of the report was published as a book in 1982, under the title High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Other Private Schools Compared.

Most of the criticism of the research was leveled against Mr. Coleman, the principal investigator, whose landmark 1966 report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” sparked a continuing debate over the ability of schools to significantly affect the academic achievement of poor and minority students.

Mr. Finn, who wrote in defense of “Public and Private Schools” the year of the report’s release, is said to have contacted Mr. Coleman last fall to determine whether he was interested in assuming the O.E.R.I. research position.

Despite the widespread criticism of the 1981 study, a number of researchers last week characterized it as an important and influential piece of research. In addition, most of them praised Ms. Kilgore’s qualifications for her new post.

‘Community Impressed’

“The scientific community was very impressed with the way that she handled herself and the criticism” that followed the release of the report, said David Berliner, professor of educational psychology at Arizona State University and president of the American Educational Research Association, of which Ms. Kilgore is a member.

“She acted like a fine sociologist, and handled the situation in an exemplary fashion,” he continued. “Her reputation was enhanced by her handling of this thing.”

Mr. Berliner said Ms. Kilgore was one of several researchers whom the A.E.R.A. recommended for the position. He said the list of candidates was prepared by polling a sampling of the association’s members, who were asked to nominate academicians who had “solid scientific credentials” and “would not be ideologically unacceptable” to the Reagan Administration.

Key Jobs Now Filled

Ms. Kilgore’s appointment was the last of five key personnel decisions made by Mr. Finn following the O.E.RI. reorganization. The four other top directors, named earlier, are:

  • James Bencivenga, former education editor of The Christian Science Monitor, now head of the office of information services.
  • Emerson J. Elliott, a veteran civil servant who served several stints as acting director of the National Institute of Education, now director of the Center for Statistics.
  • Milton Goldberg, who was executive director of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, now in charge of the department’s “Programs for the Improvement of Practice.”
  • Anne J. Matthews, formerly a professor in the University of Denver’s graduate school of librarianship and information management, now head of the office of library programs.

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1986 edition of Education Week