Research Group Taps Director; Sets Agenda on Studies

By Debra Viadero — December 10, 2003 4 min read
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Three years ago, the National Research Council called for an ambitious, 15- year strategy for creating a research-and-development system for education.

With the naming of a founding director and a research agenda last week, that vision of a vehicle to support serious, sustained, and practical-minded studies inched closer to reality.

“Learning and Instruction: A SERP Research Agenda” is available online from the National Academies Press. Information on ordering copies of the report is also available.

John S. Reed, the interim chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, will serve as the founding director of the Strategic Education Research Partnership, as the initiative has been dubbed.

Mr. Reed, 64, said in an interview last week that he is actively looking for someone to replace him on Wall Street so that he can step into his education- research post early next year.

Bruce Albert, the president of the National Academies of Sciences, which is the umbrella group that houses the NRC, and Joe B. Wyatt, the chancellor emeritus of Vanderbilt University, will also sit on the institute’s founding board, according to M. Suzanne Donovan, the SERP project director.

Lawyers are drawing up papers to establish the institute as an independent, nonprofit organization, she added.

Once the enterprise is up and running next year, NRC officials hope to build an organization that will eventually function much like the National Institutes of Health, coordinating and funding large-scale studies closely tied to practice in the field (“Panel Suggests State Compact for Research,” April 9, 2003.)

Unlike the federal research institutes, however, the SERP would operate as a compact among states interested in finding research-based practices and tools they can use to improve their schools.

States Would Chip In

The hope is that foundation support in the early years will help get the research institute off the ground. Once they see the “proof of product,” though, states would be asked to chip in a share of their education money to keep the institute going.

Getting to the point where states start to pay, Mr. Reed estimated, will require an investment of $500 million to $700 million over seven years.

“There are lots of initiatives going on to improve education. The thing that’s unique about SERP is we’re talking about getting into classrooms in a usable way,” said Mr. Reed, who was the chairman and chief executive officer of the Citigroup financial-services company from 1994 to 1998.

To guide the institute in that mission, the NRC last week released a proposed agenda for studies in learning and instruction that could benefit from the institute’s sponsorship. The 188-page plan was crafted over the course of a year by a panel of 18 practitioners and prominent researchers.

“These are places where we know some things or where we don’t know some things and where strategic investments in research would seem to pay off,” said James W. Pellegrino, the University of Illinois-Chicago professor who headed the group.

The report singles out early reading, for instance, as a “downstream” area—one where there is already a substantial knowledge base, but more needs to be done to give that knowledge some traction in the classroom.

“What we don’t have yet are the sort of coherent models for teachers to fully implement that instruction,” added Mr. Pellegrino. “Nor do we know completely what is needed to orchestrate and manage that instruction in the classroom.”

In comparison, reading comprehension is an “upstream” area, the panel concluded, because much more work needs to be done before experts have a basic understanding of how to improve it.

Likewise, in science, the report says experts know a lot about effective ways of teaching high school physics. What research has yet to determine is whether those approaches work with a wide range of students and what teachers need to know to reproduce such instruction in their own classes.

The knowledge gaps are much wider, on the other hand, when it comes to figuring out how best to organize and teach science, in general, across all grades. Researchers also face an “upstream” search for knowledge on teaching algebra, the report says, because little is known now about what kinds of content algebra courses should include or about research-based alternatives for teaching it.

“If we want to talk about education becoming an evidence-based practice, we need a larger evidence base,” Mr. Pellegrino said.

Learning and instruction is the first of three proposed networks the SERP institute seeks to support. The others, which do not yet have developed agendas, would focus on schools as organizations and on education policy.

Made up of scientists and practitioners working in concert at field sites around the country, the networks will form the heart of the research enterprise.

The project’s official launch comes at a time when states are grappling with budget deficits and facing unprecedented pressure to quickly improve test scores.

“That makes this effort even more challenging,” said Ted Sanders, a member of an NRC committee that fleshed out the SERP vision in a report last spring. He is the chairman of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“But this idea is good enough and powerful enough that it’s got a fighting chance to come into being,” he continued. “The test will come pretty quickly in the next year to year and a half.”

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