Researchers Have Inside Track in Md. District

By Robert Rothman — January 16, 1991 6 min read

Rockville, Md--When school officials in this affluent Washington suburb grew concerned that few women and minorities appeared to participate in higher-level mathematics courses, they commissioned a study to find out why.

But the Montgomery County Public Schools officials did not hire a university researcher to conduct the research. Instead, like a growing number of districts, officials here simply went downstairs and asked the district’s own research team to do the job.

Using a grant from the National Science Foundation, the district’s department of educational accountability analyzed test scores for 28,000 pupils and found that black and Hispanic students fall behind their white and Asian peers as early as the 3rd grade, and that the gap widens steadily throughout elementary school.

Though larger than most, the math study, which was released in 1988, is typical of the kind of analyses the 12-year-old office conducts, according to Joy A. Frechtling, the department’s director.

“We’ve done a lot of hard-nosed looks at what’s going on,” she says. “Sometimes, we provide information neither the superintendent nor the board wants to hear.”

Such information has been “very valuable,” says Blair Ewing, a longtime school-board member and its current president, in large part because it comes from a perspective few university researchers can offer.

Researchers for the school district “bring to the task an accumulation of knowledge,” he says, “based on a number of prior studies and a familiarity with the school system.”

“Outsiders are not likely to have that information unless we employed them on a regular basis,” Mr. Ewing adds.

While a number of districts have established in-house offices to conduct research, the department of educational accountability in this 103,700-pupil district is one of the largest and most active.

With a staff of 30 and a budget of $2.2 million, it is larger than many university departments. And it is well-respected in the research community: The study of math achievement was one of the first research grants the nsf ever awarded to a district.

Created in 1978 by former Superintendent Charles Bernardo, the department of educational accountability was aimed at bringing under one roof program evaluators, testing officials, and financial auditors, and having the researchers report directly to the superintendent and the board.

The goal, according to Ms. Frechtling, was to create a “critical mass” of researchers who could provide a “no-holds-barred evaluation of what’s happening in whatever area they wanted to look at.”

In practice, she says, the arrangement has allowed the office to be more independent than the previous setup, in which researchers were more closely tied to their particular programs.

At the same time, she says, the office has sparked “synergism” among the team of researchers.

“It provides an opportunity for powerful interchange among folks who use data,” she says.

But Ms. Frechtling, who is a vice president of the American Educational Research Association, also points out that the district’s researchers stay in contact with researchers from other districts and from universities and think tanks.

“We try not to be parochial,” she says. “We’re not inventing things. There’s too much out there.”

The accountability department’s status also provides access to policymakers that university researchers seldom share, Ms. Frechtling notes.

“The areas we choose to investigate, we are told,” she says. “The superintendent or the board ask us to do a study. They have a question they want answered.”

“In this situation,” she continues, “as opposed to other research and evaluation, we don’t have to ask the question, ‘Why are we doing this study?”’

“We rarely get the sense our results are not used,” she adds. “Our recommendations may be rejected; I’m not saying we have a 100 percent hit rate. But by and large, what we do gets discussed, debated, thought through, and frequently acted upon.”

Mr. Ewing agrees, and notes that he welcomes even the bad news the office provides.

“I am one who believes we need to know what the facts are and what our options are,” the board president says. “It’s a way of permitting us to address problems before they become insuperable. That’s what boards of education ought to be doing.”

The nsf study of math achievement is a good example. As a result of that research, Ms. Frechtling points out, the district, along with the University of Maryland, sought and won another nsf grant to reform its math program.

Mr. Ewing also praises the quality of the department’s work, and notes that it is often less costly than high-quality research conducted under contract.

That is because the district could not afford to pay the salaries research “stars"t demand, Ms. Frechtling adds.

“We’re not spending the megabucks that comes from the feds, or others,” she says.

But Montgomery County did last year ask a prominent psychologist, Edmund W. Gordon of Yale University, to conduct an in-depth analysis of the district’s programs for minority students.

Ms. Frechtling says his report was welcome.

“It’s always good to get someone from outside to take a fresh look,’' she says. “We ain’t that smart.”

The district’s research office also maintains close ties to the schools, Ms. Frecht6ling says.

As part of the department’s charter, an advisory group composed of representatives from teachers’, administrators’, parents’, and other groups--as well as two outside experts--monitors its activities. The oversight group helps ensure that interested parties within the school system are informed of ongoing studies.

“No one says, ‘Oh, goody, the evaluators are coming,”’ Ms. Frechtling acknowledges. “But by and large, people do cooperate.”

By contrast, she says, many university researchers’ agendas often conflict withschool schedules. For example, she notes, over one recent two-week period, she received three separate requests by researchers to conduct surveys of student drug use.

“We have to realize the primary purpose [of the schools] is to educate kids,” she says. “It’s not to fill out surveys, talk to researchers, and take multiple-choice questionnaires on how many drugs you are using.”

While its primary purpose remains to provide information for policymakers, the accountability office is also shifting its foel10lcus to become more “user friendly” to practitioners, Ms. Frechtling notes.

Under one project, modeled after a U.S. Education Department recognition program, the district researchers identify, validate, and disseminate successful practices.

If a school claims, for example, to have implemented an effective way of raising achievement or attendance, the research office will interview the school staff members and pull together data to determine if it is in fact successful.

“If we would ask schools [to do that], we wouldn’t get any takers,” Ms. Frechtling says.

Schools whose programs are identified as effective and disseminated countywide are awarded $5,000 bonuses, she points out.

Another new project, linked to the district’s restructuring program, provides technical assistance to schools to help them set up their own evaluation systems.

Mr. Gordon of Yale suggested in his study that the department could do more to help improve the schools. For example, he proposed, the office could establish a computerized data system to enable officials to track student, classroom, and teacher progress.

That way, “if there needs to be a midstream correction, it’s possible,” he says.

In addition, Mr. Gordon recommended the accountability department devote more attention to research and development, as well as to program evaluation. Such enterprises, although more costly, are appropriate for in-house researchers, he says.

“There is a continuing debate in the research community over whether that stuff should be farmed out or done inside,” he points out. “Most industries that invest in R&D do it internally. If anything is farmed out, it’s evaluation.”

Mr. Ewing, the board president, also says that district officials should become more aggressive in identifying areas the research office should investigate.

“I wouldn’t want to rely exclusively on the department of educational accountability,” the board president says, “but it is an immensely valuable tool for the board.”

“My only concern is that the board ought to make fuller use of it,” he says.

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 1991 edition of Education Week as Researchers Have Inside Track in Md. District