The Department of Education convened a new national research advisory board last week that has high hopes of injecting more “science” into the study of schooling.
The 15-member National Board of Education Sciences—made up of prominent researchers, business executives, and school administrators—was established in 2002 when Congress overhauled the department’s educational research functions. The Education Sciences Reform Act abolished the department’s office of educational research and improvement, or OERI, and replaced it with a new Institute of Education Sciences that lawmakers hoped would buffer federally financed educational research from prevailing politics and education fads.
The board’s job is to independently advise the institute’s director, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, on the direction and priorities his agency should set. But at the group’s Feb. 8-9 inaugural meeting here, several members made clear that the Bush administration’s ongoing mission of transforming education into an “evidence-based science” is one they endorse.
The members of the newly constituted National Board for Education Sciences are:
Robert C. Granger (chairman),
the president of the William T. Grant Foundation, based in New York City
R. Philip Handy (vice chairman),
the chairman of the Florida state board of education and a co-chairman of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2002 re-election campaign
Jon Baron, the executive director of the Washington-based Council for Excellence in Government
Beth Ann Bryan, a former senior adviser to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and now senior education adviser in Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld law firm
Carol D’Amico, the chancellor of Ivy Tech State College-Central Indiana and a former U.S. Education Department assistant secretary for vocational and adult education under President Bush
James R. Davis, the superintendent of the Hattiesburg, Miss., schools
Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution
Caroline B. Hoxby, an economics professor at Harvard University
Jerry Lee, the president of WBEB 101 FM in Philadelphia and the founder of the Jerry Lee Center for Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania
Robert I. Lopez, the superintendent and principal of the George I. Sanchez Charter High School in Houston
R. James Milgram, a mathematics professor at Stanford University
Sally E. Shaywitz, a pediatrics professor at the Yale University School of Medicine
Joseph K. Torgesen, a professor of psychology and education at Florida State University in Tallahassee
Herbert J. Walberg, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution
SOURCE: Institute of Education Sciences
“I am passionate about converting education into a field where a critical mass of people know the difference between quack medicine and real medicine,” Caroline M. Hoxby, a Harvard University economist whose research focuses on education, told fellow board members.
What worries some outsiders, though, is how the new board will define science. The Bush administration, through its centerpiece No Child Left Behind Act and related reading programs, has put a priority on randomized controlled trials—experiments, in other words, that involve randomly assigning subjects to either a treatment or a control group. Some researchers fear that the new emphasis leaves little room for other forms of research, such as descriptive studies, that might afford a better ground-level view of schools and classrooms.
Of the 14 board members sworn in last week, several are active advocates of randomized experiments. They include Jon Baron, the executive director of the nonpartisan, Washington-based Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, and Jerry Lee, a Philadelphia radio station owner who supports efforts to step up randomized experiments in the social sciences.
“This board is clearly chosen to send a message that favors researchers who prefer a narrow definition of scientifically based research,” Kenji Hakuta, the dean of the education school at the University of California-Merced and the former head of the old OERI board, said in an e-mail.
Mr. Baron, however, said he sees the board as more balanced than critics do.
“I think it cuts across econometric research to randomized trials and everything in between,” he said.
Other observers said they were heartened that some board members and department officials had also expressed a need to be practical and realistic in their quest for more rigorous education research.
For instance, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told board members, “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
In form, the new board has some differences from its predecessor. It contains a few more researchers—eight as opposed to five on the old OERI board. And several of the scholars on the new board were trained in fields outside education, such as economics and medicine.
Some members also have close ties to the Bush administration. They include two former department officials and a former campaign adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, the president’s brother.
Unlike the old board, whose members were appointed by the secretary of education, the new board’s nominees are selected by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
The process was changed, in part, to elevate the board’s status.
But some department officials blamed the new nomination procedures for the two years it took to put a board in place.
C. Kent McGuire, who was the assistant secretary of education in charge of the OERI under President Clinton, said the long wait in convening the board means its members will have some catching up to do to make an imprint on the Institute of Education Sciences. That’s because Mr. Whitehurst, out of necessity, had to set much of the agency’s agenda without a board in place.
“There’s no getting around the fact that some bets have already been placed,” said Mr. McGuire, who is now dean of the school of education at Temple University in Philadelphia.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Education Sciences Board Convenes for First Time