School & District Management

National Panel’s Research Blueprint Draws Good Reviews

By Debra Viadero — October 20, 2004 3 min read
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A national panel of researchers was getting high marks last week for its report sketching out ways to improve scientific studies in education.

“Advancing Scientific Research in Education,” from the National Research Council, is posted by the National Academies Press.

The report, issued earlier this month by the National Research Council, outlines 13 recommendations, some of them groundbreaking and others reflecting long-held, if not always practiced, principles for the field.

Among its bolder statements, the report calls on education scholars to share their data so study findings can be replicated and reanalyzed.

It also urges publishers of research journals to provide free public access to the studies they publish. And it outlines a vision for cultivating education researchers who are grounded in both educational issues and in the research methods and content of more traditional academic disciplines, such as psychology, economics, or history.

“This is the first of what needs to be a series of steps,” said Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a member of a NRC panel on education research and the dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education. “We really looked at the low-hanging fruit.”

While important, Ms. Lagemann and others said, some of the recommendations also present challenges for education researchers and those who finance, train, and support them.

Grover J. Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, noted, for instance, that privacy protections could be put at risk when researchers start sharing more data.

The department already allows researchers limited use of the data it collects through the National Center for Education Statistics. Mr. Whitehurst said he also wants to require research contractors who work with his agency to make their data available to other qualified researchers. But it could be pose a problem, he added, to hold the individual researchers who get institute grants to the same standards.

“When we collect data on [the federal program] Reading First, for example, we can protect privacy with respect to those data,” he said. “For researchers who collect data on a couple hundred students in a particular elementary school, the privacy issues may be more vexing.”

‘Sound and Useful’

Still, the report maintains that studies need to be replicated and reviewed in order to build a reliable knowledge base for the field. And it suggests that education may lag behind the social sciences when it comes to encouraging scholars to share and share alike.

For instance, the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association, the American Anthropological Association, and the American Sociological Association all promote data sharing, according to the report. The American Educational Research Association, the nation’s largest group for educational researchers, does not.

But Felice Levine, the director of the Washington-based education researchers’ group, said the contrast may stem more from differences in timing among the professional groups, rather than differences of opinion on the need to make data widely available.

“I don’t see other associations sharing different norms than AERA does or researchers in our field do,” she said. “The basic message that these are important arenas for research societies to explicate, draft, shape, and promote is sound and useful.”

The report’s call for journal publishers to make studies publicly available for free online also follows on the heels of a burgeoning “open access” movement in other fields, such as medicine. But that recommendation could mean a loss of revenue for some long-established publishers, acknowledged Lisa Towne, the director of the National Research Council’s 14-member committee on research in education, which produced the report. The research council is a branch of the congressionally established National Academies in Washington.

To defray the revenue loss, Ms. Towne said, some open-access advocates call for shifting publication costs for federally funded studies from readers to authors. “The argument is that the federal government in some sense paid for the work once—so why should consumers have to buy it again?” she said.

Experts were harder pressed, though, to tell how much the committee’s recommendations for training education researchers depart from current practice.

University programs for developing education researchers vary widely. Some require students to get all their training in schools of education; others favor more interdisciplinary approaches.

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