School & District Management

Researchers, Under Congressional Glare, Trumpet Progress

By Debra Viadero — February 06, 2002 3 min read
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At a time when federal lawmakers are shining a harsh spotlight on educational research, a group of leading researchers gathered here recently to celebrate some of the field’s successes over the past 30 years.

“Judging from what we’ve heard here, we can say that knowledge does accumulate in education, and some of us were worried about that,” said Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, the president of the Spencer Foundation, which hosted the Jan. 24-25 meeting here. The Chicago-based foundation is the only major philanthropy that concentrates solely on nurturing education research across a wide range of disciplines. It also underwrites coverage of education research topics in Education Week.

Last month’s conference had two purposes: to commemorate the organization’s 30th birthday and to provide some of the intellectual underpinnings for the foundation as it plans a more targeted approach to underwriting research in the future.

“This follows from my concern that education research has been all over the map,” said Ms. Lagemann. “There have been a million firecrackers and no organized fireworks.”

The event took place about three weeks after President Bush signed into law the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “Law Mandates Scientific Base for Research,” Jan. 30, 2002.

Besides calling on states to have in place student-testing and accountability programs, the law requires practices based on research for everything from professional development to the hiring of school security guards. The new mandates reflect federal lawmakers’ concerns that too many educational practices are based on intuition rather than evidence, and their suspicions that educational research lacks the scientific rigor of some other fields, such as medicine.

At the same time, national education research groups have begun—or are beginning—to take steps to synthesize what is known from education research or to better define what counts as high-quality research.

Making an Impact

At this month’s meeting, some of the field’s most distinguished scholars presented papers outlining the education research advances in their own disciplines, which ranged from psychology to sociology.

They pointed, for example, to successes in: probing how children think and acquire language; developing new forms of assessments; describing classroom life; building a research community focused on mathematical education; and understanding how school practices, such as tracking, contribute to inequities among students.

“Tracking research has affected awareness,” said James E. Rosenbaum, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “Many people are aware of tracking, of its association with social background, and its influence on later educational attainment.” Outside of academic journals, he added, “very few people had this awareness in 1970.”

A recent, hopeful development in cognitive science, added Kurt W. Fischer, a professor of human development and psychology at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, has been the creation of mathematical models that can predict students’ learning patterns.

“This promises to produce a new kind of cognitive science which could be very important,” he said.

But Richard Rothstein, an economist who writes on education matters for The New York Times, also offered the group a provocative reminder that educators’ ability to improve the next generation’s chances in life may be limited.

“We cannot seriously believe that school can fully compensate for the educational disadvantages of children from lower social classes,” he said.

Yet the national debate swirling around education—for instance, the idea that college and high academic standards are for everyone—suggests that schools can do just that, he added. Unless such “out of balance” convictions are set right, he added, schools will inevitably be seen to fail.

To follow up its look back on education, the foundation is planning a second conference in May to sketch out the field’s needs and opportunities in the decade ahead. The philanthropy also announced plans to convene a “roundtable” in Chicago to foster more collaboration among the researchers and educators working in that city’s public schools, and to enlist 11 universities in developing common standards for training future education scholars.

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Researchers, Under Congressional Glare, Trumpet Progress

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