School & District Management

Whitehurst Aims to Retool Education Research

By Debra Viadero — September 05, 2001 7 min read
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Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the Department of Education’s new assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, has a department chairmanship in psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, 145 academic publications to his name, and a solid reputation among his fellow researchers.

So why is he putting it all aside to head one of the Education Department’s smaller and more beleaguered offices?

The answer, Mr. Whitehurst said in a recent interview after the Senate easily confirmed his nomination, has something to do with putting his money where his mouth is.

“As a researcher, I’ve often talked about how the federal government is not doing as good a job as it should be doing in marshaling researchers to respond to the practical needs of the field,” he said. “Somebody called me on that.”

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst says that as an education researcher, he often complained about how previous Department of Education regimes ran their research operation. Now it’s his job to solve those problems.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

If Mr. Whitehurst feels compelled to make good on his words, he may be joining the federal agency at the right time. After being overhauled in 1995, the office of educational research and improvement is ripe for change again.

It’s overdue to be reauthorized by Congress and at least one key Congressional lawmaker, Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Delaware Republican who chairs the House subcommittee charged with overseeing the research office, has made it clear that he intends to use the opportunity to try shaking up the way the federal government directs and pay for education studies.

Department-financed studies in education have, over the years, drawn a litany of complaints. Critics contend that they are poorly done, politically suspect, underfunded, underutilized, and too far removed from the real needs of classroom educators and policymakers to make a difference.

The 56-year-old assistant secretary, whose own work on how young children acquire language and literacy skills has been funded largely through the Department of Health and Human Services, does not entirely disagree.

“There’s quite a range of quality in the research activities and products I’ve looked at—from products that are outstanding to those where one wonders why they were funded in the first place,” Mr. Whitehurst said. “We certainly need to raise the bar at the lower end.”

Interviewed Aug. 6 during a break between staff meetings, Mr. Whitehurst was not yet saying how his office might do that. Much of his time his first few weeks on the job has been spent coordinating and developing the department’s position on what a reshaped, reauthorized OERI should look like. He hopes to have some recommendations ready later this month when the House Subcommittee on Education Reform holds its second hearing of this congressional session to take up the matter.

He agrees, however, with experts who say that the 330-person office desperately needs an infusion of seasoned researchers. Scholars of federal education research history say the office has never recovered from losing a quarter of its most senior researchers to early retirement in the early 1990s.

“The challenge is not only the reauthorizing of OERI, but the rebuilding of OERI,” said Gerald E. Sroufe, the government- relations director for the Washington-based American Educational Research Association.

But Mr. Whitehurst envisions recruiting new research talent for already vacant slots. Asking Congress for big funding increases—for new positions or for anything else—is not high on his immediate agenda, he said.

“A fundamental part of the job is to demonstrate that we can do better with the money we’ve got, and for that to serve as the foundation for increases in federal education research expenditures in the future,” he argued.

That stance potentially puts him at odds with fellow researchers and even some congressional supporters who have long pointed to the paltry size of the federal investment in education research compared with that for other areas of research. Only about $200 million of the OERI’s nearly $954 million budget directly pays for research.

That’s because the office houses a wide range of programs that are better described as “improvement” programs rather than “research.” Those include the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program, a grant program for states aiming to experiment with proven whole- school improvement programs, and regional education laboratories, which provide more technical help to school districts and state agencies than actual research.

Most of the office’s direct support of research comes through federally funded research centers and its program for field-initiated studies. Although it operates independently, the National Center for Education Statistics, which is best known for its extensive data-gathering efforts, also falls under the OERI’ s budget umbrella.

Referring to Mr. Whitehurst’s argument against seeking immediate, major funding increases, Thomas K. Glennan Jr., who headed the National Institute on Education, the forerunner to the OERI, in the early 1970s, said: “It’s a very responsible position to take.”

“But if the funding can’t be increased, I don’t think you’ll improve the quality of research that gets supported by OERI,” added Mr. Glennan, now a senior adviser for education policy in the Washington office of the RAND Corp.

A Defining Question

Funding is not the only point on which Mr. Whitehurst may diverge from his research colleagues. He’s also not averse to congressional attempts to improve the quality of education research by writing a definition of “scientifically based research” into federal education law. Education research advocates contend that many of the definitions crafted so far would cut off important lines of research because they are too narrow.

“My personal feeling is that we do not need detailed, specific definitions of research quality in federal legislation for an educational research agency any more than we do for the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation,” Mr. Whitehurst said. “But I don’t think harm will be done by providing definitions if there are policy people or political people who will find it useful. To the extent that there is skepticism about the value of educational research, I understand that a definition of the enterprise is important.”

What the research agency needs more than money, Mr. Whitehurst says, is greater focus. The focus of his own 30-plus years of work in academia dovetails neatly with President Bush’s call for “scientifically based” reading programs to ensure that all students read by 3rd grade, and with first lady Laura Bush’s interest in young children’s cognitive development. (“Laura Bush: A Teacher in The (White) House,” Aug. 8, 2001.)

Mr. Whitehurst’s own studies suggest that acquiring key “prereading” skills during the preschool years can help children become better readers later on. He also sat on the National Research Council panel that last year produced the report “Eager to Learn: Educating our Preschoolers,” which called for a better-organized system of preschools in the United States.

“A large number of preschool educators and parents understand the need to introduce more cognitive learning at the preschool level, but don’t understand how to do that,” the assistant secretary said. “So we need a research agenda around those questions.”

He added, though, that his office’s efforts in that area would not draw “disproportionate” resources from other programs of study at the agency.

Mr. Whitehurst is not the only working researcher to have taken on the federal government’s top education research job. But he is notable for bringing a strong background in quantitative-research methodology.

Previous OERI assistant secretaries have included a foundation officer, a teachers’ union official, an education historian, and a former congressional staff member.

If accepting a political appointment is an odd twist to a long career as an objective researcher, it won’t be the first time Mr. Whitehurst has stepped off the path he set for himself.

Born in the small town of Washington, N.C., to a homemaker and a fireman, Mr. Whitehurst entered East Carolina University in 1962 as a music major.

“I had everything I needed to succeed,” he joked, “except talent.” Psychology looked like the next best thing.

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