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Bush Chooses Childhood-Literacy Expert To Head OERI

By Debra Viadero — April 25, 2001 3 min read
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Researchers last week praised President Bush’s plan to nominate Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst as the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

Mr. Whitehurst, the chairman of the psychology department at State University of New York at Stony Brook, is an expert in early-childhood literacy. His work on how children acquire language and literacy skills has aided in the development of the federal Head Start program for preschoolers from poor families.

That focus fits in with the president’s call to establish “scientifically based” reading programs to ensure that all students read by 3rd grade.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige, in a press release commenting on last week’s announcement of Mr. Whitehurst’s selection, called him an “excellent choice” to head the office of educational research and improvement.

“I look forward to working with Russ Whitehurst to advance, organize, and disseminate new information on how children learn and how schools should teach,” he said.

If the Senate confirms Mr. Whitehurst’s nomination, education researchers said, it will mark one of the few times that one of their own has headed the research office during its 22-year existence. Recent assistant secretaries in charge of that office have included a foundation officer, a teachers’ union official, and an education historian.

“I’m really delighted that we have a person of stellar research background to head this agency, and this is really an important time for research in education reform,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University researcher who heads a national board created to advise the department on its research operations.

“It’s very exciting to see a serious, experienced researcher as head of OERI, and someone who understands literacy as deeply as Russ does,” said Catherine A. Snow, the immediate past president of the American Educational Research Association. An expert on children’s reading herself, she is a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

If researchers have any concern about the nomination, added Gerald E. Sroufe, the government-relations director for the Washington-based AERA, it is that, at least in theory, Mr. Whitehurst’s reading research background could lead to a narrowing of the office’s agenda.

“A focused agenda is one thing, but if you’re only going to do research on reading, that’s a very narrow and unsatisfactory mission for an education-research agency,” Mr. Sroufe said.

History of Criticism

Mr. Whitehurst’s selection comes as members of Congress begin to eye plans to overhaul the OERI, which has persistently suffered from criticism that the studies it funds are too vulnerable to political manipulation. The $824-million-a-year research agency is up for reauthorization this year or next.

“Anybody coming in is going to have to take a good, hard look at OERI and where it should go,” said Maris A. Vinovskis, an education historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. An adviser to the new administration, he has also written critically of the agency.

“Now, with the Bush administration so interested in reading, hopefully, this will put OERI back in the forefront of administration and national concerns,” he added.

Because his nomination is pending, Mr. Whitehurst, 56, declined to comment last week other than to say he was honored to be Mr. Bush’s choice.

A member of the faculty at SUNY-Stony Brook since 1970, Mr. Whitehurst holds graduate degrees from the University of Illinois and an undergraduate degree from East Carolina University in his native North Carolina. His extensive writings include academic publications as well as more reader-friendly articles written for parents and teachers of young children.

As of press time last week, the administration had announced its choices for the department’s deputy secretary, undersecretary, and three of eight assistant secretaries. (“Education Offices Empty
as Nominations Drag,”
April 18, 2001.)

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bush Chooses Childhood-Literacy Expert To Head OERI

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