Ed. Dept. Picks Groups To Develop Database Of Effective Practices

By Debra Viadero — September 04, 2002 4 min read
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As part of its campaign to make education an evidence-based endeavor, the Department of Education has awarded an $18.5 million contract to a group of researchers and education organizations to build a national clearinghouse on “what works” in schools.

When it’s up and running over the next year or two, federal officials say, the What Works computer database will give educators and the public the lowdown on the scientific research undergirding a wide range of programs, tests, practices, and policies.

“It’s extremely important if education is going to move toward an evidence- based practice to have a central source in education for what evidence can be trusted,” said Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

“Now, everybody that has a product in education says the product is research-based, and people have no way of knowing whether that’s true,” added Mr. Whitehurst, whose office is overseeing the new effort.

The launch of the clearinghouse comes as educational administrators are gearing up to comply with the new requirements in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The law requires states and districts to use only those programs and practices that can be backed up by “scientifically based” research—a tough task for educators who have neither the time nor the expertise to pore over the research literature on all the programs they encounter.

To develop and manage the clearinghouse, the department last month chose two groups that have already tried their hand at synthesizing social science studies: the Campbell Collaboration, a fledgling international research group based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the American Institutes for Research, or AIR, a Washington-based think tank.

Led by Robert F. Boruch, an education and statistics professor at the university, the Campbell group was formed three years ago for the sole purpose of gathering experimental studies from around the world on social science interventions, systematically reviewing them, and distilling nuggets of truth that policymakers and practitioners can use. (“Research: Focusing In on Teachers,” April 3, 2002.)

AIR gained national attention in 1999 for its Consumer Reports-style ratings on the research underlying popular programs.

Three other organizations—Aspen Systems of Rockville, Md.; Caliber Associates of Fairfax, Va.; and the Education Quality Institute, based in Washington—are assisting in the five-year contract.

What Studies Count?

The clearinghouse will eventually contain five databases that educators and the general public can access at the touch of a keyboard. The databases will house: potentially replicable programs, products, and practices for schools; lists of the evaluation studies linked to those interventions; research reviews of educational approaches and policies; analyses of testing programs; and names of evaluators willing to review educational interventions.

In addition, department officials say, the clearinghouse will be able to produce as many as five “fast track” reviews a year that are aimed at getting policymakers quick answers to pressing educational questions.

A still-to-be-answered question for the project is how to determine which studies to include in its reviews. While some experts argue for using only those that employ randomized field trials and other experimentally based methods, others want to cast the net wider to include more descriptive kinds of studies.

Although Mr. Whitehurst expects the clearinghouse to eventually settle on criteria emphasizing experimental approaches, he said the final standards would be determined by an outside panel of 10 research experts.

That issue is critical in education because good evaluations are rare and pure scientific experiments are even rarer. When AIR reviewed reform programs three years ago, it turned up only three with strong research bases.

Nonetheless, Rebecca S. Herman, who led the earlier study and is heading AIR’s part in the new clearinghouse, said she expects the pickings to be better this time around.

“The last couple of years, there’s been a lot of interest in what is high-quality research,” she said, “and I think the field has moved forward a little bit.”

Establishing the clearinghouse is also a politically delicate venture for the department because the federal agency is barred by law from recommending specific curricula. Some previous attempts to highlight promising educational programs, in fact, have run into heated controversy.

By relying on hard science, however, Mr. Whitehurst says the clearinghouse can avoid such pitfalls. “It’s not in the end a judgmental process, though, of course, humans will be involved,” he said.

The proof will be in the clearinghouse’s products, the first of which are expected to go online within a year.

“It’s going to take time to assure that we’ve got these standards well articulated,” Mr. Boruch of the Campbell Collaboration said, “and that they are made transparent, and that people have an opportunity to comment on them.”


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