Institute of Education Sciences’ Board Calls Agency’s Past 5 Years a Success

By Debra Viadero — November 25, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

During his last week in office, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the recently departed director of the U.S. Department of Education’s top research agency, got a going-away present: a glowing five-year evaluation from the independent board that advises his agency.

Posted online Nov. 20, the congressionally mandated report credits the 6-year-old Institute of Education Sciences for improving the quality of federally financed education studies and attempting to make its work more relevant.

“A new direction has been set for education research,” the 15-member National Board for Education Sciences concludes in its report. “We now need to stay on course.”

Created in 2002 by an act of Congress, the IES took on the mission of transforming education into an evidence-based field, much like medicine.

Some critics complained that the agency focused too much on a research method known as randomized controlled trials, while giving short shrift to other approaches. Department officials defended the emphasis on such experiments, which involve randomly assigning participants to either experimental or control groups, as the “gold standard” for determining if an intervention works.

In its report, the board, whose members were all nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate, said the institute’s early emphasis was well placed. “The only way for research to improve student outcomes is for the research to be of high quality,” the report states.

It also notes, contrary to the widespread perception about the agency’s single-minded focus on experimental work, that only a quarter of the research grants the agency approved from 2003 to 2008 fell into that category.

Tracking Quality

Year | Percent
2001 | 36
2002 | 50
2003 | 70
2004 | 70

The percentage of new research and evaluation projects that were deemed to be of high quality by an independent review panel rose after 2001, the year before the Institute of Education Sciences was established, a new review says.


In 2004, the scores of one review were extreme outliers—greater than 3.8 standard deviations below the average ratings of the other reviewers. If these scores were included, the percentage of new projects deemed to be of high quality would be 60 percent.

Note: IES projects reported in this table exclude grants funded through the National Center for Special Education Research.

SOURCE: Institute of Education Sciences

Such experiments do account for the lion’s share of work financed by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, one of the four centers under the IES’ umbrella. That is because the NCEE’s work involves contracting out congressionally directed evaluations of federal programs and policies.

Mr. Whitehurst called the report “appropriately positive.”

But a more critical view came from the American Educational Research Association, the Washington-based group that represents 26,000 education researchers.

“The five-year IES report is a seamlessly self-congratulatory statement pointing out the numerous accomplishments but ignoring the rough patches,” said Gerald E. Sroufe, the association’s government-relations director.

Progress and Problems

For its report, the board drew on data gathered by Synergy Enterprises Inc., a Silver Spring, Md., research firm; the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington; and the agency’s own internal statistics, said Robert C. Granger, the board’s current president.

In terms of research quality, the data showed that the proportion of agency-financed research projects rated by peer reviewers as “excellent” or better rose from 88 percent in 2003 to 91 percent in 2008.

The report also documents a rise in the number of research grants rated by external reviewers as “relevant.” On a scale of 1 to 9, the ratings rose from 5.5, on average, in 2001, the year before the institute was launched, to 6.5 in 2007.

The board also praised the agency for setting up new grant programs aimed at supporting states that are building longitudinal systems for collecting student-achievement data and at establishing new pre- and postdoctoral training programs for budding education researchers.

When it comes to the turnaround on IES reports, though, the board’s report cites both problems and progress. It notes that, while the IES’ main statistics arm, the National Center for Education Statistics, in recent years dramatically reduced the amount of time between collecting data and first publishing a report, delays continue to be a problem at the NCEE, where finished reports got stuck in the review pipeline for an average of 28 weeks since 2007.

“It breeds a feeling that things are being slowed up for political reasons, and that’s not healthy for anyone,” said Mr. Granger, the president of the William T. Grant Foundation of New York City.

The report did not address the broader cultural change that the agency brought about in the field, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

“We’ve seen this enormous shift in basic assumptions in what is and is not valid research,” he said. “My concern is that there hasn’t been as much attention to what are the limits of this kind of research.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Institute of Education Sciences’ Board Calls Agency’s Past 5 Years a Success


Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Building Teacher Capacity for Social-Emotional Learning
Set goals that support adult well-being and social-emotional learning: register today!

Content provided by Panorama
Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal National School Board Group's Apology for 'Domestic Terrorism' Letter May Not Quell Uproar
The National School Boards Association voices "regret" for how it sought federal aid to address threats and harassment of school officials.
4 min read
Seminole County, Fla., deputies remove parent Chris Mink of Apopka from an emergency meeting of the Seminole County School Board in Sanford, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Mink, the parent of a Bear Lake Elementary School student, opposes a call for mask mandates for Seminole schools and was escorted out for shouting during the standing-room only meeting.
Deputies remove a parent from an emergency meeting of the Seminole County School Board in Sanford, Fla., after the parent, who opposes a call for mask mandates for Seminole schools, shouts during the standing-room only meeting.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP
Federal 'A Snitch Line on Parents.' GOP Reps Grill AG Over Response to Threats on School Officials
Attorney General Merrick Garland said his effort is meant to address violent threats against school boards, not to stifle parents' dissent.
5 min read
LEFT: Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing of the Department of Justice on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. RIGHT: Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, questions Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing of the U.S. Department of Justice on Capitol Hill on Thursday, questioned by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, right, among others.
Greg Nash via AP, Andrew Harnik/AP
Federal School Boards, 'Domestic Terrorism,' and Free Speech: Inside the Debate
From critical race theory to COVID policy, the heat on schools has raised issues involving free speech and the safety of public officials.
13 min read
Brenda Stephens, a school board member with Orange County Public Schools in Hillsborough, N.C. has purchased a weapon and taken a concealed carry class over concerns for her personal safety.
Brenda Stephens, a school board member in Hillsborough, N.C., says board members face threats and bullying, an atmosphere far different from what she's encountered in years of board service.
Kate Medley for Education Week
Federal Senate Confirms Catherine Lhamon to Civil Rights Post; Kamala Harris Casts Decisive Vote
Joe Biden's controversial pick to lead the Education Department's office for civil rights held that job in the Obama administration.
2 min read
Catherine Lhamon, nominee to be assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, testifies during a Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.
Catherine Lhamon, then-nominee to be assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, testifies during a Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing in July.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images