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New Group of Researchers Focuses on Scientific Study

By Debra Viadero — January 27, 2006 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: This story originally misidentified Barbara R. Foorman’s affiliation. She is with the University of Texas Houston Health Science Center.

In a move that’s causing ripples of controversy among researchers, a group of scholars last week announced the formation of a federally backed professional society that will focus solely on advancing scientifically rigorous studies in education.

“There are growing numbers of investigators and policymakers who are increasingly interested in ways to apply scientific research to education practice,” said Mark A. Constas, an architect of the newly formed Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. “We felt we didn’t have one place to gather.”

Officially opened for business Jan. 27, the organization grows out of the movement, in government and academic circles, to prod schools to use practices and programs that are deemed to have proved their worth through scientifically based research.

“This is a significant step for the field,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, which gave the researchers a three-year, $760,000 grant to get started. “We thought there was not a professional association in education that was organized around rigorous research designs.”

Among many education researchers, though, “scientifically based research” is seen as code for randomized control experiments—in other words, studies that randomly assign research subjects to control or experimental groups.

The Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness provides further information about the organization.

While such studies may be considered the gold standard for determining whether an intervention is effective, some researchers contend that the current emphasis on such methods overlooks other kinds of research, such as anthropological studies, that are also valuable.

They fear that a new professional group, especially one that focuses on one or two methodologies, could splinter a field that is already badly in need of unity.

“I believe generally that we need organizations and forces that pull everybody working on education research together, and that don’t fragment our efforts,” said Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a Harvard University professor and a former dean of the university’s graduate school of education, who has written on the history of education research.

“It’s important to do very high-standard work of a variety of kinds,” she said. “I’m not sure creating a society around one method is sensible.”

Too Much Choice?

The field already has long-standing national professional groups, such as the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education, both of which are based in Washington.

Society's Advisory Board

A 15-member panel will advise leaders of the newly formed Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.

Co-chair:

Cornell University

Co-chair:

Northwestern
University

Other Members
• Robert Brouch, University of Pennsylvania
• Thomas D. Cook, Northwestern Univeristy
• Harris Cooper, Duke University
• Jack McFarland Fletcher, University of Texas Health Sciences Center
• Barbara R. Foorman, University of Texas Houston Health Science Center
• Lynn S. Fuchs, Vanderbilt University
• Judith M. Gueron, Russell Sage Foundation
• John T. Guthrie, University of Maryland
• David Myers, Mathematica Policy Research
• Barbara Schneider, Michigan State University
• Judith D. Singer, Harvard University
• Catherine Snow, Harvard University
• Prentice Starkey, University of California, Berkeley

SOURCE: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.

The largest group, the 22,000-member AERA, draws members from a wide range of disciplines, including sociology, psychology, history, and anthropology. Over the years, critics have maintained that the group’s diversity has hindered its efforts to speak with one voice on education topics or to set higher research standards.

The creation of the new society is stirring criticism because its leaders, some of whom include prominent members of the AERA, struck out on their own rather than form a special-interest group or division under the larger group’s umbrella.

“People are very busy, and they’re going to have to make choices as to which meetings they attend, which projects to get involved in,” said Michael J. Feuer, the executive director of the division of behavioral and social sciences and education at the National Academies, the congressionally chartered organization that advises federal officials on scientific matters.

“Sometimes,” he said, “too much choice doesn’t bring the kind of synergy one would hope for.”

For their part, though, the new society’s founders said they’re not out to undermine the 90-year-old AERA or to advocate one particular research method.

“While AERA has made important contributions to the field, both its power and its limitations are in its diversity,” said Mr. Constas, an associate education professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Casting a Wide Net

Mr. Constas and other leaders of the new organization said like-minded scholars can gain much from meeting in smaller, more focused groups.

“I have found small meetings of people whose interests are homogeneous to be more rewarding than large professional meetings, where I can’t necessarily find the people or the sessions that are of interest to me,” said Larry V. Hedges, a professor of statistics and policy research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He co-founded the society along with Mr. Constas.

By becoming an independent group, the society’s founders also hope to attract scholars from other disciplines, such as economics or social science, who might be reluctant to join a general-interest education group.

Even so, Mr. Constas said, he does not expect the society’s membership to grow larger than 3,000, less than one-seventh the size of the AERA.

“I don’t see this in any sense being in competition with AERA,” added Catherine E. Snow, a Harvard education professor who sits on the society’s advisory board. A former president of the AERA, Ms. Snow said she would retain membership in both groups, as well as other professional societies.

Federal Connections

Other advisory-board members include prominent research methodologists, a special education researcher, foundation and think tank researchers, and Barbara R. Foorman, a former University of Texas-Houston pediatrics professor who is now the federal Education Department’s commissioner for research. She began forming the society before she was nominated for her federal post.

Felice J. Levine, the AERA’S executive director, also said she did not expect the new society to siphon off her association’s members. “I think it’s a statement with respect to the maturation of the field that specialty subfields can develop,” she said.

But, she added, “there’s always a kind of a question of how much researchers want to put into developing a formal new organization, and how much they want to put into working on the same substance in the context of another, large organization.”

Mr. Constas said he began to see the need for a new professional group while working in the U.S. Department of Education as a senior associate and a program director.

After leaving the department in 2003, he pitched his proposal to the Education Department through its unsolicited-grants competition.

While the new organization’s federal backing is raising eyebrows among researchers, Mr. Constas said it’s not unprecedented: The National Institutes of Health’s Institute on Drug Addiction, for example, backed the creation of the Society for Prevention Research, based in Fairfax, Va.

Mr. Whitehurst of the Institute of Education Sciences said the project also fits in with his agency’s “dissemination responsibilities.”

Journal Planned

To announce itself, the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness sent letters last week to 150 academic deans across the country, as well as to foundations and other research organizations. The group also launched its Web site, at www.sree-net.org. The group is housed for now at Cornell, where Mr. Constas works.

Besides holding professional meetings, the first of which is scheduled to take place next year, the group is planning to publish a scholarly journal and a three-volume handbook compiling education studies that the group considers exemplary.

“Unfortunately, many people have despaired of the capacity of educational researchers to really contribute to solving educational problems by presenting rigorous, impact-focused research,” said Harvard’s Ms. Snow. “We’re saying this is of interest and it is of value.”

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