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Reporter’s Notebook

April 10, 2002 4 min read
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Education Reseachers Unsure of Federal Attention to Field

The gathering of 10,000-plus education researchers in one spot is always an attention getter. But last week’s meeting of the American Educational Research Association here had an even higher profile than most of the group’s annual meetings.

That’s because the meeting comes as the Bush administration is stepping up its commitment to what it calls “evidence-based education practice,” and education researchers may be key to the success of that effort.

The new emphasis on education research was made crystal clear in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. The reauthorized federal education law that President Bush signed in January makes the phrase “scientifically based research” a mantra, requiring states and school districts to turn to research for guidance on almost every practice they pay for with federal money.

At the same time, the push is on in Congress this year to reauthorize—and revamp—the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement, the agency’s primary research arm, in a way that upgrades the scientific rigor of federally financed education research and buffers it from political influences.

That, in part, is why the department sent no fewer than three assistant secretaries here for the AERA’s April 1-5 meeting. Secretary of Education Rod Paige also was scheduled to make an appearance late in the week.

“There is an opportunity for all of you here at this conference to step up and find out what works, for what kids, under what circumstances, for what duration of time,” Robert Pasternack, the department’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, told several hundred of the association’s members.

Andrew C. Porter, who ended his term as president of the 23,000-member Washington-based association last week, said he was “encouraged and excited” by the new emphasis on education research, which, he argued, has long suffered for lack of federal attention.

Some of the association’s rank-and-file members are wary, however, of the evidence-based-practice movement, fearing that its heavy focus on experimental studies could drive out other forms of research and leave little room for teachers to use professional judgment.

Darvin Winick, a researcher who consults for the Education Department and is a key architect of Texas’ education reforms, may not have allayed those fears much when he offered the group some blunt criticism of the field. Too much of education research, he said, draws conclusions that are unsupported by the data or provides no useful information for policymakers and practitioners.

“Having said all that,” he concluded, “school systems are in a dilemma if you don’t help them. So those of you who do it well have a chance to become famous.”

Another assistant secretary, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who heads the office of educational research and improvement, also used the occasion to outline some of the changes under way in his division. One of those is a move to consolidate some of the evaluation activities going on in other parts of the department and place them in a new “evaluation center” in the OERI.

He said the new center would concentrate more on the effectiveness of department-sponsored programs, leaving questions on how and whether programs are being implemented to researchers elsewhere in the federal agency. The office is also launching new research initiatives in four areas: the effectiveness of various models of preschool curricula, educational applications for findings from cognitive science, reading comprehension, and a What Works Clearinghouse aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of educational programs and products.

The sessions on evidence-based education practices and the federal government’s other new research initiatives still represented just a drop in the bucket among the more than 1,600 presentations at the meeting.

A pair of studies presented at one session, in fact, suggested that shifts in political leadership might have less to do with the kinds of educational policies that get enacted than many would think—at least at the state level.

When researchers Kenneth K. Wong and Frances X. Shen set out to examine states’ efforts over the past decade to enact laws to create charter schools or to permit state takeovers of troubled districts, they expected to find that the type of education reform a state chose would have a lot to do with the political dynamics in the state.

GOP leaders coming into power in a state, for example, might be expected to encourage charter schools, while states under Democratic control might be less hospitable to school choice initiatives. Also, because teachers’ unions tend to discourage charter schools, lawmakers might be more likely to enact those kinds of initiatives in nonelection years, rather than close to an election, the researchers surmised.

They were wrong.

“What we found was that the traditional political science models didn’t seem to matter as far as these kinds of reforms,” said Mr. Wong, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

The researchers could not say for sure why their hypotheses didn’t hold up. In the case of charter schools, they said, one reason may be that a simultaneous push at the national level may have been more influential in encouraging their development than any lone state political action.

The overall drift of their research, however, was echoed in a second study by Lance D. Fusarelli of Fordham University in New York City. Looking over the past 20 years at three states—Florida, New York, and Texas—where popular Democratic governors were followed by Republican successors, he found that the political turnovers rarely resulted in a shift in the direction of the education reform initiatives that were already under way.

Both studies appear in the January-March edition of the Journal of Educational Policy.

—Debra Viadero

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A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook

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