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Researchers Pitch Policy Ideas as Power Shifts in Capital

By Debra Viadero — November 19, 2008 6 min read
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Some of education’s most prominent scholars are offering President-elect Barack Obama’s advisers and other Washington policymakers their collected wisdom on research-backed strategies the next administration can use to improve schooling.

The recommendations, laid out in a series of draft papers, address standards and assessments for student learning; improving teacher quality; strengthening students’ mathematics, science, and literacy skills; extending learning time; and leveling the playing field for poor students and those who are members of minority groups.

The recommendations were developed by the National Academy of Education, a Washington group made up of the fields’ most distinguished scholars.

“For years, I’ve heard researchers complain that they haven’t had much impact on policy,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group. By the same token, he added, policymakers complain that researchers give them too little evidence on which to base policy.

“So this is a good day,” Mr. Jennings said at a Nov. 18 forum here on the recommendations.

Seeking Federal Lead

Education researchers rarely agree on hot-button education topics. But prodded by Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan group based here that lobbies to put education on the national stage, the scholarly group set out early this year to review the research in those areas and sift out some policy directions on which researchers could agree.

The academy previewed the first 12 of its draft recommendations at the forum, attended by about 500 former, current, and future policymakers from the U.S. Department of Education, Congress, and the White House, and members of the general public. The organization’s final list of recommendations is due out early next year.

The academy’s recommendations so far include a call for the federal government to take the lead in encouraging states, universities, teacher groups, and others to collaborate in “recovering the promise in standards-based education.” The idea is to redesign subject-matter standards and to develop assessment and professional-development standards to go with them.

“The standards as originally conceptualized don’t appear to be the standards on the books in many states,” said Jane Hannaway, the co-chairwoman of the academy working group that developed the recommendations on standards. “They are too voluminous, superficial, and repetitive, and there’s little coherent direction for instruction.”

“And there is a concern that the assessments overrepresent easy-to-measure skills and underrepresent complex reasoning skills,” added Ms. Hannaway, the director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a think tank based here.

A Coherent Package

“The standards as originally conceptualized don’t appear to be the standards on the books in many states,” said Jane Hannaway of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

In mathematics and science, the group urged federal officials to go one step further and work with consortia of states to develop “model instruction packages” for lessons in that subject for students in kindergarten through grade 8.

As the academy envisions them, the packages would map out the ideal progression for teaching topics across that grade span and include compatible testing materials and professional-development suggestions.

“All these pieces may have been out there before,” said Lorrie A. Shepard, nae’s president and dean of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “They just haven’t been put together in a coherent way. What’s being called for is actually quite a bit more ambitious than anything done before.”

While the group’s recommendations stop short of a call for a national curriculum, one participant at the forum said that following some of them could put the Education Department on shaky legal ground.

“What’s being called for is actually quite a bit more ambitious than anything done before,” said Lorrie A. Shephard, President of the National Academy of Education.

“We’re now prohibited by law in regard to developing curricula or reviewing it,” said Kerri Briggs, the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

The scholars also urged the federal government to take a “systems-engineering approach” to designing effective teaching programs in math and science—one in which pilot programs are evaluated, refined, and then evaluated again.

“So that we don’t just try something once and then go on to something else,” said Helen Quinn, a Stanford University physics professor.

In the area of literacy, the scholars called for boosting the federal investment in early education programs and focusing them on oral-language development.

“We have made gains in teaching children alphabetic sounds and decoding, but reading is far more than this,” said Janet S. Gaffney, a professor of special education, educational psychology, curriculum, and instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Children need to talk and write and explain and defend their views and critique the views of others.”

That is also true, the scholars agreed, for English-language learners—a group of students for whom effective instruction should become a “national priority.”

“An emphasis on oral language accompanying the acquisition of written literacy will help non-native speakers develop the broad vocabulary and content knowledge required for learning from textbooks,” the researchers write.

Bold or Cautious?

Among its other recommendations, the group calls for:

• More support for and testing of approaches for increasing the enrollment and the attendance rates of disadvantaged students in summer school programs and public-private efforts to see whether promising after-school programs can work in different community settings;

• Better evaluations of the wide variety of teacher-recruitment programs that have sprung up across the country over the last 10 years and more testing of new strategies for keeping teachers in the classroom;

• A federal research effort aimed at developing the “next generation” of assessment tools and accountablity strategies;

• Federal support for states to participate in international assessments;

• Making the National Assessment of Educational Progress more useful by encouraging states to use uniform definitions of the student populations tested; and

• Closer monitoring of students’ individual risk factors, such as their social background or early learning problems, over the course of their school careers.

Several forum participants, however, suggested that the researchers’ draft recommendations could be bolder.

“I wouldn’t be constrained by what you could reach a consensus on,” advised Jon Schnur, a co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based organization, and an education adviser to President-elect Obama’s campaign.

But Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor who is advising the Obama team on its transition to the White House, said the academy’s caution was merited.

“Policy has to move ahead on hunches, but we also rely on the research community to do what you’re doing,” she said. “What you have to worry about is whether your findings are well supported.”

Whether the initiatives the academy calls for will be possible at a time when the nation faces a financial crisis of historic proportions is another question, however, some policymakers said.

“We’ll get some resources for education,” said Cheryl L. Smith, the staff director of the House Appropriations subcommittee that deals with education spending. “But we probably also need to tamp down some expectations.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Researchers Pitch Policy Ideas as Power Shifts in Capital

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