Two of the federal government’s top education research officials are planning to leave their posts to take jobs at private Washington organizations where they will focus on school policy.
Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, has agreed to take a position at the Brookings Institution, beginning next year.
And Mark S. Schneider, who served as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a research and data-crunching agency that is part of the IES, has said he is moving on to the American Institutes for Research, a job he will begin within weeks.
The end of any presidential term traditionally is marked by a wave of departures of high-ranking government officials for jobs in the private sector, and so in that sense, the two researchers’ exits were to be expected.
Both Mr. Whitehurst and Mr. Schneider came to the federal government as widely published scholars from the same institution, the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Both have pressed for strong methodological approaches to data, observers have said, and have a reputation for keeping their agencies’ work free of ideological bias.
Mr. Whitehurst, whose term expires next month, will become the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, a Washington think tank. He will take over that post from Tom Loveless, who said in an interview that he had planned for some time to relinquish his role as director and continue at Brookings as a senior fellow.
Mr. Whitehurst declined to comment in detail on the transition to Brookings. He did say he was proud of his agency’s work.
“I want to focus on my present job,” said Mr. Whitehurst, adding, “There’s been a tremendous amount of attention paid to education research over the last seven or eight years, and the IES has played a significant role in that.”
At the IES, Mr. Whitehurst spearheaded the Bush administration’s drive to transform education into an evidence-based field, not unlike medicine—an effort that both spurred debate and raised the profile of education research nationally. Illustrative of that undertaking was the What Works Clearinghouse, an online resource established by the IES to vet the research track records of programs, policies, and practices used in schools.
Under Mr. Whitehurst’s tenure, the agency also dramatically increased the number of randomized controlled studies financed by the department, strengthened its peer-review process, and created fellowships to nurture top research talent.
Whitehurst was originally nominated by President Bush in 2001 to direct the Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement. When Congress eliminated that office as part of the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002, Mr. Whitehurst was named director of the IES.
Lawmakers created the institute with the idea that it would foster “scientifically based” research on school improvement, free of political interference.
“Russ provided strong and enlightened leadership during a period of transformation in the federal education R&D enterprise,” said James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a Washington-based group that represents both government-funded and independent research groups. “He was able to inject a new level of rigor and quality into educational research.”
Mr. Loveless concurred. “He’s put IES and education policy research on the right path,” he said of Mr. Whitehurst, calling him “a critical reader of research in the best sense of the term.”
Mr. Schneider was nominated by President Bush to fill the NCES post in 2005, and his term was to expire next June. As NCES commissioner, Mr. Schneider sought to make federal education research more digestible and useful to the public, in both published reports and through his agency’s Web site.
During Mr. Schneider’s tenure, for example, the NCES launched the online College Navigator site, which allows visitors to search for postsecondary schools by cost and location; and Quick Stats, designed to enable visitors to easily search for and parse education data. He also oversaw the release of several major reports, including a federal study of states’ widely divergent standards for judging students’ academic proficiency. (State Tests, NAEP Often a Mismatch, June 13, 2007.)
Mr. Schneider, 61, will serve as a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and lead special initiatives in the education, human development, and workforce division, the nonprofit organization said.
“It was an opportunity that was just too good to turn down,” Mr. Schneider said in an interview. “I’ve always been impressed with the quality of the work at air. The atmosphere is collegial and cordial, and it’s a wonderful place to work.”
Mr. Whitehurst said in a statement sent to IES employees that Stuart Kerachsky, who is currently the deputy commissioner, will become acting commissioner of the NCES.
As part of his duties as NCES commissioner, Mr. Schneider has overseen a number of contracts with the air, which total about $22 million for the most recent fiscal year, air officials said. Both Mr. Schneider and air officials said he will work in a division that does not deal with NCES contracts and will not handle any contracts with the agency. Mr. Schneider said he has also cleared the move with federal officials to make sure it complies with ethics policies.
Mr. Schneider won praise from observers during his tenure for keeping the statistics agency’s work free of an ideological taint. In 2006, in fact, Mr. Schneider said the NCES should not have initiated a study that showed public school students outperforming private school students, because the work, while of high quality, had relied on subjective statistical methods. (Federal Statistics Commissioner Questions NCES Involvement in Private vs. Public School Study, Aug. 10, 2006.)
Jane Hannaway, the director of the education policy center at the Urban Institute, a Washington research institution, said Mr. Schneider’s scholarly background was evident in his ability to work with researchers. Ms. Hannaway also directs a center at the Urban Institute that receives IES funding.
“All the major data sets are getting turned around more quickly and getting presented to the public more quickly,” she said. “He understands what the important questions are, and he’s able to assess where the available information is good and where it’s lacking.”
Associate Editor Debra Viadero contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as Top Officials Stepping Down From U.S. Ed. Dept.’s Research Arm