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U.S. Switches Contractors for ‘What Works’ Research Site

By Debra Viadero — July 12, 2007 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 3 min read
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Corrected: This story originally misidentified Analytica, one of Mathematica’s partners in the What Works Clearinghouse contract.

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded a $50.3 million contract to Mathematica Policy Research Inc. to operate its What Works Clearinghouse for the next five years and make it more nimble and relevant for practitioners and policymakers.

The Education Department’s decision shifts the project from the American Institutes of Research, the Washington-based research group that launched the clearinghouse and has run it for the past five years.

But Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the department’s Institute of Education Sciences, which oversees the clearinghouse, said the change of management, announced July 11, does not reflect dissatisfaction with the job that the AIR has done.

“That decision was made by the contracts office,” he said, “and we’re happy with it.”

The IES created the clearinghouse in 2002 to serve as an online source for independent reviews of research on “what works” in education. But the project got off to a rocky start.

The clearinghouse’s first reviews were slow in coming, and often discouraging, prompting critics to label the initial $24.4 million effort the “nothing works” clearinghouse. The pace of reviews has been stepped up, however, over the past year, and the Web site now lists 74 reviews of research on reading instruction, dropout prevention, teaching English-language learners, and other topics.

Whether the initially paltry offerings reflected the clearinghouse’s high standards or a lack of high-quality research in the field was much debated question among critics.

“I don’t know if it matters so much who the contractor is,” said James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a Washington-based group that lists the AIR as one of its members. “It’s more of a question of whether the department can manage the complexity of this task.

“This has been much more difficult,” he said, “than maybe it had at first appeared.”

The Institute of Education Sciences signaled its intention to make a midcourse correction in the project in December when it published bid specifications for the new contract that called for conducting some quick-turnaround projects, expanding the range of research designs that qualify as sound evidence, and introducing practical guides and other products that educators and decisionmakers in the trenches might see as useful. (“‘Guidelines for ‘What Works’ Contract Signal Shifts,” Jan. 24, 2007.)

“My own personal view is that it’s a little too wonky at the moment,” Mr. Whitehurst said of the clearinghouse. “Because a foundation has already been laid, though, I expect the timeline will be shortened and more products will be coming out on a regular basis.”

Contract Grows

The amount of the contract more than doubled this time around, Mr. Whitehurst added, and part of the increase will underwrite more reviews of research on special education.

That subject has gone largely unaddressed until now because clearinghouse guidelines put a high value on large, randomized studies, which are harder to do in special education because some disabilities affect only small numbers of students.

“You could ask anybody involved, and they would all say it’s been a bigger and more complex project than originally anticipated,” said Rebecca S. Herman, the project director who oversaw the clearinghouse for the AIR. “But I think it was a good project, and I’m looking forward to what happens next.”

Her organization and Mathematica, an employee-owned research group based in Princeton, N.J., were two of just three bidders for the clearinghouse.

At Mathematica, the clearinghouse will be directed by Mark Dynarski, who is a senior fellow and an associate director of research there.

Mathematica’s partners in the clearinghouse venture include 11 other research or public-policy groups, a communications firm, and two universities.

Among them are: Analytica, of Phoenixville, Pa.; Chesapeake Research Associates of Annapolis, Md.; and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy and CommunicationWorks, both based in Washington.

The remaining partners are: Empirical Education Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif.; Human Resources Research Organization of Alexandria, Va.; ICF Caliber Inc. of Fairfax, Va.; Optimal Solutions Group, based in Hyattsville, Md.; RAND Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif.; RG Research Group of Signal Hill, Calif.; SRI International, based in Menlo Park, Calif.; Twin Peaks Partners of Longmont, Colo.; the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville; and the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week

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