Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Education Researchers and Policy Makers Still Not in Sync, Scholars Say

This helps explain why policies are often at odds with what communities desire. -Angela
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Education Researchers and Policy Makers Still Not in Sync, Scholars Say

By DAVID GLENN / Chronicle of Higher Education


Education researchers have begun to do more work that is relevant to
policy makers, and policy makers have begun to pay more intelligent
attention to education research -- but there is still a long way to go
on both fronts, scholars said on Monday during a conference at the
American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The conference was held roughly five years after the signing of the No
Child Left Behind Act, whose authors hoped to coax education research
and policy into alignment. In dozens of different provisions, the law
requires federal education money to be spent only on programs that
conform to "scientifically based research."

During Monday's conference, several speakers expressed guarded optimism
that No Child Left Behind, along with the reorganization of the
Education Department's research wing, has improved the transmission belt
between education research and education policy. But most of the
speakers said that scholars still had too few incentives to produce
useful research, and policy makers still had too few incentives to pay
attention to such research.

*Politicians and school superintendents tend not to pay careful
attention to education research *because they are in office for only a
short time, because they are constrained by donors and activists, and
because the governance of the American education system is highly
fragmented, said Kenneth K. Wong, a professor of education and political
science at Brown University.

On the "supply side," education researchers in academe are too often
rewarded for sheer scholarly output, rather than for answering the
questions that are most urgent to policy makers and schoolteachers, said
Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a professor of the history of American
education at Harvard University and a former dean of Harvard's Graduate
School of Education.

"Usable knowledge generated from research is not likely to be tenurable
research," said Ms. Lagemann. "So there are many disincentives to doing
such work. Overcoming those incentives will require fundamental reform
of the university."

Kathleen McCartney, Ms. Lagemann's successor as dean of Harvard's
education school, agreed. Colleges of education "need to reject the
arts-and-sciences model, where success equals research productivity,"
she said. "We need to accept our roles as professional schools, where
success should equal impact on policy and practice."

But Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, a major
supporter of education research, said he was uncomfortable with such
formulations. "It makes me a little nervous to hear how skeptical we are
about tenure," he said, "and how important we think it is that people
should orient their research to the public-policy problems of the day,
as they are defined by major social institutions."

One important role for academe, Mr. McPherson said, is to raise
questions about the basic premises of those social institutions. "We
need to have people in the academy who can say, 'Well, who says that
higher test scores are really what we need? Why do we think that is the
fundamental mark of what makes a good education?' Now, that doesn't mean
that there isn't a lot of self-indulgent nonsense being done in the name
of those kinds of questions. But I don't want to casually stride away
from the independence of academic life."

Mr. McPherson added that he was proud that his foundation sometimes
finances research projects that have no obvious policy applications.

Several speakers suggested that federal agencies that support education
research should emulate the National Institutes of Health, which they
described as prestigious and well insulated from political pressures.
But here, too, Mr. McPherson offered a dissenting note. "We need to be
careful not to idealize what goes on in other domains, including
medicine," he said.

Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education
Sciences, the research arm of the Education Department, also urged
people to be cautious about the NIH analogy. The Education Department's
research work was organized along NIH-style lines during the 1990s --
with small institutes dedicated to specific topics -- and "it did not
work," he said. The number of centers grew from 11 to 23, and the entire
apparatus lacked a sense of focus, he argued.

Mr. Whitehurst agreed with his fellow panelists, however, about another
proposition: There should be much more federal support for education

"It's embarrassing," he said. "If you go to the Department of Health and
Human Services, 42 percent of its discretionary budget is invested in
the National Institutes of Health. And of course there are other
research institutes housed under HHS as well. Go to the U.S. Department
of Education, and less than 1 percent is invested in research."

The scholars made a variety of other concrete suggestions:

* Scholars on opposite sides of a dispute -- say, about the
educational effectiveness of charter schools -- should work together in
a process of "adversarial collaboration," said James S. Kim, an
assistant professor of education at Harvard. The scholars would agree in
advance on a methodology and on what sorts of evidence would confirm or
disprove their hypotheses. If done well, Mr. Kim argued, such
collaborations would reduce the public perception that education
research is financed and conducted by ideologues with predetermined

* Blue-ribbon committees on education topics should include a
roughly equal balance of classroom teachers and academic researchers,
said Mr. Kim. He contrasted the National Reading Panel, a federally
supported committee that released a controversial report in 2000, with a
similar high-profile committee in England in the late 1990s. The two
committees made similar recommendations, Mr. Kim said, but the English
report had a much easier time gaining acceptance by teachers. In the
United States, he said, "there is not much opportunity now for teachers
to work together to define excellence in their practice," as doctors did
when medicine became professionalized in the early 20th century.

* When No Child Left Behind is reauthorized, the law should tighten
its language related to scientifically based research, argued G. Reid
Lyon, executive vice president for research and evaluation at the
Whitney International University system, a for-profit institution
affiliated with Best Associates, a Texas merchant bank. Instead of
allowing money to be spent on programs "based on" scientific research,
Mr. Lyon said, the law should restrict spending to programs that have
actual "evidence of effectiveness," based on randomized trials or other
careful studies. Mr. Lyon, a former White House education adviser, tried
and failed to place that more-restrictive language in No Child Left
Behind in 2001. With the tighter standard, he said, the controversies
surrounding the federal Reading First program might have been avoided.

* The federal government should create national tests of student
academic achievement, argued Dan D. Goldhaber, an associate professor of
public affairs at the University of Washington. "This might seem far
afield" from the conference's topic, Mr. Goldhaber said. But he said
that such tests would create a uniform "outcome measure" for studies of
education reform. So a study by a local university of reforms in
Cincinnati, for example, could easily be compared with studies of
similar reforms in other cities.

* The field of education research should develop a prestigious,
high-quality flagship journal, argued several speakers. Mr. Goldhaber
said that a flagship journal would make it easier for policy makers and
the news media to quickly assess the quality of controversial education
studies. Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science at Columbia
University and a professor of education at its Teachers College, agreed
that such a journal is needed, but worried that no association or
university was in a position to make it happen. "Who has the incentive
to create such a thing?" he asked.

The formal papers presented at the conference are available at the
institute's Web site.

No comments:

Post a Comment