The End of Squishy

A decade ago, there was one word that was often used to describe educational research.  That word — squishy.  Despite all we knew about what worked and what didn’t in education, the research base was often soft or without merit.  Once you peeled back all of the layers, so-called research studies would end up being nothing more than consumer satisfaction studies, focus group reports, or public opinion surveys without the intellectual heft.

The issue came to a point with the National Reading Panel, which brought the term “scientifically based reading research” into vogue.  (Again, full disclosure, Eduflack was senior advisor to the NRP, and damned proud of it.)  Two years later, NCLB took on the term, and used it more than a hundred times in the law.  We began to shift toward an industry driven by science and documentable proofs.  It was about what works, and a clearinghouse to hold that research.  It was about a medical model, with real control groups and replicable research models.  It was about proven effectiveness.  It was about making a difference.

As part of that shift, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement (OERI) met its demise.  Many scientifically-based proponents placed the blame for squishy research firmly in the laps of OERI.  For decades, it funded qualitative studies and those that would never be mistaken for the medical model.  To be fair, OERI also endorsed the findings of the NRP and the call for more rigorous research.

After passage of NCLB, Congress approved new legislation to eliminate OERI and create a new research arm for the U.S. Department of Education — the Institute of Education Sciences.  IES became the father of the What Works Clearinghouse and the champion for scientifically based education research.  And since its inception in 2002, IES has been led by Russ Whitehurst.

Whitehurst’s six-year appointment ends in November, and we’re already seeing his obituaries.  Many tag the recent AERA meetings as his swan song. Today’s Washington Post wrote a quite reflective piece on his tenure, which can be found in full here … http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/27/AR2008042701866.html.

The Post does a good job of laying out Whitehurst’s legacy at the helm of IES.  But the big question is where do we go from here.  Some seem to think IES should revert back to more of an OERI-style operation, more closely intertwined with ED and more forgiving when it comes to “different” forms of research.  IES has taken a hard line and bears the scars.  Some fear the Institute.  Others try to avoid it.  And others more think it is one of the most positive steps we have taken to strengthen education in this nation.

Put Eduflack down in the third of those three categories.  We need to do what works.  We need good research.  And we need to make sure our federal education research dollars are being spent wisely and on replicable research.  Unlike healthcare, education doesn’t have a big private-sector investment in education R&D.  We don’t have an FDA or a similar organization to vet outside research.  But we have IES.  And we have several years of good work from the Institute, work that has eliminated our house on the sand, and put it firmly on a concrete slab.

Sure, there are things that IES could do better.  It could improve communication with key stakeholders.  It could better promote the WWC and the impact it is having.  But most of those improvements are in the communications arena.  In terms of policy and content, IES is on firm footing.

So where do we go from here?  Who is the next Director of IES?  And what path should he or she take?

Clearly, many of the likely candidates this administration would offer have been tagged in one way or another by the IG investigation into Reading First.  Others may choose to stay away for that same reason.  So I’ll leave it to Knowledge Alliance and the true wonks of the policy wonks to throw out some specific names (I have two or three on my preferred list).  But I will offer five characteristics the Administration (or the future Administration) should look for to fill the IES Director’s chair come November:

* A Strong Research Background — This should be a no-brainer, but we have to say it.  He has to walk the walk.
* Classroom Experience — One of the greatest criticisms of most scientifically based education researchers is they don’t have K-12 classroom experience.  Even if it is only for a few years, they need that line on the resume to be able to talk effectively with classroom teachers
* A Collaborator — For IES to grow and continue to strengthen, the new Director must build bridges between ED departments and the ED blob around town.
* An Understanding of Relevance — Methodology is important.  Knowing how to take that research and put it to use in the field is priceless.  IES must link its growing research base to practice in public P-12 schools across the nation.
* A Communicator — In its second term, IES must better communicate its mission, its goals, and its successes.  It is doing great work, but if we don’t know it, they may as well be whistling in the wind.  The Director is not only chief researcher, he is also chief spokesman and chief cheerleader.  And the latter two are often more important.

That’s not asking too much, is it?  Too often, we squander our progress during transition.  It doesn’t have to be that way with IES.  With Whitehurst’s legacy, and his and ED’s help in transitioning to the next six years, we can build on the successes, and not let them rot from neglect.  We have an opportunity here.  Let’s hope ED takes advantage of it.

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