Cover Story

A new institute in the U.S. Department of Education aims to help education officials respond to growing pressures to boost student performance, said psychologist Grover J. Whitehurst, PhD, director of the center--the U.S. Institute of Education Sciences--in a presidential miniconvention address at APA's 2003 Annual Convention in Toronto.

The institute, created by the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002, will do that by providing administrators with the latest findings from scientifically based education research. Indeed, its mission is to study the condition and progress of U.S. education, identify education practices that improve academic achievement and access to education opportunities, and improve the effectiveness of federal and other education programs, Whitehurst said. The Bush administration replaced the Office of Educational Research and Improvement with the institute in an effort to refocus research dollars on evidence-based education initiatives.

Educators' need for such research has grown exponentially with the new local accountability measures instituted by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, said Whitehurst, noting that, "Scientifically based research is really the mantra of the bill."

Informed education decisions

Legislators need access to such findings, Whitehurst argued, to make informed decisions about the kind of evidence-based education initiatives that guarantee improved test scores and well-prepared graduates. Compared with the fields of defense, health care and industrial production, education has relied little on evidence in its decision-making, which has led, Whitehurst said, to a reliance on pseudoscience, anecdotes and flawed comparison groups.

"We need evidence-based education because current practice [in education] has failed," he said. "In no other field are personal experiences relied on to make policy choices and in no other field is the research base so inadequate."

Administrators, Whitehurst added, are looking for specific answers from scientists to questions like "How can we best recruit teachers so that they will remain in the profession?" and "Which math curriculum is most effective in a community with a high percentage of low-income kids?"

A role for social science

Psychology shoulders part of the responsibility for supplying answers to such questions, given its role in education research for the last 100 years, he said.

"Discussions about education and psychology go back to the development of the study of education," Whitehurst said. "Psychology has both the challenge and the burden of demonstrating the contribution of that century of focus on education."

Projects funded by the institute, which operates with a budget of about $500 million, include investigations of preschool curricula, studies of cognition and learning, and evaluations of programs that aim to improve reading comprehension, mathematics education, teacher quality, English-language acquisition and socialization and character development, Whitehurst said. Project findings are expected within two or three years, he added.

While individual school districts can implement the programs and practices that emerge from this research, they also need to track their own progress so they can determine on a case-by-case basis if their programs are working, Whitehurst said.

"It's very important for states and local education agencies to understand that the systematic and regular collection of their own data on the progress of students, the progress of teachers and the progress of schools with respect to their goal is part of the empirical equation," he explained.

Whitehurst said he hopes Congress will consider doubling the institute's budget over a multiyear period as they have done for the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and that education research dollars will increase generally across the disciplines, including in psychology--in which there's a lack of new education researchers. In 2001, only 16 new doctorates were granted to psychologists engaged in educational research, indicating a major decrease since the late 1980s, he said.