Ed. Dept. Picks Groups to
Develop Database of Effective Practices
by Debra Viadero, Education Week, September 4, 2002
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit
As part of its campaign to make education an evidence-based
endeavor, the Department of Education has awarded an $18.5
million contract to a group of researchers and education
organizations to build a national clearinghouse on "what
works" in schools.
When it's up and running over the next year or two, federal
officials say, the What Works computer database will give
educators and the public the lowdown on the scientific
research undergirding a wide range of programs, tests,
practices, and policies.
"It's extremely important if education is going to move toward
an evidence- based practice to have a central source in
education for what evidence can be trusted," said Grover
"Russ" Whitehurst, the assistant secretary for educational
research and improvement.
"Now, everybody that has a product in education says the
product is research-based, and people have no way of knowing
whether that's true," added Mr. Whitehurst, whose office is
overseeing the new effort.
The launch of the clearinghouse comes as educational
administrators are gearing up to comply with the new
requirements in the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, an
overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The
law requires states and districts to use only those programs
and practices that can be backed up by "scientifically based"
research—a tough task for educators who have neither the time
nor the expertise to pore over the research literature on all
the programs they encounter.
To develop and manage the clearinghouse, the department last
month chose two groups that have already tried their hand at
synthesizing social science studies: the Campbell
Collaboration, a fledgling international research group based
at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the
American Institutes for Research, or AIR, a Washington-based
Led by Robert F. Boruch, an education and statistics professor
at the university, the Campbell group was formed three years
ago for the sole purpose of gathering experimental studies
from around the world on social science interventions,
systematically reviewing them, and distilling nuggets of truth
that policymakers and practitioners can use. ("Research:
Focusing In on Teachers," April 3, 2002.)
AIR gained national attention in 1999 for its Consumer
Reports-style ratings on the research underlying popular
Three other organizations—Aspen Systems of Rockville, Md.;
Caliber Associates of Fairfax, Va.; and the Education Quality
Institute, based in Washington—are assisting in the five-year
What Studies Count?
The clearinghouse will eventually contain five databases
that educators and the general public can access at the touch
of a keyboard. The databases will house: potentially
replicable programs, products, and practices for schools;
lists of the evaluation studies linked to those interventions;
research reviews of educational approaches and policies;
analyses of testing programs; and names of evaluators willing
to review educational interventions.
In addition, department officials say, the clearinghouse will
be able to produce as many as five "fast track" reviews a year
that are aimed at getting policymakers quick answers to
pressing educational questions.
A still-to-be-answered question for the project is how to
determine which studies to include in its reviews. While some
experts argue for using only those that employ randomized
field trials and other experimentally based methods, others
want to cast the net wider to include more descriptive kinds
Although Mr. Whitehurst expects the clearinghouse to
eventually settle on criteria emphasizing experimental
approaches, he said the final standards would be determined by
an outside panel of 10 research experts.
That issue is critical in education because good evaluations
are rare and pure scientific experiments are even rarer. When
AIR reviewed reform programs three years ago, it turned up
only three with strong research bases.
Nonetheless, Rebecca S. Herman, who led the earlier study and
is heading AIR's part in the new clearinghouse, said she
expects the pickings to be better this time around.
"The last couple of years, there's been a lot of interest in
what is high-quality research," she said, "and I think the
field has moved forward a little bit."
Establishing the clearinghouse is also a politically delicate
venture for the department because the federal agency is
barred by law from recommending specific curricula. Some
previous attempts to highlight promising educational programs,
in fact, have run into heated controversy.
By relying on hard science, however, Mr. Whitehurst says the
clearinghouse can avoid such pitfalls. "It's not in the end a
judgmental process, though, of course, humans will be
involved," he said.
The proof will be in the clearinghouse's products, the first
of which are expected to go online within a year.
"It's going to take time to assure that we've got these
standards well articulated," Mr. Boruch of the Campbell
Collaboration said, "and that they are made transparent, and
that people have an opportunity to comment on them."