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The Growing Science of Education Policy and School Management

Article by James W. Guthrie April 17, 2012 //   7 minute read

Changes now occurring in education policy research result from a rare alchemy of cultural context, organizational dynamics, and individual leadership.  The tale is worth hearing.

For the first time in modern history, education policy, the overarching principals and guidelines shaping resources for schooling, is being influenced by rigorous scientific study.  There is an interesting parallel to medicine.

School policy and operation stand today where medicine stood a century ago, the time of the 1910 remarkably influential Flexner Report.  The turn of the 20th century was a period in which medical practice was still dominated by naïve and harmful notions of miasmas and spirits, but, no matter how primitive, yesteryear’s medical practice was also buoyed by the portent of the burgeoning heath sciences from which we benefit today.

Similarly, many of today’s centuries’ old schooling practices, once unquestionably accepted by educators and sanctified by anecdote, inertia, and prejudice, are now succumbing to the hydraulic press of modern empirical research. Hundreds of Columbus-like analysts are now submerged in vast seas of data and gradually proving that the world of school policy and management can be rationally charted and need not be viewed as flat and fearful.

The researchers wielding the research tools and reaping the results of carefully conceived experiments and statistical modeling are mostly members of a little known but increasingly important professional society, the Association of Education Finance and Policy (AEFP). AEFP’s 47th annual conference took place in Boston in mid-March of 2012. The organization’s 600 members are the western world’s leading policy researchers and practitioners interested in the operational consequences of education’s resource levels and deployment patterns.

This conference offers a comprehensive vantage point from which to preview researcher presentations  illustrating the scientific sea change taking place in education policy and practice. AEFP has undergone a monumental transformation.  At its 1965 inception, it was a vastly smaller group comprised of rule-bound bureaucrats who used hand calculators to manipulate arcane state finance allocation formulas.  They worked quietly from remote alcove cubicles in the bowels of state capitols.

This phalanx of green eyeshade and sleeve-gartered civil servants is now, reluctantly, giving way to an intellectually vibrant cadre of unusually well trained and productively cynical social scientists.  These new professionals employ remarkably sophisticated quantitative techniques to extract insightful and practically useful results from huge data sets and reams of administratively collected school district information.

The organization’s transformation parallels change in school policy circles. This shift has not been the product of a dramatic government intervention or a powerful Blue Ribbon report, such as written by Flexner. Rather, the change results from the fortuitous confluence of several contextual conditions and the vision and leadership of a slender set of scientific research champions.

Some of this useful research reinforces or adds productively to conventional wisdom.  Just as importantly, empirical findings often disconfirm long standing practices, Below is a sampling of the “New” scientifically sound and operational useful research.

Financial resources, at least above a difficult to ascertain threshold, are seldom linked systematically to student achievement (Hanuskek, 1996, 1997). 

Effective teachers are powerful instruments for propelling learning, and a sequence of effective teachers can virtually assure higher achievement. Ineffective teachers, and a string of such imperil students’ learning (Hanushek, 1992; Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain, 2005).

Small classes may comfort teachers and parents, but, at least above the third grade, seem less to determine student achievement than other factors (Kreuger and Whitmore, 2000).

Years of teaching experience, after some apprenticeship period, advanced academic degrees, state licenses and professional certificates seldom are associated with student learning (Rockoff, 2004; Boyd et al., 2007; Rockoff et al., 2011). 

National Board certification adds a modicum of value to teachers but usually not an amount sufficient to justify sustained annual pay premiums (Harris and Sass, 2007; Goldhaber and Anthony, 2005).  

Teacher pensions typically contain adverse personnel incentives and benefit superannuated at the expense of beginning teachers (Costrell and Podgursky, 2009, 2011).

Accountability systems serve to render schools more effective (Carnoy and Loeb, 2003). 

Performance pay for teachers likely needs to be more sophisticated than simply allocating pay premiums for higher standardized test scores (Springer et al., 2011).

Three conditions account for education policy’s transformation from prescription to hypothesis, anecdote to analysis, proclamation to experimentation, and dogma to systematic doubt: Accountability and Education Data Sets.  Social scientists are addicted to information. They cannot fully ply their trade in the absence of data. When education was propelled by anecdote, and little state data was collected, education research was dominated by journalism, case studies. and social philosophy. 

When state accountability systems began to emerge, reinforced by No Child Left Behind, economists, political scientists, sociologists, and other quantitatively trained researchers began to engage in an analytic feeding frenzy.  Education policy and practice have benefited enormously.

A Paradigm Shift and a Champion for Scientific Research

The 2002 Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) joins with No Child Left Behind as the most influential federal policies in a quarter century.  ESRA established the Institute for Education Sciences  (IES) within the U.S Department of Education. Its founding Director, Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, almost singlehandedly transformed the federal education research strategy.  Research funds now are distributed consistent with a gold standard, randomized field trials.  No longer are simple correlational studies the coin of the research realm.

Seldom has a federal official achieved such a remarkable sector transformation in such a short time period as did Whitehurst. Stealth Invasion of Economists.  A decade ago, Tufts University’s Thomas Downes began organizing a small string of economists’ presentations within the AEFP annual conference framework.  This obscure set of initially unsung paper presentations spiraled into scientific research AEFP program dominance.  Today, AEFP is a scientific researchers temple. Downes gets the credit. The old NAEP membership has retreated to a new organization, the long run prospects of which are doubtful.

This post was written by James W. Guthrie, Senior Fellow for Education Reform at the George W. Bush Institute.