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Linda Darling-Hammond

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New education think tank wants research to drive U.S. policy

The United States conducts more education research than any other country. But that output hasn’t translated into a world-class education system. Now, a prominent academic has formed a California-based think tank with the goal of improving that sorry record by putting research results to better use.

It won’t be easy. Education reform is a crowded field riven by competing ideologies. But Linda Darling-Hammond, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says the new Learning Policy Institute, unveiled yesterday, hopes to temper the partisan nature of those debates by making the latest research accessible to policymakers when they need it—and in language that they can understand.

“Research can’t solve deep ideological divides,” says Darling-Hammond, a former president of the American Educational Research Association and long-time adviser to federal and state education officials. “But if you can provide an honest appraisal of the research, and serve as an honest broker, I think you can make contributions that are viewed as helpful by all the parties involved.” The new institute, she promises, will “put more boots on the ground, to make sure that the research is getting translated and available at the moment when it is needed.”

Darling-Hammond, 63, has studied many of the hot-button issues in education—including teacher training and professional development, curriculum reform, and restructuring educational systems—during a 25-year academic career at Columbia and Stanford universities. She’s been a vocal critic of Teach for America’s model of offering college graduates minimal training before putting them into the classroom, for example, and has also lambasted the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, an element of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) governing elementary and secondary education that the Obama administration has embraced.

Those and other policy positions have made her a major player in education reform, says Martin Storksdieck, former director of the National Research Council’s Board on Science Education and now a professor at Oregon State University, Corvallis, where he directs the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning. Darling-Hammond’s positions have also placed her clearly on the liberal end of the political spectrum. “Linda stands for a certain way of doing professional development and teacher training,” he says. “I don’t think it will be seen as a neutral policy institute.”

Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, who headed the Institute of Education Studies under President George W. Bush, calls her a “polarizing figure … with a strong political agenda” with which he disagrees. But Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who until this spring headed its Brown Center on Education, also gives her credit for being “very effective at translating research for use by policymakers. She definitely has an audience.”

The new think tank has secured what Darling-Hammond calls a “continuing” financial commitment of $5 million a year from several philanthropies, led by the Sandler Foundation. The California foundation, created in 1991 by mortgage bankers Herbert and Marion Sandler, has backed such progressive groups as the Center for American Progress and ProPublica, and the founders have pledged to exhaust its $1.3 billion in assets and go out of business. A recent article describing its giving philosophy noted that their daughter, Susan, has a strong interest in education and that the foundation likes to bet on individuals.

“They have put no constraints on us, nor do they want us to follow any particular ideological orientation,” Darling-Hammond says. “We are committed to being nonpartisan and independent in our research.”

With some 20 people in the home office in Palo Alto and another half-dozen in Washington, D.C., the new institute has hit the ground running. Darling-Hammond spoke with ScienceInsider yesterday after spending the day in meetings with Democratic and Republican staffers who are working to reconcile Senate and House of Representatives versions of legislation that would replace the wildly unpopular NCLB. (The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Q: When did you start planning the institute?

A: It was probably a year ago. I had done work for [Sandler] and the other foundations funding us. We did a study of high schools that were effective with low-income students of color, and research on how to develop thoughtful performance assessments, funded by the Hewlett Foundation, how to be critical thinkers, and how to reassess curriculum. The research is part of a whole set of issues surrounding what you might call 21st century learning. That’s been at the core of our concerns, and one of the reasons for the policy institute. Because what we know about how to develop this kind of learning is very, very far away from policy.

Q: How will the institute operate?

A: We will start from a research framework. We will do some research ourselves that is focused on informing policy. But we will also organize, synthesize, and translate a lot of the research that many smart people have done but that has not reached policymakers.

Policymakers often need to know not just the results of a single study but what a body of work across a field has concluded. People ask the question, “Does it work or not?” But rather than yes or no, the answer is often: “If it works, under what circumstances and with what supports?” We’ll try to do research that answers the type of questions policymakers ask.

Q: Aren’t there a lot of other groups already doing that?

A: Organizations like the National Academies [of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] do great work, but they are not funded to carry it into the policy arena. And that’s where it often ends. At the moment when policy is being made, there’s nobody who is saying: “There was this great study 4 years ago.” And even if somebody remembered it, it didn’t have conclusions that addressed the specific policy questions on the table. So there need to be translators who are deeply knowledgeable about research, who know what has been done, and who can bring it into the conversation at the exact moment it’s needed.

We’re not trying to replace all the existing organizations working in this field. They are all doing good work. But we want to add some capacity and energy to what they are trying to do, to carry it over the goal line.

Q: What’s the biggest question that needs to be answered and translated into policy?

A: The very biggest I see is that, with the explosion of knowledge and global interactions, you can’t just tell kids, “Here are the facts that you’ll need to know.” The NGSS [Next Generation Science Standards] is a good example. Our scientific knowledge is expanding so rapidly, you don’t want to have kids just memorize a bunch of facts that will soon be out of date. You have to change how you teach, so that kids can learn how to be empirical, and look at the evidence with strong methodological tools. They need to acquire and find knowledge and make sense of it themselves, along with learning the content that exists. That’s a radically different kind of teaching than what most schools now offer.

And transforming teaching may mean transforming school organizations and how educational systems operate with respect to curriculum and assessment. And that will be a big policy question.

Q: That’s quite a lot for policymakers to take on, isn’t it?

A: Well, one thing you want policy to do is not to overly constrain. You also want policies to support innovation. So it’s a combination of what you want policymakers to do and what you want them not to do.

Q: Has that happened in the last decade?

A: In the NCLB era, the federal apparatus focused almost exclusively on English and math. And the way those were measured—using very low-level standardized tests, and sanctions attached to those test scores—has not encouraged the type of practices that the new standards are calling for. So we need to offer more incentives for building strong science programs—there are lots of schools who basically got rid of science in order to focus on reading and math.

We don’t have the “TE” in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] right now being funded and supported. We need to shift to a fuller curriculum. We need to promote and learn from innovation. And the way we do that in science is by making good hypotheses and then try it and study it and analyze the results. We need to study the innovations. And then we need to learn from that, and scale it up in the policy arena.