Studies of student achievement paint a gloomy picture. While governments at all levels continue to pump more money into education, achievement remains flat. With that concern in mind, the Bush administration introduced the "No Child Left Behind Act," which is designed to reform and re-energize education.
According to U.S. Department of Education (ED) Assistant Secretary Susan Neuman of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the program is one of the most historic in the nation's history, costing close to $1 billion and focusing on four key pillars—accountability, flexibility, choice, and research.
Neuman and Russ Whitehurst, director of the ED's new Institute of Education Sciences, provided some insight on the No Child Left Behind Act and the changing role of research in education during the ASHA Convention session on "Federal Reading Initiatives: Potential Roles for SLPs."
The signature program of the No Child Left Behind Act is the Reading First program. Reading is the key aspect of a child's education, providing the framework for the rest of the learning experience, Neuman said.
"The whole goal should be to prevent reading problems before they ever begin," she said. "We need to put an end to the ‘reading wars' and find some balance in the way we teach."
The Reading First program focuses on all aspects of learning, including phonics, fluency in language, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Neuman encouraged speech-language pathologists to play a direct role in the reading achievement of students by sitting in on classroom reading instruction.
"Children need to quit being used as an experiment, because once they are behind, it becomes so difficult for them to catch up," Neuman said. "Reading instruction must be based on sound research and not employ the latest fad in instruction. And, there must be a constant loop where we are providing instruction and gaining information by measuring where children are."
Neuman described accountability as the "linchpin of change within the educational system. We have to determine how our children are achieving year-by-year, because if we don't do that, we can't determine if what we are doing is working," she said.
Accountability extends to the reporting of grades to parents. "We need to report children's scores so that their parents can understand them," she said. "We need to drive parents towards education by allowing them to understand it."
Accountability creates an environment of choice where families can have a choice in where they send their child to school. This is not the voucher system that has some in public education up in arms, but rather an opportunity for individual parents to maximize a child's learning experience. Neuman described accountability as a mirror and an opportunity that, when used correctly, offers tremendous potential to education.
For more than 50 years, the health care community has made tremendous strides in all aspects of medical care, making procedures such as open heart surgery, organ transplants, and even brain surgery an everyday occurrence. Meanwhile, the education provided to today's students differs little from that received by their parents.
Why? The answer is research or, in the case of education, a lack of applicable research, Whitehurst said. "When it comes to education, even highly educated people shift to the rule of impressions or what they think is happening, not what is actually taking place," he said.
As part of No Child Left Behind, the ED has retooled its research arm into the new Institute of Education Sciences, which was formally established last month when President Bush signed the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002.
The institute, which replaces the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), will include national education centers focused on research, statistics, and evaluation, and will allow the ED to move forward to support the high-quality research, evaluation, and statistical activities needed to improve education policy and practice. Whitehurst—who has served since July 2001 as the ED's assistant secretary for the OERI—was appointed by the president to serve as director of the institute.
The new institute will oversee an ongoing range of rigorous, randomized trials. The immediate goal is to provide evidence-based education that combines both empirical evidence and professional wisdom, to determine the best ways to teach reading, writing, math, science, and other key curricula.
"We want to make sure that the nearly $50 billion dollars spent each year on education is being spent in the right place," Whitehurst told Convention attendees. "We want to fill in the gaps that exist in education. We don't want to say ‘this is good' or ‘this is bad.' What we want to do is provide information that the people can use to make that determination of what will work and what won't work for them."
Whitehurst announced one of the many initiatives that this new research arm of the ED is undertaking to improve education—a new Web site, the What Works Clearinghouse at http://www.w-w-c.org/, which will provide this research to educational professionals.