New U.Va. Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness Will Play Part in Research Revolution

January 21, 2010 — Professors of education, public policy, sociology, economics and law are among those who will work together through the University of Virginia's new Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness.

The center is sponsored and funded jointly by U.Va.'s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Curry School of Education, and is physically housed in the Curry School.

The center's mission will be to "inform the design of education policy targeted to improving educational outcomes and the economic competitiveness of American workers in an increasingly globalized world," said Harry Harding, dean of the Batten School. "This is very much in line with the Batten School's vision of focusing on the ways in which globalization is reshaping the American public policy agenda.

"We believe that the center will be distinctive in at least two ways: as a joint venture between a school of education and a school of public policy, and as a center that connects issues of education policy and workforce competitiveness," Harding said.

The center's research agenda, Harding noted, will initially focus on three areas:

• Increasing the availability and quality of early childhood education across the U.S.
• Enhancing teaching effectiveness by improving teacher preparation, recruitment, compensation and accountability.
• Improving the quality of the American workforce by increasing collegiate attainment, particularly among low-income families and underrepresented minority groups.

"One of the center's primary goals is to enhance the development of evidence-based policies to improve academic and economic outcomes for Virginia's – and the nation's – students," said the center's director, James Wyckoff, a professor of education nationally known for his research on the impact of teachers on pupil learning.

Rigorous evidence supporting educational policy is not plentiful, Wyckoff said. "Causal relationships are hard to establish, and require strong research designs and the collection of high-quality data," he said.

But such information is becoming increasingly available, thanks to an unfolding technology revolution that is amalgamating data from several sources – school districts, teacher and student surveys and employment information – to create comprehensive records of the development of individuals from kindergarten through college and into the workforce.

In the wake of standardized testing mandated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, many states established systems to better track student performance from third grade through high school. Some states are now linking that information to data on enrollments and graduation from universities, community colleges and technical schools, bridging the traditional divide between K-12 and higher education.

A few states are going even further by following students into the workforce, with information on employment history and salaries creating detailed pictures of people's trajectory from kindergarten into the workforce.

Access to such powerful data naturally stirs privacy concerns, Wyckoff noted, but such data is always "anonymized" before it reaches researchers, and the center will take measures to ensure its security.

These longitudinal data sets are serving as the backbone of a new wave of research, Wyckoff said, and will become even more useful and powerful when researchers connect it with the results of other surveys and studies that are making headway in identifying factors that contribute to difference in education outcomes.

For example, the individual educational trajectories can be linked with teacher quality studies such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, an observational instrument developed by Curry School Dean Robert Pianta and others at U.Va. to assess classroom quality in K-12 classrooms by measuring 11 dimensions of teachers' emotional, organizational and instructional interactions with students.

Educators and policymakers are just starting to realize and utilize the power of such studies, Wyckoff said. "The launch of the center is perfectly aligned with initiatives from the Obama administration investing in states' capacities to pull together state data systems to better inform policymaking," Pianta said.

However, the new availability of this longitudinal data also presents its own challenges. "What's extraordinarily important in all this is that we don't become data-rich and information-poor," Pianta said. "A center like this can really help states analyze and synthesize the data that they do collect."

Sarah Turner, University Professor of Education and Economics, will serve as the center's associate director. At least nine other U.Va. faculty members study issues that will be addressed by the center.

— By Brevy Cannon