EUGENE, Ore. – Over the years, the University of Oregon (search) has developed a reputation as a hippie haven, home to Hacky-Sackers, Frisbee-throwers and anti-globalism activists. But tucked away in a bucolic corner of the campus is a group of education professors whose work has been widely influential and found favor with the Bush administration.
Along with their counterparts at schools like the University of Illinois and the University of Texas, Oregon professors have been the driving forces behind the push for letting "scientifically based research" (search) inform classroom practices.
The professors are promoting teaching techniques that they say have been tested extensively in classrooms and have produced good results on standardized exams.
Some of their concepts have been scooped up by the Education Department for use in the No Child Left Behind (search) act, the Bush administration's centerpiece education bill. That law says that all children, regardless of their background, must be at grade level in reading and math by 2014, or else their schools could face sanctions.
Critics say the Oregon professors have helped usher in an age of rigidity in education, with classrooms full of teachers who "teach to the test," and students whose creativity is stifled because so much time is devoted to preparing for testing.
"The emphasis on research-based instruction is a bit of a problem," said Barbara Bowman, a professor at Chicago's Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development. "Some of the more qualitative ways of assessing children's learning are generally not included. We are focusing on things that are easy to see, rather than taking a look at the whole."
But the Oregon professors contend their work is helping to transform public education from a mish-mash of well-intentioned ideas into a more disciplined system with quantifiable results.
"Education had been primarily driven by philosophy, by who was a good public speaker," said Doug Carnine, who directs the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators (search) at the University of Oregon and has been consulting with George W. Bush since Bush was governor of Texas. "Science provides stability, but we just now have an opportunity for it to take hold. We're barely beginning."
The Education Department, which pours millions of dollars each year into education research, has put its money behind the program.
Year after year, Oregon's school of education consistently beats out powerhouses like Harvard, Stanford and Columbia universities when it comes to research dollars per faculty member. According to the most recent rankings compiled by U.S. News and World Report, University of Oregon education professors were bringing in $1.46 million per faculty member, the most in the nation, with some of that money also coming from state and foundation grants.
Elaine Quisenberry, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the federal agency "respects the University of Oregon's expertise in literacy research."
The Oregon researchers are known for their work in reading, special education and violence prevention. They include Carnine, Edward Kame'enui, Siegfried Engelmann and Deborah Simmons.
Engelmann and Carnine developed one of the most intensive phonics curriculums. It teaches children to read by breaking words into syllables and sounding them out.
Their method, called Direct Instruction (search), requires teachers to follow a script word-for-word when working with young readers. The approach is used at schools nationwide, and several independent reports have singled it out as a way to help meet the goals set out in No Child Left Behind.
Rheta DeVries, who directs the Regents' Center for early development education at the University of Northern Iowa, said such structured curriculums are harmful to children.
"Testing takes over and determines the curriculum, and children don't get experience with hands-on science experimentation and activities that call forth their best energies," she said. "What a child knows cannot necessarily be measured in fragmented tests used for assessment."
But Sharon Brumbley, a special education teacher who has long been a Direct Instruction disciple, said that using the curriculum at early grades has reduced the number of children placed in special education later on at her school in Springfield, Ore.
"They've pared out all the nonessentials, and gotten down to what kids need to learn, what they need to know," she said.
Carnine and Kame'enui said results showed that Direct Instruction, and other curriculums researched at Oregon, were getting solid results in some of the nation's poorest schools.
Kame'enui developed a widely used method of constant measurement of student progress in early grades, which lets teachers intervene at the first sign that a student is falling behind.
No Child Left Behind has emerged as an issue in the November elections, with Democrats charging that the law is underfunded and unrealistic. But even if John Kerry is elected in November, the Oregon researchers said their ideas — standards, testing, public accountability of schools and "scientifically based research" — will not soon be swept aside.
"It is now clear that, as in other professions, it's important to use evidence in making education decisions," Carnine said.