Q&A with Elizabeth Albro of the Institute of Education Sciences

A conversation with the new Commissioner of the IES National Center for Education Research. 

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As the newly appointed Commissioner of the National Center for Education Research (NCER) within the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), psychologist Elizabeth Albro is no stranger to education research.   Albro has been at IES, the research arm of the Department of Education, for more than 15 years.  NCER, one of the two research centers at IES, supports rigorous research that addresses the nation's most pressing education needs, from early childhood to adult education.

Albro spoke with Craig Fisher, of the American Psychological Association’s Science Government Relations Office, about her new role, as well as how education research has evolved, the contributions that psychologists have made, and why scientists should consider engaging in public service.

To start I wanted to say congratulations on your appointment as Commissioner of NCER.  What will be your new responsibilities as Commissioner?

Thank you.  I’m excited to step into this new role! My new responsibilities are twofold. First, to oversee the work of the research center and to make sure that what we are funding continues to serve NCER’s mission and purpose - to accumulate knowledge about processes of teaching and learning and the policies and systems that support education from early childhood through adulthood; and, second, to work collaboratively with IES leadership to ensure that our collective investments enable us to meet our mission as an Institute.

What are some of the key areas that have changed in education research since you first began at IES 15 years ago?

One of the most important changes has been the accumulation of knowledge generated from experimental studies in education. This body of work has seeded conversations about what works in education. At the same time as methodological rigor has improved in education, I have seen new communities of scientists bringing their expertise to addressing the challenges of improving education outcomes.

Cognitive scientists interested in learning are now testing their theories across the developmental spectrum, and in the contexts where students are learning – classrooms, online environments, after-school settings. There has been an increasing interest in the prevention science community in understanding the social-emotional contexts of learning and the strategies that schools can employ to support students who struggle to meet the behavioral expectations of school.

Linguists and experts in public policy are tackling the questions of how our education systems are serving English learners. And, scholars from many disciplinary homes are contributing to a growing body of evidence examining how to improve postsecondary access and completion for all learners. 

Finally, there is an explicit recognition that to move education forward, research needs to leverage expertise of individuals across many different disciplines.

What do you see as some of the exciting new developments in education research?

There is a growing recognition of the importance of explicitly tackling questions of why an intervention works or does not work. This involves examining the conditions under which an intervention is being implemented – who are the students, what are the characteristics of the school context, what do the teachers delivering the intervention know are a few of the questions that are being explicitly discussed.

This set of questions is embedded, I believe, in the current conversation about replication that is happening across scientific communities. A recent article by IES colleagues published in Educational Researcher examined to what degree IES has been supporting replication research over the past 15 years or so. The authors proposed a classification system that we hope will help the field think about the ways in which replication can serve to build our understanding of what works, for whom, and under what conditions.

Another exciting development across the federal research agencies is the move to open science. In 2013, [former OSTP Director] John Holdren put out a memo about increasing public access to federal funded research, and that work continues. Projects funded in 2013 will be beginning to end, and we will begin to have restricted use data sets becoming available for researchers to use.  Researchers will have the ability to reanalyze data, explore the data that others have collected, and to ask different questions of that data, which is going to provide opportunities to rethink and ask new questions of the completed projects.

What do you see as some of the biggest contributions of psychologists in education research to classroom/education practice?

Psychology covers so many areas, and representatives from every subfield are IES grantees. Psychologists who study learning – cognitive psychologists, experimental psychologists, developmental psychologists, social psychologists, and educational psychologists to name just a few – are tackling critical questions in education.

Within the Cognition and Student Learning portfolio, we have seen basic principles long established in the experimental literature on learning and memory tested (and usually affirmed) in the classroom. Principles such as spacing practice over time, actively generating knowledge through quizzing, aligning visual and verbal presentations of taught concepts, have been tested with students in social studies and mathematics classrooms.

Another area where many psychologists have contributed to education is in understanding the social and behavioral context of the classroom and school. In this IES portfolio, psychologists are examining the best ways to support students’ development of a growth mindset toward learning, how teachers can create classrooms where all learners are engaged in learning, and how schools establish policies and practices that support opportunities for all students.

What advice would you give researchers in the field who may be called to public service, such as working at a federal agency, serving on an advisory board, or being part of a review committee?

Just do it!  I came to DC for a year as an American Association for the Advancement of Science/Society for Research in Child Development executive branch policy fellow because I’d always been curious about the intersection of research practice and policy.  I found the work fascinating and loved engaging with the community broadly and building bridges across disciplines.  Working in a federal agency has transformed my understanding of how many of the critical levers of our society work.  

If you’re asked to serve on an advisory board or be part of a review committee, that’s an opportunity for you to get a window into this process. I’m here 16 years later so clearly, I thought this was a good thing to do! There may also be other ways to think about public service, not only at the federal level, such as serving on a school board or in local government.I would encourage every researcher to find a place where they can contribute to public service.