Faculty Spotlight

Larry Hedges

Training a New Kind of Education Scientist

Larry Hedges

It’s hard to pin a label on Larry Hedges—education scholar, statistician, methodologist, social psychologist, policy researcher—all of the above would apply. The number of awards and honors he has accumulated over the course of his career, from elected fellowships to lifetime contributions, attest to his expertise and standing. But for all of the recognition, being at the forefront of methodologically rigorous, quantitative education research has been “a mighty lonely place,” Hedges said.

Yet in the world of education research, the times they are a’ changin’—and Hedges is leading efforts to train and build a community around a new generation of multidisciplinary education researchers.

Graduating from Stanford University with a doctorate in mathematical methods in education research in 1980, Hedges said he came at “the tail end of the last boom” in education research and quantitative methods. By then, research-world “fashion” had started gravitating toward more qualitative methods as a belief took hold that quantitative methods had “failed.”

In the past 10 to 15 years, however, Hedges pointed to a “reawakening” to the importance and value of quantitative research, particularly in the field of education. This interest has been embodied by the creation of the Institute of Education Sciences in 2002, the research wing of the Department of Education that was modeled after the National Institutes of Health, and to whose board President Barack Obama appointed him in 2012. It has also been embedded in laws, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), signed into law by President George W. Bush.

“NCLB has been much reviled for a lot of things are wrong with it, but it also did some really good things,” Hedges said. “With the stroke of a pen, it created a demand for high-quality research to support efforts to improve education.”

The enactment of NCLB, the establishment of IES, and the increased flow of funding for more quantitative education research created a demand for a new kind of “education scientist” and forever “changed the world of education research,” Hedges said.

Having published nearly 200 journal articles in at least six different fields, Hedges is well placed to promote the quantitative revitalization of education research. He is widely recognized for his groundbreaking statistical work in meta-analysis, which combines findings across studies on the same issue. He has co-authored many of the topic’s most widely cited works, including the seminal 1985 Statistical Methods for Meta-Analysis, with Stanford University’s Ingram Olkin. Two of the many important questions Hedges has clarified using meta-analytic methods are furthering debates over whether school financing matters to student outcomes (it does) and examining whether there are actually more high scoring (and low scoring) boys than girls on achievement tests in representative samples (there are).

The importance of meta-analysis, Hedges explained, is that it pulls together many studies, each of which meets certain methodological requirements in its own right. By providing more results than any one study could have by definition, he continued, it also “smooths out” the particular eccentricities of the combined studies, making a meta-analysis more reliable than a single study.

Using meta-analysis also solves the problem of “dueling experts,” Hedges went on. When Expert A is pitted against Expert B, it gives the impression of conflict. Yet he sees multiple studies all pointing to a similar outcome as allowing a field to speak with “one voice and a multitude of subtones.”

The development of organizations that review research such as the Cochrane Collaboration for health and the What Works Clearinghouse for education, where Hedges also played a founding role, have also helped make it easier to identify what high-quality research and effective interventions should look like.

More recently, government agencies have found themselves being asked to justify their programs and budget requests through the inclusion of tried-and-tested interventions and policies, Hedges said. This new mindset of proposing solutions that “work” is being engrained into administrative culture. While politicians might cycle in and out of government, Hedges pointed out that career employees do not.

The combination of these factors, Hedges said, has ratcheted up demand—in many areas, not just education research—for more rigorous studies. “The whole process suddenly created a lot of demand for smart people to do high-quality research,” he said, “but we had limited human capital.”

The dearth of qualified researchers has fueled Hedges’ desire to train a new generation of education scholars, modeling their training on that of health research scientists who employ the “gold standard” of medical research, the randomized controlled trial.

With support from IES and others, he started an interdisciplinary postdoctoral fellowship program at Northwestern to train young education researchers and launched a series of workshops on cluster-randomized trials to train those already in the field. To support this new community, he spearheaded the founding of the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness (SREE) in 2005, which has tripled its membership since 2008, and its Journal for Research on Educational Effectiveness.

“We were prompted to create SREE, a new professional society for graduates on up, to support a new kind of professional identity for a new kind of education researcher,” Hedges said. Thanks to his efforts, the field is on its way to becoming more crowded—and hopefully, a little less solitary.

Larry Hedges is Board of Trustees Professor and chairman in Statistics and Education and Social Policy, professor of psychology, and an IPR fellow. He is also founding director of IPR’s Center for Quantitative Methods for Policy Research, or Q-Center.