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Initiating a Global Research Bank

Shattuck Professor Catherine Snow (© 2003 Andrew Brilliant)
When Catherine Snow arrived at her office one morning five years ago, she came upon a box stuffed with papers and a note that read like a plea from a novice scientist handing over her first lab test results. Gail Jordan, a Title 1 director from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, had designed a literacy program for kindergartners from low-wage families in that semirural community. After the study's conclusion, however, Jordan poured over the results and realized that she had reached the limits of her own expertise. "I don't know how to analyze the data," Jordan wrote, "so I am sending it on to you." Snow was lucky that a doctoral student was eager to sift through Jordan's test results. A couple of years later, the published analysis was named the best of the year by the journal Reading Research Quarterly, giving it considerable visibility in the field. Today, teachers in over 700 school districts in the United States are improving literacy among kindergartners by using Jordan's program.
Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, likens SERP's educational resources and impact to that of the Human Genome Project.
That's a Hollywood ending for a project that was as much at risk as the children it was designed to help. But Snow is haunted by the role that pure chance plays in the success—and failure—of programs like the one designed by Jordan. "That project would never have happened had that box arrived at a time when I didn't have the research funds to hire someone. An educational improvement shouldn't be subject to such randomness," says Snow. "It ought to be systematic and reliable—after all, we're talking about children's lives." For Snow, the Shattuck Professor of Education, Jordan's story became just another telling example of the tenuous connection between education researchers and practitioners in the field. It also became part of the inspiration for Snow's work with the National Academy of Sciences in establishing a groundbreaking federal institution that will allow research that improves learning, like Jordan's, to flourish in classrooms rather than to slip through the cracks. With a proposed annual budget of $500 million in private and public funds, the Strategic Education Research Partnership, or SERP, plans to design a massive, nationwide database of education research results and successful education practices. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, likens SERP's educational resources and impact to that of the Human Genome Project. SERP organizers, who gathered at HGSE with key stakeholders this fall, are counting on Snow, as SERP's vice chair, to help dismantle the hierarchical relationships that often lead researchers to dictate new practices to experienced teachers. "Catherine envisions SERP as an opportunity not only for teachers to learn from researchers, but also for researchers to learn from practitioners," says SERP associate director M. Suzanne Donovan. Snow describes the project's sharing and generating of information as uniquely useful, reciprocal, and long overdue. The database will enable educators and researchers across the United States to introduce new teaching techniques to teachers in distressed public school districts. In return, university researchers around the world will learn from experienced educators and state officials. As with the Human Genome Project, private and public researchers and public officials working through SERP will be cooperating on an unprecedented level. Education research today is not a cooperative field, says Snow. Instead, most educational reforms are thought of as replacing previous policies rather than building on them. The public, special interest groups, and even school leaders "are always demanding reorientation," she says. In addition to supporting researchers and long-term partnerships, SERP's central repository will ensure that data from practitioners, like that gathered by Gail Jordan in White Bear Lake, is never lost. Without an institution like SERP, Snow says, "a great deal of highly useful education research will continue to be completely ephemeral." About the Article A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For More Information More information about Catherine Snow is available in the Faculty Profiles.