Unless Grover (Russ) Whitehurst was truly weary of leading the Brookings Institution’s widely respected Brown Center on Education Policy, only demented think-tank hierarchs would have let him exit that role. But the want ads make clear that they’ve done so.
What a shame. Though the Center dates back to 1992 and has always produced one or two valuable studies per year (including the fine series of annual reports authored and orchestrated primarily by Tom Loveless), it didn’t really take off until Russ left government and took its helm in 2009.
Since then, he and Tom and their small team of brainy people have emerged not just as varsity players in the education-policy think-tank league, but also as major contributors to serious scholarship about nearly every consequential issue that roils the K–12 waters. No doubt about it, they have policy preferences and viewpoints, but they’ve also been straight shooters about what is actually known, relentlessly crunching numbers and then translating the research into trenchant, comprehensible, digestible information for policymakers, practitioners, and fellow scholars. They host terrific events, produce an outstanding weekly “chalkboard” report, and have published a shelf of valuable studies. (Sixty-one items turn up on the Center’s “research and commentary” listing for just the past year.)
As everybody in the education world knows, Russ preceded his tenure at the Brown Center by serving—for seven long years—as founding director of the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences (IES), a much-improved version of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) that I once had the honor to head. To the consternation of many longtime feeders at the federal trough and aficionados of “qualitative” research, Russ pushed hard to focus IES energies and resources on rigorous, quantitative research and analysis, ideally on randomized trials of education interventions of various kinds. And he left quite a legacy.
He and I haven’t always agreed—e.g., regarding the relative independence of the National Assessment Governing Board—and once upon a time I didn’t think he had a sense of humor. But as we came to know each other better, especially during shared service on the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force, my respect for him mounted steadily (and I discovered his dry but well-targeted capacity for amusement about the many education topics that would benefit from more of it).
No small center within a think tank—even mighty Brookings—will ever have the footprint of a $200 million federal agency. But Russ’s tenure at the Brown Center has also left a considerable legacy, establishing it as a font of high-quality, policy-relevant research that is objective and rigorous, yet also leads to clear, actionable conclusions.
It’s a damn shame to see him step down. Maybe he was exhausted. Or maybe the Brookings leadership has lost its marbles. They’ll be hard pressed to find his equal. But I know we haven’t heard the last from Russ—and that’s a very good thing.