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The Bureau of Educational Research: 100 Years of Social and Educational History

by Tom Hanlon / Sep 16, 2019

The Children's Research Center building

The Bureau of Educational Research has continually transformed itself over its first 100 years to remain relevant and vital to educators across the state and the nation.

Back in the 1910s, a nationwide interest in gathering systematic information about schools and curricula began to gain steam. The country was in the process of shifting from a predominantly agricultural economy to a more urbanized economy, one that would require a literate, educated workforce.

Edmund James, nearing the end of his 16-year tenure as president of the University of Illinois, was known for his forward thinking—in fact, he had resigned a similar post at Northwestern University in 1902, dissatisfied with what he saw as the school’s lack of foresight. James conferred with W. W. Charters, dean of what was then known as the School of Education. Charters was renowned as a pioneering researcher in teacher education and curriculum development.

From their conversations, the idea to form an office to meet those research needs crystallized. The two men saw not only the need, but the opportunity for the University of Illinois to play a pivotal role in conducting the research and coming up with best educational practices that would shape and enhance education in the state of Illinois.

On June 20, 1918, the Bureau of Educational Research was formally established, with B. R. Buckingham named the first bureau director. Buckingham also was a founder of the National Association of Directors of Educational Research (founded in 1916), and its president from 1918 to 1920. That association was later renamed the American Educational Research Association.

The rest, as they say, is history—a history steeped in breakthrough research from decade to decade, a history replete with accomplishments and achievements that have impacted not only the state of Illinois, but the nation.

Remaining Relevant

Around the time the Bureau of Educational Research (BER) was formed, many other bureaus began popping up in universities around the nation. “You could find bureaus in South Dakota, Arizona, Texas, Indiana, and other states,” says Elizabeth Niswander, director of strategic initiatives for the BER. “Our first bureau director left here and founded another bureau of educational research at Ohio State.”

Those other bureaus all shared one thing in common: they fell by the wayside.

“They kept to that original mission of providing expert guidance in evaluating schools and assessing students,” Niswander explains. The educational research needs went beyond that research and dissemination model, so that mission was not enough to sustain them.

The BER at Illinois has chosen a much more adaptable approach to its mission. “The bureau and the College of Education have revisited and re-envisioned the mission of the bureau, to make it continue to be a relevant force and influence for education research for the University of Illinois,” Niswander says.

“The bureau has had a big influence locally and at the state and international levels on research and findings around education,” says Gabrielle Allen, who leads the BER as associate dean for research and research education in the College of Education. “The story of the bureau is the story of transformation, of responding to current needs.”

Consistent Contributions and Impact

Allen highlights how some of those needs have been met through the decades. “In the ‘30s and ‘40s, the bureau had a strong role in issues of fiscal management and academic structures,” she says. “In the ‘50s, the director, William McLure, was an advisor to the state governor and outlined a master plan for what is now the community college system. In the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s, we saw a number of strong education research centers that emerged, some directly from the bureau and some with the support of the bureau.” That includes the Center for the Study of Reading, which Allen notes “has had an immense impact around literacy and learning about reading and learning.”

The ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, she adds, saw a great expansion in the number of faculty engaged in educational research, and the BER played, and continues to play, a critical role in helping faculty identify funding sources and put together competitive packages to gain funding for their research.

“The impact of the bureau has been across the board,” Allen says.

Allen has led the BER for the last three years. “I’ve been absolutely humbled to find out the amount of research and the impact the bureau has had,” she says. “As we celebrate our 100-year anniversary, we’re coming back to a new understanding of what was happening 100 years ago when the bureau was formed, especially our potential to contribute to important societal issues around education and workforce development.”

“The bureau was looking at educational research not just as a top-down agenda. It was looking for research models and approaches. It was bringing in the stakeholders, the teachers and learners, and examining the environment of the research itself, thinking about sustainable benefits for different learners and environments that they were engaging with.”

The Bureau of Educational Research has hit its 100th birthday. But, unlike most centenarians, it remains nimble and agile, strong and flexible. Far from flagging, it enters its second century with a full head of steam, pushing toward even greater impact and influence through the research it produces and supports. And learners and educators both in the state of Illinois and across the country are better off for it.


Keys to the BER's Success

The keys to the BER’s longevity and continued impact include:

  • Revisiting and re-envisioning its mission to remain relevant
  • Knowing, and responding to, the current needs of its stakeholders
  • Producing sustainable benefits for its stakeholders
  • Having a sustained string of strong and visionary academic leaders
  • Attracting faculty who produce cutting-edge research


Many Feathers in the BER's Cap

If accomplishments were feathers, you would not be able to see the BER’s cap for all its feathers. Here are some of those feathers:

  • First BER director B. R. Buckingham helped found the National Association of Directors of Educational Research (later renamed the American Educational Research Association).
  • Buckingham and the BER began publishing the Journal of Educational Research in 1920.
  • Walter Monroe, director from 1921-1947, developed a theory that combined psychological learning theories with development of teaching methods.
  • Lee Cronbach, a BER researcher in the 1950s, established “Cronbach’s alpha,” a method to determine the reliability of educational and psychological tests, which remains an important tool today.
  • Samuel Kirk, a BER researcher from 1948-1953 who is known as the “Father of Special Education,” came up with a seminal concept of learning disability and established the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children.
  • Francis Cornell, director from 1947-1951, was engaged by the US Army to draw up an educational system for West Germany.
  • William McLure, director from 1951-1978, was instrumental in creating a master plan for the junior college system in Illinois. He also headed up a proposal for school finance reform in 1973, which was incorporated into law.
  • The BER started the Journal of Aesthetic Education in 1966.
  • Steven Asher, director from 1979-1994, expanded the bureau’s mission to support the growing research agendas of all the College’s faculty, and renewed research relationships with area schools.

In 1995, bureau leadership became the responsibility of the College of Education’s associate dean for research.

  • Lizanne DeStefano, 1995-2009, created a system to spur grant development capacity and resources, further supported the expansion of external research funding for faculty, and organized resources to strengthen evaluation research services for a wide array of funded projects. Under her watch, the bureau became administrative home to several large research centers.
  • Jose Mestre, 2010-2011, strengthened research connections with campus STEM departments.
  • Stafford Hood, 2011-2014, has led the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment (CREA), an international community of scholars and practitioners that promotes a culturally responsive stance to evaluation, assessment, policy analysis, applied research and action research. CREA benefited from period of Bureau support and now continues to flourish, providing a resource for organizations and individuals seeking to better understand and apply cultural responsiveness to educational endeavors.
  • Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, 2014-2016, guided an intensified focus on interdisciplinary and collaborative research. During his years, the bureau supported or helped create the following: the campus-wide Illinois Learning Sciences Design Initiative, the Illinois Digital Ecologies and Learning Lab, and the Siebel Center for Design.
  • Gabrielle Allen, the current associate dean for research, leads bureau support for a number of important initiatives, including: TIER-ED, which accelerates the development of new education tools and technologies; I-STECS, an Illinois K-12 computer science teacher licensure program; a strong focus on ensuring Education leadership in the statewide Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) and Illinois Innovation Network (IIN), and Janus, a developing plan for a sophisticated data infrastructure for longitudinal social science and education research.