2020 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Elizabeth J. Warner, Ph.D.

Engaged in groundbreaking, evidence-based research for two decades that has led to the adoption of new K-12 teacher training and recruiting practices, improving instruction for students in disadvantaged communities and throughout the nation.

Listen to Elizabeth Warner discuss her work:

Approaches to recruiting and training K-12 teachers have changed substantially in recent years, moving toward evidence-based strategies and new practices to help alleviate teacher shortages and improve instruction, especially for disadvantaged students. 

Elizabeth Warner at the Department of Education has been at the forefront of this movement, conducting groundbreaking research for 21 years that has influenced public policy and spurred significant change. 

“Elizabeth Warner has helped transform the field of teacher training,” said Jill Constantine, senior vice president of Mathematica, a private research organization that works with the Education Department. 

“As a result of Warner’s research, the education community has access to new strategies and best practices, and states and school districts can now use federal Title II education funds for a broader range of training and teacher incentives,” Constantine said. 

For example, Warner and her team at the department’s Institute of Education Sciences looked at new ways to recruit and train teachers to get them into classrooms faster and support them once they are there. These opportunities include accepting alternative certification criteria to shorten the process; using Teach for America and other teaching fellowships more extensively; facilitating midcareer moves into teaching; and providing mentoring programs for new teachers. 

Teachers coming from these alternative paths are at least as effective as those who enter through the traditional undergraduate route, Warner’s findings showed. Additionally, her studies have found that using these options can increase diversity among teaching staffs help alleviate shortages. 

Warner and her team also studied whether disadvantaged students have less access to effective teachers, and how to rectify the situation where it exists. Her research found sizable inequity in certain school districts, and that offering bonuses motivates teachers to transfer to lower performing schools, addressing achievement gaps attributable to unequal access to good teachers. 

Warner “helps ensure that taxpayer dollars are going to what works,” said Matthew Soldner, the Department of Education’s chief evaluation officer. 

“She is a national expert on teachers and teacher evaluations, and how you improve teacher performance,” he added. 

Warner has made research procedures more scientific and less reliant on anecdotal information by shifting from surveys and other qualitative methods to quantitative scientific methods such as randomized control trials. These studies are conducted nationwide and often involve hundreds of schools and teachers. 

Her scientific approach to research is “new and quite innovative and different for the field of education,” said James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.  

In the past, Kemple said, education research and policies were “much more driven by ideological perspectives and political considerations than by evidence.” That led to shifting attempts to improve the quality of education, particularly for vulnerable populations, in ways that are not systematic or rigorous, he added. 

For example, he said, Warner studied the effectiveness of professional development strategies by examining whether providing training to one group of teachers and not another would influence achievement scores of their students.  

She found that targeted, individualized professional development training focused on improving content knowledge or instruction is effective. But Warner found training provided to large groups of teachers on broad topics within reading and math is not, Kemple added, and she also discovered that coaching and video lessons helped increase teachers’ knowledge of mathematics. 

Over the years, Warner has dealt with the changing priorities of different administrations by effectively working across the political spectrum to help show why prioritizing education is of national importance. 

Warner said her biggest challenge is “disseminating the findings of the research and actually changing practices in the field.” To address this issue, she uses videos, policy forums and summaries of her research to make information easier to understand and practice. 

“The goal is not to just produce another 100-page report that no one plows through, but more like 10 pages or a video that helps people see the punchlines across studies,” Warner said. 

Working for the government has given her great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, she said. Her research has resulted in changes in education practices throughout the country, and a number of her recommendations on teachers and their paths into the classroom are now in federal law.  

“That is a clear example where policymakers were paying attention to us,” Warner said. 

By providing evidence on what works and what does not, Kemple said, Warner has “challenged the field and the country to be thinking about not just how do we innovate and improve, but how do we make sure we aren’t cycling through multiple rounds of the same types of reforms without having been informed by good evidence.”