In Focus

Q & A with Al Simon upon His Retirement

Al Simon and Stan Schneider

Long-time friends and colleagues: 
Al Simon (left) and Stan Schneider

This past summer, Al Simon retired from his position of executive vice president and senior research scientist for Metis, which he joined in 1992. Al contributed greatly to Metis’s research enterprise, providing leadership for hundreds of education evaluations and mentoring dozens of Metis researchers who had the benefit of working with him.

A product of the New York City public schools and university system, Al grew up in the Bronx and Long Island, receiving a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Queens College. While teaching fourth and fifth grades in Garden City and Commack, Long Island, he earned a master’s degree in curriculum development and teaching from Teachers College.

In 1965, Al began his PhD studies in educational research and evaluation methodology at Hofstra University, through a fellowship established by Title IV of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He taught for 20 years at Queens College and is the coauthor of the graduate-level textbook Interpreting Education Research: An Introduction for Consumers of Research.

He took some time to answer questions about his 45-year career in educational research.

“At first, we fed key-punch cards—sometimes hundreds of them—into a room-sized mainframe computer…”

How did you become interested in educational research in the first place?

My mother and uncle, who were both New York City teachers, and my father—a dentist who taught as well—strongly inspired me to go into education. I was seeking to emulate some of my own teachers as well as to do better than others. I realized early in my public-education career that I wanted to advance in the field, but I didn’t want to deal with some of the politics that one has to face as a school principal or district administrator. I liked the techniques of research, particularly the mathematical aspects. In my practically oriented doctoral program, where we conducted field-based research from the start, I was very much influenced by my professors from whom I learned good techniques and questioning methods.

What brought you to Metis?

I was a partner in the late 1960s with the Teaching and Learning Research Corp., and Stan Schneider worked in the same building for Arthur Greenleigh Associates—a research consulting firm—before he went to Community School District 18 in Brooklyn, en route to Metis. We were doing similar work—evaluations and statistical analyses for the New York City schools. Stan and I had an instant affinity. We’d both gone to Queens College, studied psychology, taught, and become educational researchers. And, we both had beards (although they were darker then than they are now). Eventually, I began working as an independent evaluator, and Stan and Richard Pargament (Stan’s partner at the time) approached me about merging my work with Metis’s—which we did in 1992. Over the years, Stan and I came to love each other dearly as colleagues and close personal friends.

Can you talk about some of the most important influences on your research career?

When I met Dr. Edmond W. Gordon—an educational psychologist and one of my first partners at the Teaching and Learning Research Corp.—he was already becoming well known. Ed was instrumental in helping us look rigorously at how best to help children and families who were in need, and for whom the systems simply weren’t working. The federal, state, and city programs that were cropping up at the time to help disadvantaged children often ignored the reality of their everyday lives. They assumed that parents of children who were in need could simply transport them to tutoring sites or to sports activities or art lessons. But, often parents of struggling children were struggling themselves, and they lacked the wherewithal to facilitate the enrichment needed by their children.

Ed Gordon went on to become the first research director for Head Start and was later called by Time one of the top 10 black educators in the country for his scholarship on education and the achievement gap.

Another leader who inspired me was Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was a principal in a Harlem school and became the supervising superintendent of the NYC Chancellor’s District—a set of schools determined to be “most in need” of reform. She showed what good leadership was, providing counseling and services to teachers and principals, and she turned many of these difficult schools around. Barbara is now the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

What are some of the Metis projects that stand out for you?

The projects that I found most interesting were those in the late 90s and early 2000s that brought me into schools and classrooms. For example, when we reviewed the citywide reading curriculum, I was able to observe the teaching methodologies being used, the materials, and the technology. I saw teachers moving around the classroom, assisting individual students—not lecturing—and students doing work in groups as well as individually. It was a good combination of using new tools—both in curriculum and books—and a well-considered approach to teaching.

During the 1980s, we evaluated an interesting collaboration between Microsoft and Toshiba, which was the first experiment with laptop computers being distributed to students in New York City middle schools. We found that the extent to which the machines were used as teaching tools depended on the quality and quantity of training the teachers received. In some cases, teachers just transferred to the computer what they normally did on the chalkboard—like having students copy down lists of vocabulary words or math problems. But in others, students did creative problem solving on the computers, using them for visual tasks, like figuring out how to get from point A to point B, which the computer particularly facilitated.

Recently, two successful projects, both sponsored by the federal Institute of Education Sciences, were exciting endeavors for which I played a significant role as principal investigator: the multi-year experimental design evaluation of Chicago’s Striving Readers Project and our multi-year evaluation of Arkansas’ Statewide Longitudinal Data System. In each case, Metis’s work has led to major developments in these education systems.

What have been the biggest changes in research that you’ve observed?

Frankly, the research methods are basically the same—Campbell and Stanley got it right in their 1963 monograph Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research, and it’s still right, although the analytic tools have become far more sophisticated. At first, we fed key-punch cards—sometimes hundreds of them—into a room-sized mainframe computer based at Princeton to get the answers to our statistical questions. At some point or another, we all dropped the cards. Thankfully IBM had the foresight to create a card sorter, like a coin sorter, that could put them back in order. As the technology improved, we were then able to send our data back and forth to Princeton through a phone connection—using an acoustical coupler. It was actually considered very high-tech at the time! It’s quite different from how many of my Metis colleagues currently conduct their own analyses on their own high-speed desk-top computers.

In terms of methodology, when I was going through doctoral training almost 50 years ago, the gold standard was a rigorous research design with a randomly assigned control group and experimental group. Today, for many, that’s still the only sensible way to draw conclusions about the impact of social programs. However, aided by relatively new and powerful matching techniques (e.g., propensity score matching, or PSM), there’s been a growth in the use of quasi-experimental designs that allow conclusions to be drawn with a degree of confidence that approaches that of the more rigorous design. These studies use matched comparison groups that are constructed without relying on random assignment, which can cause would-be control groups to be deprived of valuable services.

Is there any advice that you would like to share with the next generation of education researchers?

Today, graduate work in education is no longer limited to individuals with classroom experience. But in my opinion, understanding curriculum and instruction are still very important qualifications for those undertaking educational evaluation. Researchers need to know how it feels to get in front of a classroom. Statistical analysis is of course critical to understanding what works in education, but there is no substitute for getting into the field and talking with teachers, students, and parents to find out what is really happening on the ground.

Finally, while we have always valued the contribution of reliable and valid tests to assess the impact of educational programs, I believe that we are currently over-reliant on individual tests to make high-stakes decisions—especially when these exams may not appropriately measure students’ learning. For example, the New York State Education Department has just administered new reading and math exams that incorporate Common Core standards, even though the professional development and curricular materials for teaching these standards have not been adequately provided in classrooms throughout the state. Not surprisingly, results from these new exams have declined dramatically from prior years. The question remains – how will the results be used?

How are you spending your well-earned free time?

From my new perch in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, I am taking courses at a local college, visiting museums, and pursuing my passion for photography. I miss the stimulation and camaraderie of my colleagues and all of our clients at Metis, but I’m having a wonderful time!

How shall your friends and colleagues reach you now?

I welcome hearing from my Metis colleagues old and new, and I’m still available at asimon@metisassoc.com.