Research News

WCER celebrating 50 years of improving teaching and learning

October 17, 2014

Imagine a place where staff constantly move walls, install technology and reposition furniture to make it possible for some of the world’s brightest minds to work on an astonishing array of grant-funded projects to advance education policy and practice. The Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), located in the tall, brown Educational Sciences Building at Johnson and Brooks on the UW-Madison campus, is such a place.

In recent weeks, a sense of celebration has mounted within WCER as it readies to turn 50. Founded within the School of Education by Herbert Klausmeier, a UW-Madison professor of educational psychology who passed away this spring, today it employs nearly 500 staff and is home to 65 researchers, from the School of Education and 10 other departments, responsible for bringing its current 140 projects to life.

In recognition of its 50th anniversary, making it one of the first centers established on this campus, WCER invites its researchers and staff, as well as campus and community members, to a daylong celebratory symposium and evening keynote lecture on Monday, October 20. Deborah Vandell, scholar, former UW-Madison professor and expert on the impact of afterschool activities on child development, returns to Madison to deliver the keynote.

Vandell speaks at Monona Terrace’s Hall of Ideas at 8 p.m. Monday about her newest research demonstrating that afterschool activities can help narrow the achievement gap. While at UW-Madison in the 1990’s, Vandell, now dean at the University of California-Irvine School of Education, led a national research project disproving the myth that day care negatively affects child development. This is just one example of research with national and international implications that has been conducted by WCER researchers over the years. (For complete details about the 50th anniversary symposium, visit

“Even the center’s most ardent supporters could not have predicted the impact that WCER would have in its first 50 years of existence,” states Julie Underwood, dean of UW–Madison’s School of Education. “The center is renowned throughout the world for its prolific track record of producing influential research.”

In August 1964, UW–Madison and the U.S. Office of Education established the center. From initial offices in a former grocery store and later a reconfigured dormitory, it has developed into one of the largest and most productive university-based education research centers in the world.

WCER group photo
Those who work within WCER posed for a staff
photo outside the Educational Sciences Building
earlier this year.
From innovations in math education and teaching English language learners to developing sophisticated data-driven tools to improve teacher and school effectiveness, to creating educational computer games that promote equitable outcomes in education, WCER researchers have delivered groundbreaking findings, services and products that have improved teaching and learning over five decades.

“A great challenge to an education research organization is to substantially influence practice,” states UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “WCER researchers have struck a wonderfully successful balance between breaking new intellectual ground and continually asking how educational ‘best practices’ can be made more efficient, better supported, more strategic and thus easier to implement.”

Brian Bottge, now at the University of Kentucky, recalls his first year as an assistant professor at UW–Madison in 1997. “Our department chair ordered me to make an appointment to discuss submitting a grant through WCER,” says Bottge, who spent ten successful years with the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, resulting in work that is highlighted by the U.S. Department of Education. Availing himself of the resources in that tall brown building, he says, was the best advice he was ever given.

Over the years, WCER honed its grants management expertise to achieve remarkably high approval rates. In 2013, more than 35 percent of the grants submitted to federal competitions were awarded funding. WCER currently generates about $60 million annually in grant awards and services. Since its founding it has been awarded approximately $800 million in grant awards.

“The center has developed a rich, diversified portfolio of funding sources, giving it unparalleled freedom and reach,” states Underwood.

WCER logoWCER’s research began with an emphasis on the human mind and motivation, contributing to the rise of cognitive psychology. Researchers documented how students learn and also developed instructional programs.

Its researchers also developed popular tools such as “Depth of Knowledge” and “Surveys of the Enacted Curriculum” that allow educators to better evaluate student outcomes. Today, WCER’s Value-Added Research Center (VARC) turns mountains of student data into actionable information to improve student learning.

WCER also runs the School of Education’s Doctoral Research Program, which trains future education researchers. And through its network of 23 U.S. universities, including UW–Madison’s own Delta Program, the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) improves how college faculty teach diverse science, technology, engineering and mathematics learners.

“The future faculty of the nation are today’s graduate students,” says Robert Mathieu, WCER’s current director and CIRTL’s principal investigator. “If we can enhance their graduate preparation in teaching, we will advance undergraduate learning at every college and university.”

Among WCER’s current emphases are establishing equitable outcomes and inclusion in education, as spurred by the work of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), the Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB) and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. In addition, the rapidly growing WIDA provides services and materials for educators of English language learners in 37 states and 50 countries.

Others in WCER are developing state-of-the-art learning tools, such as the Epistemic Games Group’s computer simulations that guide students who role play as engineering company interns through realistic technology design assignments.

“Most importantly, the center provides the School of Education a vehicle to make a difference in the world through groundbreaking basic research and crucial translational work,” concludes Underwood.

“Ultimately,” says Mathieu, “our grand challenge will be addressed by sifting and winnowing through a rich diversity of ideas, and through interdisciplinary collaboration both within and beyond WCER. Research-based results can and must enlighten argument, challenge myth and inform decisions.”

From exploring how we learn, to measuring educational outcomes, to broadening equitable learning and integrating technologies into teaching, WCER’s effort to advance the understanding and practice of education has grown and evolved. What has not changed is WCER’s continuing passion to make teaching and learning as beneficial as possible for all ages and all people.

-- Written with contributions by Paul Baker, Cliff White, Kurt Brown and Janet Kelly