Success Eludes 10-Year-Old Research Agency
During times of perceived crisis in American education, the federal government in this century has frequently been asked to legislate swift, sweeping measures to solve complex, long-term problems.
The National Defense Education Act, passed during the "science crisis" in 1958; the Great Society education programs, begun in 1965 to alleviate poverty and inequality; and the numerous science-and-mathematics improvement bills currently pending in the Congress--all represent large-scale attempts to further student attainment through federal intervention.
The creation 10 years ago of the National Institute of Education (nie), the federal educational research agency, also represented an attempt by the federal government to help achieve what schools alone seemingly had failed to do--to provide all students with "an education of high quali-ty." But the agency was given an even broader, grander mission than other federal programs. "The purpose of a National Institute of Education," said Daniel P. Moynihan, who was the agency's principal advocate in the Nixon Administration, "is to develop the art and science of education to the point that equality of educational opportunity results in a satisfactory equivalence of educational achievement." Mr. Moynihan is now the Democratic Senator from New York.
Ten years later, the bright promise of the nie has been dulled by a host of bureaucratic, political, and image problems. Among the serious, continuing obstacles to the institute's attainment of its goals, those interviewed for this article cited:
Understanding. Because educational research is a relatively young area of social science, it does not enjoy wide respect among scholars, and its relationship to teaching and learning is poorly understood by many of those who work in the schools.
Funding. The nie never came close to receiving the $250-million annual budget sought by the Nixon Administration. The institute received $110 million in its first year and $69 million in its second. In the current fiscal year, the agency is operating on a $53-million budget, in spite of a federally funded study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 1970 that estimated nie would need $1.1 billion by 1982 to conduct its research.
Leadership. Strong, consistent leadership to manage the agency and plan a research agenda was never established at nie The institute has been headed by five directors and four acting directors in nine years. A sixth director, nominated by President Reagan, Manuel Justiz, is awaiting confirmation of his appointment by the Senate.
Staffing. The institute was never able to attract a staff of eminent scholars, in part because federal law requires that 90 percent of its funds be spent on research conducted outside the nie
Governance. The institute's structure, first as an agency reporting to the assistant secretary for education in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and currently, as a unit of the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement, has caused conflicts over who is responsible for the federal research agenda. The 15-member National Council on Educational Research is, by law, the independent policy-setting body of the institute, but research priorities and grant awards have been determined to a large extent by the political bents of Presidential Administrations.
Priorities. The institute does not devote a sufficient amount of its funds to fundamental research. After a study commissioned from a panel of the National Academy of Sciences recommended in 1977 that a minimum of 30 percent of the nie budget should be devoted to basic research issues, the percentage rose from 10 percent to the current 24 percent. Nevertheless, many scholars argue that the institute still spends too much of its funds on applied research, program development, and curriculum projects.
Authority. The institute's relationship with the 17 regional educational laboratories and centers that currently receive, by law, approximately 53 percent of its budget has not led to improvements, coordination, or conclusiveness in the quality of the federal educational-research effort. The original design of the institute called for the laboratories and centers to compete with other research institutions for nie contracts after the first "few years," but the 17 institutions have succeeded in lobbying the Congress to maintain their special status.
During President Reagan's term of office, these problems have placed the institute in a most vulnerable position. While education groups refuse to lobby Congressmen for funds for educational research at the expense of federal grant programs, and the scientific community virtually ignores the nie, politically conservative activists--who contend the institute is ineffectual and too concerned with promoting liberal social causes--are advocating the abolition of the agency.
The first director chosen by the current Administration to head the institute, Edward A. Curran, articulated the conservatives' position in a memorandum to the President last May that called for dismantling the institute.
'Education is a Science'
"nie is based on the premise that education is a science whose progress depends on systematic 'research and development.' As a professional educator, I know that this premise is false," wrote Mr. Curran, who was dismissed from the agency shortly thereafter.
Ideological considerations notwithstanding, support for the nie has dwindled to the point that even Chester E. Finn Jr.--who, as a Presidential assistant in 1970, was one of the principal authors of Mr. Nixon's proposal for the agency, and who served on the institute's policy-making council for four years--now advocates "abandoning" nie
"It's ineffectual; it cannot sponsor and lead research in education in a serious and sustained way," says Mr. Finn, who is currently professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University.
Similarly, Denis Doyle, a research associate at the institute from 1973 to 1978, says he does not "see any signs that nie is going to get its house in order."
"It's too bad, because research is the one real role that the federal government could play in education," says Mr. Doyle, who is now director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
The future of the agency is said to hinge on support from a small contingent of those who still believe that the nie can fulfill its mission. Among them is Terrel H. Bell, the current Secretary of Education.
"All of nie's problems notwithstanding, we should take a positive view of what the institute has done," Mr. Bell says. "It has fallen short of what we thought when it was established. It's not a big success, but it's not a dismal failure."
Others, including the director of the nie from 1977 to 1979, Patricia A. Graham, say the agency is still too young to achieve its goals. "The institute has not had a chance to be a success," says Ms. Graham, who is now dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "But nie needs a longer period of time, another decade, before you can make a judgment about it."
Support of Studies
Critics and proponents alike praise the institute's support of recent studies that have contributed to the understanding of such issues as school finance, the characteristics of effective schools, compensatory education, the acquisition of reading skills, vocational education, and declining enrollment.
But the critics add that those efforts do not justify the $800 million that the nie has spent on educational research during the past 10 years. In fact, the most common criticism leveled against the nie is that it has not been able to attain the goal--a more modest one than that espoused in 1971 by Mr. Moynihan--of determining and carrying out a research agenda to serve American education.
The prospects for nie, when Mr. Moynihan and his colleagues in the White House began converting their ideas for an educational research office into a Presidential proposal in the fall of 1969, were considerably more optimistic.
Although the idea of a research agency separate from the Office of Education's bureau of research was not a new one--it originally had been suggested by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences in 1958--several concurrent events in the late 1960's resulted in Mr. Moynihan's advocacy of the new agency.
According to Organizing an Anarchy, a 1978 book that chronicles the creation and first years of the nie, Mr. Moynihan--who then chaired the White House domestic policy council--was concerned with three "essential issues."
"The first point was that the educational programs of the Great Society were not working well," wrote Lee Sproull, Stephen Weiner, and David Wolf, all university professors. "The Coleman study, the Westinghouse study of the Head Start preschool program, and the evaluations of compensatory education programs ... were cited as supporting evidence" for that position.
The Coleman study, "Equality of Educational Opportunity"--completed in 1966 by the sociologist James S. Coleman--had, in particular, caused concern because its findings implied that educational factors had less effect on student achievement than did socioeconomic factors.
Mr. Moynihan and his colleagues concluded that more research was necessary to determine what schools could do to improve achievement by poor and minority-group students, according to Mr. Finn, who was a Presidential assistant at the time. Mr. Finn describes the evolution of the Nixon Administration's education initiatives in a book, Education and the Presidency.
The group had also concluded that the research efforts of the Office of Education were ineffective, based on studies that had labeled those efforts "fragmented, noncumulative, and inconclusive," according to the Sproull book.
Second, "Moynihan asserted that research cast doubt on the effectiveness of compensatory education programs even in the best of circumstances. ..," the book continues. "Third, the conventional remedy of more money for education seemed suspect. Moynihan believed that the education establishment had to concern itself with educational outputs and not solely with more money."
The nie, with a larger budget and autonomy from the Office of Education--which had been accused by Congressional committees of disorganization and mismanagement--was viewed as a way of improving education over the long term by investing in fundamental, scientific research rather than in grant programs that had not been proven successful.
But even as Mr. Nixon outlined his nie proposal to the Congress in an address in March 1970, the agency was beginning to encounter political problems. At the same time that Mr. Moynihan's group was working on its proposal, President Nixon had advocated reductions in the budgets for the Great Society education programs.
Although education lobbying groups were successful in fighting the cuts, "nie thus found itself in the uncomfortable position of being perceived as a Nixon initiative by the education lobbies who were not fond of Nixon," according to the Sproull book. And because the President was advocating such a large budget for the research agency at the same time that he proposed cutting grant programs, "nie seemed to be profiting from the cuts made in other education programs," the book says.
Although education groups were successful in fighting the cuts through their lobbying coalition, the institute was discredited by those groups as a "Nixon initiative"--an agency that would profit from cuts made in federal grant programs. Even the lobbying group representing the educational laboratories and centers remained suspect of the nie, because its leaders presumed funds would be transferred from their institutions to projects and programs favored by the new institute.
Capitol Hill Supporter
The agency did have one powerful supporter on Capitol Hill. John Brademas, at that time a Democratic Representative from Indiana who chaired the House Subcommittee on Select Education and who was considered the Congress's expert on educational issues, was the principal House sponsor of the nie legislation. Mr. Brademas is now president of New York University.
Although Mr. Brademas's committee supported the institute, a majority of the members of the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for the nie budget voted against the creation of the institute.
As Mr. Brademas observed in a speech in 1973, "Educational research does not stand very well on Capitol Hill for several reasons, one of which is, we don't know what it is. Another is that, whatever it is, we don't think it makes much difference. And another is that we have the apprehension that the fruits of investment in educational research are not really translated into the system."
The institute also had two especially vocal detractors in Congress, whose opposition succeeded in limiting the agency's budget for several years. In the House, Representative Edith Green of Oregon--the Democratic chairman of the Special Committee on Education, which had conducted the investigations that criticized the previous educational research efforts of the federal government--opposed the nie from the start.
"If you want to save money, if you want to put money into the colleges and universities, if you want to improve education, and if you want to cut funds, this [new institute] is the place to cut them," she said during a floor debate on the nie's first budget request.
In the Senate, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee responsible for deciding the nie's annual budget, Democrat Warren Magnuson of Washington, began opposing the nie budget requests after the institute's first year of operation.
The subcommittee's 1973 report complained of discouragement "by what appears to be a total lack of understanding of purpose on the part of the agency."
At least part of the Senator's frustration, according to those who were involved with the institute's creation, stemmed from other problems that were beginning for the institute--bureaucratic problems.
The institute's legislation was signed by President Nixon in June 1972, and, two months later, $110 million worth of research projects being conducted by the Office of Education were transferred to the new agency--even though the director of the agency was not sworn in until November and the policy-making council was not named until the following March. In addition, 99 employees were transferred, en masse, to the new institute.
Because the Congress refused to appropriate money for new projects for the agency, "nie thus became an instant $110-million operating agency," according to the Sproull book. "As a result, it lost the transition year that been promised during the 1971 hearings [on the legislation]--the year for hiring a staff, evaluating Office of Education programs as candidates for transfer to nie, and planning its own new programs," the book continues.
Virtually 92 percent of the programs that the institute was required to finish were not fundamental research projects. They included "development" projects such as the Experimental Schools program, the Experienced-Based Career Education program, the work being conducted by the educational laboratories and centers, the D.C. Schools Project to upgrade the public schools in the nation's capital, and an experimental day-care center for Office of Education employees.
Some of those programs had been ridiculed previously by Representative Green's committee, a fact that placed the nie director, Thomas K. Glennan Jr., in the position of asking the Congress to support--under the auspices of the new nie--the same projects the institute was created to replace.
"The reality we faced was a feeling that these programs had less quality in them, that the work done by the Office of Education was just not very good work," says Mr. Glennan, who currently is a senior economist with the Rand Corporation. "We would go forward with the budget and say we were going through a process of sorting out these things and then trying to create a new agenda. The Congress said that wasn't a sufficient justification for spending the money and they cut the budget back," he says.
The appropriations problems reached their height in September of 1974 when, four months after the Congress refused to grant the institute's supplemental budget increase for the fiscal year 1974, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended no funds for the nie in 1975.
Between those two decisions, Mr. Glennan resigned. He says he "had come to feel that Magnuson's intransigence might have been personally directed at me and was anxious to remove that as a possible source of nie's budget problems."