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New Study Panel Gets Cautious Nod From Researchers

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Chicago--Education researchers meeting here last week said they were both encouraged and concerned by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's decision to postpone the competition for grants to operate the National Institute of Education's 11 research and development centers.

Saying the extra time would permit the department to refine its research priorities, Mr. Bennett announced a two-month extension of the competition on March 29, a day before the opening of the American Educational Research Association's meeting here.

He also named a panel of nine prominent educators to help him study the role of the centers, including one person who will be nominated for a high-ranking position in the Education Department and others who are involved in the competition for contracts to operate some of the centers.

The members of the panel are: Joseph Adelson, professor of psychology, University of Michigan; Denis P. Doyle, education-policy analyst, American Enterprise Institute; Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of ethics and public policy, Vanderbilt University; Bernard R. Gifford, dean, Graduate School of Education, University of California at Berkeley; Robert Glaser, director, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh; Robert Hogan, chairman, department of psychology, University of Tulsa; Michael W. Kirst, professor of education, Stanford University; Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of education and history, Teachers College, Columbia University; and Herbert J. Walberg, research professor, College of Education, University of Illinois-Chicago.

Key Discussion Topic

Mr. Bennett's announcement was one of the most widely discussed topics among conference participants, a number of whom are also seeking to win one or more of the 11 grants, which will total $65 million over the next five years.

On the positive side, scholars attending the meeting said, the Secretary has indicated that he will not cancel the competition altogether and that he will not announce a totally new set of "missions" for the centers, options that were being examined by his top aides as recently as a month ago, according to a ranking nie official here.

But, they added, Mr. Bennett's creation of a panel of advisers composed almost entirely of scholars with a stake in the outcome of the competition may open the way for conflict-of-interest charges and potentially damaging litigation.

In addition, they said, the two-month postponement represented the first wrinkle in a complex and politically sensitive process that, by most accounts, has gone more smoothly than anticipated. The completion of the competition without complications, researchers said, would add greatly to the prestige of nie, an agency that has been repeatedly attacked by conservative factions, has just undergone a change in leadership, and is said to be the target of a major reorganization effort.

Prestige at Stake

In addition to guaranteed funding through 1990, a great deal of prestige is at stake in the competition, given that the existing centers support many of the leading researchers in their fields.

According to nie, almost 60 percent of its $51.2-million annual budget is earmarked for the support of the centers--which sponsor research in areas such as teaching, reading, and educational policymaking--and a system of regional laboratories that sponsor research on the particular needs of the geographic areas that they serve.

A competition for the sponsorship of the eight regional laboratories is also under way. According to an nie official attending last week's conference, Mr. Bennett does not intend to interfere with this segment of the competition, "in part because it would be too disruptive."

Final proposals for the sponsor-ship of the laboratories were due on March 29 and the winners of the contracts are to be announced by June 30. Final proposals for the centers competition were to be due on June 15, with the winners to be announced by Sept. 30. The deadline for applications has been extended to Aug. 15, with the winners to be announced by Nov. 15.

Need To Determine Focus

Mr. Bennett explained in a prepared statement that he was postponing the centers competition in order to "offer additional information" to the competitors.

"We need to determine in what areas the federal government should focus its research efforts and to decide what sort of research activities hold the greatest promise for educational improvement," he said. "We also need to examine how the Education Department's current research program can be improved to achieve this."

The nine members of the study panel are to offer Mr. Bennett advice during public meetings in Washington on April 17 and June 6.

Mission To Be Reviewed

"The word we've received from Bennett's office is that he wants to review the centers' missions," Thomas Carroll, the nie official coordinating the competition, told a group of researchers at the aera meeting here. "Essentially, he's saying, 'I am the new secretary, I don't know what the missions are, and I want to set a research agenda."'

Mr. Carroll added that Mr. Bennett has committed himself to the themes for the centers announced by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and Manuel J. Justiz, former nie director, last summer. (See Education Week, Aug. 22, 1984.)

"Our indication is that he wants to provide points of emphasis and stress," Mr. Carroll said. "They're not going to rewrite the document. They asked about that possibility, and after we told them what they would have to do they decided not to do it."

Mr. Carroll said staff members at nie "have been guessing and wondering what Bennett has on his mind on research."

"I, for one, am glad that he is coming forward and telling us what his priorities are," he said. "I agree this may be disruptive in that there may be potential risks, but I am pleased that the Secretary is coming forward with his priorities and giving you time to respond to them."

'It Can Only Help'

Some of the competitors welcomed the delay.

"Frankly, it can only help those of us working on the development of proposals to get direction from the Secretary on what he will value,'' said J. Myron Atkin, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Mr. Atkin's school is bidding on the grant to operate the proposed center on state and local policy development and leadership in education.

"It's better for us to delay our proposals now than to use the wrong criteria," he said. "Also, it's good of the Secretary to ask about these things if he isn't familiar with them."

"I give him credit for being open," added Willis D. Hawley, dean of Peabody College for Teachers at Vanderbilt University, which is bidding on the proposed center on teacher quality and effectiveness.

Mr. Hawley added, however, that he and many others involved in the competition are concerned by the fact that eight of the nine members of Mr. Bennett's advisory committee are affiliated with or acting as a consultant to an institution seeking a grant.

"We're all nervous about the outcome of this, both substantively and procedurally," Mr. Hawley said. "We're worried that after the awards are made, some very important research may get tied up over litigation on conflicts of interest."

Mr. Carroll of nie said there is "considerable concern" within the Education Department over the potential for charges of conflict-of-interest. "Mr. Bennett and the general counsel are aware of this and they will be taking appropriate steps."

When asked to elaborate, Mr. Carroll said the general counsel might require the panelists to refrain from offering Mr. Bennett advice on the center proposals with which they are involved.

"They may have to break up their meetings into topic areas, for example, and if a topic related to a certain center comes up, they would not be allowed to speak to the issue," he said.

Qualifications Praised

Aside from their potential for conflicts of interest, most of the researchers interviewed praised the qualifications of the panelists.

"These are distinguished leaders in the education-research community. They are not boogeymen," said Lee S. Shulman, professor of education and psychology at Stanford University and the outgoing president of aera "Considering that this group could have been stacked with known ideologues, I'd say these were good choices."

"If the delay is simply a vehicle for politicizing the missions of the centers, that would be a tragic defiling of the process," Mr. Shulman said. "But if what it reflects is an honest attempt to broaden the mandates of some centers by adding some proposed research questions, that would certainly fall within the mandate of the Secretary.

"I hope they don't simply add slogans from the right or from the left to the mission statements," he continued. "If an utterly different agenda is dictated, researchers will simply stop taking nie money. They won't follow that line. I think Bennett, being a scholar himself, realizes that a fettered scholar is a crippled scholar."

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