Researchers Urge E.D. Effort To Define 'Common Core'
Washington--The National Institute of Education ought to devote a greater percentage of its dollars to efforts to define a common core of knowledge for American students, a panel of nine prominent educators told Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last week.
In addition, the panelists said, the research agency should finance more studies of education in other nations, should do a better job of synthesizing existing educational research, and should require researchers working in related fields, such as teacher education and teacher effectiveness, to coordinate their efforts.
The panel made its recommendations on April 17 during the first meeting it has held since being established by Secretary Bennett late last month. The group was created to advise the Secretary on the missions of nie's 11 research and development centers and the department's other research activities. (See Education Week, April 10, 1985.)
Last year, the department initiated a competition for a total of $65- million in grants over the next five years to operate the research centers. The first stage of the competition, which involved the awarding of planning grants, was completed in February. The grants to operate the centers were scheduled to be awarded next September.
On March 29, Secretary Bennett--who assumed office several3months after the centers' "mission statements" were made public--announced that the competition would be postponed for two months to enable him to refine the institute's research priorities. Further guidance on the missions of the centers would be announced by May 15, he said.
Mr. Bennett's decision was viewed with concern by the education-research community, whose leaders had been influential in the development of the mission statements. Several researchers said at a recent national meeting that they feared Mr. Bennett and his aides would rewrite the statements or take other steps to promote research on tuition tax credits, education vouchers, and other items promoted by some Administration supporters.
'Choice' Issues Avoided
Members of Mr. Bennett's advisory group, however, appeared to go to great lengths to steer clear of such so-called "parental choice" issues during their meeting last week. Tax credits and vouchers were mentioned only once during the eight-hour session, in a discussion of the need to conduct research on private schools.
Even then, Denis P. Doyle, the American Enterprise Institute education-policy analyst who introduced the topic, said he specifically was addressing the need to study private-school issues other than tax credits and vouchers.
Mr. Doyle and another member of the panel, Chester E. Finn Jr., the Vanderbilt University professor who is expected to be nominated to head the Education Department of-fice that oversees nie, have both written on numerous occasions in favor of measures to promote parental choice in education.
Focus on Course Content
At several points during the meeting, members of the panel expressed displeasure with what they said was the current mission statements' overemphasis on research on the cognitive development of students. More emphasis, they said, should be placed on subject-matter content.
"Most of [these statements] are process-oriented," said Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University. "Instead, they should focus on what needs to be taught in these institutions."
Joseph Adelson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, concurred with Mr. Kirst, adding that he was "amazed at how little my students know."
"They don't even know basic facts about American history or philosophy," he said. "It's often embarrassing."
The panelists nodded in approval when Mr. Finn suggested that Secretary Bennett amend the mission statements to "infuse all areas with content consciousness."
Members of the panel also made suggestions to Mr. Bennett on the following topics:
Study of writing. Several of the panelists questioned the need for the proposed Center for the Study of Writing. "The thought that this is major terra incognita strikes me as blarney," said Mr. Finn. "It's like saying we need a center on painting. People know how to teach writing; they just don't do it."
During the discussion, nie officials present at the meeting reminded the panelists that Secretary Bennett had committed himself to all of the proposed centers' themes.
International comparisons. Several of the panelists said the mission statements failed to encourage research comparing developments in American education with those in other countries. "A Nation at Risk [the influential 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education] had such a great impact not because it compared Ohio to Indiana but because it compared the United States to Japan and other nations," noted Herbert J. Walberg, research professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago's college of education.
Research synthesis. A number of the panel's members said the mission statements generally failed to require researchers to conduct reviews of existing research in their fields before commissioning new studies.
"There's a tremendous amount of research that we already have, particularly in the areas of reading and writing," Mr. Walberg said. "This isn't brought out in the proposals. They should note the existence of past research, and if a synthesis of such research has not already been done, one should be."
Testing and evaluation. Mr. Kirst said the mission statement for the proposed Center on Student Testing, Evaluation, and Standards placed too much emphasis on testing and too little on evaluation.
Noting that many states have reinued on Page XX
Researchers Urge Focus on 'Content'
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cently implemented ambitious school-reform efforts, he said it was his feeling "that the states don't know how to evaluate these programs well."
"Governors and state legislatures are asking how well we are doing,'' Mr. Kirst said. "States like California are constructing crude barometers. Our current tools are not up to the job."
Mr. Kirst and several other panel members also suggested that the mission statement be amended to require an evaluation of the degree to which standardized tests are forcing changes in schools' curricula.
Study of learning. The panelists suggested that the Secretary amend the mission statement of the proposed Center on the Study of Learning to emphasize the need for research on the psychological development of young adolescents.
"The middle school is the dark continent of educational research," said Mr. Kirst. "It's quite different and quite understudied compared to the other ends of the educational spectrum."
The panel will hold its second and final meeting on June 6 to suggest research priorities for the department outside of nie
In a related development last week, Secretary Bennett announced that he is soliciting comments from the education community and the general public on ways to improve the management and effectiveness of the department's office of educational research and improvement, which houses the nie
Mr. Bennett also announced that Wendell L. Willkie 2nd, his chief of staff, will head a departmentwide effort "to develop options and recommendations to improve the structure of oeri"
Department and White House officials reported earlier this year that Mr. Bennett is likely to suggest the merger of the department's research and statistics-gathering branches. The new office is expected to be headed by Mr. Finn.