'Most of What We Have Supported Is Not Useful or Only Putatively True'
Chester E. Finn Jr., 41, the Education Department's new assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, is overseeing a major reorganization of the department's research units that will eliminate the National Institute of Education--an agency he helped create.
Mr. Finn, whose appointment was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in July, had been' professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. Previously, he worked as an assistant to President Nixon and an aide to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York, with whom he drafted the proposal for the nie in 1971. Subsequently, he became an outspoken critic of its work.
The assistant secretary was interviewed last week by Assistant Editor Tom Mirga and Staff Writer James Hertling.
QThe Reagan Administration's longstanding position has been that statistics-gathering and research are among the legitimate federal roles in education. Why is that?
A[With respect to statistics,] one reason is historical. It started in 1867 this way, and this is a conservative Administration that takes tradition seriously.
Second, the information-gathering and dissemination process in education is, as in so many other fields, best done by one place in the country. ...
The harder question involves research, because the federal government is not a main supporter of research in every field of human endeavor. ... In education, it certainly has been primary in recent years. I think it continues to have a legitimate but not exclusive role in research. It's lamentable that most of the private foundations have virtually stopped supporting educational research, and practically none of the states ever has. This is a kind of quasi-monopoly that the federal government shouldn't have and can't afford.
QIn your estimation, how good or how poor a job has the government been doing?
ASomewhere around a C+.
QWhat would characterize A+ work?
AA+ work is something that is both true and valuable. That is to say, you know that they've got it right and that it isn't likely to be found erroneous later. Furthermore, it's something that's worth knowing and you can do something with it, something that has an arguable prospect of improving real-live education as received by real-live people.
QCan you give some examples?
AI think our best recent example is the "Becoming a Nation of Readers" report. ... But most of what we have supported is either not useful or only putatively true. I think that's why it's not a highly respected or valued enterprise.
QWhy do you say that much of the federally sponsored educational research conducted to date has not been valuable?
AThere are many possible explanations. You may have dubious priorities coming out of Washington, either out of the executive branch or Congress. You may have this pittance of money--and you're really talking in research terms about chicken feed--going to places that aren't really good, or very good but they don't use it for their best work. And you may have gems of findings that nobody ever quite recognizes as such and manages to separate out from the ore and polish and display. ... There's plenty of blame to go around here.
QYou were one of the primary architects of nie in the early 1970's. Why does it need to be reorganized at this juncture?
AWhen nie was created in 1972, it was made co-equal with the Office of Education in hew Then, when they created [the Education Department] in 1979, nie was just folded in unchanged in the new department without dealing with any of the irrationalities thereby created--structural arrangements, reporting arrangements, policy-setting arrangements. ... nie was just sort of plopped there.
QWhat were some of the consequences of not having integrated nie effectively into the department?
AIt didn't work very well, it needed fixing as a functioning organization. It also needed an overhaul at the level of organizational symbolism. That is to say, it needed a new lease on life, a new aura of a fresh start. Back in 1972, nie was meant to be a fresh start, but only to a limited extent did that occur.
QThen what must be done in order to improve the work of nie?
AFirst of all, it should be reorganized. Second, it should develop sound priorities for what it wants to do research on. Third, it should be staffed by able people who understand how to translate those priorities into the best available research. Fourth, it should be adequately financed and should spend its money on its priorities. Fifth, it should be efficiently and prudently run. We're going to do our best to do all of those things.
QWhat are your main goals as the new head of the office of educational research and improvement?
AFirst of all, I would like to see us repair the [National Center for Education Statistics'] database. The most elementary sort of facts we need to know about ourselves educationally, we don't really know very reliably. A lot of just plain information-gathering just hasn't been done, or has been done belatedly or not done well. ...
The distribution of the school dollar, for example, you're dealing with 1975 data. You deal with all these elaborate teacher-employment projections--the famous million teachers that we're going to need in the next five years, the ones I talk about every time I give a speech--that's based upon a set of assumptions of turnover and attrition that were last actually studied in 1969.
That's the kind of information that we need to be rock solid about, and we're not today. ... The whole database has been allowed to deteriorate.
QWhat would you like to see done to improve the database?
AI'd like to fill in the gaps, to update the things that are obsolescent. ... Before I got here, [Emerson J. Elliott, administrator of nces] and the people [in his office] had initiated a major redesign of the elementary- and secondary-education database, and that's well under way. I'd like to see that carried through. So quantitative data is probably priority number one.
Priority number two is probably qualitative data, that is to say, not how many such-and-such are out there but how much and how well are people learning. That carries you into things like [the National Assessment of Educational Progress] and other directions as well. ... If we do those two things only, I'll be reasonably pleased with myself.
QCan nces achieve the goals that you have set for it with the amount of money (about $9 million annually) that has been appropriated for it for the last several years?
AI don't think so. ... I'm doing my best to see that we have the resources that I think we need.
QYou point out that there are some very elemental facts about the status of American education that we don't know right now. To collect those data, will the federal government necessarily become more intrusive, and are you talking about a paperwork increase for state and local officials?
AIt may turn out to be a considerable paperwork reduction, actually, if you take the possibility that what has been done in census form in the past can in many cases be done quite adequately through sampling and that you therefore don't need to actually get a report from every school district in the country, or let alone every school building in the country, maybe not even from every state in the country, to get a lot of your aggregate national data. ...
Obviously, the more fine-grained you want the data, the harder it is to do that. If you want state-by-state data, for example, then you use samples big enough to permit you to know the conditions of Montana versus Wyoming, which means some fraction of the schools or colleges or teachers, or whatever you're looking at in Wyoming and Montana.
QWhat are some of your other main goals?
ATaking what we already know from research and making it plain to people who might want to use it. There is this vast, vast, vast fund of stuff that comes into the rubric of educational research that's been done over not the last 25 years but the last 25 centuries. I mean, Socrates did some of it. We need to do a far, far better job of distilling, synthesizing, interpreting, explaining, and disseminating.
Finally, our new work ought to address real and important issues where an investment of intellect and energy has some promise of yielding information that is both true and useful.
QIs your view of nie different now that you're on the inside as compared with your view of it when you were a professor?
AI oscillate between sympathy, frustration, and outrage. ... I think you have to work hard at retaining your perspective. It's very easy to lose it and, as it were, to "go native," ... to begin behaving in the bureaucratic mode.
QHow do you intend to go about improving dissemination?
AIf there has been any single, relentless criticism of educational research over the last quarter-century, it has been the failure to get it out in a clear and comprehensible fashion to people.
There are two reasons this is hard. One is that researchers almost can't bring themselves to say anything clearly. Second, the recipients almost can't bring themselves to read anything about education that looks like research.
So if the senders can't send and the receivers don't receive, you don't have much of a communication system. ... We can't exactly change either culture. We can, however, provide middlemen, interpreters, and brokers, those kinds of services. And we can make a fair amount of noise and eventually create a situation in which you at least have to be deaf, blind, and a bit unwilling as well to not receive some of what we're sending.
In the meantime, we will also irritate the senders because we'll oversimplify what they think they found out. ... Eventually, we will presumably run into difficulties at both ends, but I think that's our function.
QSpecifically, what fields of research are important to be examined at this point? What sort of endeavors should we expect from nie in coming years?
AWe're smack in the middle of shaping priorities now, it's included in the budget discussions we're having with the Office of Management and Budget. Also, it's fair to say that after six weeks on the job, I've paid more attention so far to issues of structure, organization, staffing, and financing than to project-like matters.
QHow long will it be before people in the field begin noticing significant differences in your office's products?
AProducts? That's harder. Some products I'd expect before Christmas. But insofar as you're talking about work that people will be doing in the way of gathering information and undertaking the research, that's some turn-around time. All we can retail now are things that we've already been manufacturing. In situations where we're still doing the tool-and-die work, tooling up, and opening the plant, it's going to be a while.
QSticking with this metaphor, are there any products that you would pull off the market now rather than risk a recall?
AI guess none that I'm prepared to talk with you about, though that's not a bad question.
QOne of the things that oeri inherited when it was created in 1979 was nie's system of laboratories and centers. The newly reorganized oeri retains this system. Do you feel this an appropriate structure for federal educational research?
AMost of what the labs do is not research per se, but applied research, development, dissemination, and technical assistance--all perfectly reasonable in principle for the federal government to be doing. ...
The centers are another question. There's a bona fide debate in the research community over how best you do research. Do you do put it in a large-scale place over a long period of time with a whole bunch of people working on the same thing, or do you divide things up among a larger number of smaller projects and more people?
I think the answer is yes, you do both. I mean, if you're doing nuclear physics, you need a big enough installation to have an accelerator. It doesn't do much good for people to set up shop in their basement and expect to find ions or protons or morons, whatever they're called these days.
In social-science research, more can be done without large institutional arrangements. But there's nothing wrong with large institutional arrangements. In some places, it brings to bear a kind of critical mass on a subject that is useful. So I don't have any problems with that idea. I have a real problem if we find ourselves in the situation where everything we did was done through large long-term institutional arrangements.
QHave the labs and centers been doing a good job?
AYou're asking for an evaluation of the old [labs and centers]. I think you need to make clear to your readers they're not necessarily the same as the new ones. ... They've managed, it seems to me, among them to do A, B, C, D, and F work. And that's what makes them such an interesting collection of institutions. Absolutely first-rate, extremely valuable work, and absolutely mediocre and pointless work being done. And that's why it's unfair to the good ones to generalize about them.
QCan or should the government's research efforts be insulated from the political winds?
AYes and no. Things like how do you choose who has got the best project and how do you interpret their findings are completely apolitical, and should be and can be insulated. But I think determining what questions you're looking for answers to, which is to say setting the research agenda, absolutely needs to be responsive to a variety of things, of which the Administration's views and the Congress's views are certainly two. ... Certainly, policies that derive from the legislative branch and the executive branch should influence the questions that are posed to which research seeks answers. But once you pose them, then I think that you don't go off giving your grants to cronies or distorting somebody's data in order to suit your policy purpose.