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Overhaul of E.D. 'Database' Needed, Says Finn, Pledging To 'Fill the Gaps'

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Washington--The Education Department's statistical "database" of information about the nation's schools has been allowed to deteriorate and is in need of a major overhaul, according to the department's new research chief.

"The most elementary sort of facts we need to know about ourselves educationally, we don't really know very reliably," Chester E. Finn Jr., the new assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said in an interview last week. "A lot of just plain information-gathering just hasn't been done, or has been done belatedly or not done well. ... The whole database has been allowed to deterioriate." (See opposite page for excerpts of the interview with Mr. Finn.)

Mr. Finn, who assumed the research position in July, added that his top priority during his tenure in office will be "to fill in the gaps [and] update the things that are obsolescent" in the National Center for Education Statistics' database.

"If we do [only that], I'll be reasonably pleased with myself," he said.

The new assistant secretary's comments on nces come as the agency is in the middle of a major redesign of its elementary- and secondary-education data-collection program. Agency officials are currently preparing a synthesis of recommendations for change that were solicited from prominent education researchers and the heads of major education groups last spring. (See Education Week, Sept. 18, 1985.)

Improvement Expected

The nces project is being developed at the same time that Mr. Finn supervises a broader reorganization of the department's statistics-gathering and research units. He said the move should help improve the quality of the department's work in these areas, which he said currently deserves a grade of no better than C+.

"[M]ost of what we have supported is either not useful or only putatively true," he said. "I think that's why it's not a highly respected or valued enterprise."

Mr. Finn added that there are a variety of reasons for this state of affairs, including questionable dictates from the White House and the Congress and budget levels that have amounted to "chicken feed" in research terms. The office that Mr. Finn heads has received about $60 million in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, not including funds for other department activities that are being transferred to the office as a result of the reorganization.

Reorganization Outlined

In a Sept. 6 memorandum to department management officials, Mr. Finn sought swift clearance for the reorganization, which eliminates the nces and the National Institute of Education as autonomous units and is scheduled to go into effect next month.

"The reorganization is the first major departmental organizational initiative put forward by Secretary [of Education William J.] Bennett,'' he noted in the memo. "That fact, his personal interest and involvement, and the close scrutiny of this action by Congress and the public place upon us all the obligation to bend every effort to see this matter through to completion in timely fashion according to the principles the Secretary has enunciated."

"While our target was to reduce overhead by one-fourth," he said, ''the plan reduces it even more sharply."

The memorandum outlined the organization and duties of the five main branches of the restructured office for educational research and improvement. These are:

Office of Research. This unit will oversee the research centers and will be broken into four divisions--learning and instruction, education and society, schools and school professionals, and higher education and adult learning. The first two, the memo says, will concentrate on basic research, the latter on more applied work.

The director of this office, who has not been named, will have a staff unit called "special studies" for "spe-cial-purpose investigations, commissions, and Congressionally mandated studies."

Office of Statistics. This office will be headed by the current nces administrator, Emerson J. Elliott--who is expected to double as a deputy to Mr. Finn--and will have "almost entirely the same structure and staffing as the current nces"

The draft plan indicates that the number of staff members in the center will fall from 139 to 128.

Programs for Improvement of Practice. This office, called pip, will oversee the regional laboratories, programs for effective application of research, and the National Diffusion Network. It will administer the Secretary's discretionary programs, which were folded into Mr. Finn's office, and run the school-recognition programs.

Information Services. Like pip, this office will focus on efforts to improve dissemination of research findings and analyses.

It will be headed by Jim Bencivenga, formerly education writer for the Christian Science Monitor.

It will coordinate the education-research office's programs with the Publication and Audiovisual Advisory Council, a five-member body of political appointees, who must clear Education Department publications.

Library Programs. Its duties in administering the federal library-aid programs will be basically unchanged by the reorganization, according to the memorandum.

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