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Rejecting Bid on Teaching, E.D. Sets $50-Million Research Effort

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Washington--The Education Department confirmed last week that it will accept the advice of two panels of experts and not award a multi-million-dollar grant to sponsor a research and development center devoted to the improvement of teacher quality and effectiveness.

But in a development that took some by surprise, department officials rejected the advice of one of the panels and awarded a $6-million, five-year grant to Michigan State University for the establishment of a center on teacher education.

Chester E. Finn. Jr., the department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, disclosed the decisions on the centers on teaching at a Nov. 27 press conference here. He added that the department "intends to be ready to describe a comprehensive program of research into many aspects of teaching" by early next year.

Centers Competition

At the same time, Mr. Finn announced the winners of grants totaling $49.5 million for nine other centers. Together, the 10 centers--plus an 11th funded in 1984--represent the backbone of the federal government's research effort in education. (For a list of grant winners, see page 13.)

Last week's announcement completed a process begun in 1981 when the Congress directed the department's research office for the first time to hold a competition for the grants to operate its network of re6search centers, which was created in the mid-1960's.

The competition has become a particularly sensitive issue among members of the education-research community. A number of leading researchers have noted that the research office's image--which has been tarnished by a history of political infighting--would be greatly improved if it could complete the competition in a successful and noncontroversial way.

The competition was tainted early on when, in 1984, officials at Bank Street College protested the department's award of a $7.6-million grant to Harvard University to operate a center on educational technology.

Review Panels

Bank Street officials contended that a panel of experts had ranked their proposal higher than Harvard's. The General Accounting Office subsequently issued a report upholding the department's decision.

The episode, however, caused department officials to devise a two-tiered peer-review system for the competition that eventually won high marks from much of the education-research community. When rumors arose that the department might not fund either of the two proposed centers on teaching, a number of researchers questioned whether the peer-review system was being subverted.

Those questions, however, essentially have been put to rest, according to Laurie Garduque, director of government relations and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association.

'Acted with Integrity'

"The information we have at this time suggests that [Mr. Finn] acted with a great deal of integrity in the way that he handled this," Ms. Garduque said last week. She said it was her association's understanding that Mr. Finn "considered the scientific and technical recommendations of the first panel of reviewers more persuasive than those of the second panel and acted accordingly."

Ms. Garduque added that leaders of her group were pleased by Mr. Finn's decision to consult with them before formulating a new policy on federal research efforts in the area of teaching.

"The time has come to take a fresh look at American elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education to determine what pressing problems and vexing dilemmas were susceptible to amelioration through high-quality research," said Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in a prepared statement announcing the winners of the competition.

Reaffirming Commitment

"In establishing these new centers, we reaffirm our commitment to high-quality research," noted Mr. Finn. "These decisions also attest to the value that we attach to external review by distinguished scholars," he added in a reference to his and Mr. Bennett's decision not to award a grant for the center on teacher quality.

Initial Meeting

"We intend to reserve substantial resources for research into teachers and teaching," Mr. Finn continued. "In a few weeks, we will be holding an initial meeting with outside experts who can advise us on specific research opportunities and needs."

By early next year, he said, the department will be ready to publicize "a comprehensive program of research into many aspects of teaching, including teacher quality and effectiveness."

Mr. Finn declined to discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of the proposals for the grants to operate the centers on teacher quality and teacher education. Both of the panels of reviewers advised the department not to award a grant to Vanderbilt University for the center on teacher quality; one of the two panels advised it not to award a grant to either Michigan State University or the University of Texas at Austin for the center on teacher education. (See Education Week, Nov. 20, 1985.)

Mr. Finn said he decided to override the recommendation of the second tier of reviewers and award a grant to Michigan State University to operate the center on teacher education because "it was worth the calculated risk that they would do good work."

He noted that, as is the case with all of the grants, continuation of the Michigan State center's funding beyond the first year is contingent upon satisfactory completion of its objectives. He said department officials would carefully review all of the centers' work over the next year.

Mr. Finn also declined to answer directly whether he still supports the concept of an Education Department-funded center devoted solely to research on teacher quality. He indicated that he would make his final decision on the issue following his consultation with experts in the field.

"It is altogether possible that the set of questions [about teacher quality] that looked exactly right last year might not be the right questions this year," he noted.

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