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Finn Cites Shortcomings of Existing Research on Schools

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WASHINGTON--The public has reason to be skeptical of educational research given the fact that the nation's "educational system has, by many measures, worsened, even as tons of research have accumulated,'' the head of the Education Department's research branch told a meeting of the American Educational Research Association last week.

At the same time, there is "a public appetite'' for information about "proven approaches and demonstrable results'' in the classroom, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

And high-quality research is "vital to keep education reform moving down the track,'' he added.

Mr. Finn complained, however, about a variety of shortcomings in the field. As examples, he cited last year's response to the new "field-initiated studies'' program, in which research projects were generated by grantees rather than by the Education Department.

"Too many of the proposals were embarrassing for the educational-research community,'' he said. "They were fraught with scanty plans, with overwrought budgets, with disorganized writing, with missing information, with ungeneralizable results.''

A majority of the 288 proposals reviewed were judged to be below the "hopeless level,'' he said, because study designs were inappropriate for the questions asked, because they sought to answer questions already resolved, or because they focused on issues of "marginal importance.''

On the other hand, "there are jewels in this landscape along with a fair number of pebbles,'' the assistant secretary said. He cited studies by James Coleman linking effective-schools principles to the concept of "social capital,'' and by Herbert Walberg on improving educational productivity.

Based on recent discussions with a dozen prominent researchers, Mr. Finn outlined four areas where there are "breakthrough opportunities in the next few years'' and where the department hopes to devote "its meager resources'':

  • Parent involvement. "We are beginning to get beyond this as a kind of pious idea and to examine specific ways that parents can enhance student learning,'' he said.
  • Content-area studies. School subjects should be viewed as "distinct educational enterprises, each with its own set of challenges,'' he said, adding that his office soon plans to award contracts for the first three of several "mini-centers'' for such research, which will focus on literature, mathematics, and elementary-school subjects.
  • Assessment. There is a need for "assessment mechanisms by which to appraise student achievement more accurately, more sensitively, and more efficiently at all levels,'' he said, including higher education.
  • Educational productivity. While this field is new, he said, "you can bet that many elected officials are watching the research in this domain: How can we get the most bang for the education buck? ... There's a real opportunity here for a new generation of school-finance research that concentrates on resource utilization, not just resource allocation.''

Mr. Finn, along with Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who appeared at the same forum, emphasized the importance of popularizing the fruits of educational research. And neither official missed the opportunity to promote the department's "What Works'' pamphlet series, initiated last year.

"People in [policymaking] positions need, now more than ever because of the intensity of the debate, good information in a form that they can understand and use,'' Mr. Bennett said. "It's possible to distill large amounts of information in a small book.''

A second edition of the original "What Works: Research about Teaching and Learning'' will appear in about two months, Mr. Finn said, expanding the number of findings from 41 to 59.

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