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Study, Contracts Mark Changes in Education Research

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Washington--The amount of research produced by the Education Department has plunged precipitously since 1980, a new study by the General Accounting Office concludes.

The report also found that funding has shifted from individual researchers to department-sponsored laboratories, and from new research to dissemination.

The main reason for the decline in research is financial, according to the g.a.o. Federal funding for such efforts declined more than 70 percent in constant dollars from 1972 to 1986, although overall education spending increased by 38 percent and federal support for research in general increased 4 percent.

"We have observed this ourselves, and we are quite concerned about the erosion of the research infrastructure," said Richard Shavelson, president of the American Educational Research Association. "It takes a long time to rebuild. Talented people have left the field and the motivation to go into it isn't there."

The chairman of the House Select Education Subcommittee, Representative Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York, chided the Administration in a statement in the Dec. 18 Congressional Record for neglecting education research in favor of military research.

An aide said the panel may hold oversight hearings as a result of the report, which was commissioned in 1984 by Representative Austin Murphy, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who was then the panel's chairman.

Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said last week that he agreed with many of the g.a.o.'s conclusions.

Mr. Finn said the department has asked for more research funding than the Congress has appropriated in each of the last two years. It is one of only a few areas in which the department has sought a funding increase.

He also argued that some funding shifts that are criticized in the report are the result of inadequate resources and Congressional restrictions.

Declines Documented

The report examines work supported through 1985 by the National Institute of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the Office of Planning, Budget, and Evaluation. The n.i.e. was abolished when research functions were reorganized in 1985, and its responsibilities were assumed by the new office of educational research and improvement. The nces was renamed the Center for Education Statistics as part of the same reorganization.

From 1980 to 1985, the number of research awards made through4n.i.e. decreased by 65 percent, from 476 to 168. O.p.b.e. awards declined by 79 percent, from 119 to 25, partially as a result of the consolidation of many programs into the Chapter 2 block grant. The number of surveys performed by n.c.e.s. declined from 55 in 1980 to 38 in 1983.

Although the total number of studies declined, those that were Congressionally mandated were protected, and thus rose from 55 percent to 79 percent of all n.i.e. activities between 1980 and 1984.

Topics "seen as priority areas" for education reform and topics of concern to minority groups received little funding, but the report does not show that any subject area suffered disproportionately.

It categorizes all individual awards made by n.i.e. over the study period. But by 1985 most new research was being done by the Education Department's laboratories and centers, for which the g.a.o. could not obtain such a breakdown.

Likely 'To Restrain Inquiry'

According to the report, the percentage of n.i.e. awards--both for new research and other activities--going to individual researchers declined from 75 percent in 1980 to 44 percent in 1985.

O.p.b.e. and n.c.e.s. do not fund unsolicited proposals and had always made most of their awards through competitive bidding on contracts rather than through grants, though the procedures were "more diverse" in 1980, the study says.

The shift in n.i.e. awards thus meant, according to the gao, that the department gained tighter control of education-research projects while support for individual researchers "dried up." The report contends that although contracts may be best for some purposes, "their use as the predominant vehicle for funding research is likely to restrain inquiry."

Mr. Finn said he would fund more field-generated proposals if o.e.r.i. were not required by law to fund the laboratories and centers at certain levels.

"As the pie shrinks, the remainder gets smaller, but these don't," Mr. Finn said, adding that "it's slightly disingenuous for an arm of Congress to suggest that we have so much control" over what research is funded.

Mr. Finn also said the department uses a variety of funding mechanisms and encourages alternativeapproaches when it asks for bids on a contract. And the centers are more autonomous than the g.a.o. implies, he added.

Mr. Shavelson agreed with Mr. Finn that "Congress has bound the hands of the department," but added that he has perceived a decline in the amount of advice department officials seek from outside researchers.

Shift to Dissemination

Pointing to another shift, the g.a.o. reported that n.i.e. awards for new data collection declined from 65 percent of all awards to 11 percent beel10ltween 1980 and 1985, while dissemination projects increased from 22 percent to 43 percent of all awards.

This change is so pronounced that "the availability of up-to-date information to disseminate to teachers and other practitioners may be threatened," the report says.

The shift away from "new data collection" in both the labs and centers and other departmental activities, the gao asserts, may have "serious long-term consequences for education information."

As available "prior research" fades in relevance, either new information must be produced, the gao warns, or policymakers, practitioners, and scholars will find themselves without usable data.

"In an ideal world, I would like to do more of both," Mr. Finn said, "but I think the balance should shift some toward application of that which is already known. There is a bigger gap between what exists and what is out there than between what we do know and what we don't."

Mr. Shavelson argued that both new research and dissemination should be funded. "But it is a bad thing when you relatively increase the dissemination instead of the research," he added. "I'm not sure the issue is that more [dissemination] is better, but that we need to do a better job of it."

Problems With Statistics

Relying on assessments by the department and outside experts, the report also discusses the quality of education statistics and looks in detail at three n.c.e.s. activities: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Common Core of Data, and the Fast Response Survey System.

The g.a.o. concludes that budget cutbacks have affected the quality of federal statistics in some cases. It cites a decline in the number of groups tested in naep's standardized measures of student achievement and the increasing years between sampling cycles.

The study also contends that turnover in leadership in the department's research divisions resulted in inconsistency and the scuttling of partially completed projects.

The report says naep and the f.r.s.s., a system used for completing quick surveys on pressing issues, generally received favorable ratings. But the Common Core of Data, an annual survey of school districts that is used to report statistics on such topics as enrollment, "was generally poor in its quality of information."

Mr. Finn said last week that the gao finding was "basically correct, with respect to the past," but argued that the major departmental effort begun in 1985 to upgrade statistical quality has had "a fair amount of success."

Mr. Shavelson agreed. But the g.a.o. maintains that "it is too early to determine" whether the department's efforts "will adequately address the problems identified in this report or the new problems that the changes themselves might create."

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