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School Research Too Impractical, Finn Tells Group

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The U.S. Education Department's research chief last week urged education researchers to focus on studies with "practical value'' and seek broad support from other educators to secure more federal funding.

"In spite of decades of trying,'' asserted Chester E. Finn Jr., the department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, "our field has not yet succeeded in persuading many people, save for our own fraternity members, of course, that education research is valuable or worthwhile except in situations where its work is palpably joined, in ways that any layman can understand, to real life issues, problems, and dilemmas.''

Mr. Finn's remarks were contained in a sharply worded speech prepared for delivery at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New Orleans.

The assistant secretary said he was doubtful that researchers would change the focus of their agenda and "make common cause'' with the broader community of educators and policymakers.

"I find it entirely plausible that the education-research community would rather maintain its purity and preserve its traditional culture, even though that likely destines most of its members to relative poverty, obscurity, and irrelevance,'' he said.

A number of prominent researchers have criticized Mr. Finn's focus on applied research and dissemination as narrow and simplistic, and have charged that the Reagan Administration is to blame for education research's lack of funding and credibility.

But Mr. Finn maintained that he has done all he can to champion support for research, and said he doubted that an Administration better liked by the Congress and the education community would be more successful.

"If you seriously believe this, there are a couple of bridges across the Potomac that you might also like to consider purchasing,'' he said.

Increase for Statistics

Mr. Finn noted that the office of educational research and improvement has consistently received less funding than requested, and that only its statistics branch received an increase for the current fiscal year.

Of the total OERI appropriation of $46.6 million for nonstatistical activities this year, he said, only $2.3 million is not earmarked for "institutional recipients''--the laboratories, centers, and clearinghouses supported by the Education Department.

This means, he said, that the agency has almost no resources to finance any other research, whether solicited or initiated by researchers in the field.

That situation, he said, stifles innovation and discourages top scholars from working at OERI

"In fact, I'd go so far as to say that under these circumstances OERI doesn't really qualify as a research agency,'' Mr. Finn said. "It is more accurately described as a conduit for monies earmarked by Congress for a handful of specified institutional clients and dependents.''

The way to change the situation, he contended, is for the research community to "redefine the constituency of education research, as OERI has redefined its constituency, to consist in large measure of potential users and consumers rather than fellow scholars.''

"Let usefulness and practical value, rather than journal citations and tenure decisions, become our dominant criteria,'' he said. "And let them also dictate our funding strategies.''

Other Department Research

While OERI's research funding has shrunk, the resources allotted for research and development undertaken by other Education Department branches has not, Mr. Finn noted. The department as a whole spent $123 million on research in fiscal 1987, he said, but only $28 million of that total was administered by the research arm.

The biggest chunk of the department's research funding that year-- million--was administered by the office of special education and rehabilitative services, he said. And signficant amounts, he added, were also spent by offices overseeing vocational education, bilingual education, and the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program.

"We need to recognize,'' Mr. Finn said, "that federal support of education research is today most robust in those places where it isn't labeled educational research qua research, but, rather, organized inquiry in relation to specified programs, problems, goals, and missions.''

Need for Allies

In addition to focusing on practical research that would be more attractive to Congressional appropriators, the assistant secretary argued, researchers must enlist allies if they are to win more funding.

The broader education community does not use its potent lobbying powers to push for more research funds, he said, and "matters have worsened as it has become clearer that the primary advocates and supporters of education research are education researchers.''

He urged researchers to forge alliances with groups representing teachers, administrators, and state officials, by persuading them that education research can have practical value for them.

"The prospective allies and putative beneficiaries may spurn all overtures,'' he acknowledged, "quite possibly because the record to date gives them scant basis for expecting sufficient returns on the energy and resources that would need to be invested.''

Mr. Finn also questioned whether researchers were willing to "pay the price'' required to woo such potential supporters.

In addition to accepting a greater emphasis on "'real world' issues of immediate interest to practitioners and policymakers,'' he said, that price "entails stricter timetables, even deadlines--things not necessarily congenial to the rhythms of scholarship.''

"It means writing up one's results in plain English; drawing their practical implications in even plainer English; publishing them in places where they have a chance of being seen by practitioners and policymakers; even providing 'technical assistance,''' Mr. Finn said.

Modest Rebirth?'

Failure to adopt this strategy, the assistant secretary asserted, will mean that only established researchers and those with ties to powerful institutions will be able to obtain funding for their work.

But if his proposed strategy succeeded, Mr. Finn said, "in time it could also foster a modest rebirth of more fundamental research, tucked away within--and shielded by--the mission-related work.''

"For when there is a sizable research enterprise with a solid reputation for usefulness, timeliness, and practicality,'' he argued, "it becomes far easier to persuade the constituents of that enterprise to devote a fraction of its funds and energies to looking further down the road, laying the groundwork for imaginative solutions to tomorrow's problems rather than grappling only with today's.''

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