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Differences on Priorities, O.E.R.I.'s Structure Are Debated

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WASHINGTON--A group of prominent educators and researchers last week agreed with Education Department officials that the department should have a larger research budget and more flexibility in deciding how to spend it.

But while some witnesses at a two-day oversight hearing told the House Subcommittee on Select Education that research efforts can be improved without changing the structure of the office of educational research and improvement, others called for an overhaul.

"Overall, I don't think things are in good shape,'' said Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr., who heads the office. "Much needed research doesn't get done, much research that's done isn't very good, and much of the good research that gets done doesn't get used.''

He repeated his criticism of recent Congressional budgets, which have allotted much less to research than requested and have earmarked most of the funds for regional laboratories and subject-oriented centers, leaving little for individual proposals or other discretionary projects.

The center-based system has not provided "a maximum return on our investment,'' he said, and should be reassessed.

Other witnesses defended the contributions of the laboratories and centers, but all agreed with Mr. Finn that the amount earmarked for research is "pitiful,'' and that funds should be available for other projects as well.

Subcommittee Chairman Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York, specifically criticized a decision to free up funds for a new center on disadvantaged students by closing one on bilingual and foreign-language education. He said the move would "encumber the [new] center with a political problem'' and "circumvent the will of Congress.'' (See Education Week, April 18, 1988.)

Although Mr. Finn contended that the current OERI structure works well, several witnesses disagreed.

Judi Conrad, chairman of the council of directors of the Education Resources Information Centers, recommended the creation of an independent entity to better coordinate efforts of disparate research programs.

Others said that research must be better insulated from political bias. Calling for greater independence for research entities, they praised legislation passed this week that would sever the center for education statistics from the rest of OERI.

"We believe that federal funding for education [research] will increase when Congress is confident that the money supports legitimate activities,'' said John E. Hopkins, who testified on behalf of the Council for Educational Development and Research. "The legitimacy of the activities will always be in question, though, when a small handful of federal officials, accountable only to themselves, determine both the research agenda and who will carry it out.''

Mr. Owens agreed that politicization is a problem, and said proposals for budget cuts in most other education programs undermined the Administration's research proposals.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, and Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also accused the Administration of twisting the research agenda to achieve political purposes. They mentioned specifically a recent study concluding that smaller classes do not help students.

Mr. Shanker called for a commission to study the structure and goals of federal research in education, an idea Mr. Owens said he is considering.

Mr. Owens said the panel will release a report in June on "the state of education research.'' He said that the hearings were intended to generate ideas for the reauthorization of research programs, due in 1990, but that the panel may push for amendments sooner.

Most witnesses agreed with Mr. Finn that education research should concentrate on improving teaching and learning in practical ways. Virtually all agreed that disadvantaged children should be the primary focus of such research, and many also called for more studies on teacher professionalism, school structure, and improved assessment techniques.

Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, suggested that the federal government adopt as its top priority in education the goal of assuring that all students graduate from high school. By doing so, he said, the government would provide an "organizing force'' for education research similar to the search for a cure for cancer in medicine and the effort to land a man on the moon in space exploration.

Eleanor Chelimsky, director of the General Accounting Office's program-evaluation division, said the department should shift its emphasis more toward new research, as opposed to dissemination, and reiterated the findings of a recent GAO report criticizing the current overemphasis on the latter. (See Education Week, Jan. 13, 1988.)

But others praised the department's efforts to disseminate research findings, with several arguing that the lack of commitment and funding to implement programs based on existing knowledge was a bigger problem.

"We have information on programs that succeed. Why have we not replicated them?'' said Faustine Jones-Wilson, a Howard University education professor. "What we need is not only more research, but an effort to implement the research that's already been done.''

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