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Researchers, School Groups Denounce Plan To Eliminate Elementary, Secondary Centers

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Washington--In letters to the Education Department and in testimony at a Congressional hearing last week, educators and researchers have denounced the department's decision to eliminate two research centers--one that studies issues related to the organization of elementary and middle schools, the other related to secondary schools.

The decision came as part of a plan, announced in September, to award grants for 12 research centers in a massive competition that will determine a significant part of the federal education-research agenda for years to come. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1989.)

After the plan was announced, the Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, launched a campaign to fight the elimination of its mission, asking educators and researchers to send letters of support to the department's office of educational research and improvement.

Comments on the competition plan were being accepted through Oct. 31. But a review of those available last week showed at least 70 percent of the hundreds of letters consisted of pleas to continue the Baltimore center, as well as the National Center on Effective Secondary Schools, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The letters came from researchers, state education officials, superintendents, principals, and a few teachers. Some were copies of a form letter distributed by the Baltimore center with a "dear colleague" mis4sive; others were original.

Several commenters also protested the elimination of centers on higher-education policy and the study of literature.

Many writers praised the overall selection of topics, however, with centers on "learning to teach" and "education in the inner city" receiving the most kudos, and no one argued that any of the proposals were bad ones.

Arthur E. Wise, director of the rand Corporation's Center for the Study of Teaching, and David Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, similarly praised the o.e.r.i. plan at last week's hearing, held by the House Subcommittee on Select Education.

But James Keefe, director of government relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals; Edward Keller, deputy executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals; and Richard Wallace, superintendent of schools in Pittsburgh, focused their testimony entirely on support for the "school level" centers.

It was also a dominant theme in the testimony of Arnold Webb, a senior researcher at Philadelphia's Re8search for Better Schools, one of the laboratories funded by the o.e.r.i. Mr. Webb appeared on behalf of the Council for Educational Development and Research, which represents many of the laboratories and centers.

Proponents of retaining the centers argue that a school's organization has a profound impact on its effectiveness; that the school-reform movement's emphasis on restructuring schools demands research focused on levels of schooling; that students learn differently at different stages of development; and that the existing school-level centers are exceptional.

Those centers are considered to be among the most productive, proponents argue, and most of the letters from educators identified the centers as the ones that provide the most research of practical value to them.

"The research coming from these centers has given school people techniques for creating learning environments where children achieve," Mr. Webb told the Congressional panel. "The issues the centers have tackled are the nuts and bolts of schooling."

"I can testify to the fact that the current Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools is giving me tools that work," he added.

Mr. Webb and cedar, in its written comments, also argued for a new center to study the impact of cultural diversity on schools and learning, as did Ramon Santiago, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University.

They noted projected increases in the number of students from minority groups or who do not speak English as a primary language. Educators need strategies that work with these students, they argued.

"Cultural diversity" is one of four "pervasive themes" that the o.e.r.i.'s plan calls on all centers to concentrate on; others are related to school organization.

Proponents of separate centers argue, however, that these issues are not likely to be adequately addressed by institutions with other primary interests.

Several witnesses at the hearing and many commenters urged the o.e.r.i. to ensure that centers received sufficient funding and enough time to complete work of significance. Given that only $10 million is expected to be available, the list of 12 proposed centers means "we are about $2 million short," Mr. Webb said.

Cedar suggested in its written comments that the department seek "funding alternatives" to allow adequate funding for all centers.

It suggested that mathematics and science centers be funded through the mathematics-and-science grant program, as one mini-center currently is; that an adult literacy center be funded with adult-education money; and that the proposed center on postsecondary learning be operated through the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

Looking forward to next year's reauthorization of research programs, Mr. Wise and Mr. Imig went further in suggesting structural changes.

Mr. Imig argued for a policy board to oversee the o.e.r.i. and to guard against the politicization of its research, and he called for better coordination within the agency and with other federal agencies--recommendations also made last year in a report by the subcommittee.

Mr. Wise discussed his proposal for mission-oriented "Institutes of Education." (See Education Week, Oct. 18, 1989.)

Representative Major R. Owens, the New York Democrat who chairs the panel, offered no specific criticism of the centers proposal, although he has in the past supported a center on language-minority students.

But he charged that the Administration had consulted only those who agreed with its views, a process he termed "academic and partisan incest," and that the proposal "is laced with the cyanide of partisan slogans selling the concept of 'choice,' a bright idea with no scientific validation."

Choice, a major focus of the Bush Administration, is mentioned in only one center mission, that of the center on families and community.

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