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Panel Chairman Joins Call for Larger-Scale Research

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Chicago--A key House Democrat has lent his support to the idea that the Education Department's research arm should shift its emphasis to large-scale examinations of significant problems in education.

Unveiling his proposals for reauthorizing the department's office of educational research and improvement, Representative Major R. Owens of New York, chairman of the panel that oversees the office, said the agency should change what he termed its "small-minded orientation and its devotion to inadequate incremental growth."

Mr. Owens, who spoke here at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, stopped short of recommending a thorough overhaul of the office. Several researchers, including the aera, have proposed converting the oeri into a "national institutes of education" that would devote considerable resources to major issues.

"We are not proposing a radical restructuring to better promote educational research, development, and dissemination," Representative Owens said.

But he also noted that the reauthorization picture has been clouded by the current shakeup in the top levels of the department. The outgoing assistant secretary for research, Christopher T. Cross, has not sent a legislative proposal to the Congress, and his replacement, reportedly the education historian Diane Ravitch, who has little experience in Washington, will most likely want to consider her own plan, Mr. Owens said.

"Everything is slowed down," the New York Democrat said. "We have no concrete idea what the Administration wants to happen."

Bruno V. Manno, acting assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement, acknowledged last week that the department's reauthorization proposal had been put "on hold" because of the changes in leadership, but he said the agency plans to send a reauthorization proposal to the Congress.

Not a Luxury

Although Mr. Owens had over the past few months released parts of his legislative proposal for the research office, his speech to the researchers here marked the first time he outlined his complete plan.

The proposal, which is expected to be introduced in the House this month, is expected to serve as the framework for the reauthorization debate. Mr. Owens's Subcommittee on Select Education has scheduled hearings on the reauthorization for later this month.

In calling for the oeri to broaden the scope of its activities, Mr. Owens said that total funding would have to increase, although he declined to put a dollar figure on his proposal.

"Only primitive policymakers and incompetent managers still cling to the notion that research and development is a luxury, or that it is irrelevant," he said.

To help gain Congressional support for such an increase, Mr. Owens also called for an independent, nonpartisan body to set policy for the research agency.

During the Reagan Administration, he charged, the research office lost credibility among members of the Congress and the public because it became an "unprofessional ideological and partisan toy."

Although Mr. Cross has restored "professionalism" to the agency, Representative Owens said, a nonpartisan policymaking body is necessary to reassure the Congress and the public that the office is operating on sound research principles.

In addition to proposing a new policymaking structure, Mr. Owens called for the creation of education "institutes" to conduct large-scale, long-term research and development on critical problems. The first institute, he proposed, should focus on the education of at-risk students; over time, an institute on the utilization of technology could also be created.

Modeled after the disease-related institutes of the National Institutes of Health, the proposed centers would "move programs, projects, and methods that seem to work from the 'anecdotal' stage to the validated, certified status of a recommended basic approach that works," Representative Owens said.

As examples of topics the proposed institutes could investigate, he suggested: "Are high-school failures contributing to the massive increase in violence among inner-city males? How have changes in curriculum impacted on graduation rates? Where have Afro-centric or Latino-centric curriculums been tested?"

To help improve the dissemination of research findings, Mr. Owens also called for a "district education-extension program," located in each Congressional district, that would put education information in the hands of local practitioners and policymakers.

Modeled after the Department of Agriculture's extension program, the education-extension program would be tested first in the poorest Congressional districts.

Mr. Owens's legislation will also propose:

  • Coordinating all the education research-and-development activities within the federal government;
  • Expanding the use of libraries and cultural institutions in promoting educational improvement; and
  • Increasing investment in research to ensure that all children are ready for school.

'Throwing Money at Problems'

Researchers here generally praised Mr. Owens's proposals, particularly his emphasis on expanding the oeri's scope.

"One of the things we have learned [from studying other agencies' reel10lsearch efforts] is that throwing money at problems does make a difference," said Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Ms. Darling-Hammond also praised the plan to create extension agencies to disseminate research. But she cautioned that getting research knowledge into the hands of practitioners would not be easy.

"Effective dissemination of knowledge is accomplished primarily by education," she said, "not by mailing reports out in manila envelopes."

Ms. Darling-Hammond also echoed Mr. Owens's concern about ensuring that the research office is shielded from political interference.

Other researchers here, who declined to speak on the record, suggested that the expected nomination of Ms. Ravitch could mean a return to the political controversy that surrounded the office during the Reagan years. They noted that Ms. Ravitch, an adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, has frequently collaborated on scholarly projects with Chester E. Finn Jr., who headed the oeri during President Reagan's second term.

Making a Dent

Other researchers attending the meeting argued that the Congress should drastically overhaul the research agency.

In a suggestion that goes beyond Mr. Owens's proposed creation of at least two new "national institutes" to provide research and development on major problems, Arthur E. Wise, president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, called for scrapping the Education Department's current system of centers and laboratories and creating instead a network of large-scale institutes.

Under the current structure, "somebody identifies a problem--say, the education of the disadvan4taged--and Congress comes up with a $1-million center to deal with the problem," Mr. Wise said. "If you think you can make a dent in the problem of the education of the disadvantaged for $1 million a year, you're sorely mistaken."

Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University and the co-director of a National Academy of Education panel examining the status of education research, said his panel was also expected to recommend a greater emphasis on large-scale and long-term studies.

Although the nae panel, which is expected to issue its report this month, did not specifically address the federal role, the "national institutes of education" idea would be consistent with the group's recommendations, Mr. Kirst said.

The Stanford professor also observed that the panel's report would presumably get a better reception in the Education Department than do most reports if Ms. Ravitch--who is co-director of the panel--is confirmed to succeed Mr. Cross at the oeri

"We might end up giving the report to the co-director," he said. "That augurs well. She'll at least know what's in it."

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