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Q&A: Director of Academy's New Study Analyzes R&D Proposals

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A Conversation with Thomas James

Over the past month, corporate officials have unveiled plans for two major initiatives to create education research-and-development centers to support the development of new schools.

In the first, as part of President Bush's America 2000 plan, executives of major corporations have pledged at least $150 million to the New American Schools Development Corporation, which will award contracts to R&D teams that will aid in the creation of a "new generation of American schools."

And last month, Christopher Whittle, the media entrepreneur, announced that his firm would provide $60 million to establish the Edison Project, a laboratory that would draw up the blueprints for a network of for-profit schools.

Thomas James, assistant professor of education at Brown University, was the executive director and the principle author of a new study, commissioned by the National Academy of Education, which analyzed the state of education research and proposed an agenda for the future. Among other proposals, the study called for a significant increase in private-sector support for education research.

Mr. James discussed the initiatives, and the needs in education research, with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q. Do you see these proposals as a new direction in education research for the private sector?

A. We still need to look comprehensively at all the research organizations and resources we have. There is a need for a comprehensive overview. A reworking is not something that's accomplished in one or two initiatives.

We are in a situation in education research that is similar to where the science-research establishment was at the end of World War II. There is a recognition education is a crucial national goal, but we have a fragmented system of research, one that requires coordination, goal-setting, and quality control.

The new proposals augur well for generating new energy in the research community, but the larger need seems probably greater than the the solutions proposed. They are interesting ideas, and a great deal of good could come out of them. The larger problem--a strategic vision--is still lacking, I think.

Q. Could the proprietary interests of the private firms sponsoring the new research-and-development centers impede the dissemination of the research findings?

A. I'm not certain about that. There may be a different problem. We should not overlook the capacities of institutions where we have built up communities of researchers who could attack social problems.

There have been significant contributions by the private and nonprofit sectors in research. In mental measurement, [for example,] many organizations like the Psychological Corporation, and nonprofit organizations like the Educational Testing Service, [have contributed to research.] ...

Looking to the private and nonprofit sectors is not inimical to the overall challenge for research. But I would warn that we not overlook existing capacities that have a great deal of horsepower.

Q. Some observers have said that the private efforts appear to emphasize development, rather than basic research. Can these new centers compile what's already out there and develop it?

A. It's true that more private research agencies are likely to be oriented to development, to applied research, to packaging ideas for use in education settings. What we find in other areas, where there is a well-established research establishment, is an important dynamic relation between agencies of basic research and applications.

The danger here is that they might overemphasize the applied consulting side and neglect sources of new knowledge.

Q. What are the current needs in basic research?

A. We need to know how human be6ings think, how they develop mastery, how they learn in different subject areas, how cultural backgrounds shape learning styles. ... We need to know how to educate in dynamic settings, the relationship between learning and experience. ... We need to continue to know how to organize schooling and make it efficient, how to assess human learning.

These kinds of issues are ones in which there isn't automatic knowledge one can apply. You can't put another McDonald's franchise in another city and set up an education system. That requires continuing knowledge, continuing research. ...

Q. Some researchers have argued that, to test ideas, it is necessary to implement them in existing schools, rather than create new schools. Do you agree?

A. We should look at even existing schools as experimental sites. ... Whether one has a traditional, progressive, or any view, one should see a school as dynamic and growing.

I don't see a boundary. Whether in new schools or traditional school settings, we should develop a proactive, dynamic view of what we're doing. Students should be brought into that view [as well].

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