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Q&A: Historian Outlines Project To Assess Federal Research Agency

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To help the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement think through its mission, Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant secretary of education who heads the office, last month asked Maris A. Vinovskis, an education historian from the University of Michigan, to study the research that has been conducted at the O.E.R.I.

Mr. Vinovskis, a professor of history and a research scientist at the center for political studies at the university's Institute for Social Research, previously served in similar capacities in the federal Health and Human Services Department. From 1981 to 1983, he studied programs in the the office of adolescent-pregnancy programs, and from 1983 to 1985, he served as a consultant for the office of family planning programs.

A native of Latvia, Mr. Vinovskis is the author or editor of 11 books, including volumes on demography, population policy, the Civil War, and the history of education.

Mr. Vinovskis's appointment at the O.E.R.I comes at a critical time for the ofrice. As a result of the current move toward national standards in school subjects and a system of assessments to measure student performance against such standards, the 0.E.R.I is expected to play a major role in helping states revise their curriculum frameworks and develop new forms of student assessment.

At the same time, the O.E.R.I. must be reauthorized by the Congress this year, and a proposal pending in the House would make major changes in the agency's structure. Although Mr. Vinovskis has not been asked to suggest a future direction for the agency, his findings on the way it has worked could influence members of the Congress and the Administration.

He discussed his study with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q. In the last year, the National Academy of Education has issued a major report on the status of education research, and the National Academy of Sciences is conducting a study of the federal investment in education research. What additional perspective can you add to the discussion?

A. I haven't met with the National Academy of Sciences, but I have seen their briefing books, and I'm aware of what they're doing. Probably, the difference is that I'm doing more of an in-depth analysis of the work that has been done in the O.E.R.I. in research.

I'm looking over the past five or six years at a specific program. My impression is, the focus of the National Academy of Sciences is broader.

Q. What do you think your perspective as an education historian can bring to this study?

A. I come from several different perspectives. I am an education historian. I'm also a member of the Institute for Social Research at Michigan. In that, I'm concerned with issues of research design and the quality of research as well. I also have experience in government before, as a consultant in the offices of adolescent pregnancy and family-planning programs.

What I see as my immediate task is to look at the way research has been conducted, to assess it, [to look at both] the quality of the research and the kinds of research that have been conducted.

My history-of-education perspective is useful, but my social-science orientation and my previous experience may be equally important in this situation.

Q. What do you see as the top priorities for education research at this time?

A. There are a whole series of things. But I am looking more at what has been done, rather than assessing what should be done.

My sense is, [the priorities for research] are going to be addressed elsewhere, such as in [President Bush's] America 2000.

I'm not saying I won't look at them later.

Q. Assistant Secretary Ravitch has said that a major problem at O.E.R.I. is the dissemination of research, that there is a vast storehouse of information that is not getting out to practitioners. Do you share that view?

A. If you look at the research that has been done, and you look at the products the centers and laboratories are putting out, it vanes. But I am not looking systematically at dissemination.

Q. Do you have any initial impressions of the quality of research at O.E.R.I.?

A. As in any series of research, there are some excellent things going on, and things that need to be improved.

I have been impressed at the high quality of people involved. But there are issues of methodology and strategy that have to be considered.

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