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Ravitch, Owens Spar Over House Research-Office Proposal

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WASHINGTON--A top Education Department official last week clashed with the chairman of a key House subcommittee over the chairman's proposal to overhaul the department's research branch, as a more modest reauthorization bill advanced in the Senate.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee voted unanimously last week to approve a bill that would reorganize the research functions of the office of educational research and improvement into five "directorates,'' as well as establish new offices on technology and dissemination.

The bill would also create a mechanism to develop national standards in school subjects and a national system of assessments, and would authorize an international test of student achievement and a study of other nation's school systems. (See Education Week, March 18, 1992.)

A companion House bill, by contrast, would make substantial changes in the agency's structure. Among other proposals, the bill would create "institutes'' for research on major problems, establish a powerful governing board for the agency, and build a massive system of "extension agents'' to disseminate research findings to schools.

At a hearing on the House measure, Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said the proposed governing board could be "disastrous.''

Rather than making the agency function more efficiently, she said, the board would impose "more delays and more bureaucracy.'' And, she said, the bill's requirement that the board be composed of representatives of various education groups could lead to conflicts of interest if such groups receive funding from the O.E.R.I.

"It's a creative leap, but one no other federal agency or business organization has taken,'' Ms. Ravitch said. "Having a board loaded with conflicts of interest will not make it a better agency.''

But Representative Major R. Owens, the Democrat from New York who is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Select Education, defended the proposal as necessary to improve the agency's management and to protect against political control of the research agenda.

"Our concern is to create a board that would have as broad representation as possible so that there are checks and balances,'' he said.

Ms. Ravitch also questioned the need for the extension agents. Rather than create a new dissemination system, she said, the Congress should strengthen the system that already exists.

Electronic Dissemination

She urged the panel to help develop the electronic information system, known as SMARTLINE, that she has proposed to make research findings and model programs available at schools and libraries.

Otherwise, she said, "we'll have two underfunded systems, instead of one strong one.''

Other witnesses at the hearing, however, praised the House bill and said Ms. Ravitch's fears were unfounded.

Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, said that his organization's board is much like the one Mr. Owens has proposed, and that it works "remarkably well.''

"When 27 organizations get together, and the topic is teacher education,'' Mr. Wise said, "they reach a high degree of consensus.''

"Quite likely,'' he added, "the representatives [of the education organizations] would be guided by a common purpose when they gather to discuss the priorities for educational research.''

Ann Lieberman, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the president of the American Educational Research Association, said the electronic system Ms. Ravitch has proposed would not be sufficient to ensure that research findings would reach the schools.

"Technology is fine,'' Ms. Lieberman said. "But I work in New York City. They don't have computers in schools, much less a data base.''

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