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Academy Panel Urges Wide-Ranging Effort to 'Rebuild' O.E.R.I.

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WASHINGTON--Concluding that the Education Department's research arm has been rendered ineffective by underfunding and organizational weakness, a National Academy of Sciences panel last week issued a sweeping blueprint to "rebuild'' the office of educational research and improvement.

In a report issued here that is expected to provide a strong boost to legislation currently moving through the Congress, the panel called for creating a policymaking board to oversee the agency, reconfiguring the O.E.R.I.'s research functions into "directorates'' that would focus on particular problem areas, and forming a new, separate directorate that would assist state and local reform efforts.

The panel also urged a massive increase in funding for the agency--an additional $267 million a year, nearly five times what the O.E.R.I. currently spends on educational research.

If the Congress fails to provide such an increase, the report warns, "the agency's mission and responsibilities should be dramatically narrowed.''

"Over and over again,'' said Gregg B. Jackson, the study's director and a senior staff officer for the national academy's commission on behavioral and social sciences and education, "the [panel] felt the O.E.R.I. didn't have the infrastructure or stewardship needed to carry research-and-development activities far enough where one could reasonably expect to bear fruit from them.''

Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement, praised the report as "balanced, wise, and fair.''

But, she cautioned, the proposed funding increase might face a tough battle in the Congress, where she said there is no "constituency'' for educational research.

"There's a strong argument that can be made for a substantial increase,'' Ms. Ravitch said in an interview. "This [report] makes the case fairly strongly. I hope people read it and pay attention.''

Representative Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the House Education and Labor subcommittee on select education, said last week that it was unlikely the Congress would provide all of the increase immediately. He added that it could be phased in over a number of years, as the academy report proposes.

But he rejected the idea that the agency should narrow its focus if the funding increase is not forthcoming.

"That means it will leave a vacuum,'' Mr. Owens said. "The need is definitely there.''

'Demonstrably Useful'

The report, "Research and Education Reform,'' was based on a yearlong study by the National Academy of Sciences' committee on the federal role in education research, a 14-member panel of scientists, educators, and business leaders.

The panel did not address which topics the Education Department's research arm should focus on. It noted that a separate report, issued last year by the National Academy of Education, laid out an agenda for education research.

The new report appears at a crucial time for the O.E.R.I. Legislation to reauthorize and revamp the agency was approved last month by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and is currently pending before the full Senate; a companion bill was approved last week by the House Education and Labor subcommittee on select education. (See story, this page.)

Moreover, the Bush Administration has eyed the office as a key to its school-reform strategy, particularly in the drive to create a national system of standards and assessments.

The report says that education research can make--and has made--a major contribution to education reform. It cites advances in cognitive research in understanding teaching and learning, as well as in the development of curricula and teaching programs that have proved successful, and efforts to monitor the status of schools and teachers.

"There are many reasons for the undistinguished reputation of research in education, only some of which are well founded,'' the report states.

But the panel's review, it adds, "has convinced us not only that research can improve education, but also that it has been demonstrably useful.''

'Bruising' Slide in Funding

But while the O.E.R.I. has contributed to such successes, the panel argues, pervasive problems have impaired the agency's effectiveness.

Specifically, it suggests, the agency has been plagued by charges of politicization, which affect its credibility, and by a lack of stable leadership.

The report also says that the agency has failed to coordinate its various programs or to support many sustained programs, and that it has a "checkered history in respect to quality assurance.''

Exacerbating all of these problems, the report states, has been the "bruising downhill slide'' in funding, which has demoralized administrators, forced a focus on "quick fixes,'' rather than sustained projects, and resulted in mediocrity.

The report notes that, while the current O.E.R.I. budget is $380 million, only $58 million--or 15 percent of the total--is spent on research, as defined by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Management and Budget. The rest, it notes, goes to library programs, statistics, and development programs that are not based on research.

In addition, it points out, the office is far from the lead agency in the government, or even within the Education Department, for education research. The panel concluded that $364 million is spent throughout the federal government on educational research and development, and that the O.E.R.I.'s funding represents only a third of the Education Department's research spending.

The tight budget, coupled with Congressional requirements for earmarking funds for university-based research centers and regional laboratories, has squeezed out funding for field-initiated research and basic research, the report states.

Just $1.9 million in 1989, or 5.5 percent of the budget, went to basic research, largely because of the press from policymakers and practitioners for quick solutions to educational problems.

"This is an understandable short-term response,'' the report says, "but it is akin to eating one's seed corn.''

Rebuilt, Not Repaired

The pervasiveness of the problems at the education-research agency, the academy panel argues, demands a massive overhaul.

"The committee has not found an isolated fatal flaw in O.E.R.I.,'' the report states. "Rather, it has found an agency with a very difficult role, severely constrained resources, and a number of organizational and functional weaknesses.''

"O.E.R.I. needs to be rebuilt, not merely repaired,'' it says.

The report includes a number of recommendations, many of which are contained in the legislation pending on Capitol Hill. (See box, this page.)

For example, the panel recommends the creation of a 24-member policymaking board, similar to one that oversees the N.S.F.

In calling for a policymaking body, as the House bill provides, rather than an advisory council, as in the Senate version, the academy panel suggests that such a body would be more likely to attract "persons of accomplishment'' and would be more influential.

To improve research and dissemination activities, the panel, as does the Senate bill, also urges reorganizing the O.E.R.I. into three to five "directorates'' that would focus on particular problem areas. The N.A.S. panel also proposes a separate "reform-assistance directorate'' to support dissemination, liaison, and technical assistance to national, state, and local reform efforts.

In its most costly recommendation, the panel urges that the agency each year fund 250 new three-year, field-initiated studies at $200,000 a year, for a total cost of $148.7 million annually.

Although the total recommendations would add $1.3 billion to the Education Department's budget over the next six years, the report notes, the nation will spend an additional $1.5 trillion on elementary and secondary education during that period.

"It is clear,'' the report concludes, "that this added investment in R&D will be paid back many times over if it improves the effectiveness or efficiency of our education system by even 1 percent.''

Copies of "Research and Education Reform'' will be available in May for $29 each, plus $3 for postage and handling, from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418, or by calling (202) 334-3313 or (800) 624-6242.

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