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O.E.R.I. Debate Focuses on Control of Agenda

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Washington

As Congress continues work on legislation to reorganize the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement, the central issue is who will control the research agenda.

While education researchers and political observers agree that restructuring the agency may serve to increase its credibility--and hence, its budget--they differ on how much impact the pending proposals would have on the ability of the administration in power to decide what research is funded.

A bill passed by the House would create a policy-setting board that would be responsible for setting the O.E.R.I.'s long-term agenda and would have substantial oversight powers. Under legislation the Senate will consider early next year, the board would play a more advisory role. In general, the Senate bill offers the executive branch more discretion. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993.)

But even if the more powerful board envisioned in the House bill is adopted, said Sharon P. Robinson, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, "the authorization alone will not produce the desired result.''

"For this board to have the impact that's desired, it has to be active, interactive, collaborative, and highly skilled in consensus-building,'' she said. "I don't care what you call it or what kind of authority you give it in the law, it won't have the impact unless the process is right.''

With the White House under Democratic control, it might seem ironic that some Democratic lawmakers are seeking to limit executive-branch control over the O.E.R.I. But the agency's stormy relations with Capitol Hill--and often, with the research community itself--have deep roots.

In Search of Credibility

Education research has never gotten the federal support that medical or defense research has, observers note, because it has been perceived as being an inexact, "value laden'' science that is particularly vulnerable to partisan or ideological manipulation--a charge that has been leveled repeatedly since the creation of the National Institute of Education under the Nixon Administration.

"These are problems that have plagued educational research for 30 years,'' said Gregg B. Jackson, who served as the study director for an influential 1992 National Academy of Sciences report on the O.E.R.I.

Mr. Nixon's proposal to create a semi-autonomous N.I.E. responded to disillusionment with the costly education initiatives of the Johnson Administration. But liberals felt that they had to choose between established programs and research, while conservatives were resentful of yet another federal incursion on the local control of education.

The N.I.E.'s 1973 budget would have equaled $400 million in 1990 dollars, but was slashed the next year. For fiscal 1994, Congress appropriated $156 million for the O.E.R.I., $78 million of which to fund non-research programs.

The N.I.E. started out with a policymaking board that included respected members of the research community. The National Council on Educational Research was expected to establish policies for the institute, review its conduct, and advise the institute's director.

"The board was designed in part to hamstring the administration,'' Mr. Jackson said. "Congress felt the bureaucrats were mucking things up, and wanted a professional and distinguished council to provide leadership.''

Peter H. Gerber, who worked at the N.I.E. and the O.E.R.I. from 1973 to 1986, mostly as chief of staff for the agency head and the N.C.E.R., said that until 1981, the board was "a bridge and a buffer: a bridge for the agency into the research and practitioner community, and a buffer to limit the political influence.''

Ideological Struggles

The N.C.E.R. was effectively transformed from a policy-setting board to an advisory council in the early 1980's, a status that became official when the N.I.E. was reorganized into the current O.E.R.I. in 1986. At the same time, according to many observers, the N.I.E. took a nose dive in credibility as posts were filled by conservative political appointees.

Edward C. Curran, who was named by President Reagan to head the N.I.E. in 1981, waged increasingly public battles with Terrell H. Bell, the Secretary of the fledgling Education Department.

Complaints began to surface that the institute's work was taking on an increasingly ideological tone. In 1982, a highly controversial memorandum that was leaked to the news media suggested research on the educational effects of parental lifestyle, government regulation, television, and vouchers.

Later, after he sent a letter to Mr. Reagan asking him to abolish the N.I.E., without advising Mr. Bell, Mr. Curran was asked to resign.

But Mr. Bell's troubles were not over. The N.C.E.R., led by its executive director, Robert W. Sweet Jr., a former Moral Majority official, tried, unsuccessfully, to block Mr. Bell's choice to direct the institute, and passed a series of resolutions in an effort to consolidate its power.

"The council was shrill, unresponsive to the issues the [N.I.E.] director had to deal with, and had its own agenda,'' Mr. Gerber said. "The 'policy board' was less than effective.''

The image of an agency with a partisan agenda and chaotic leadership has persisted on Capitol Hill.

"Education research has been handled so badly over the past two decades that it's hard to make the case that it's going to make a contribution to education, because it has not made a great contribution,'' said Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Select Education and the author of the House reauthorization bill.

Management by Contract

On a practical level, the administration in power imposes its research priorities through the contracts, grants, or "cooperative agreements'' the O.E.R.I. makes with its 10 regional laboratories and 19 research centers.

Centers generally compete for grants every five years. The Education Department solicits applications to conduct a center focused on particular topics, and center directors negotiate on specifics of their work with agency officials.

The laboratories work under agreements that describe a broader scope of work.

"When they write the contracts or grants, whatever biases and ideas exist at that moment in time become crystalized in amber for the next five years,'' said Robert E. Slavin, a co-director of the federally funded Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at Johns Hopkins University.

Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, said shifts in emphasis can sometimes be severe.

"For 12 years the word 'school finance' never appeared as a concern or matter of study, where it had before,'' Mr. Wise said, noting that the Republican administrations in power from 1981 to 1993 instead "were talking about choice, standards, educational change that could be done without financial cost.''

In addition, Mr. Wise said, the emphasis shifted from large-scale studies to lower-cost case studies.

Many researchers have long argued that ideas should be coming from researchers in the field and that increasing the funds set aside for field-initiated research is the best way to insulate the O.E.R.I. from partisan whims. In recent years, the O.E.R.I. has spent less than $1 million a year on such research; both pending bills would encourage spending much more.

Both bills also would reorganize the O.E.R.I. into five institutes or directorates with specified subject areas, each of which would oversee some centers. This would restrict an administration's freedom to decide the centers' missions.

The institute setup, as well as the creation of an agenda-setting board, were key recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences' report, which suggested a board with "clearly prescribed, but limited powers.''

But even researchers who favor a policymaking board note that its efficacy is not guaranteed.

Factional Tradeoffs?

"The devil is in the details,'' said Eva L. Baker, the director of the federally funded Center for the Study of Evaluation at the University of California at Los Angeles. "The way the board is crafted and who gets appointed to the first group will set the stage for how it's perceived down the road.''

Patricia Albjerg Graham, who served as the N.I.E. director in the Carter Administration and is now the president of the Spencer Foundation, added, "Early on, it is the director's job to make sure the policy board isn't pushing in one way, the Secretary pushing another way, and the White House another way--that is very difficult.''

While many say a policy board could help stabilize the O.E.R.I., some observers warn that it could replace partisan politics with factional politics, as each group represented on the board fights for its piece of the research pie.

Both the House and Senate bills call for researchers and practitioners to be represented on the board. But the House specifically names groups, like the American Educational Research Association and the American Federation of Teachers, that the Secretary would have to consult in making nominations.

"[The policy board] is stocked with the very interest groups that get the money. It's like turning the pharmacy over to the drug addict,'' said Chester E. Finn Jr., who headed the O.E.R.I. in the mid-1980's. "The principals will say, 'O.K., we'll trade three studies on principals for two on students.'''

Diane S. Ravitch, now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, fought the idea of a policy board vigorously last year as the Bush Administration's O.E.R.I. chief.

Ms. Ravitch said Congress and research lobbyists have always controlled the research agenda.

"The board is frosting on the cake, making sure the administration has no control at all,'' she said.

Ms. Graham added that good candidates for assistant secretary may be lost if their "hands are tied'' by a policy board.

No Revolutions Here

But some observers doubt that the proposed changes would have much impact.

"I don't know that you can engineer anything to protect the office from the kinds of partisan influence we saw in the Carter-Reagan transition,'' said Michael W. Kirst, a researcher at Stanford University's Consortium for Policy Research and Education.

Observers also note that because the Education Department budget includes so little discretionary funding, the research office controls one of the few sources the agency can tap to support projects not specifically funded. Congress made an effort to "tie down'' much of the research budget during the Bush Administration because some members were angry that research funds were being used for activities lawmakers opposed. (See Education Week, June 19, 1991.)

Mr. Owens said he will fight for a policymaking board when the House and Senate bills are reconciled next year.

The outcome is hard to predict. While the Clinton Adminstration has avoided taking a public position, most observers believe it would prefer as much autonomy as possible. But Mr. Owens clearly has more interest in the issue than the members who might oppose him.

Many researchers, meanwhile, say the enhanced credibility that a policy board would give the O.E.R.I. outweighs the risks.

Such a board "does more in offering genuine hope for real change than an advisory board,'' said Jeri Nowakowski, the director of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory in Oak Brook, Ill.

"I'm not suggesting it's without risk,'' she said, "but it's a risk we need to take.''

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