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E.D. Spends Time on Task of Reshaping Research Efforts

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Washington

After President Clinton signed a bill last year to reshape the Education Department's research operations, federal officials promised to "hit the ground running" in carrying out the new mandate.

Ten months later, observers in the research community say, they have largely kept their word.

The department's office of educational research and improvement dissolved its old structure months ago. In its place, the department set up five large research institutes, each of which--like those that make up the National Institutes of Health--is oriented toward a single mission.

The agency also has prodded its 10 regional research laboratories, which once operated in isolation from one another, to form a working network. And it has laid the groundwork for a central office charged with making sure that federally financed education research gets to--and is used by--the nation's schools and educators.

But the department has yet to appoint the 15-member advisory board whose job will be to help set its long-term research agenda, the most controversial addition made by the new law. And observers fear that delay could hold up further progress in the office's reorganization.

"There is a point when you can't do anything until you do something else, and that something else is the board," said Gerald Sroufe, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association.

Biggest Change Since 1985

The reorganization of the research agency, which was attached to the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, marked the first serious attempt to reshape the agency since the O.E.R.I. replaced the National Institute of Education in 1985.

In ordering the latest changes, Congress sought to respond to critics who said that federally supported education research was often done in a piecemeal, disconnected fashion and that it was vulnerable to political manipulation. Practicing educators also complained that the research that came out of the office was irrelevant to them.

In contrast, lawmakers and department officials promised, the new O.E.R.I. will be "customer driven." It will approach research in a more coordinated, integrated fashion that focuses all of the resources of the federal government on persistent education problems. And it will work hand in hand with other Education Department offices in promoting larger reforms, such as the development of academic standards.

First Steps

Toward that end, Sharon P. Robinson, the assistant secretary in charge of the office, last spring began holding hearings across the country and soliciting advice from researchers and their "customers." In September, she dissolved the O.E.R.I.'s old structure and declared "open season" within the agency so that employees could choose which new office or institute they would work under.

Acting directors were named to head the five new institutes: the National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment; the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students; the National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education; the National Institute on Educational Governance, Finance, Policymaking, and Management; and the National Institute on Postsecondary Education, Libraries, and Lifelong Learning.

And the office awarded a hefty $27.8 million contract to Johns Hopkins University and Howard University to jointly operate a research center focused on improving education for disadvantaged students. The new center, federal officials said, would be the "intellectual dynamo" for the largest of the new institutes, the one on at-risk students.

Groundwork was also laid for a new office of reform assistance and dissemination, the central agency charged with getting research to its "customers."

All of the changes came as the agency was losing 53 of its most senior staff members, who accepted the government's offer of early-retirement buyouts.

"The leadership of the department had a job to do, and they've done it better than I ever dreamed they would," said Dena Stoner, the executive director of the Council for Educational Development and Research, which represents the federally supported labs and centers.

Awaiting the Board

But the delay in naming the advisory board could become a problem as the office enters the next phase of its reorganization. Contracts for most of the education-research centers and regional laboratories expire by November, and the department must soon begin to stage new competitions for them. The new board, which will be made up of practicing educators as well as researchers, had been expected to help set the tone for that competition.

The law also requires that the board advise in selecting permanent directors of the institutes.

"We're at a point where we really need the board," Ms. Robinson of the O.E.R.I. said.

The panel is not required by law to meet until May 15. But Ms. Robinson and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said last fall that they hoped to put it in place by November 1994.

"I think the November deadline was always regarded as wildly optimistic," Ms. Robinson said.

She said the department received 300 nominations and is now vetting those candidates. She expects the job to be finished this month.

Ms. Robinson said department officials also tried to look at those nominations concurrently with those for another new board still to be set up under the Goals 2000 law: the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, which could be abolished by the new Republican majority in Congress. (See related story.)

Some further delay was caused by the recent illness of Secretary Riley, who has the final say on the research-board nominations. He missed about a month of work last fall because of surgery for prostate cancer.

Questions Ahead

The new law also called for consolidating all of the department's disparate research functions under the(See education research, have been slow to move.

The recent shift in power on Capitol Hill has also raised some uncertainties.

To support the reorganization, Congress increased funding for the agency by more than 14 percent last year. But some research advocates worry that, given Republican lawmakers' professed zeal to cut government spending, the reorganization could fall victim to broad budget cuts.

"If the same amount or less is given to the research component of O.E.R.I., then it's going to be hard to breathe life into those institutes," Mr. Sroufe of the A.E.R.A. said.

Advocates are less concerned, however, that Congress will try to undo the reorganization, which was approved when the Democrats still controlled Congress, or to scrap the agency.

That is because backing for the measure in Congress had been "strongly bipartisan," according to Ms. Stoner. Moreover, some Republican leaders have said they see supporting research as a legitimate role for the federal government to maintain.

There is still some wariness, however, over how well the new structure will work.

Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, was in the late 1980's among the first to propose the idea of specialized education-research institutes. He envisioned, however, that they would handle dissemination, as well as research. Under the new law, the central office of dissemination has that duty.

"I think it creates a better system of accountability," Mr. Wise said of his original conception. "Each institute would have been responsible for a full cycle ofresearch and dissemination, and now you have that functioncentralized as it has been in the past."

That concern, Ms. Robinson said, is an "important one."

"We could slip back into old habits," she said. "But I think the field ought not tolerate it."

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