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Diffusion Network Seeks To Gain Solid Footing

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Seventh in an occasional series.

A year ago, officials at the highest levels of government were talking publicly about the need to "scale up" education reform.

Both President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said America needed to find strategies that already were working and spread their use among schools nationwide.

Yet, at the same time, the Clinton Administration was proposing to eliminate virtually the only federal agency whose mission is to do just that.

But the National Diffusion Network is used to such slights.

Founded in the early 1970's, the $14.48 million U.S. Education Department program has survived budget cuts, block-grant proposals, political tempests, and neglect.

The agency withstood last year's threat as well. Congressional lawmakers last year rejected the Clinton Administration's plan to fold the network into a new technical-assistance program and voted to give the agency sufficient money to stand on its own. In his budget for the coming fiscal year, which was released last month, President Clinton has proposed level funding for the agency.

But the agency just last week took yet another beating. On Capitol Hill, a House appropriations subcommittee voted to recommend terminating the program altogether. The full Appropriations Committee has yet to take up that recommendation. (See related story .)

All this comes as the network is in the midst of a three-year-old effort to remake itself--an overhaul that proponents were hoping would give the agency a more solid footing in the national movement to improve schools.

Overlooked, Underfunded

The network was invented during the Nixon Administration as a means of preserving the best of the(See ducational innovations spawned by the Johnson Administration's Great Society programs. But funding for the agency increased only modestly in real dollars over the next two decades--from an initial $9 million, to $14 million in 1979, to its current level of $14.5 million.

"It's an agency dwarfed by the scale of its own mission," writes Kenneth G. Wilson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, in his 1994 book Redesigning Education. "In essence, the N.D.N. is a marketing office whose 'customer' is the $200 billion-a-year U.S. schooling system."

While commercial companies spend an average of 8 percent of yearly sales on marketing, the diffusion network's annual budget adds up to "less than 1 percent of what American industry would consider adequate to do the job," Mr. Wilson adds.

Even so, proponents of the network estimate that it serves more than 29,000 schools in a good year. One of its biggest successes has been Reading Recovery, a popular program for 1st graders struggling with reading.

Reading Recovery is now used in 5,523 schools. But when the program first became part of the network eight years ago, fewer than 500 schools had adopted it, according to Gay Su Pinnell, an Ohio State University professor who is part of Reading Recovery.

Robert E. Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who has developed three cooperative-learning programs that are part of the network, said: "We charge for materials and training so that eventually programs become self-funding. What N.D.N. does is provide capitalization for the early stages."

Narrow Focus Seen

To join the network, developers like Mr. Slavin must provide data demonstrating the effectiveness of their programs. A panel of reviewers decides whether to "validate" a program and include it on the network's roster.

Once approved, programs may qualify for grants to support their dissemination. Of the more than 100 programs that are part of the network, for example, 88 currently receive funding.

In addition, network facilitators in every state help to link network programs with schools and districts in their states.

But a criticism of the network has been that it tends to support small, narrowly focused programs.

"All those programs don't add up to school reform across the country," said Gerald Sroufe, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association.

"There are two ways to think about disseminating research," he said. "One, which is the N.D.N.'s approach, is to let 1,000 flowers bloom, and another is to think about massing resources and building capacity."

The time and effort it takes for a program to meet the network's rigorous validation criteria have also engendered complaints.

Because program developers are sometimes put off by the process, there was not "nearly as much there as there should be," said Christopher T. Cross, who served as the assistant secretary for the department's office of educational research and improvement under the Bush Administration.

"And what was there," he said, "wasn't nearly as current as it should be."

Not 'Canned Programs'

Network proponents, however, say the services they provide are vital if unheralded.

"I think you need to meet people where they are," said Elizabeth Farquhar, a former network director. "If we only work with schools that are ready for systemic reform, we're going to leave behind the neediest places."

Moreover, schools that have successfully tried one of the network's programs often come back looking for another program to meet a different need or to "bundle" together several programs.

Even narrowly focused efforts sometimes serve as catalysts for deeper, broader changes.

In a 1993 survey, for example, 54 percent of Reading Recovery teacher-leaders said that in their own school districts, Reading Recovery had had a "large" or "very large" impact on teachers and children outside the program.

"These aren't canned programs that you go out and stick into schools like you stick a disk into a computer," said Max McConkey, the executive director of the National Dissemination Association, which was formed in 1981 partly to fight attempts to include the program in a federal block grant.

Moreover, said Lynne Miller, a professor of education at the University of Southern Maine, systemic reform is extraordinarily difficult and may well be elusive.

"On my bad days, I think we're never going to see it," she said. "Then I think, so what's wrong with giving a class a nice unit they can use?"

"What if my kid were one of the 20 kids in that class?" she continued. "Then I thought, well, yeah, that's kind of nice."

Backers also note that the rigorous validation process has been as much a strength as a liability.

"People don't want to throw that out," Mr. McConkey said.

Offering Support

Nevertheless, beginning in the early 1990's, the network began to take steps to respond to its critics. Priority was placed, for example, on programs that tried to take broader approaches to change. The network also moved from a focus on adopting programs to one of adapting them to meet local needs.

In addition, the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires the network's state facilitators to work more closely with the Education Department's regional education laboratories, which specialize in disseminating education research, and with 15 new regional technical-assistance centers that are intended to serve a wide range of schools' information needs.

"State facilitators can do some of the initial work, but if schools say 'We are trying to apply research on constructivism...or something else,' they may say, 'You really want to get in touch with the regional labs,"' said Robert Stonehill, who oversees the network as the acting director of state and local services in the office of educational research and improvement.

The law also calls for the network to take steps to identify "promising practices" as well as the exemplary programs that are its mainstay.

"This would be like a minor league or a farm system," Mr. Stonehill said.

"It's going to answer the criticism that the process is too rigorous, but not by compromising its stringency," he said. "What we're offering is support for other programs to go down the long road."

Given the agency's shoestring-budget status, some supporters point out that becoming more visible could have a downside as well.

"There are a lot more people out there than we can serve if we serve them deeply," said Diane Lassman, Minnesota's facilitator.

"All this talk about scaling up makes me nervous," she added. "In a way, scaling down is the order of the day."

NEW:Such concerns, however, could well turn out to be moot. As evidenced by last week's action by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, the new Republican majority in the House has put the network among the ranks of Education Department programs targeted for abolition. It is not clear whether the program is any more popular with the Senate's Republican leadership.

But, Mr. McConkey said, "even under the worst scenario, if N.D.N. goes down in the fervor of 1995, it would not surprise me if there were an effort to recreate it in 1996 or 1997."

"Because I think schools thirst for proven programs they can implement with almost a guaranteed assurance that they'll be effective," he added.

The "Scaling Up" series is underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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