A Model Roadway: Research Panel May Follow Highway-Funding Path
A new panel looking to map a national strategy for financing education research is exploring an unlikely model for its work: highway research.
The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, organized the panel at the urging of Bruce Alberts, the academy president.
"I realized there wasn't much difference between highway research in the late 1970s and early 1980s and where we are today with education research," said Mr. Alberts, who has been a vocal supporter of education throughout his tenure at the agency.
In both fields, for example, research funding accounts--or accounted--for a fraction of overall expenditures.
Only half a percent of federal education dollars are now spent on research. But nearly two decades ago, when highway research was in a similar state, the amount of funding spent on research in that field accounted for one-fifth of 1 percent of spending.
Moreover, research in both fields lacked credibility with practitioners.
"There were thousands of little grants, but there was little attempt to coordinate resources to do a structured attack on the big problems," said Damian Kulash, who directed the research council's work on highway funding in 1981.
At the time, the academy, which is an independent, congressionally chartered agency, formed a panel made up of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to identify the half dozen or so critical problems in transportation.
Trail of Success
Six years later, the panel's recommendations resulted in $150 million in new federal funding for a strategic highway-research program.
Mr. Kulash said that program has since spawned several success stories, including a new set of specifications for tougher asphalt for paving roads and the development of longer-lasting concrete.
He and others believe the same kind of targeted approach might work for education research as well.
"If it hadn't been for that prototype, you'd think the kind of exercise you're doing now would be impossible," Mr. Alberts told the new education panel at its first meeting, held last month in Washington.
The job of the new Committee on a Strategic Education Research Program Feasibility Study is to decide first whether the highway plan is a good model for education. If the answer is yes, the group over the next year and a half will identify a few issues in which a more focused research effort potentially could make a demonstrable difference.
"To me it's a little analogous to the war on cancer," said David Goslin, the panel's vice chairman. "Many scientists say it's silly and to just put a lot of money into basic research and something will come.
"The other approach is the Manhattan Project," he said, referring to the concerted research effort in World War II that produced the atomic bomb. "The question is, are we in a Manhattan Project arena or a basic biomedical-research paradigm or some amalgam of the two?"
Skepticism and Questions
As was the case with the highway panel, the education-research committee's 14 members represent a range of interests. They include practicing teachers, researchers, a state school superintendent, an education school dean, and a publisher. (See box, this page.)
At the first meeting, however, a few of the panel members expressed some skepticism over the research council's concept.
"It's one thing when you're talking about better asphalt and you can test that, but with students, just saying reading and test scores are higher doesn't necessarily mean we've done a better job of educating students," said Martha M. McCarthy, a professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Others questioned whether research could ever solve the most pressing challenges facing the schools.
"If I think of the day-care center where I'm working now and what do they need: They need more money, and parents need jobs," said Herbert P. Ginsburg, a researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. "We don't need research to deal with those issues."
The panel is the second national group in two years to focus on education research.
As part of federal legislation passed in 1994 to overhaul the U.S. Department of Education's research arm, a national board was formed last year to advise the agency and chart a course for federally funded education research. But Eve M. Bither, the advisory board's newly appointed executive director, said the National Research Council's panel will not duplicate the board's efforts.
"I think our board is doing a very comprehensive look, where this initiative is a very targeted one," Ms. Bither said. "There's definitely no conflict because there's so much work to be done."