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Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as Panel Suggests Federal Research Priorities

Panel Suggests Federal Research Priorities

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The U.S. Department of Education's research operations need more focus, more money, and better ways of deciding which studies deserve funding, an independent advisory panel says.

In its report, the panel calls for a massive increase in federal spending on education research and identifies 23 research priorities, with an emphasis on student achievement. Left off the list are topics such as school finance and education governance, as well as such current political favorites as research on class-size reduction and national assessments.

"It may not be the laserlike beam that some people have recommended for us, but it is promising progress in narrowing the focus," said Kenji Hakuta, the panel's chairman.

For More Information

"Investing in Learning: A Policy Statement on Research in Education," is available from the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board at (202) 208-0692 or by e-mail eve_bither@ed.gov.

The recommendations of the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board were presented here last month during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

Created by Congress in 1994, the 15-member board's job is to keep an independent eye on the department's research system and to make recommendations for improving it.

Education research could be more effective, the panelists and other experts concluded long ago, if the department's office of educational research and improvement concentrated its efforts on just a few critical areas. But the panel's first stab at identifying those topics two years ago failed to significantly narrow the department's scope.

"We knew that because no one was complaining," said Eve M. Bither, the board's executive director.

Among the priorities outlined in the new report are studies on: student achievement; helping students read complex texts; learning in after-school clubs, summer programs, and other environments outside the classroom; ways of teaching classrooms full of children with a wide range of abilities; and investigations of what effective teachers do and how they do it.

Call for Funding Increase

A tighter focus is needed, the board says, because federal education research dollars are already stretched too thin. Adequate funding of education research, in the board's estimation, calls for federal expenditures of $1.5 billion a year-- a five-fold increase over the current level.

The board also calls for:

  • A standing panel of 25 to 30 members who would review researchers' funding proposals. Such proposals are now screened by smaller, ad hoc panels of reviewers and practitioners, sometimes resulting in the recruitment of reviewers with little expertise in the field of the proposals they are screening;
  • More summaries of the educational research conducted in specific fields;
  • Greater collaboration in the educational research carried out across the federal government; and
  • Continuity in the OERI's leadership across political administrations.

"We were trying to insulate the assistant secretary from the usual cycle of political appointments," explained Mr. Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University. Rather than change assistant secretaries at the start of every new administration, for example, the job could be reshuffled at the midpoint of a presidential term, much as the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics comes to the job now.

The report is the third in recent months to offer recommendations for education research policies and priorities. The National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council outlined a plan for a "strategic education research program" just three weeks ago, and the prominent scholars of the National Academy of Education, at the OERI's behest, also weighed in on the issue in March. ("NRC Seeks New Agenda for Research," April 14, 1999, and "Experts' Panel Seeks New Research Priorities," March 31, 1999.)

All three reports agree on one point: They call for new designs for conducting more collaborative research that is aimed at solving the real problems educators encounter in the classroom.

Under that kind of model, researchers and practitioners would work together. And they would all have a stake in ensuring that the findings they came up with could "travel" to locations beyond the single school or district where the research was done.

"I think we're all wrestling with the same problems now--how to break down the boundaries between research and practice," said Willis D. Hawley, who sat on the National Academy of Sciences' panel. "And at the same time, we're recognizing that you can't be partisan to a conflict and be a credible observer of it."

Greater Input Sought

Between the lines, the new report by the policy advisory board also voices its members' frustration over the past four years in making themselves heard in the Education Department's research-related deliberations.

"The administration consults with them only under duress or after the fact, and the board has been suggesting for the last several years that it would be good to be in on the takeoff rather than the crash landing," said Gerald Sroufe, who has been following the board as the director of government relations for the Washington-based AERA. "It's almost like what in the medical system is called rejecting a foreign body."

All of the recent reports come as Congress prepares to take up the reauthorization of the federal research agency. Already, two former assistant secretaries of the OERI, testifying before the Senate last month, have called for breaking the agency away from the department to shield its work from political manipulation.

"Clearly," Mr. Hakuta said, "we would like to have the report be taken account of in the reauthorization."

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Page 5

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