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Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Research

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The study of education is fast becoming one of the most studied issues in education.

Since the turn of the year, three national groups have issued reports that suggest ways to improve education research and list priorities for what that research should focus on.

Two former high-ranking U.S. Department of Education officials have proposed the creation of an independent agency to direct federally funded education research. And a group of prominent education scholars is midway through a three-volume exploration of the state of the field.

"There is more interest in research knowledge in education than I think I can remember at any time in my career," said Lauren B. Resnick, a University of Pittsburgh education researcher with more than 30 years in the field. "There's almost a bandwagon now where everybody is wanting to hear, 'Is it research-based? What is the research evidence?' "

At stake in these discussions is the nature and direction of research that could steer efforts to improve the nation's schools well into the next century. The attention is especially important as the Education Department's primary research arm, the office of educational research and improvement, comes up for reauthorization this year or next.

The ideas that emerge out of this flurry of reports and recommendations likely will influence the future of the $938-million-a-year agency--and of federal spending on education studies across the government.

According to one estimate, federal money pays for between 60 percent and 75 percent of all the education research conducted nationwide.

To some extent, interest in increasing the bang the federal government gets for its education research bucks grows out of the long-running movement to improve the public schools.

"We are 15 or 18 years into the educational reform movement, and there is some consensus on the need for more academic learning for more kids, but it's proven more difficult to help all kids learn all that than we thought it would be," said Patricia Albjerg Graham, a professor at Harvard University's graduate school of education and the president of the Spencer Foundation. The Chicago-based philanthropy supports education research and underwrites the monthly Research section in Education Week.

The problem has been that education researchers have been unable to provide all the answers that educators and policymakers yearn for. Almost since the field achieved a national presence in the 1950s and 1960s, critics have attacked education research as being inaccessible, irrelevant to the needs of classroom teachers, politically partisan, poorly done, or contradictory.

"What I need to know is who can tell me exactly something I need to do to make a change," said John F. Jennings, an education consultant who served for 27 years as an aide to Democrats on the Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. "I read through every single evaluation that the department sent me looking for a hard sentence--a declarative sentence--something that I could put into the legislation, and there were very few."

Why, policymakers at all levels want to know, can't education research be more like studies in medicine? In that field, drugs, or new procedures, are carefully tested on hundreds of subjects, and the effects are compared with those for control groups not using the new drug or procedure. Then, researchers usually can offer the public a definitive thumbs up or down.

But education scholars say the analogy is off the mark.

"Systems of education are complex," said Carol Weiss, a professor at Harvard's graduate school of education. "It's much more complicated than medicine, where there is a finite number of organs and diseases."

In addition, the study of schools is often more value-laden than medical science, complicating researchers' efforts to establish themselves as objective observers on the sidelines of the debates. The myriad of contradictory and politically charged studies on bilingual education, reading and math instruction, and school finance are just a few of many examples.

And medical researchers, too, have published their share of contradictory reports.

But few academics deny that a perception exists that education research is a second-rate science.

A federal program approved last year to improve reading programs for disadvantaged students drove that point home for many researchers. When Congress created the $520 million grant program under the Reading Excellence Act, it specified that the grants should go only to to programs using "scientifically based reading research."

The reference, which some reading researchers viewed as a slap in the face, was widely believed to favor a program being carried out under the direction of G. Reid Lyon at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The widely regarded program employs more of a medical model of research, while many reading studies coming out of education schools are either highly descriptive, measure different outcomes, or compare very small numbers of classrooms.

Mr. Lyon's reading program, begun in 1965, currently provides $30 million for experiments going on at 41 sites around the country.

Footing the Bills

But some education researchers say the NICHD's success with congressional policymakers also suggests that, to some extent, the federal government gets what it pays for.

According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the government spends $210 million a year on studies financed through the Education Department. That is far less than the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Transportation spends on its research programs. The NIH--which includes the NICHD and other institutes--for example, is supporting $15.6 billion worth of studies this year.

"If you're going to put someone on a starvation budget, is it any wonder that they're not muscle-bound?" said Alan H. Schoenfeld, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the immediate past president of the American Educational Research Association, a Washington-based group that represents 23,000 education researchers.

But observers also have noted that Mr. Lyon succeeded because he had a long-range, well-planned program of studies that built on one another. "What we're trying to do is understand if what you see at one site is replicated across sites," Mr. Lyon said. "We typically won't report anything until we get that replication."

No 'Critical Mass'

Critics say that, in comparison, the Education Department's approach has been more scattershot.

In 1994, the last time the OERI was reauthorized, policymakers took a stab at better coordination and concentration of education research resources by creating five national institutes, similar to those that house the studies financed through the National Institutes of Health.

But some researchers say the education institutes have never reached their potential--partly because they have lacked the money to mobilize large-scale, coordinated research programs.

"We ended up creating very small units without a critical mass within OERI, and that has ended up getting in the way of a thoughtful approach to how you're going to conduct research," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, who served as an assistant secretary for that office under President Bush.

Further weakening the 1994 reforms, the agency has lost one-quarter of its staff over the past two years, according to Maris Vinovskis, a University of Michigan researcher who has analyzed the department's operations. Most of the departing staff members were senior researchers who accepted early retirement from the federal government. Currently, only three of the five institutes have active, full-time directors in place.

And, for 18 months, the OERI itself had no permanent assistant secretary to guide it, from December 1996, when Sharon P. Robinson left for a private-sector job, until June 1998, when C. Kent McGuire stepped into the post.

"What you have is a relatively small number of high-quality people addressing problems of enormous complexity with extremely low levels of funding and working in a highly politicized environment," said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University researcher who chairs the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board, a panel created in the 1994 reorganization to advise the OERI.

Calls for Change

Moreover, the research that goes on in the department is often conducted in isolation, with little coordination with education-related studies taking place elsewhere in the government, said Diane Ravitch, another former OERI assistant secretary from the Bush administration.

"There's stunning lack of coherence across the federal government in education research," said Ms. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

That situation may yet change, however. Earlier this year, three federal agencies--the Education Department, the NICHD, and the National Science Foundation--unveiled a $30 million program to provide funding for cross-disciplinary research in education. A similar initiative, aimed at improving the reading skills of children learning English as a second language, is also in the works.

Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Cross contend that one way to improve the quality of federally financed education research may be to strip the research agency of its nonresearch functions, such as administering a new grant program to set up after-school care centers and providing technical assistance to school districts through its regional laboratories. The pared-down office, they argue, should then be broken out of the Education Department and reshaped into an independent agency.

"You really have to remove the research function from any suggestion that it is politically driven," Mr. Cross said. "Having a free-standing agency would help to do that."

Mr. McGuire, the OERI's current assistant secretary, said the idea, as radical as it might seem, has some appeal. "Having said that," he added, "I'm not sure, unless we're willing to make substantially greater investments in what we today call education research, that it's worth going to the trouble of trying to create a whole, separate agency."

The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents large urban districts, has proposed a similarly bold solution. It advocates eliminating all funding for the technical-assistance services the agency and its regional labs now provide--about $61 million a year. That money, the council proposes, would go instead to states and school districts that could use it to buy the expertise they need.

The department's research functions, the council concluded, might be better dispersed among the assistant secretaries in charge of specific areas, such as elementary education or higher education.

A more politically palatable reform, favored by the national advisory board and Mr. McGuire, calls for standing peer- review panels that would review proposals that come before the department. Right now, department officials assemble such panels on an ad hoc basis.

Three groups--the policy board, a National Research Council panel, and a group of scholars named by the National Academy of Education--also have come up with lists of priorities they believe should be the focus of federal investment in education research.

The Classroom Connection

But in the haste to condemn education research as misguided or off-base, many researchers note in their defense that even when they offer clear direction for policymakers and educators, their findings often go ignored. A case in point: the national push to do away with the practice, known as social promotion, of allowing failing students to move to the next grade.

A large body of research over the past several decades suggests that retaining students only adds to the likelihood that they will drop out. Yet, researchers complain, policymakers continue to require schools to hold back students without proposing--or paying for--alternatives to repeating another year of the kind of instruction that didn't work in the first place.

"You have this tension where people say they want rigorous research and want us to go out and do research just like doctors do," said Lorrie A. Shepard, the University of Colorado at Boulder professor who currently heads the American Educational Research Association. "And then they turn to educational research and say, 'We'll accept your findings if they jibe with our opinions, and if they don't, we'll dismiss them.' "

Even when research is on the mark, just about everyone in the field agrees that there is still a problem with getting it into the hands of the teachers and principals who need it. That's partly because teachers have never been trained to pay attention to it, and partly because there are few incentives for education researchers to reach audiences beyond the professional journals that publish their studies.

Several of the national panels have suggested more collaborative models for designing, conducting, and disseminating research. Researchers and practitioners would work together over a period of years on real problems, with an eye toward solutions that would have widespread use and building in ways to transplant successful findings or programs.

But these newer research ventures may be a hard sell among policymakers clamoring for studies that are more akin to cut-and-dried medical models.

"If they want to take this to [Capitol] Hill," said Gerald Sroufe, the director of government relations for the AERA, "as far as I'm concerned, they can keep on walking."

Such widely differing views highlight the difficulties of deciding where education research should be headed. But whatever comes of all the ferment in the field, observers and researchers alike contend, some change is necessary.

"I just think we have to clean up our act," said Penelope L. Peterson, the dean of the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "If we don't do it, somebody's going to do it for us."

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Pages 1,33

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