Businessman Takes Look at the State of Education Research

November 27, 1991 4 min read

One of the many business leaders who have gotten involved in education reform, G. Carl Ball has taken a particular interest in an area his company knows especially well: research.

The chairman of the board of George J. Ball Inc., an Illinois-based firm that researches, produces, and distributes vegetable and flower seeds to growers, Mr. Ball said he became interested in education after hearing the Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman warn of schools’ worsening problems in a speech in the mid-1980’s.

Since that time, Mr. Ball has devoted a considerable amount of time on education issues, serving as the chairman of a school-business partnership in Chicago, a director of the Illinois Math and Science Academy, and a member of the National Industry Council for Science Education. He also has obtained a substitute-teacher certificate and taught for three weeks last year in a West Chicago school.

Because of his interest in education research, Mr. Ball was also invited to testify on the subject before a House subcommittee, and he was named to the Committee on the Federal Role in Educational Research, a panel convened by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to study the federal investment in research and development.

This month, Mr. Ball spoke at a meeting on research and dissemination sponsored by the U.S. Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement. He discussed his perspectives on the research enterprise with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q. Why do you think the education research system is not working?

A. There is a lack of communication between researchers and developers and teachers and practitioners. The system seems to be structured in such a way that they are not encouraged to exchange information and ideas.

In business, we view the process as being a continuous one. Research is generated by marketing-understanding the user. Researchers go to work, then developers go to work, then disseminators go to work . . . Then it loops back to researchers, informing them of the findings of the disseminators. They then modify their research, and come up with new ideas . . .

[In education], the researchers aren’t thoroughly aware of what’s going on in the field. [At the same time], the incentives aren’t there for teachers to apply research.

Q. How would you restructure the system to form such a loop?

A. Under a business model, you bring the three groups together and encourage effective communication about the needs of the end user. Teachers appear to me to be totally out of the research loop. In fact, they’re the ones closest to the problem, and to the opportunity.

Q. Where is there room under that kind of system for basic research, which may not have any immediate impact?

A. That’s one of the problems with the [current] federal system. It tends to be short-term and rather politicized.

The needs of basic research are: continuous resources, a stable environment and, of course, competent researchers. That’s what we’re trying to resolve in the National Academy of Sciences--a way to create an environment for that ...

A balanced research program should have elements of basic and applied research, and all the steps in between. It needs highly directed research and field-initiated research, it needs short-term programs and long-term programs, small programs and large programs. It’s a very complex issue.

Q. There is a feeling among some educators--former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett expressed it recently--that we know what works in education, but that we’re not applying it. Do you agree?

A. I agree with former Secretary Bennett that we do have a lot of knowledge about what works, and I agree we’re not applying it as effectively as we might.

However, if he implies that’s all there is to it, I would point out that the field of education is extremely dynamic, reflecting the constant development of society--social problems like drugs and family deterioration, also technological developments-- computers, for example.

These developments are of such an order of magnitude [that] it seems to me absolutely imperative we keep a complete and thorough program going to inform the system of research findings and keep the education process effective.

Q. At the conference at which you spoke this month, Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant U.S. secretary of education for educational research and improvement, outlined a proposal for disseminating research findings through a variety of high. technology media. She suggested that, if such a program is in place, it would be easier to persuade the Congress to increase funding for research. Do you agree?

A. From a business perspective, the dissemination of research findings in the form of new products and processes is looked upon as being just as important as the research itself. It’s one thing to develop a new product or process, but, if it sits on a shelf and gathers dust, what good is it?

To find ways of diffusing and disseminating products of research [in education] is an extraordinary challenge, because it deals with a very inertia-laden, very conservative, value-laden society. It’s said teachers tend to teach the way they were taught.

Anything that can be done to make use of modern technology, as Assistant Secretary Ravitch has suggested ... would be an excellent way to develop a dissemination and diffusion process.

A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 1991 edition of Education Week