Energy Dept. Lab’s Education Report Still On Hold

By Julie A. Miller — September 23, 1992 8 min read
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When analysts at a federally funded research laboratory wrote a report in 1991 questioning the idea of a systemwide crisis in American education, it created an uproar without even being published.

The report still has not been published more than a year later, and some observers are still asking whether the Bush Administration is suppressing it because it contradicts the Administration’s view.

In recent months, three investigations have been initiated into charges that the Energy Department, which funds the lab involved, is refusing to publish the report for political reasons, and that scientists who were involved in the study have been threatened or punished because of it.

The report, “Perspectives on Education in America,’' was written by analysts at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., as part of the lab’s contribution to an Energy Department education initiative.

In challenging gloomier assessments of American education, the report argues, for example, that declines in college-entrance-test scores are due to changing demographics. To observers who say the increases in education spending over the past two decades have failed to produce overall improvement in student performance, the Sandia authors counter that most of the added funds have gone to special education. (See Education Week, Oct. 9, 1991.)

The report’s conclusions conflict with the Bush Administration’s position that radical change is needed throughout the education system and with its contention that more money is not necessary to improve education.

Investigating Charges

That dissonance has led to the charge by some educators and education researchers that the report is being suppressed. The charge--which Administration officials sharply dispute--is being probed from several directions.

A number of Sandia employees said they have been interviewed by representatives of the Energy Department’s inspector general about how they and the report have been handled by officials at Sandia and the department.

A spokesman for the inspector general would not confirm or deny that the office is pursuing an investigation related to the Sandia report. But when the office is not investigating a particular matter, it is its policy to say so.

Leonard Weiss, the staff director of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, confirmed that the panel is also looking into the matter.

“We were looking at the cost-effectiveness of the whole education program at D.O.E.,’' Mr. Weiss said. “Over $100 million a year spent on education seemed like a lot of money to us when it isn’t their primary mission.’'

“Then we heard about this report that’s caused some controversy and we wanted to see where it fits in,’' he said. “And we learned some things that got us interested in it from some other perspectives. Is there some dissent that’s being quashed?’'

Mr. Weiss said he was not yet sure what action the committee may take.

In addition, sources on Capitol Hill said, the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, has been asked to look into the matter.

Steven Fried, an Energy Department spokesman, said this month that he did not know about the investigations, and that department officials would not comment on them.

Under Fire From Reviewers

Mr. Fried reiterated what has been the department’s position for more than a year: that the report is undergoing review and will be published if and when it is revised in response to criticisms made by reviewers.

Sandia employees involved with the report said their regular work is not subjected to this sort of review, and that they have revised the report. Energy Department officials said peer review is a standard practice, and that the revisions were insignificant and insufficient.

A second review by the National Center for Education Statistics, completed in July, supports the latter assertion.

“There continues to be a tendency to state conclusions or speculate about underlying patterns that are not supported by the data, or at least the data presented,’' concluded the N.C.E.S., which is the data-gathering arm of the Education Department.

The N.C.E.S. review also charges that the Sandia report suffers from “a lack of objectivity,’' that its use of data is sometimes misleadingly selective, and that different sets of statistics are sometimes inappropriately compared or combined.

Cited by ‘Revisionists’

Although it has not been officially published, the report continues to be widely circulated and discussed among educators and education researchers. The Sandia authors sound themes similar to those of other “revisionist’’ researchers who argue that the state of American education is healthier than most critics have maintained. (See Education Week, Nov. 13, 1991.)

More recent analyses have cited both specific data from the Sandia report and its conclusions. For example, David C. Berliner, a professor of education at Arizona State University, cites it in “Educational Reform in an Era of Disinformation,’' a paper he presented at meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in February.

“Unless [the Sandia researchers] lied about their graphs and their data, it’s pretty straightforward,’' Mr. Berliner said in an interview.

Some supporters of the Sandia report contend that the criticisms in the peer reviews are minor and do not expose fatal flaws in its arguments.

“They are typical of what you get when somebody says, ‘We need a negative review,’'' said Joseph Schneider, the executive director of the Southwest Regional Research Laboratory. "[The reviewers] didn’t quarrel with the main conclusions, they nitpicked on small points in the data.’'

Mr. Schneider and Paul D. Houston, the superintendent of schools in Riverside, Calif., said it was the Sandia report that inspired them to write a book making similar arguments. In the book, which is to be published soon by the American Association of School Administrators, the authors charge that federal officials tried to persuade them not to disseminate the Sandia findings.

Phone Call About Forum

Mr. Fried of the Energy Department acknowledged that Peggy Dufour, an assistant to Secretary of Energy James T. Watkins, had called Mr. Houston after a reporter informed her that the superintendent had arranged a forum in his district in which Mr. Schneider was to discuss what was advertised as “a suppressed federal education study.’'

But Mr. Fried denied Mr. Schneider’s claim that Energy officials then asked an official at the Education Department to indirectly threaten Mr. Schneider.

According to Mr. Schneider, the education official called a federally funded educational-research laboratory that in turn funds the Southwest Regional Research Laboratory, Mr. Schneider’s employer, to say it would not “be in the contractor’s best interests’’ for Mr. Schneider to make the presentation.

Officials at the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, with which Mr. Schneider’s lab has a subcontractor arrangement, did not return phone calls.

The directors of several education-research laboratories said in interviews that federal officials had made no direct threats to discourage them from disseminating the report’s findings. The lab officials said they understood, though, that distributing the report would not earn them points with their funding sources.

“We’ve used the report quite widely in the region, and nobody ever said we shouldn’t do that,’' said Robert R. Rath, the executive director of the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory. “But it’s clear that the political leadership in Washington doesn’t like this report and has tried to discredit it.’'

Effort To Dampen Publicity

There is indeed evidence that Sandia managers and federal officials have made an effort both to refute the report’s findings and to dampen publicity about it.

When the Albuquerque Journal became the first news publication to write about the report, in September 1991, Secretary Watkins wrote a letter to the paper repudiating the report’s findings, and the letter was widely circulated by the agency.

As more news organizations began making note of the controversy, Diane S. Ravitch, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, gave numerous interviews and made several public appearances in which she angrily attacked the report.

The authors canceled appearances they had agreed to make to discuss the report, such as a planned debate with Ms. Ravitch at this year’s American Educational Research Association conference.

And in declining an invitation to speak to a committee of the New Mexico legislature, one of the authors, Robert Huelskamp, wrote, “Due to recent events, my management has decided that my continued involvement in the educational arena is not in Sandia’s best interest.’'

Lee S. Bray, a vice president at Sandia, acknowledged in an interview last spring that he “wanted to turn down the volume a little bit,’' but he denied that he had been pressured by federal officials to silence his employees.

“There’s no sense in being out there generating more controversy while there are questions related to the peer reviews pending,’' he said.

Several Sandia employees involved with the report have said in interviews over the past six months that while they are concerned about potential damage to their careers, they could not recall any instance in which they were explicitly threatened by any official with reprisals for their role in the project.

Nonetheless, sources at Sandia say the analysts who wrote the report have been told they would do no more work on education.

Michael Wartell, who headed the lab’s education initiatives, was reassigned in August. Mr. Bray and Energy Department officials said it was a routine transfer, and that Mr. Wartell was expected to fill the position only temporarily.

Mr. Wartell declined to comment, but Sandia sources said he was transferred involuntarily and sooner than expected.

Meanwhile, the review process continues.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1992 edition of Education Week as Energy Dept. Lab’s Education Report Still On Hold


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