N.I.E. Chief Tells of Initiatives; Scholars Debate Agency’s Role

By Anne Bridgman — May 02, 1984 7 min read

New Orleans--A scholar-in-residence program, an electronic network linking the government’s educational laboratories and centers, grants to education schools to study teacher training, and a study group on technology are among the initiatives planned by the National Institute of Education to bolster research on schooling, the agency’s director announced last week.

Speaking before researchers gathered here for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Manuel Justiz, director of the nie, also announced the long-awaited schedule for the agency’s competition for sponsorship of its laboratories and centers.

That competition, which the Education Department has said could lead to either more or fewer than the current 17 centers, was to begin last fall but was delayed for a year by the Congress.

The nie director’s announcement of proposed ways to broaden the usefulness and “dissemination” of federally sponsored research appeared to be a response to the findings of a National Council on Educational Research report released in February.

That report faulted the $48-million agency’s dissemination process and recommended that it adopt a better strategy for conducting research and distributing its findings. (See Education Week, Feb. 1, 1984.)

Members of the research association, however, offered another kind of critique last week. While saying they recognized the need for im3proved dissemination of research, the researchers sharply criticized the institute for providing more money to the regional labs and centers than to independent researchers.

“It is critical to have federal support [for research],” said Richard Anderson, president of the aera “But the harsh reality is that the large centers that have a political base have been permitted to keep their big hog at the trough [and] individuals in small groups ... have been squeezed out as a result of budget cuts.”

Increased Funding

The labs and centers, which account for $30.5 million of the nie’s current budget, were established in 1964 to conduct and disseminate research on regional and national education issues. In 1981, the nie--which is the research arm of the Education Department--was ordered by the Congress to open the contract process to competitive bidding for the first time. The delayed laboratory competition is to begin on July 2, Mr. Justiz announced, and the center competition on Sept. 7.

Additional Funding

Noting that nie’s budget request for the fiscal year 1985 is $54.2 million, Mr. Justiz told researchers that, if it is approved, the additional funding would provide expanded opportunities for contracts and grants programs for the education research community.

He also said that Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell has expressed a desire to provide more money to nie through his discretionary fund. Although Mr. Justiz said he was unable to disclose the exact amount, he termed it “significant.”

But Mr. Anderson, questioning Mr. Justiz after his presentation, called for more specific information. “It’s natural that you’re preoccupied with labs and centers now,” he said, “but I do want to ask you if you do plan a significant investment in short-term research.”

Mr. Justiz responded that the nie has included a $6-million request for short-term-research funding in its current budget request. “We do recognize the importance of bringing about a balance” between different types of research efforts, he said.

Official Position

In an attempt to shift what some call the agency’s historical bias against awarding funds to independent researchers, the aera’s governmental and professional liaison committee has drafted a list of recommendations that represent the association’s official position on federal funding.

Meeting in a separate session to discuss the nie’s reauthorization in 1985, committee members said they “look forward to dampening some of the conflict that has existed ... in an environment in which the resources are ever dwindling nationally [and] individuals have been pitted against each other,” according to James Guthrie, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley.

The committee has recommended that independent research and institutional research be treated as separate items that would be separately funded. The committee’s status report calls for the establishment of “two research and development authorities: 1) individual projects focusing on all levels of education and 2) institutional research and related activities, to include centers, institutes, and information clearinghouses.”

Monitor Standards

The committee’s recommendations also call for mandatory peer review of the labs and centers competition. Lee Shulman, president-elect of the aera, told the audience that the work of labs and centers is sometimes valuable but that its funding must be monitored by prescribed standards to ensure fair competition.

"[This is the area] that the research community can influence and has a professional and moral obligation to influence,” he said. “If the coming competitions are not conducted well, if the research community does not pull itself together and overcome division, I think we’re all going to go down together, and that’s unfortunate.”

Mr. Justiz, in his speech, said he was committed to “having a fair and open competition.”

‘Continued Interest’

In another session on federal research funding, Joseph M. Scandura, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that the pending competition over sponsorship of labs and centers has “sparked continued interest” in the research-funding issue.

Panelists who spoke during the session included independent researchers from four universities, all of whom decried the decrease in federal funding of individual research. Researchers from labs and centers who had been invited to appear on the panel, Mr. Scandura said, chose not to attend. The nie official scheduled to appear also did not attend.

Robert B. Tennyson, a panelist from the University of Minnesota, pointed out that in the last decade funding has shifted away from individuals conducting basic research and toward applied research involving perceived societal needs; most of that has been conducted in the federal labs, he said.

Often, Mr. Tennyson said, this type of research is inefficient because “needs change so quickly that by the time the research is done, the need is no longer there.”

Individuals’ research, on the other hand, often focuses on a problem over an extended period of time and is usually subject to peer review. “I would rather see the federal funds spread across more people than focused on [labs and centers with] questionable motives,” Mr. Tennyson said.

Theory-Driven Research

Joseph D. Novak of Cornell University agreed. Pointing out that “it is extremely difficult to organize a large group to agree” on one theory to serve as the basis for research, and that “research that is not theory-driven has no chance of achieving excellence,” he said he supports independent research over that done in labs and centers.

And Frank Farley of the University of Wisconsin, maintaining that “the labs and centers experiment has, by most standards, been a mixed success,” said that “the yield has been surprisingly thin and [has not] greatly improved education.” Mr. Farley called for a national, blue-ribbon evaluation of the success of 20 years of federal funding of educational research.

Dissemination Efforts

In his address to the education researchers, Mr. Justiz of the nie outlined five programs that he said would improve the agency’s proficiency at disseminating the results of its work.

The senior scholar-in-residence program, he said, will bring prominent educators to work at the institute to study various aspects of education. Another initiative--an electronic network--will link all6labs and centers with the nie to facilitate the sharing of research.

Mr. Justiz also said that he and Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell will announce in the next few months the formation of a major national study group on technology. That group, Mr. Justiz said, will be made up of senior officers from high-technology industries and will work to increase the private sector’s involvement in public education.

In addition, nie will in the next year provide grants to education schools to study research-based reforms of teacher education, including subjects such as merit pay, master teachers, and certification, Mr. Justiz said.

And the institute will inititiate a project to study effective secondary schools, he announced. Noting that there is a body of knowledge on effective elementary schools, Mr. Justiz said researchers will study student achievement, use of class time, and private- and public-sector participation as part of the project.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1984 edition of Education Week as N.I.E. Chief Tells of Initiatives; Scholars Debate Agency’s Role