New Mission Sought For Diffusion Network On 10th Anniversary

By Julie A. Miller — September 25, 1991 9 min read
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When the National Dissemination Study Group gathered this month to mark the organization’s 10th anniversary, the primary topic was not nostalgia but the prospect of radical change.

The association, a group of educators who are involved with the National Diffusion Network, convened here to discuss the network’s successes, its frustrations, and its limitations. Above all, they came to talk about how they might change the small, $14-million-a-year federal program, which offers a catalog of exemplary methods and curricula, into a dissemination system that has a broad impact on schools.

After three days of brainstorming, a consensus emerged on several broad ideas for expanding the network’s mission and improving its operation. But factions also emerged within the study group that advocated a more drastic step: abandoning the current program in favor of a new entity divorced from the U.S. Education Department.

“I don’t know what’s going to come of this,” Max McConkey, the executive director of the National Dissemination Study Group, acknowledged. I wanted to energize people. I want the N.D.N. to climb out of its malaise.”

One thing was clear at the end of the conference: The educators who work within the diffusion network are convinced it has great untapped potential, an assessment that is apparently shared by federal officials.

Mr. McConkey said he had been approached by Congressional aides who expressed interest in making significant changes in the program, possibly in upcoming reauthorization legislation for the Education Department’s research branch.

And, just prior to the conference here, Diane S. Ravitch, the department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, indicated in a letter to Mr. McConkey that she, too, thinks the N.D.N.'s Current role is too “limited.”

Ms. Ravitch wrote that she would like to see the network play “a far more significant role in connecting those who are interested in education reform at the local, state, and national levels.”

In an interview last week, Ms. Ravitch added that she would like to begin “connecting [the network] to the rest of the department.” She said she envisioned the N.D.N. becoming the agency’s unified dissemination arm, distributing information on research as well as specific programs.

“I would like to see them acting as a two-way conduit between the department and the field,” Ms. Ravitch said. “I would like to see them relating to the [Education Department’s] laboratories and centers, the state departments of education, bringing back information to us about what’s happening in the field.”

“We have to do a better job of putting research into a form people can use, and figure out how to get it to them,” she continued. “That’s where the N.D.N. comes in. If we didn’t have them, we would create a piece to do this.”

Targeted in Reagan Years

The program that came to be called the National Diffusion Network was conceived in the early 1970’s by the U.S. Office of Education to encourage schools to adopt successful pilot projects funded through Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It was not specifically authorized or funded by the Congress.

The structure has changed relatively little since then. It consists of educators who have developed programs accepted into the network--some of whom receive funds to train teachers--and “state facilitators” who help link interested schools with the “developer demonstrators” who have created programs.

The network’s budget, which came from various discretionary funds, rose from an initial $9 million to $14 million in 1979, a level that has been matched but not exceeded.

Its budget was cut in 1980 when programs were reshuffled into the new Education Department, and funding hovered near the $10-million mark for most of the 1980’s. The Reagan Administration, which arrived in 1981 vowing to abolish the new department and cut back on federal education spending, decided that the N.D.N. was one of the programs that should be eliminated.

The National Dissemination Study Group was formed that year in an effort by educators involved with the network to save it by seeking support on Capitol Hill--a campaign that proved successful.

The Administration then shifted to a strategy of ending subsidies for projects it found ideologically offensive, a practice that was halted when the program was formally authorized by the Congress in 1986.

The N.D.N. again became the subject of controversy in 1987 and 1988, when Reagan Administration officials tried to add a review panel to screen projects for “appropriateness” and apparently denied funding to certain programs on ideological grounds. (‘See Education Week, Sept. 14, 1988.)


Despite being buffered by occasional political tempests, the diffusion network has essentially remained a small program with a low profile. And it is precisely that lack of visibility the educators who work within the network would like to change.

Mr. McConkey, who edits a newsletter for members of the National Dissemination Study Group, began the self-examination last year with an article criticizing the practice of measuring the network’s success by the number of schools that have “adopted” its projects, without reference to the relative complexity of projects or the differing needs of schools.

His colleagues responded with articles of their own, and their interest culminated in the San Antonio meeting, the study group’s first national conference outside the aegis of the Education Department.

The conference was designed and conducted primarily by Andrew M. Lebby, who worked on the N.D.N. as a federal employee and later served as state facilitator for Virginia. Mr. Lebby, now a “productivity consultant,” donated his time.

On the first day, the 170 participants broke up into six smaller groups, which first discussed the social changes schools will have to deal with in the coming century and then turned to the role participants envisioned a dissemination system playing in improving education.

On the second day, Mr. Lebby and Mr. McConkey outlined four possible “housings” for such a system: within the Education Department; within the federal government but independent of the department; in a private, nonprofit entity; or in a for-profit company. The two leaders then asked the participants to split into groups based on the structure that interested them.

About 60 percent of the conference-goers did so, while those who refused to commit to one of the four options were divided into their own groups. On the final day of the conference, the groups reconvened to discuss strategies for turning their ideas into reality.

In the end, four groups had promised they would reconvene on their own to continue exploring the following options: . A private, nonprofit foundation, to be called Resources International, that would serve as a think tank and develop new educational “products,” as well as helping a variety of clients to “create learning environments.” . A for-profit firm that would create capital by selling tried-and-true programs and materials and pursue other “socially responsive” ventures. . A new, independent federal agency that would serve as the government’s single-source clearinghouse for educational ideas and programs. . An “integrated organization” that would accept some federal funding but would also sell products and pursue foundation support for research.

Near the end of the conference, John Nelsen, whose company acts as state facilitator for Oregon, won a round of applause when he said the participants had more similarities than differences. He asked the conference-goers to show solidarity.

Consistent Themes

But the National Dissemination Study Group leaders who arranged the conference are acutely aware that they may have engineered the fragmentation of their organization instead of its rebirth.

“The board members agreed that we have to make some choices, we have to look at what our mission as an association is,” Mr. McConkey said. “Maybe we will ultimately decide that one group is more in line with where the association ought to be, or maybe we will provide support to all of them.”

It remains to be seen whether any of the four groups will follow through.

“They are wildly naive,” Mr. Lebby, the conference organizer, said. “My hope is that when they run into the reality of the marketplace or the reality of politics that their enthusiasm doesn’t die.”

In the short term, Mr. MrConkey and the rest of the study group’s board will analyze the more immediate recommendations, then transmit them to Ms. Ravitch and to Capitol Hill.

Remarkably consistent themes did emerge from the small-group discussion, even those that were focused on creating entirely new dissemination systems.

Above all, the educators who met here agreed that the network must be evaluated by its impact on schools, rather than on the number of “adoptions” achieved.

And they said the gantlet a project developer must run to become accepted into the network is too formidable and too slow. The process, they agreed, discourages the creators of many excellent programs and fatally hampers the system’s ability to respond quickly to new needs.

“It can take years to get research that fits into the mold the process requires,’' said Pat Olson, developer of a study-skills project and current president of the study group. “And when the reward [for joining the network] is a $50,000 grant, which you may or may not get, it’s really not worth it to many people.”

Many participants suggested establishing different levels of recognition that would allow the dissemination of new ideas to begin before a developer collected the reams of data needed to complete the formal “validation” process. Many also suggested that the N.D.N. accept projects approved by other accrediting entities or by the Education Department.

The group also voiced apparent unanimity in asserting that the network needs to be more aggressively marketed. They proposed a coordinated effort to evaluate and publicize its impact on schools.

“The schools we help get recognized, and sometimes a particular project gets written up, but nobody ever says, ‘Hey, this is available to any school in the nation through the N.D.N.,’ “said Ethna Reid, the head of a nonprofit firm that has developed several N.D.N. reading projects. “The network doesn’t get any credit.”

Many participants also expressed a desire to:

  • Work as a true network, rather than as individuals focusing narrowly on one project or one state.
  • Focus on creating systemic change within schools and school districts, rather than just offering one or two exemplary programs. Take an active part in seeking out or developing programs, rather than just responding to requests from schools.

In last week’s interview, Ms. Ravitch agreed with every one of those points and stressed her eagerness to work with the study group.

Mr. McConkey said the assistant secretary’s interest was cause for optimism, and other participants who read her letter agreed.

But some skepticism remains among educators who fear the Bush Administration will seek to use the N.D.N. to support its political agenda.

“You have to work with the president or the governor or the mayor who’s in office,” Ms. Ravitch countered. “I’m a Democrat and I’m in this Administration because I want to see change in education.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as New Mission Sought For Diffusion Network On l0th Anniversary


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