Education Commentary

Calling for ‘National Institutes of Education’

By Arthur E. Wise — October 18, 1989 6 min read

At last month’s education summit, President Bush and the nation’s governors agreed to set national goals in seven areas: the readiness of all children to start school; the performance of students on international achievement tests; the reduction of dropout rates; the functional literacy of adults; the level of training necessary to guarantee a competitive workforce; the supply of qualified teachers and up-to-date technology; and the establishment of safe, drug-free schools.

Addressing these concerns--which include some of the most intractable problems in American education--will require strengthened effort on the part of educators and students. Solutions may also mean reallocating existing resources or tapping new resources.

But effort and money alone will not be enough; if they were, the problems would not be so longstanding or so pervasive. New alternatives--new knowledge and new products--will also be necessary. A major source of fresh ideas and techniques can be federally sponsored research and development--provided that the federal educational-research apparatus is overhauled.

With the House Subcommittee on Select Education set to begin hearings soon on the reauthorization of the Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement, the time is ripe to mobilize research in seeking cures for the nation’s educational ills. Taking the summit’s proposals as its starting point for these hearings, the Congress should move to replace the current research structure with mission-oriented institutes, each directed at a major educational goal or problem.

Research and development is one of the clearest education responsibilities of the federal government. The reauthorization hearings for the oeri typically involve abstract discussion of the relative emphasis to be given to basic research, applied research, development, improvement, and dissemination. Or they concern the extent to which the federal government should conduct its research through field-initiated proposals, programmatic research, centers, laboratories, contracts, nationally planned reforms, and locally initiated reforms.

The hearings sometimes focus on areas to be covered, such as teaching or learning. Occasionally, they consider the relative merits of psychological, sociological, or economic inquiry. But rarely do they directly engage the nation’s educational problems or goals.

The existing structure is not mission-oriented. The oeri is currently organized by function: Its programs include the fund for the improvement and reform of schools and teaching, the office of research, and programs for the improvement of practice. The office of research itself is organized by area: education and society, higher education and adult learning, learning and instruction, and schools and school professionals. This structure does not create a compelling set of targets for research; as a result, the enterprise lacks accountability.

And over the last two decades, the federal government has been systematically disinvesting in educational research. According to the General Accounting Office, the federal investment declined by 70 percent in real terms between the early 1970’s and the late 80’s.

As the nation embarks on a restructuring of the education system, it will discover that sound new knowledge and well-tested products are in short supply. It will also find that many of the proposed “solutions” to current problems have little theoretical or empirical grounding. Is school-based management, for example, compatible with externally imposed goals? What are the consequences for students of introducing market incentives to schools and their staffs? Will more measurement of skills create the intellectual capital needed to drive the postindustrial economy?

If the nation’s schools must change, our leaders should direct those changes on the basis of established knowledge and well-tested alternatives. Otherwise, schools will change but will not improve. And they will waste resources in poorly grounded efforts simply to do things differently.

Incremental change in the educational-research structure will not do if America’s leaders are seeking non-incremental change in schools.

Let us envision a new set of research institutes to be created by the Congress and to be called, perhaps, the “national institutes of education.”

As the allusion in this title suggests, one model for such a reorganization of educational research might be the National Institutes of Health. Congressional hearings concerning the nih deal less with functions, ways of doing business, or disciplines than with diseases to be cured or problems to be solved: In recent years, the Congress has established new institutes, such as the National Cancer Institute, to address specific diseases--that is, specific problems.

The nih has grown in importance as the Congress, researchers, and other interested parties have interacted about health issues and research breakthroughs. Each new institute increases the overall activity and impact of the nih, and creates new sponsors, advocates, and constituents, including but extending well beyond members of the medical and medical-research communities.

Organized in an analogous fashion, the federal structure for educational research could help crystallize thinking about the needs of our schools.

The seven concerns identified by the summit’s participants represent one potential set of “missions” on which to found national institutes of education. Several other groups and leaders have suggested perspectives that, while differing in some particulars, reflect a large area of consensus about the nation’s education problems. Examples include the outlooks offered recently by the National Academy of Education; the newly formed Business Coalition for Education Reform; Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; the nation’s governors in their agenda for the summit; and Congressional Democrats in their proposed list of national goals.

The imminent reauthorization discussion should focus on these configurations of problems and goals, with a view toward establishing five to seven mission-oriented institutes.

Right now, the nation spends over approximately $330 billion a year on education; the federal government currently spends about $22 billion. Some have suggested that a federal research budget on the order of 1 percent of that total--$220 million--might be a reasonable target; this figure would nearly triple the present level of research funding. With a budget of this size, five institutes could be funded at $40 million each. In fact, there is already an institute within the Education Department, but outside the oeri, functioning at approximately this level: the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

A few other features would round the system out. The institutes should conduct programmatic research and development. But so that the creativity of the field is fully tapped, each institute should also set aside 15 percent of its budget to be separately managed in a field-initiated-studies program with a budget totaling about $33 million. Research centers, operating at $1 million or $2 million a year, could be dedicated to one institute or could serve several. Regional laboratories could help their regions focus on the institute missions.

A “headquarters” could coordinate activities across the institutes. It might, for example, manage center and lab competitions. Headquarters would also balance the ways of doing business, ensuring that there would not be unnecessary duplication.

Not only the organization of the nih but also those of the National Science Foundation and the newly restructured National Center for Education Statistics might suggest ways of holding the institutes to their missions. And once the first institutes were launched, they ought to be around for a long time. As new problems or opportunities emerge, the Congress could consider creating additional institutes.

The renaming and appropriate reorganizing of the oeri as the “national institutes of education” would signify serious and sustained federal attention to the nation’s gravest educational ills.

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as Calling for ‘National Institutes of Education’