Education Opinion

‘Research and the Renewal of Education’: A Critical Review

By Myron Lieberman — June 19, 1991 11 min read

On April 28, the National Academy of Education released a summary of its report entitled Research and the Renewal of Education. The NAE is a group of 75 individuals characterized by its news release as “renowned educational leaders or researchers.” Essentially, Research and Renewal is an effort to define the role of research in the education-reform movement. Its authors emphasize the crucial nature of research and the importance of relying on it in education “just as we do in the other vital endeavors that shape modern life, such as industrial technology and medical practice.”

Inasmuch as I regard the report as an unmitigated fiasco, my interest in it should be clarified at the outset. My new book nearing completion includes a chapter on educational R&D. I regard the topic as extremely important and looked forward to an authoritative statement on certain issues discussed in the chapter. The NAE report fulfilled this purpose, but in a way that calls for an immediate candid response.

Let me turn first to its main recommendation: “NAE recommends that overall research funding for education be increased from roughly one half a percent of total expenditures for U.S. educational institutions at all levels (about $150 million).”

The financial presuppositions and the logic of this recommendation are a mystery. The NEA Estimates of School Statistics, 1990-91, prepared by the National Education Association, estimates current expenditures for public elementary/secondary education to be $198 billion. If capital outlay, interest, and current expenditures for other programs are included, the figure is $222 billion. Even this amount would be an enormous understatement of the costs of K-12 education. For example, 30 percent of all college freshmen were enrolled in a remedial course in 1989. The annualized value of school land and buildings is not included, nor are several costs of public education on the budgets of non-educational agencies. A realistic figure for public education would be well over $300 billion, but the NAE report implies that $300 billion is the total spent for all levels of education. Obviously, this includes higher education.

In 1990, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that expenditures for higher education would be $126.8 billion, $82.5 billion in public and $44.2 billion in private instiel10ltutions. The only arrangement of figures from both K-12 and higher education that comes close to $300 billion is to combine the $198 billion for K-12 with the $82.5 billion for public higher education. Aside from the fact that these figures vastly understate the actual expenditures, the NAE report does not assert the estimates are for public institutions only and there is no logical reason why they should. Furthermore, the report calls for an unspecified increase in “overall research funding.” Is the increase supposed to include funding for research on higher education? The language of the report and the inclusion of higher education in the base imply that it is, but the report is otherwise oriented to K-12 education. In any case, it grossly understates the real costs of K-12 education, quite possibly by 100 percent or more.

These errors are modest compared to those for educational research. The report estimates that $150 million is spent for educational research. It also asserts that the federal government spends between $100 million to $200 million for it, depending on how research is defined. Another part of the report asserts that the 28 largest foundations contributed $36.8 million to educational research in 1989. These assertions imply that very little is spent for educational research outside of these sources.

In fact, the $150 million estimate leaves out more spending for research than it counts. Referring to sabbatical leaves, the report states: “The direct subsidy for education research given in this form is larger than any other source of research funding for the field of education in the United States.”

This assertion is false by a wide margin. Institutions of higher education employ about 35,000 faculty members in education. Surveys from the Association of American Colleges of Teacher Education and other data suggest that, on the average, 14 percent of their load time is allocated to research. True, some of the 35,000 are not in fields that relate directly to elementary/secondary education, but they are probably outnumbered by academics in other fields who conduct educational research; the NAE’s membership includes several such individuals. On the basis of conservative assumptions about average compensation, and using a 50 percent overhead rate, the value of regular faculty time devoted to research is about $283 million. This estimate is based on the assumption that 10 percent of the faculty is on sabbatical leave at full salary at any given time. Under any reasonable set of assumptions, institutions of higher education are spending $300 million to $400 million a year for educational research. This does not include the value of student time devoted to more than 8,000 doctoral dissertations in education annually. If such time were valued at the average annual salary and fringe benefits for all teachers, $200 million would be a reasonable estimate of its total value.

Elsewhere, the report states that “sabbatical support and a portion of many regular faculty salaries earmarked for research, undoubtedly constitutes the largest single investment this nation makes in education research. But because it is so thoroughly mingled with teaching and administrative functions, the overall amount and its impact on research productivity remain unclear.”

Why is there no estimate of the value of regular faculty time allocated to research? After all, none of the estimates in the report are precise. Why not a range, similar to the "$100 million to $200 million” cited for federal expenditures for educational research? I suspect the reason has something to do with the adage: “Don’t ask the question if you can’t stand the answer.” Any reasonably honest answer would have (1) demolished the argument that educational research is underfunded; and (2) raised some hard questions about our research leadership, which is so amply represented in the National Academy of Education.

In preparing the report, the NAE surveyed 28 large foundations whose total grants amounted to $1.1 billion in 1989. Of this amount, $272 million went for education, including $36 million for educational research. The NAE report cites this as evidence that “disciplined inquiry, and all the constellation of information-gathering activities around it, are but a small speck on the broad social vision of foundations.”

It is possible to interpret the data differently. In 1989, the 7,581 foundations listed in the Foundation Directory made grants totaling approximately $7.7 billion. If the proportion going to educational research was comparable to the proportion shown by the 28 foundations in the NAE survey, foundations contributed $257 million for educational research in 1989. This might not satisfy educational researchers, but it is surely more than a “small speck.”

Furthermore, other significant expenditures for educational research are ignored in the NAE report. For example, the 1990 annual report of the Educational Testing Service shows expenditures of $50.1 million for “research, development, advisory and instructional-service expenditures” for the year ending June 30, 1990. ETS itself put up $21.1 million of this amount. Granting that not all of it went for educational R&D, a significant amount surely was spent for this purpose. Yet ETS is only one of the many private companies that fund educational R&D.

The question is not whether our nation is getting an adequate return on these expenditures; of course it isn’t. The point is that research policy should take into account all the resources devoted to educational research. If the return is inadequate, we might expect recommendations on how to get more from them, or (Heaven forbid!) perhaps institutions of higher education should stop giving load credit for unproductive research time.

In any event, a report urging more funding for research that is itself based on inaccurate and seriously incomplete data is hardly persuasive.

The NAE report emphasizes the need to “restructure schools” but nothing in it suggests that interest-group opposition, not lack of “research,” may be what prevents “restructuring” education. As Mikhail Gorbachev and others are finding out, real restructuring requires that some interest groups get hurt. If every interest group ends up with the same powers and privileges that existed before perestroika, restructuring is a myth. And so it is in education, despite the neglect of the issue in the NAE report. Reading it, one would assume that a lack of information, remediable by “research,” is holding up restructuring. The possibility that interest-group opposition, not lack of information, is the obstacle, is not considered. For instance, teacher unions did not just oppose experiments on contracting out instruction; they literally sabotaged the experiments. This is par for the course when “restructuring” is more than an academic buzz word. I would not expect Albert Shanker, an NAE member, to emphasize this point, but neither would I expect the NAE to be such a patsy for him.

This may have been naivete on my part. After all, without support from the two national teachers’ unions, federal funding for educational research would shrink even more than it has. In this connection, the research success stories cited in the report raise some troublesome questions. One such story is supposedly “cooperative learning,” a teaching strategy whereby students are di4vided into groups within classes and supposedly teach each other. This is the current fix to solve the problems emerging from the opposition of the research establishment to tracking. Such opposition implies an extremely higher degree of classroom heterogeneity, an obvious problem for classroom teachers.

The rest of us might have reason to be perplexed. If students can learn from each other, perhaps they can learn from teachers who aren’t certified. Unfortunately, the possibility is off limits to educational research. Its political base will not tolerate it.

The research on school finance is cited as another research success story. We are told that this research led to and supported legal and legislative action to reduce disparities in educational spending between rich and poor school districts. To this observer, citing research on school finance as a success story is incredible. True, the research has been instrumental in getting the states to provide a higher proportion of school revenues. Unfortunately, no one has paid much attention to who pays the states. State taxes are highly regressive; the states get almost half of their revenues from sales and excise taxes, and their income-tax structure is not very progressive. Thus, as a higher proportion of school revenues comes from state sources, we can expect a higher proportion to be paid by low- and middle-income taxpayers. If this is an example of the efficacy of educational research, perhaps we can be less concerned about its decline. For that matter, neither the public nor policymakers have any reasonably accurate idea of the total costs of public education or the share of these costs absorbed by taxpayers at various income levels. These issues are not even addressed, let alone answered by our experts in school finance.

Again appealing to popular themes, the report states that “new incentives are needed to draw talented young people into the field of education research, including scholars from disadvantaged and ... minority groups.” No evidence is presented on why more researchers from the disadvantaged and minority groups is a problem. Since the educational-research community does include minority members, is the implication that ethnic groups should be proportionally represented? If not, what proportions of educational researchers should be black, Hispanic, or American Indian?

The report acknowleges that pork-barrel politics and political concerns play a significant role in what federal research funds are spent for and who gets to spend them. Its solution appears to be “further study” of the viability and value of a national panel of reviewers to “advise the federal R&D effort, proposing consensus on what is known and recommending new studies to close gaps in the research base.” Is anyone really expected to take this proposal seriously? The federal government is free to get advice from anyone. If the “research community” agrees on something, federal officials will know about it. The notion that some research group will put aside all of its interests and hobby horses and advise otherwise confused federal officials on what needs to be done, solely in the public interest, is about as anti-research as a proposal can possibly be. If the NAE report is a sample of what to expect, further study of the idea should not be necessary.

In view of the fact that the president of NAE (Lee Shulman) and a co-director of the report (Michael Kirst) are prominent Stanford University professors, the NAE report understandably ignores the problem of excessive overhead rates for research. Nevertheless, one might expect a report on new directions for federally sponsored research to acknowledge that some financial reforms are needed on the recipient side. Be that as it may, the NAE report has none to suggest. It is a conventional special-interest plea for more federal funds, prepared and disseminated by parties who would benefit but risk nothing if their recommendations turn out to be disastrous. The one useful purpose served by the report is to underscore the probability that more federal expenditures for educational research will not accomplish anything.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1991 edition of Education Week