Plans to Alter ERIC Set Off Alarms

By Debra Viadero — May 28, 2003 5 min read
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In the perennial struggle to move educational research from the ivory tower to the field, the Educational Resources Information Center, or ERIC, has been at the forefront for more than 35 years. With more than a million reports, studies, hearing transcripts, and other pieces of information in its archives, the federal database system is the largest, longest-running, and best-known electronic education library.

It’s not, however, as efficient as it could be, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which last month floated a controversial proposal to remake the entire system. The department’s ideas, published on April 10, have touched off a flood of protests from ERIC users.

Before the official comment period on the proposal ended on May 9, nearly 4,000 of the system’s customers and supporters had weighed in on the changes. Among those opposing the plans were at least 28 Democratic members of Congress and more than 46 national education organizations, ranging from the National PTA to the American Library Association.

At issue, they say, is whether the proposed changes would ultimately enhance the public’s access to needed information on education—or wind up restricting it.

“We have substantial concerns,” wrote the Washington-based American Educational Research Association, that “the proposed ‘new’ ERIC will simply dismantle the system.”

Most everyone agrees that the far-flung, $10.5 million-a-year system badly needs an overhaul; it has operated largely unchanged since its founding in 1966.

To improve it, Education Department officials want to hand it over to a single contractor, thus eliminating the 16 independent, subject-matter-oriented clearinghouses that now are its backbone. The department’s proposal also envisions eliminating some customer services, setting standards for the material that goes into the archives, and introducing technological enhancements so that users can get quicker, easier, round-the-clock access to information.

“It’s just a creaky system that was developed and functioned wonderfully in a paper era,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the department’s Institute of Education Sciences, which oversees ERIC. “It is not functioning so efficiently in an electronic era.”

‘Distributed’ Knowledge

To the system’s longtime supporters, though, phasing out the clearinghouses is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. They say the clearinghouses, most of which are housed on university campuses, serve dual roles: They provide expertise in selecting materials and steering customers to exactly the right documents, and they build a client base through their Web sites, services, and publications.

“A database alone, without that infrastructure, would be a tremendous loss,” said Felice J. Levine, the AERA’ s executive director.

Lee G. Burchinal, ERIC’s architect, said that from the start, the system’s “distributed” structure set it apart from the centralized information-gathering systems used by other federal agencies in the 1960s. Faced with a budget too small to pay for a top-notch, centralized system, he recalled, “we said, ‘OK, we’ll have to go to the experts in research where they are.’ ”

The arrangement also made the system more politically palatable, he said, lessening the education world’s suspicions that Washington bureaucrats would be handpicking its contents.

The Education Department’s proposal, in comparison, calls for the new operator of the ERIC system to draw on the advice of a limited number of content experts—three for every subject covered by the clearinghouses—on an advisory basis.

One of the more popular services the clearinghouses offer is AskERIC, which is also proposed for the chopping block. Providing personalized answers to educators’ questions, the service is a key portal into the system for lay people, its defenders say.

“It’s the difference between searching the holdings database and teasing out what one needs from hundreds of options and being led to exactly the correct shelf by the library staff,” Sally McConnell, the assistant executive director for government relations for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, wrote in a letter to the department.

But Mr. Whitehurst noted that the responses that customers get through the service are not very different from the results of any other database search. With a more user-friendly system, he said, people should be able to conduct searches themselves, just as they do with Google and other Internet search engines.

Customers are also rallying to retain the ERIC Digests, which summarize research on particular topics. Although that service is important, some digests are redundant and inaccurate, according to Mr. Whitehurst. For instance, he said, his staff found five different digests on bullying, written by four different clearinghouses, over a five-year period ending in 2001.

“We’re having talks now,” he added, “to see if there’s another way to provide that function.”

‘Wheat From Chaff’

The proposal’s call for restricting the periodicals in the database to only “approved” education journals and for setting guidelines for determining which materials to include in the database also is setting off alarm bells among some groups. They fear the changes could narrow the range of materials available through the system.

“You’re not going to find the best research and information on education only in education journals,” said Jim Kohlmoos, the president of the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, which represents the clearinghouses. “It makes people awfully nervous when you’re trying to create restrictions that could lead to ideological bias.”

Yet some policy experts say that the sheer quantity of information available through ERIC inhibits access to good information.

“It’s like a vacuum cleaner,” said Christopher T. Cross, who was the Education Department’s assistant secretary for research from 1989 to 1991, during the first Bush administration. “It’s gathered up a tremendous amount of material in the field, but it’s also made it hard for users to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.”

“I think, in fact, these changes could end up with a much more coherent system—one that is much more accessible in the field to people who want to use it,” Mr. Cross said.

A final decision on what the system will look like will come after Education Department staff members have had a chance to analyze the letters the department has received. Contracts for the current clearinghouses end in December. A new ERIC system is expected to be up and running by next year.

“We knew people had strong feelings about this,” Mr. Whitehurst said. “We wanted to hear what they had to say.”


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