Report Questioning ‘Crisis’ in Education Triggers an Uproar

By Julie A. Miller — October 09, 1991 6 min read

WASHINGTON--Three researchers at a federally funded research center in New Mexico have sparked an uproar with a study of American education that concludes that policymakers and pundits who bemoan a system-wide crisis are both overstating and misstating the problem.

“Unfortunately, much of the current reform agenda, though well-intentioned, is misguided,” one version of the report states. “Based on a ‘crisis’ mentality, many proposed reforms do not properly focus on actual problems.”

Some members of the research community charge that the Bush Administration is suppressing the report--which was prepared as part of an Energy Department education initiative--because it conflicts with its own rhetoric.

The researchers who prepared the report could not be reached for comment, and some sources said the researchers had told them that they feared losing their federal funding if they spoke with reporters.

But Administration officials and Capitol Hill sources familiar with the situation said the report is undergoing peer review and is not being suppressed.

Peggy Dufour, the chief education adviser to Secretary of Energy James T. Watkins, said copies of the report are available, and she provided Education Week with two different drafts. She also provided critical commentary on the report and its methodology that had been prepared by the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Science Foundation.

“I can see why the Administration might not be thrilled with this report, and, in fact, I know some [officials] aren’t,” a Republican Congressional aide familiar with the situation said last week. “But you would be premature and possibly paranoid to say at this point that they are burying it.”

But some members of the research community say just that.

The Sandia researchers “were told it would never see the light of day, that they had better be quiet,” one source said. “I fear for their careers.”

Energy Initiative

In early 1990, Mr. Watkins launched an education initiative within his department that included calling on the laboratories it funds to begin outreach programs.

The study at the center of the controversy was launched when the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque decided that its first step should be to ask its analysts to examine the problem. They reviewed existing research, interviewed educators, and conducted site visits to schools.

One conclusion Administration officials agree with is that available education data are inadequate.

Based on the data that exist, the Sandia researchers found that:

  • High-school completion rates are not falling, but have held steady for the past 20 years. When people who earn equivalency diplomas are considered, the rate “is improving and is among the best in the world.”
  • The “much publicized” decline in college-entrance examination scores is due to a wider range of students taking such tests, and that, if a current population that is demographically similar is compared with test-takers 20 years ago, no decline in scores is evident.
    • American participation in higher education is the highest in the world, and there is no shortage of Americans pursuing technical degrees.
    • While educational expenditures have increased over the past 20 years, the increase has gone almost entirely to special education, and it is thus unfair to assert that increased funding has not improved the performance of students in general.

    The authors do not argue for particular solutions, but contend that they must include measures to improve the status and preparation of teachers and to reach disadvantaged, urban, and minority populations where education deficits are acute.

    Researchers suspicious of the Administration noted that the report conflicts with its call for radical change and its assertion that more money is not necessary.

    A Flawed Analysis?

    All of the points raised in the report have been raised before. The issue, instead, Ms. Dufour argued, is that the researchers’ use of data was selective and misleading.

    “It isn’t a matter of facts being inaccurate,” she said. “It’s a matter of are they properly juxtaposed and are conclusions properly drawn.”

    The reviews by the N.S.F. and the N.C.E.S. support her assertions.

    Analysts at the N.S.F. “find that the report rests on a partial and flawed analysis, which does not reflect a full understanding of relevant reported research; that the narrative does not constitute a cohesive analysis, and that the conclusions presented are not adequately supported,” wrote Peter W. House, director of the N.S.F.'s division of policy research and analysis.

    For example, reviewers in both agencies noted that, on the dropout issue, the Sandia report presents rates by race without considering socioeconomic status; that it improperly assumes that certain characteristics are related to dropout rates; and that it asserted that it is not possible to improve on current completion rates without providing any data to back its position up.

    They also noted that the report sometimes contradicts itself. For example, the authors variously assert that educators cannot predict the needs of the labor market and that the nation as a whole must do so, and that the schools are producing too many highly educated people and that they are producing about enough to meet needs.

    ‘Getting Them on Record’

    The researchers have apparently been circulating drafts of their report in the research community and on Capitol Hill for almost a year.

    A few months ago, rumors began to fly that the Administration was going to kill the report.

    In July, one of the researchers and the director of Sandia’s education effort testified before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education.

    “We knew it was only a matter of time before their chain was jerked,” one Democratic committee aide said, “so we wanted to get them on record while we could.”

    On Sept. 24, Sandia representatives presented their findings at a meeting in Washington that included two Republican senators, Ms. Dufour, Deputy Education Secretary David T. Kearns, and Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

    Congressional sources and Ms. Dufour said the Administration officials, particularly Mr. Kearns, reacted angrily at the meeting.

    The same day, a story on the report appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. The headline read: “U.S. Education OK, Sandia Labs Report Says.”

    On Sept. 30, Mr. Watkins sent a letter to the newspaper that called the report “dead wrong.”

    “It is a call for complacency when just the opposite is required,” Mr. Watkins wrote.

    He noted that expert reviews had been critical, and said his department “will not permit publication of the study as presently drafted.”

    ‘A Political Arena’

    Sources in the research community said the Sandia researchers have reported being berated and even threatened with loss of funding by Administration officials.

    Ms. Dufour denied that, but said that officials did chastise the researchers for circulating their findings before the report had been reviewed by experts and revised.

    “They have chosen to play this out in a political arena, and when you do that, the gloves come off,” Ms, Dufour said.

    Nonetheless, some researchers predict that Administration officials will use a lengthy review process to bury the report.

    A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 1991 edition of Education Week as Report Questioning ‘Crisis’ in Education Triggers an Uproar