Spreading The Word

April 01, 1991 4 min read
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This concern is shared by officials at OERI, who want to see the agency’s labors better used in the nation’s schools. The November meeting was the first step down this path.

Since 1985, OERI has acted as an umbrella for six agencies that, among other things, gather statistics, fund innovative projects, publish research findings, and oversee 25 research centers and 10 education laboratories. In 1989, President Bush appointed Christopher Cross assistant secretary of education in charge of OERI. Cross, who has been associated with education research as both a government official and private consultant for the past 20 years, soon began pushing OERI to address what he believes is a “growing disconnection between the work of the department and the need in the field.’' Explains OERI’s Maggie McNeely, who ran the meeting with the teachers: “Since we decided to look at the needs of teachers more closely, the best place to start is asking teachers themselves: ‘What is it that you use? What do you need to know that you’re not getting? How can we get it to you in a better fashion?’''

The teachers’ responses gave OERI officials food for thought. As these officials had feared, the teachers said they almost never see OERI’s publications; most of their information comes from other teachers, conferences and inservice sessions, and professional journals. The teachers made it clear that they would rather read solutions to a problem than a description of the problem. “The teachers were adamant,’' McNeely recalls. “They said, ‘Don’t tell us what the problem is; we know.’'' The teachers wanted reports to spell out, whenever possible, how research findings could affect their teaching. They also said they preferred short, clean formats with interesting graphics.

OERI officials are currently discussing the results of the meeting and pondering possible changes. Cross admits that dissemination is a major challenge. “We know a lot,’' he says. “We’ve got to get that information to teachers.’'

One immediate strategy for improving dissemination, according to McNeely, is to make sure information is fed into established teacher networks, like those operated by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Another is to get research findings into the hands of teacher-leaders.

Discussions have also focused on how to tailor materials to meet the needs of teachers and parents. “Things we produce should be readable to them and jargon-free,’' says Bruno Manno, who oversees policy and planning for OERI. Some of the ideas under consideration include asking teachers to critique documents before they are published, writing some reports in the first person so teachers will identify with them, and producing staff-development videotapes to keep teachers current. OERI officials have not yet set a timetable for implementing any of the proposals.

Although the changes would certainly be welcomed by most teachers and policymakers, some insist that a more fundamental overhaul is needed. Gerald Sroufe of the American Education Research Association, for example, believes OERI’s new emphasis on dissemination might be misplaced: The agency will never reach teachers unless they want and value research.

“If dissemination means more publications to more people, it’s irrelevant,’' he says. Sroufe suggests that OERI and others concentrate on reforming schools of education so that education students are taught to depend on research. Schools, he adds, need people, not just publications or electronic networks, to translate research findings into solutions for teachers’ problems.

U.S. Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., chairman of the congressional subcommittee charged with overseeing OERI, agrees that more radical changes may be necessary. Owens wants OERI to place “within the reach of every school system’’ a person who would work with schools, the community, and the Education Department to translate research and implement new strategies. Owens’ subcommittee will have the opportunity this year to take a hard look at OERI; the authorizing legislation that created the agency and set its goals is about to expire.

But radical changes may be derailed by another fundamental problem that has long curtailed OERI’s effectiveness: limited funding. Last year, the Education Department’s research and development budget was about $179.6 million. In relative terms, this was small potatoes compared with the other federal departments’ investment in research and development. For example, the Defense Department spent $130 out of every $1,000 in its budget on research; the Agriculture Department spent $20.70 per $1,000, and the Transportation Department $15.60. But the Education Department spent a measly $7 out of every $1,000 on research. Moreover, when adjusted for inflation, the Education Department’s R&D budget has decreased by more than 70 percent since the early 1970s.

There is some hope that this downward trend can be reversed. During the Reagan presidency, Congress was reluctant to fund OERI because it feared the research office was being used to advance the administration’s political agenda. But Owens believes OERI is no longer a political football. “It’s time to pull out all stops,’' he says. “The budget and size of OERI now is ridiculous.’' Owens has reason to be hopeful. President Bush’s 1992 budget calls for an 87 percent increase in funding for educational research and development.

In the meantime, Cross and his colleagues at OERI say they will continue to pound out the details of their new agenda. Donlin, for one, hopes that this agenda will enable OERI to better feed her hunger for research-based knowledge.

“The more things I can read and learn, the more I have in my toolbox,’' the 6th grade teacher says. “The more tools I have in my box, the more strategies and skills I have available to meet the needs of my students as they come through my door.’'

Elizabeth Schulz

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Spreading The Word

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