Study Offers ‘Vision’ To Improve Education Research

By Robert Rothman — May 01, 1991 7 min read

Arguing that educational research is essential to school improvement, a panel of leading scholars says in a forthcoming report that funding for research should increase substantially and should focus on large-scale studies in five high-priority topics.

“Pushing for change without continuing to deepen our understanding of what we are doing will intensify the problems we seek to solve,” states the report, “Research and Renewal in Education,” which is expected to be issued this month by the National Academy of Education.

The report notes that, while education research has not produced breakthroughs like the discovery of antibiotics or hybrid corn, it has contributed significantly to substantial changes in testing, the education of the handicapped, school finance, and other areas.

But research has been underfunded, removed from classrooms, and limited in focus, the report states. Partly as a result, it says, studies ''tend to be small-scale, short-term, and conducted in isolation.”

To improve the ability of research to influence practice, the panel recommends that federal funding for research be doubled to $300 million, or 1 percent of the Education Department’s budget, and that private donors also make larger investments in research.

It also urges funding agents to concentrate on critical areas where researchers can have the greatest influence on policy and practice. These include assessment, active learning over the lifespan, improvements in the achievement of minorities and impoverished groups, school organization, and connections between theory and practice.

Diane Ravitch, the study’s co-director, said the report was aimed at “breaking the vicious cycle” in which research is not supported well because it is not contributing to change.

“There is a clear emphasis here on promoting the kind of research that is holistic, that will promote the improvement of education, particularly for children at risk,” said Ms. Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College.

Gerald E. Sroufe, director of governmental and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association, praised the report as “timely and challenging.”

“It is timely because the reauthorization [of the Education Department’s research arm] is forthcoming,” Mr. Sroufe said. “It is challenging because it doesn’t just put the responsibility on the federal government. It talks about foundations, corporations, and universities, and what has to be done.”

Added Ann Lieberman, president of the aera: “We haven’t had a comprehensive agenda for research, ever. That’s what the intent of this is.’'

But Ms. Lieberman, a professor of education at Columbia University Teachers College, said the report should go further and call for changes in the reward structure at universities to encourage the types of studies it recommends.

“I hear people say, ‘If I work in the field, I won’t get tenure, I won’t get promoted,”’ Ms. Lieberman said. “Unless you change the structure, you won’t get” such research.

The study by the academy, an honorary society composed of 75 prominent educators and scholars, is the first in a decade by the group to outline a “vision” for education research, according to Thomas James, associate professor of education and public policy at Brown University and executive director of the study.

Members of the academy felt this was a critical moment in education, he said, because of the tremendous interest in school reform and “the number of efforts bubbling up.”

Although it was not intended to focus exclusively on the federal role in research--a separate study, by the National Academy of Sciences, is addressing that issue--the study comes at a time when that role is under scrutiny. In addition to the upcoming reauthorization of the federal Office of Educational Research and Improvement, President Bush’s ''America 2000" strategy also contains a major research-and-development component.

The academy’s report could become an important element in the debate over those initiatives, particularly if, as expected, Ms. Ravitch is nominated to be Assistant Secretary of Education for Education Research and Improvement.

“I’m in an anomalous position,” she said. “I don’t know which side of the desk I’ll be on” when the report comes out.

Ms. Ravitch said the President’s plan is consistent with the report’s recommendations, although she noted that the proposal is aimed at “breaking the mold.”

“It’s based on the notion of reinventing the school,” she said. “It’s impossible to say where it will lead.”

In examining the record of education research, the National Academy of Education report found that scholars have contributed to significant improvements in schooling.

“Education research has led schools to turn ‘good’ practice into ‘best’ practice,” the report states.

Specifically, it points to seven “success stories” that describe ways in which research has paid off in practice. But it acknowledges that not all the successes have become common currency in schools.

For example, it notes, research into the effects on group interactions on achievement led to the popular idea of cooperative learning. In addition, social-science studies of inequalities in education funding have sparked lawsuits and legislation to overhaul funding formulas in about half the states.

Researchers have also developed new ways of diagnosing learning disabilities and effective intervention strategies, have discovered new methods of teaching reading and writing, and have pointed to the deleterious effects of grade retention, it says.

In addition, scholars have also helped transform the testing system from one devoted to “sorting and selecting” to a mechanism for gathering vital information on student performance, the report notes.

But despite such successes, researchers have been hampered by constraints both within and outside the academy, the report notes.

A major concern is the funding base for education research, it states. Most research funding is insufficient to support experimentation or collaboration with practitioners, it states.

At the federal level, funding for education research declined by 80 percent between 1973 and 1986, and is now less than $120 million--half of 1 percent of the Education Department’s budget, the report notes. By contrast, it argues, “knowledge-producing” industries spend 4 percent to 6 percent of their operating budgets on research and development.

Moreover, it states, a tiny fraction of the federal education-research funds--$2 million in the President’s fiscal 1992 budget--is spent on field-initiated studies.

Private foundations, which could help support innovations, tend to support “action projects,” rather than research, the study found. A survey conducted for the study found that less than 4 percent of grants from 28 major foundations--15 percent of “education related” grants--are targeted for education research.

Problems in the research community have also impeded education research, the study points out.

Research is “marked by a profusion of secondary studies that too often lead down divergent paths to endlessly debated viewpoints and assertions,” a summary of the report states.

At the same time, it says, researchers too often produce “snapshots’’ that do not examine the effects of policies over time, and fail to take into account social, cultural, and economic forces that affect the educational settings under study.

To improve the application of research to policy and practice, the academy panel recommends that researchers broaden their scope beyond studies that examine one level of the system and a single aspect of learning, such as reading or mathematics.

To help accomplish that aim, the panel recommends that the Education Department double its funding for education research and support large-scale, mission-oriented institutes.

In addition, it proposes that those financing research focus on five key problems--assessment, lifelong learning, minorities’ achievement, school organization, and links to practitioners--that are “expected to spark positive changes in schools.”

“As in medicine, researchers must discover tomorrow’s cures, not yesterday’s leeches,” the report states.

The report also recommends:

A national panel of reviewers, composed of education, business, and political leaders, should advise the federal research-and-development effort to seek consensus on what is known and suggest studies to fill knowledge gaps.

New incentives to draw young scholars into education research.

Incentives to promote links between researchers and practitioners.

Copies of the report will be available this spring from the National Academy of Education, Stanford University, School of Education, ceras-507, Stanford, Calif. 94305-3084; telephone (415) 725-1228.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1991 edition of Education Week as Study Offers ‘Vision’ To Improve Education Research