NIE During The Ford and Carter Years: The Struggle To Legitimize Educational Research

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With the establishment of the National Institute of Education, educational research had been elevated to the status of medical and scientific inquiry--fields so vital to the national interest that the pursuit of new knowledge in them was deemed an essential government function worth housing in a prestigious agency.

By comparison with the traditions and success of science and medicine, however, educational research was a barely established field. Many scholars believed it simply an amalgam of theories gleaned from the social and behavioral sciences, at best a "soft science" and at worst an interdisciplinary fad.

In the years 1975-80, the institute struggled both to legitimize educational research and to conduct research that would lead to improvements in student achievement. But during that period, it was led by four directors. Its budget was cut in half. Its research plans were criticized by scholars who complained that its work was unscientific, by educators who alleged that its research was too esoteric and impractical, and by politicians who demanded more research on their favorite topics.

The institute tried to respond to all of the competing demands. It reorganized and hired "practitioners"--those who work in the schools. It created liaison groups and "dissemination" strategies to involve educators. It made a commitment to increase its work on fundamental issues. And at the same time, it launched new projects in desegregation, bilingual education, and "equity."

The institute tried to fulfill all of the demands. It reorganized and hired "practitioners"--those who work in the schools. It created liaison groups and "dissemination" strategies to involve educators. It made a commitment to increase its work on fundamental issues. And it launched new projects in desegregation, bilingual education, and "equity."

The result of the institute's efforts is a complex, $800 million collection of research. It includes policy studies, curriculum-development projects, "applied" research, and a small amount of basic research--much of it controversial and subject to criticism about the "value-laden" nature of educational research.

At the same time, the institute proved, through small projects on cognitive development and the acquisition of reading and mathematics skills and, especially, its research on effective schools, that not all educational research is esoteric or subject to interpretation based on values.

How was this achievement possible?

The first signs of progress appeared in 1976, when the availability of funds for new projects caused a kind of institutional identity crisis for the NIE.

Topic Not Clearly Defined

"We were dealing with a topic which was not clearly defined or 'hard' in research terms," says P. Michael Timpane, who became deputy director in 1976. "NIE was seeking its support from a profession and a public that were not ready to accord educational research the kind of authority people were giving to space research or health research."

Mr. Timpane is now dean of Teachers College at Columbia University.

Numerous options existed, according to several of those involved with the institute. Although basic research would yield results that would contribute to the "knowledge base" of education--and would further NIE's standing in the scholarly community--applied research would produce results that would relate directly to educational practice, enhancing the institute's support among educators. In addition, the NIE had to decide whether to continue supporting any "development" projects, as well as how to better inform the public and the education community of the results of its studies.

Among the institute's leaders, a widespread perception existed that "for NIE to be engaged in extensive curriculum development [as it had in the beginning] was not the best use of its money," says Milton Goldberg, an institute employee since 1975 who now heads the National Commission on Excellence in Education. But beyond that belief, the institute's officials and its policy-making coun-cil faced the dilemma of "how to expend the money on those things most likely to benefit the field over a long period of time," Mr. Goldberg says.

The response to those questions was a traditional one in educational-research circles: the institute commissioned a study, by a blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Sciences, to examine the relationship between fundamental research and the educational process.

The panel considered "a lot of basic questions about what basic research in education is and how it can be done," says Sheldon H. White, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who chaired the panel.

The group examined the way basic research had "worked its way into" educational practice--even into such works as the baby books of Dr. Benjamin Spock and the children's television program, Sesame Street.

"Fundamental inquiry has supported, even provoked, ... intellectual revolutions," the panel concluded, in recommending that the NIE devote one-third of its budget to basic research. Furthermore, the report examined eight "educational goals" to which scientific inquiry could contribute, and it delineated ways of proceeding with research in those areas.

Although the institute's policy-making council subsequently adopted the report's recommendations--along with a policy strictly limiting its curriculum-development activity--the report's significance extended beyond its application.

It was considered a landmark in the struggle for recognition of the legitimacy of educational research by the scholarly community.

"The study marks the maturing of educational research and of attitudes toward the community that generates it," said Patricia A. Graham, the NIE director when the report was completed in 1977.

In spite of the director's enthusiasm, the panel's efforts did not, however, generate much response from those working in the schools or from Congressmen.

Among educators--whom educational researchers refer to as "the practitioners"--the institute continued to be viewed as an obscure government bureaucracy.

Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at Columbia and a former consultant to the agency, says she remembers bringing up the subject of the institute's work in speaking to groups of educators. "Generally, there was the reaction that they had never heard of NIE," she recounts. "The institute's mission was not to create a small world of inside people who would look into small issues of research. But it seems that that's what happened."

The situation, according to Mr. White, illustrates the dilemma of educational research.

"Fundamental research does help education," he says, "but the images about how it helps education are pretty bad. We've been living since the turn of the century on dandy little metaphors we inherited from physics. Education is not like engineering; educating kids is not like building bridges. There really is a different relationship between research and practice in human things than in the physical sciences."

An example of the way fundamental research benefits educators, according to Mr. White, is the way psychological research is used by teachers.

"Every single person in the public schools is at some level a psychologist; everyone has a theory and a responsibility to predict and control human behavior," he says. "The idea that people are going to sit around in an ivory tower and invent a better object for controlling human behavior or presenting curriculum is nonsense. The process works more like a leaky sieve. The role of research is not to give everyday people voluminous knowledge, but to give them timely, helpful knowledge to understand the situation they're in and to be able to control it better."

The problems educators have in understanding that process, adds David H. Florio of the American Educational Research Association, are compounded by the fact that "in order to have any effect that is demonstrable, you have to have a significant period of time.

"In other fields you look for a breakthrough study. In education, you have to see if your findings work in the schools, waiting until educators decide if they want to invest the time and energy of putting it into practice, waiting until it works its way into the common wisdom," he says.

Others lay the blame for the lack of attention accorded the NIE's research to the institute's failure to promote that work.

"It's simply a failure of imagination not to be able to spread the good word about education," says Denis P. Doyle, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute.

As an NIE employee in the 1970's, Mr. Doyle says, he "recommended they do research on the state of research needs, polling teachers and administrators annually on critical issues and designing a research agenda around those issues. Then, when they were asked why research a certain issue, they could say because 90 percent of teachers thought it was important."

Mr. Doyle says he also recommended publishing an annual "fact book" on the institute's activities. The NIE did once, in fact, compile such a document, called 1976 Databook: Status of Educational Research and Development in the United States.

But the project was abandoned. "We were too busy trying to change the status of educational research to do another report on it," says Mr. Timpane.

Eighteen percent of the institute's 1978 budget was spent on "dissemination," or informing the education community of NIE's activities. But because most of the funds were spent for "esoteric" activities--such as the eric centers, which provide computerized access to research reports--"there was still a considerable gap between the knowledge that NIE was generating and the dissemination of that knowledge," says Mr. Goldberg.

In some quarters, familiarity with and support for the institute was increasing. The agency's highly praised research on the characteristics of effective schools prompted prominent educators such as the chancellor of the New York City schools, Frank J. Macchiarola, to testify in the Congress in support of increasing the institute's budget. And the agency earned praise from Washington-based professional associations for including educators--along with researchers--in the committees that advised the NIE on its research plans and reviewed proposals for grants and contracts.

'The Demand Side'

The research agency, according to its first director, Thomas K. Glennan Jr., was beginning to benefit from the growth of "the demand side" of educational research, which he defines as "the capacity of the educational system to make use of and incorporate knowledge."

"The demand side may not be centrally directed or funded out of appropriations. It is not so easy to identify, quantify, or de-scribe, but it is real," he says. "School systems' and universities' R&D centers were nurtured, grew, and prospered--some of them through NIE support. Superintendents and other leaders who had been exposed to research methods were more prone to pay attention to educational research."

At the same time, two Congressionally mandated studies completed by the institute--an evaluation of the Title I program and an examination of the extent of violence and vandalism in the schools--earned NIE the praise of the House Committee on Education and Labor, which has overall authority over the activities of the agency.

The education committee's 1978 report said "NIE has matured into a unique and valuable resource," although the committees responsible for the NIE budget remained unimpressed.

Congressional enthusiasm proved, however, to be a double-edged sword.

By 1980--although the institute's budget was reduced to half of what was spent eight years earlier--the Congressionally mandated priorities of the institute had been extended in number from four to seven.

Representative Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, added the topic of international education. Democratic Representative George Miller of California asked for research in the problems of early adolescents. And Representative Shirley Chisholm, Democrat of New York, demanded that the institute demonstrate its commitment to equal opportunity by instituting an affirmative-action program for NIE employees and a grants-and-fellowship program to increase the number of minority and women researchers receiving federal funds.

"Congress treated NIE as a microcosm of the federal role in education," says Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. "Every interest group was placed there. They created new programs and expanded its mission. It created a 'blur' administratively because the NIE leadership by and large dutifully appeased and capitulated to everybody's interest group and passing fancy."

According to Mr. Goldberg, the problem stemmed in part from the institute's inability to control its research planning operation.

"There was always the tension between the need for a research agency to do long-range planning on the one hand and, on the other hand, to be concerned about the ways its present effort is being received by the field and the Congress. Because of the uncertainty about the early history and budget changes, that tension has not been nearly as healthy as it should be," he says.

Political influences from the executive branch began to affect NIE research as well. The institute's authorizing legislation had called for research that would help "provide every person an equal opportunity to receive an education of high quality." By the late 1970's, NIE officials--following themes articulated by the Carter Administration--had interpreted the mandate as two distinct missions.

Ms. Graham and her successor, Mr. Timpane, identified the "twin themes" as: the "improvement of educational practice"; and "equity," or "attention to the relationship of educational policies and equitable outcomes."

"Those were the priorities of the Carter Administration," Ms. Graham says.

Mr. Timpane explains the difference between "equity" and "equal educational opportunity." "Equity gets to treatment over time. Equal opportunity is simply opening a door. Schools have to have a different repertoire to deal with the kids who have the toughest problems," he says.

Mr. Doyle interprets the distinction differently. "NIE," he says, "began having a 'passion for equality."'

'Liberal Control'

"The so-called liberal control of NIE was a manifestation of something much larger, the entire thrust of national government," says Mr. Finn, who served on the institute's policy-making council. "At the institute, the equity goal was pre-eminent. It reared its head in virtually every program award, personnel action, and funding decision."

The directors' concern was translated into increased research into effective school-desegregation strategies, projects on mathematics anxiety in girls and other women's issues, and the creation of a National Center for Research in Bilingual Education.

The critics also charge that the concern led the institute to eschew necessary research in other areas.

Mr. Goldberg, who became acting director in 1981, say he became concerned that "if you try to redress the wrongs of a previous era, you may pay limited or inadequate attention to problems that may deserve attention. That doesn't in any way reject equity. But equity without excellence is an empty promise."

"NIE shied away from anything that might be critical of the public schools--it was a taboo subject," Mr. Finn says. "They were also reluctant to touch private schools, the achievement of minority groups, anything having to do with traditional values, morals, and ethics; anything that might be unfavorable toward teacher unions; or anything likely to criticize federal programs." For the institute's research analysts, who were required to carry out the directors' mandate, "the problem was that no one really understood it; no one really knew what 'equity' meant," says one staff member.

Vol. 02, Issue 14, Pages 12-13

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