Politics Pervades E.D. Research Arm, Study Alleges

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Washington--A new Congressional report recommends that the Education Department's research branch be shielded from political influence through the appointment of a bipartisan committee empowered to set policy for the agency.

The office of educational research and improvement has become politicized, diminishing its credibility and restricting the amount of money the Congress is willing to provide for its activities, concludes the report, "Educational Research, Development, and Dissemination: Reclaiming a Vision of the Federal Role for the 1990's and Beyond."

"Under the current Administration, educational [research] has become a plaything of idealogues and amateurs who have used federal funding to test out their own pet ideas as to what works," Representative Major Owens, the New York Democrat who commissioned the report, said in a statement.

The document was prepared by aides to Mr. Owens, who chairs the House Select Education Subcommittee, based on testimony at hearings the subcommittee conducted in April. It has not been approved by subcommittee members.

How To Get Beyond 'Whims'

"Educational research must go4beyond the various whims of each incoming Assistant Secretary of Education and the demands of political fashion," the report says, repeating a favorite theme of some legislators.

They and some educators have charged that oeri consciously commissions research that supports the Reagan Administration's education agenda, an allegation department officials vehemently deny.

Besides recommending a new policymaking board, the report calls for:

A federal investment in education research equal to 1 percent of the total amount spent nationally on education.

A task force to coordinate research among federal agencies. The report finds that cooperation among oeri's laboratories and centers is infrequent, and collaboration between agencies is even rarer.

A national dissemination policy for education research.

More extensive long-term planning, in cooperation with the bipartisan committee and the Congress.

More independent evaluation of federally funded research.

Better coordination with the private sector.

More emphasis on technological advances and strategies for helping disadvantaged students.

The report contains some "useful analyses" and "bold and interesting" recommendations, but is inaccurate in some respects, and its most sweeping proposal is "loony," Chester E. Finn, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said last week.

A 'Daft Precept'

The idea of appointing an outside committee to oversee oeri "starts from a daft precept that the way to make something less political is to make it more political," Mr. Finn said.

"Look at the composition of that committee," he said. "It's a Noah's ark model of a policy body, two of every species and all of them political, chaired by the Vice President, who is of course a nonpolitical figure."

The report suggests a panel that would include research officials from several federal agencies; representatives from education associations, private industry, and the "foundation community;" and researchers chosen by the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate and by the President.

Moreover, Mr. Finn said, an advisory body would have no authority, while a policymaking board would be unconstitutional, as Congressional appointees would be making executive-branch decisions.

The report, however, says that similar boards have successfullyel10lshaped policy in other "major research fields from space exploration to health." It discusses in detail the National Science Board, which it says helps set policy for the National Science Foundation.

'Too Little Impact'

Mr. Finn agreed with the conclusion that education research is seriously underfunded. However, while conceding that Congressional disinterest is motivated partially by political concerns, Mr. Finn said charging politicization "is a cheap shot that allows people to wriggle out of a proper framing of the problem."

The most important cause of low budgets, he said, is that education research "has far too little impact on practice in American education, and policymakers don't view it as an important thing to have more of."

Mr. Finn said the proposals for better coordination of research and dissemination activities are good ideas. He specifically praised the suggestion that the Education Department try to match an Agriculture Department system for disseminating information through community councils and neighborhood resource centers.

Criticism on New Center

The report criticizes the way in which oeri has moved to set up a new center on disadvantaged students and demands that it withdraw its request for proposals and start over.

The guidelines under which proposals--which are due this month--were requested "appear to have been hastily conceptualized and were published in flagrant opposition to the carefully developed consensus of experts in this field," the report charges.

It contends that the new center "should not be bound by the parameters which have limited the other 20 centers" and should be provided with far more than the $1 million budgeted.

Mr. Finn noted that the structure of oeri centers is prescribed by the agency's authorizing law, which Mr. Owens helped draft, and that available funds are limited. He disputed the charge that oeri had not consulted with researchers in the field.

Mr. Finn said he was "baffled" that the report would demand that his agency serve the needs of the disadvantaged and simultaneously try to "abort the effort to do so."

In the spring, Mr. Owens and other lawmakers protested oeri's decision to free some money for the new center by discontinuing support next year for the Center for Language Education and Research. (See Education Week, April 20, 1988.)

That center, based at the University of California at Los Angeles, studies techniques for teaching limited-English-proficient students and for teaching a second language to English-speaking students.

Language barring the department from cutting off clear's funding was included in a House report accompanying 1988 appropriations legislation, but did not make it into the final report approved by the Congress.

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