O.E.R.I. Chief Seeks To Bridge Gap Between Research, the Classroom
By Robert Rothman
Boston--The new research chief at the U.S. Education Department laid out a multifaceted agenda here last week for bridging the gap that exists between educational research and classroom practice.
Among his suggestions was the creation by "parents, business people, and others" of an educational equivalent to the New England Journal of Medicine--a publication that could "spread the word" about breakthroughs in teaching and learning with the same stature and credibility the medical journal brings to coverage of health-care advances.
"Our work has not yet translated into adequate results," said Christopher T. Cross, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. "This has to change."
Mr. Cross's speech here to the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association was his first major address to core constituents. In it, he took schools of education to task for what he called ''scandalous" barriers between research and teacher training, and outlined a range of federal initiatives designed to break down such barriers across the field.
"Research must lead to results--significant gains in learning," he said. "We must establish this--student learning--as 'due north' on our research compass."
AERA officials praised the assistant secretary's initiatives, which include programs designed to improve assessments, enhance student motivation, encourage collaboration among researchers, and ease the dissemination of new knowledge. And most here said they would give Mr. Cross and his top aides high marks for their first months in office.
But some, such as Andrew C. Porter, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, warned that closing the gap between research and practice might prove difficult.
"The theme is not new, but it is excellent, and it is the right theme for these times of education reform," Mr. Porter said of the speech.
"But there is a danger in pursuing this theme," he added. "People whose scholarship is in studying the connections between research and practice have shown in field after field, in investigation after investigation, that there are a very complicated set of connections."
Mr. Cross's speech was the first to the group by an assistant secretary for research since 1988, when his predecessor, Chester E. Finn Jr., delivered a sharply worded critique of what he called the education-research "fraternity."
In that address, Mr. Finn told AERA members that "our profession has not yet succeeded in persuading many people, save for our own fraternity members, of course, that education research is valuable or worthwhile except in situations where its work is joined, in ways that any layman can understand, to real-life issues, problems, and dilemmas." (See Education Week, April 13, 1988.)
As a result, Mr. Finn concluded, researchers risk being destined to ''relative poverty, obscurity, and irrelevance."
Mr. Cross used much milder tones to convey his message of the increasing need for relevance, telling his audience that "the 'market value' of education research has appreciated considerably in the eyes of policymakers in recent years."
"It is no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of academia," Mr. Cross asserted. "Today, education research gets respect."
He noted, for example, that more than half the nation's school districts are now using "effective schools" research, that several large districts are moving toward school-based management, which is grounded in research, and that key educational policymakers, such as Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, and U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Ca4vazos, have stressed the value of research to reform.
'Feedback on Student Learning'
But despite the advances, Mr. Cross said, educational researchers have failed to make much of an impact on the field's most serious problem: the low levels of student achievement.
To help turn that around, he said, the Education Department plans to step up efforts to devise "better yardsticks for measuring student learning."
Quoting from the joint statement on national education goals drafted by President Bush and the nation's governors, Mr. Cross said that goals are "useless unless progress toward meeting them is measured accurately and adequately."
To improve assessments, he said, the federal government plans to expand and strengthen the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and to work with other agencies to develop international measures of student achievement.
At the same time, he said, the Education Department has proposed a research center to study and to collect and make available to schools information on new forms of assessment.
The hope, he said, is that such assessments "will ultimately focus instruction on what matters most--on learning to think mathematically, learning to solve problems scientifically, learning to apply historical knowledge, geographic knowledge, and so on."
As an indication of the high priority the department places on assessment, Mr. Cross noted that its proposed center on assessment, evaluation, and testing is slated to be funded at twice the level of any other of the 18 federal education-research centers.
The assistant secretary said the department's research arm also plans to focus on enhancing student motivation.
He charged that, in contrast to the schooling of many past generations, an "attitude of 'doing only what you have to do to get by' persists and pervades classrooms across America."
"Too many students are watching the clock. They're bored. Apathetic. Disengaged," the assistant secretary said.
Because motivation is a "multifacted issue," he said, he has asked each of the 18 federal research centers to address it. And, he added, "we want more scholars--both inside and outside the federal government--to explore" this topic.
Mr. Cross said that, in addition to focusing specifically on the issues of motivation and assessment, he intends to improve collaboration among researchers and federal agencies to "build a stronger education 'R & D' team."
As a first step, he said, the department is seeking a "top-to-bottom study of the entire education research-and-development enterprise."
That study, to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, will examine activities under way at the federal, state, and local levels of governments, in higher education, and in the private sector. It will recommend ways these sources of research can be reconfigured to work more efficiently.
Even before the study is completed, Mr. Cross said, the department plans to expand the "R & D team" by collaborating with other federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Health and Human Services, and by encouraging oerisupported institutions to work together.
He gave as an example his directive, in efforts to improve education for disadvantaged youths, that the regional research laboratories work with Chapter 1 technical-assistance centers, the eric clearinghouse on urban education, the National Diffusion Network, and several national research centers.
Mr. Cross also unveiled here plans to enhance the dissemination of research.
"We intend to be much more aggressive in getting information to various audiences," he said.
To that end, the office of educational research and improvement has developed a policy, he said, to ensure that "oeri information is presented in formats that are most useful to the audience intended to be reached."
The department has also proposed a research center on dissemination and knowledge utilization, he said, and is establishing a telecommunications network that will link oeri-supported institutions and the research community.
Beyond these federal proposals, Mr. Cross said, lie significant changes that the research community can make to "increase the impact of research on practice."
He called, specifically, for the creation by groups outside the government of a journal, roughly akin to the New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association, that would communicate to the public advances in education research.
"Education research has come a long way," he said. "But our work does not, as yet, have the stature, prestige, or public credibility of medical research. We need a vehicle or two that can command that level of attention, so that when they print findings, the popular press reports them. And people listen."
He urged schools of education to aid this process by putting more emphasis on applied research.
"Schools of education ought to be prime movers and major users of education research," he said. "They ought to place a premium on applied research ... on studies and findings that address the needs and concerns and questions of practitioners."
Vol. 09, Issue 31