Forging a National Agenda in Education Research

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Myron Lieberman's Commentary on a pre-publication draft of the National Academy of Education's Research and the Renewal of Education was filled with errors and distortions (" 'Research and the Renewal of Education': A Critical Review," June 19, 1991). Moreover, it did not address most of the major points made in the report. Rather than attempt a point-by-point refutation of Mr. Lieberman's claims, we seek to offer instead a balanced summary of the analysis and recommendations contained in the report, and we invite our colleagues in the education community to judge its value.

As Americans strive to reform and restructure schools and design programs that prepare young people for a new century, education policy and practice must be guided by the best that is known about education and all areas of inquiry related to learning, schooling, and young people. Research and the Renewal of Education warns that current efforts to implement broad-based school reforms without adequate research to guide the direction of change will fail. "Pushing for change without continuing to deepen our understanding of what we are doing," the study says, "will only intensify the problems we seek to solve."

The academy suggests ways that the organization and character of research could be changed to improve its application to policy and practice. It presents in this report a national research agenda focusing on five priority areas expected to spark positive changes in schools. These include:

  • Active learning over the lifespan. Research must be designed to understand how students can be intellectually engaged and encouraged to solve challenging problems as individuals and as a group--the kind of learning they will use in the real world. Research must focus on ways to help students take initiative, construct meaning for themselves, and develop thinking skills in new and unfamiliar settings. The academy underscores the fact that learning exists outside of schools and that research must embrace education in its broadest contexts--including learning that takes place within families, communities, and in other settings.
  • Assessment. As educators debate the need for new forms and applications of testing, a major investment is needed to develop new educational assessments. Research should improve the instructional relevance of testing, probe the social contexts of learning, and foster a rich view of thinking and creativity.
  • Bolstering achievement of historically undeserved, "minority," and impoverished groups. More research is needed on the educational opportunities afforded to members of these groups, on the implications of their social and cultural contexts for learning, and on the institutional arrangements that prove most effective in expanding educational opportunities for such groups.
  • School organization. We need further inquiry into the social organization of schooling and the inner workings of schools as institutions. More research is needed to clarify how effective learning is organized, whether within school or beyond. The academy notes that the present structure of schools constrains the dissemination of innovations based on research and that new organizational structures hold promise for more widespread use of research.
  • Connection to teachers and teaching. Connecting theory to practice is more than examining instructional effectiveness or devising new forms of professional development. It also means placing research in the service of teaching and school improvement. Teachers and researchers must be collaborators in constant communication with each other, but this will involve new roles for teachers and students, according to the academy.

But the promise of research in shaping educational change is limited by constraints within and outside the research community. The research base is underfunded, limited in focus, and lacks connection to what happens in classrooms. Research studies tend to be short-term and conducted in isolation.

The report provides concrete examples of some of the best research done in the past 20 years, pointing to major research programs influencing schooling and classroom practice, including cooperative learning, school finance, reading and writing, educating students with disabilities, grade retention, and testing.

Funding for research through the National Institute of Education-for many years the largest source of research support-has been decimated since 1973, the peak funding year. Between 1973 and 1986, the year the N.I.E. was eliminated, funding dropped by nearly 81 percent before being adjusted for inflation, and there has been no significant increase since the N.I.E. was replaced by the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement.

Depending on how research activity is defined, the Education Department spends between $100 million and $200 million for research through its principal units established for that purpose. In comparison with fields such as defense, health care, energy, and agriculture, the nation spends little on disciplined inquiry and research-driven experimentation for improving education.

Research initiated and designed entirely by scholars in universities, school districts, and other agencies is grossly underfunded. Only $2 million of the 1992 budget request for O.E.R.I. covers field-initiated research, and even this small amount represents a 100 percent increase over last year. Consequently, the entire field-initiated-research program of the Education Department supports about 15 to 17 one-year grants.

Foundations, which have the power to spark innovation by setting funding priorities, tend to fund "action projects" that can be widely franchised, with limited research on comparative effectiveness and affordability.

The national academy recommends that overall research funding for education be increased from current expenditures. Today, education research receives only about one-half a percent of the total aggregate $300 billion spent on U.S. educational institutions at all levels (about $150 million). Many knowledge-producing industries spend anywhere from 4 percent to 6 percent of their operating budgets on research and development.

The federal government, foundations and corporations, and state governments that provide the majority of research support should target much of their increased spending for research to the areas most likely to lead to school improvement--new research on assessment; active learning across the lifespan; the achievement of disadvantaged, undeserved populations, and minority groups; school organization; and connecting the processes and findings of research to the work and lives of practitioners.

The need for consensus-building and the development of quality control for research is especially important today as society continues to devote substantial resources to experiments in educational change.

To control the quality of research and advocate its importance in policy, the N.A.E. urges further study on the viability and value of a National Panel of Reviewers to advise the federal R&D effort, providing a consensus on what is known and recommending new studies to close gaps in the research base. The panel would deliberate with educational scholars and practitioners on the

The National Academy of Education is an honorary society of lending educational researchers and leaders in education. Michael Kirst is co-director of its project on funding priorities for education research and a professor of education at Stanford University. Lee Shulman is president of the academy and Charles B. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford. Thomas James is executive director of the study, principal author of the report. and professor of education at Brown University.

meaning of the existing research and clinical findings and propose guidelines for practice. Funded by public and philanthropic sources, the panel would be analogous to panels in other professions that make authoritative statements about the results of research. It would recommend ways of ensuring greater quality control in research on education while also creating more comprehensive and imaginative strategies for research support.

The N.A.E. believes that to improve the federal role in education R&D, a better balance must be achieved between research initiated by federal agencies for research centers and regional laboratories, and research initiated by scholars in the field. Field-initiated research must be bolstered to help stimulate imaginative responses to education problems and spark new and unexpected approaches to teaching and learning. Many of the areas of research where great successes have been made, such as in studies of student retention and in the education of children with disabilities, have emerged directly from research initiated by scholars in the field.

There is a need to expand and stabilize support for long-term data-collection efforts in which multi-wave, large-sample surveys should be combined with close-in field-work studies of schools and classrooms.

In addition to centers, labs, and field-initiated research, incentives should be given to states and districts to mount coordinated efforts with practitioners, scholars, and scientists; policymaking for national and state entities should consider the establishment of sites where research, development, and practice can occur as an integrated whole.

Why should the national academy's report be taken seriously? The views expressed in it reflect the convergence of many perspectives. A broad array of individuals and institutions was surveyed to solicit their views. Position papers were commissioned from leading scholars who subsequently met in day-long focus groups to discuss their recommendations. A superb and diverse committee of academy members met to lay out priorities for the inquiry, and subsequently provided critical examinations of each successive draft of the report. Moreover, the report is timely. It comes on the heels of the President's America 2000 plan and highlights the indispensability of a coordinated strategy of research and development if national educational goals are to be achieved and the nation is to learn from the experience of pursuing those goals.

There are no quick cures for our educational woes, no guaranteed, money-back promises. Educational change will emerge from thoughtful inquiries, carefully conducted and sensitively interpreted. We must stop innovating out of expedience, ignoring our obligation to study the consequences of our efforts and to understand the dynamics of the programs we introduce. We are like the patient who forgets his experience a few short minutes after undergoing it. Our educational system suffers from amnesia and blindness. Neither successes nor failures are documented or understood. With properly funded and conducted programs of education research, American education can finally come to its senses.

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 44

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Forging a National Agenda in Education Research
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