Policy Board Discusses Labs and Centers, Research Agenda

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When Congress restructured the Education Department's research branch last year, one of the biggest changes--and the most controversial--was the creation of an independent board that was granted some power over how the research agency does business and sets its long-term agenda.

"We want to protect the credibility of what you're doing," Edmund W. Gordon, a board member, told agency officials at the first meeting of the 15-member board, held here late last month.

"Education research in some circles doesn't enjoy the best reputation," Mr. Gordon, a professor of educational psychology at the City University of New York, said. "We want to boost that up."

The board--made up of researchers and practicing educators--was created in part because many observers, including some members of Congress, have contended that the office of educational research and improvement has been overly influenced by the political aims of whatever administration is in power.

The office has also been criticized for being too far removed from the needs of the schools it is designed to serve, and some tension between the researchers and practitioners on the advisory board was evident at last month's meeting.

"If reform has failed in the past, it's because the researchers have blown in, blown out, and blown up," said Claire L. Pelton, the associate director of the Advanced Placement program at the College Board and the vice chairwoman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. "Educators need to be invited at the outset for dinner instead of being invited in for dessert."

Focus on Schools

"I'm delighted [the issue] came to the table," Sharon P. Robinson, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said in an interview. "I think that tension needs to be worked out. We're not going to fix it for all time here, but we can ratchet up the communication."

In discussions ranging from the development of a long-term research agenda to standards for how research is to be performed and reviewed, a consensus appeared to emerge among board members that the O.E.R.I. must work harder to move research from the federally supported research centers and laboratories to the classroom--and listen more closely to educators and parents.

Glenda T. Lappan, a mathematics professor at Michigan State University and one of five researchers on the board, who were nominated by the National Academy of Sciences, acknowledged that few schools are even aware of the labs and centers.

"We need to judge all this by the standard of what's helpful to schools," Ms. Lappan said. "I think we're all struggling with a very different kind of commitment."

The law reorganizing the O.E.R.I. requires the agency and the board to publish a draft long-term research plan for public comment in the next six months. The Education Department hopes to issue a draft plan by summer and have the board approve the final plan by next March.

The advisory panel, formally called the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board, must also approve guidelines for upcoming competitions for laboratory and center contracts--the first to be conducted since the agency was reorganized into five large research institutes, each oriented toward a single mission. A new office of reform assistance and dissemination is to deliver research to the field.

Standards of Conduct

The contracts for most of the existing laboratories and centers expire in November. The department intends to announce the new labs competition by May 15. The centers competition should be announced by July, though the proposed priorities for that competition may be published as early as this week.

However, the advisory panel must approve new standards for the conduct and evaluation of the office's research before the O.E.R.I. can announce the competitions.

The board discussed draft standards that spell out the peer-review process--including how reviewers are to be selected--for applications and proposals for contracts and grants.

The standards are an integral part of building the office's credibility, said Gerald E. Sroufe, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association.

"They're designed to keep O.E.R.I. away from biased, unfair standards for research," he said.

In the past, the office has relied on general regulations that left the assistant secretary wide discretion, Mr. Sroufe said.

At their meeting, board members elected as co-chairmen Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University, and Ted Sanders, Ohio's superintendent of schools and a former undersecretary of education in the Bush Administration.

With so many deadlines looming, the board also decided to name committees to oversee various projects.The committee for the labs competition has tentatively scheduled an April 20 meeting during the A.E.R.A.'s conference in San Francisco. The next meeting of the full board is set for June 8.

Vol. 14, Issue 29

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