Experts' Panel Seeks New Research Priorities

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Education research theoretically makes its way to the classroom in a fairly straightforward fashion. The researcher conducts a study and publishes the results in a scholarly journal. An educator or entrepreneur sees the findings and creates programs or products linked to the research. Then real schools test-drive the programs--with or without success.

But what would happen if all the steps--basic research, development, dissemination, and evaluation--happened at once? And what if the teachers and the researchers involved all had a stake in the outcome?

A panel of leading education scholars has concluded that finding the answers to those questions should be a priority for federal funding of educational research. The group, pulled together by the National Academy of Education, was asked a year ago to come up with a wish list for federal funding of research.

The vision the panelists sketch for new research models--meant to supplement the more traditional studies supported by the Department of Education--reflects long-standing ferment in the field over how to make education research more meaningful to practitioners.

Carl F. Kaestle

"Ever since I've known about educational research, people have been telling me how ineffective the research-development-dissemination-evaluation model has been," said Carl F. Kaestle, a Brown University researcher and past academy president. "Yet it's had a remarkable life."

Problem-Solving Stressed

The panel of experts was formed at the request of the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board, a congressionally mandated group that advises the Education Department on its research operations. The board's aim is to increase the effectiveness of research backed with federal money by identifying a few priority areas on which to concentrate. The researchers' advice, given to the board at its March 18-19 meeting here, represented one step in that process.

Coming from the national academy, a private group of more than 100 prominent researchers, the recommendations carry some weight. In all, 33 researchers--psychologists, cognitive scien- tists, education historians, anthropologists, and social scientists--had a say in the report.

Yet some researchers question whether federal policymakers will be willing to pay for the newer, more expensive research models the panel recommends.

Gerald Sroufe

"It makes me a little queasy to talk about experimental institutions and learning institutions," said Gerald Sroufe, a lobbyist for the American Educational Research Association in Washington. "I frankly would not want to be the one to carry this to Capitol Hill."

Broad Application Sought

In their report, the scholars note that one problem with the prevailing model is that it can lead to a disconnect between what research says and what really happens in classrooms. The new model could help bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners by enlisting both to work together in solving real problems over long periods of time--perhaps 10 years or more.

"This research should be focused explicitly on solving current problems of practice and at the same time should be accountable for developing and testing general principles of education that advance fundamental understanding," the researchers write.

And the investigators in such projects should be prepared to think early in the process about how to make their ideas applicable to other sites.

The Education Department could help in that process by linking "problem-solving" research sites like spokes on a wheel. The job of the research team at the center of the wheel would be to articulate common problems and principles turning up at the various project locations.

"You do sacrifice some of the independence and disinterestedness in this kind of setting, and for that you have to compensate," Mr. Kaestle said. He said researchers might, for example, enlist outside evaluators to cast a more objective eye on their work.

Emphasis on Transition

In the report, the scholars also call for studies that would:

  • Explore the critical learning transitions that poor children make---both in and out of school;
  • Examine the link between better teaching and improved student learning; and
  • Shed light on teachers' professional development.

The needs of poor children should be at the heart of all research the Education Department supports, the panel concludes.

"Starting in the 1960s, much attention was given to ways the educational system was excluding children from even being present in schools," said James G. Greeno, the Stanford University professor who co-chaired the academy panel. "I think the situation we're in now is we now need to work on the process of improving access to learning."

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Pages 20-21

Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as Experts' Panel Seeks New Research Priorities
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