NRC Seeks New Agenda for Research

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The National Research Council last week mapped out an ambitious, 15-year strategy for increasing the usefulness of education research.

The 44-page report by the arm of the National Academy of Sciences outlines plans for a "Strategic Education Research Program" focused on four questions: how to incorporate research on cognition, development, and learning into practice; how to increase student motivation and engagement; how to transform schools and districts into organizations that can continuously improve; and how to increase the use of research in education.

For More Information
Prepublication copies of the report, "Improving Student Learning: A Strategic Plan for Education Research and Its Utilization," are available for $18 each from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20418; (800) 624-6242; and online at:
. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)

"It is poignantly clear that research has not had the kind of impact on education that is visible in medical practice, space exploration, energy, and many other fields," writes Bruce Alberts, the president of the academy, a private, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress, in a preface to the report.

To advance such research, the NRC suggests bringing together scholars from many disciplines, along with policymakers and practitioners. That model--based on one used by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in the fields of mental and physical development and health--would create four interconnected networks of prominent researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, each devoted to working on one of the core questions.

Such networks would be supported by a national coalition of public and private funding sources and would be overseen by a national governing board.

The report does not spell out the cost of the project, or say where it would be based. "We think that needs to emerge from the discussion," Alexandra K. Wigdorf, the manager in charge of the report, said last week.

Putting Research To Use

The Strategic Education Research Program would focus on four main questions over at least a 15-year period:

  • How can advances in research on human cognition, development, and learning be incorporated into educational practice?
  • How can student engagement in the learning process and motivation to achieve in school be increased?
  • How can schools and school districts be transformed into organizations that have the capacity to continuously improve their practices?
  • How can the use of research knowledge be increased in schools and school districts?

The NRC report invites all interested parties--including the federal government, foundations, national education organizations, businesses, and state and local education leaders--to join in a year of discussion about the proposal. That conversation will begin later this month when the NRC presents its report in Montreal at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the Washington-based AERA, described the report as "a really thoughtful look at what the problems have been in having research make a contribution, and it proposes a solid strategy for addressing the problem."

But he cautioned: "We don't have a lot of people who are qualified to do what they want done."

The vice chairman of the committee that produced the report said the process might take longer than a year.

"We're hunting big game here," said David A. Goslin, who is also the president of the American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. "And hunting big game requires patience and perseverance."

Unlikely Model

The NRC formed the 16-member committee of educational researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and other experts in 1996 at the urging of Mr. Alberts. The idea for developing a national, strategic program for education research came from an unlikely source: highway research.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, research on highway transportation was underfunded and underused, Mr. Alberts explained. But following an NRC study, Congress enacted a 10-year, $150 million Strategic Highway Research Program in 1985. That program resulted in a concerted effort that eventually led to such advances as the use of tougher asphalt for paving and the development of longer-lasting concrete.

"What do U.S. highways and education have in common?" Mr. Alberts writes in his preface. "Both involve a large public investment. Both badly need research that speaks to the needs of everyday practice."

Although K-12 education costs the United States close to $340 billion annually, the report notes, it "does not rest on a strong research base." Moreover, "importing even the strongest research findings into over a million classrooms is daunting."

While the federal government provides up to 75 percent of the support for educational research in this country, for example, that amount represents less than 1 percent of total federal spending on education. And those resources are spread so thin that it virtually ensures mediocrity, the NRC argues.

'Easier Said Than Done'

Under the committee's proposal, each network would have a half-time director and a core membership of seven to 15 people. Network members would meet as a group at least four times a year to design, commission, and evaluate projects; synthesize existing research; and find ways of getting the best available knowledge into districts, schools, and classrooms.

The NRC anticipates that much of the research would take place in schools, and could be done by network members or, more likely, groups headed by network members with others from outside.

A governing board would work with each network to devise long-term strategic plans, allocate financial support, and assess progress. The governing board also would convene a national congress every four years at which each network would report on its progress.

What would set these networks apart, the report argues, would be their emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and on sustained research that is solutions-oriented. "As an institution, we've been propelled in this direction by seeing so many talented people and so much money not having an impact," Ms. Wigdor said. "We've just got to focus our efforts."

Paul D. Goren, the director of child and youth development for the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, agreed. "I think it's really important to make the attempt to implement a focused agenda and to link research findings to the problems of practice," he said.

Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, described the committee's report as "quite bold." But he cautioned that its emphasis on active, "constructivist" learning might sound alarm bells.

"They're entering a debate that is, in part, research-based and, in part, philosophically based," he said, "and I'm not sure research can settle these questions."

Vol. 18, Issue 31, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: April 14, 1999, as NRC Seeks New Agenda for Research
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