Researchers Call for OERI Reforms at Hearing

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More money, a clearer mission, and a sharper focus made up the recipe advanced at a congressional hearing last week on improving the Department of Education's major research office.

The Office of Educational Research and Improvement, or OERI, which is due to be reauthorized this year or next, was overhauled by Congress five years ago in an effort to improve federally financed education research and to make it more useful.

But the consensus of several of the panelists and lawmakers at last Thursday's joint hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee was that the reforms had not fulfilled their promise.

The congressional attention comes as several national commissions and experts are issuing their own recommendations for improving the quality of educational research, a field that has long been criticized for the caliber, relevance, and utility of its products.

"If there's really a stepchild in the whole debate about education reform, it's been in the area of education research," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee.

Part of the problem, panelists told the committees, is that the department's research office has too many functions. Only $143.6 million of the OERI's current $938 million budget, for example, actually goes to research. The rest supports a variety of tasks, including providing technical advice to states and districts.

Scattered Activities

Moreover, education research activities are scattered throughout the department--even throughout the federal government.

"What is clear from the history of educational research at the federal level is that the field is troubled, that it has never really found its place, and that it lacks a specific vision and mission," said Christopher T. Cross, who was the OERI's assistant secretary during the Bush administration and is now the president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based group that promotes academic achievement.

History professor Maris Vinovskis, second from left, tells a House-Senate panel "we're running out of time" for reforming the OERI.

Mr. Cross also called "abominable" federal funding for education research, which amounts to less than 1 percent of the total education budget. Instead, he said, the federal government should work toward providing 2 percent of its total education spending--or about $700 million--to research.

Some of the panelists' other recommendations for improving the OERI were:

  • Taking steps to insulate the agency from political manipulation, by creating an independent research institute or setting up a bipartisan board to oversee the OERI's research functions;
  • Giving states some of the $61 million that now goes to the Education Department's regional laboratories so that local educators can buy their own technical assistance; and
  • Relaxing personnel regulations so that distinguished scholars could be hired on a short-term basis for major research programs.

But Alexandra K. Wigdor, the associate executive director of the commission on behavioral and social sciences and education of the National Research Council, also noted that the field is not devoid of important contributions. Researchers in cognitive science, for example, have in recent decades made strides in discovering how children think and learn, she said. "But we cannot assume that good research will be incorporated in schools as a matter of course," Ms. Wigdor told the panel.

She echoed a recent call by an NRC panel for long-term, targeted studies that would require scholars and educators to work together in real schools.

But Maris Vinovskis, a University of Michigan history professor and a former research adviser to the OERI, noted that many of the concerns voiced have surfaced at the federal level for years. "I think we're running out of time, and you should be running out of patience with us," he said of the field.

"That's why we're having this hearing," replied Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the Senate panel's chairman.

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Page 26

Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Researchers Call for OERI Reforms at Hearing
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