A key lawmaker introduced a bill last week outlining his vision for transforming the Department of Education’s oft-criticized research arm into a streamlined, more independent “academy of education sciences.”
If the bill as written were to be approved by Congress, it would dramatically overhaul the department’s office of educational research and improvement, the $954 million agency that oversees most federally financed education studies. The academy, while still housed in the Education Department, would be more autonomous than the current research office, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del.
He chairs the education reform subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
“I am seeking to insulate our federal research, evaluation, and statistics activities from partisan or undue political influences,” Rep. Castle said. “I want quality education research, not fads or anecdotes, to inform educators’ decisions on the best way to improve student learning and narrow achievement gaps.”
Under his proposal, the new academy would be headed by a director and a board of directors, rather than an assistant secretary, as is now the case with the OERI. While still a political appointee, the director would serve a fixed, six-year term—a change intended to put some distance between the research chief and the political party in power.
The president would appoint the board’s 15 voting members. Heads of other agencies, such as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Census Bureau, would serve as nonvoting members.
The academy’s director would also oversee three centers—one each on statistics, evaluation, and research. Those centers would be headed by commissioners also appointed by the president for six-year terms.
Labs and Centers
Mr. Castle’s bill seeks to phase out most of the smaller research centers the department now sponsors. Numbering as many as 11 at one time, the centers have specialized in areas such as improving education for disadvantaged students and student testing.
Currently, the Education Department contracts with regional educational laboratories to provide local educators with research expertise, to develop user-friendly products, and to serve as pipelines for educational research findings.
Under the new plan, regional governing boards made up of practitioners, policymakers, and parents would be given the authority to contract with whatever groups they chose to supply those kinds of services. The boards, appointed by the governors and the state schools superintendents, would be overseen by the federal secretary of education.
The changes come as federal lawmakers are pushing educators to rely on “scientifically based research” in choosing the programs they pay for with federal money, said Jim Kohlmoos, the president of NEKIA, or the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, a Washington-based group that represents many of the labs and centers. That phrase crops up 110 times, by one count, in the revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act signed into law earlier this year. (Jan. 20, 2002.)
The emphasis continues in Mr. Castle’s bill, which calls for financing “scientifically valid” research.
“The research knowledge base has taken on a level of importance not seen in a long time time, and we do not believe this is the time to blow up the knowledge infrastructure out in the field,” Mr. Kohlmoos said. “This is the time to refine and enhance it.”
Introduced the evening of Feb. 27, Mr. Castle’s bill came too late to generate much discussion at a hearing on federal education research held the following day by its sponsor’s subcommittee.
But some of the education officials who testified said the need to improve federal education research was clear.
“The key question I asked myself in preparing this testimony was this: In all my years involved in education reform, what role has federal education research or the federal research infrastructure played in my role as an education reformer?” said Jim Horne, Florida’s education secretary. “The answer is: Not much. Not much at all.”
The Bush administration’s emphasis on “scientifically based research,” as reflected in both Mr. Castle’s bill and in the revised ESEA, also worried some educators, however.
“This emphasis on a medical model for education research is abhorrent,” said Douglas D. Christenson, Nebraska’s commissioner of education. " ... Our children are not sick or diseased. Education and instruction are not treatments.”
Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, noted that his office’s core research and dissemination budget for the current fiscal year, leaving out its statistics center, is only $122 million. Much of the rest goes to technical assistance, demonstration programs, and other functions.
President Bush, in his proposed budget for fiscal 2003, seeks to raise the agency’s research budget by 44 percent.
A Second Try
The bill introduced last week marked Mr. Castle’s second attempt to reorganize the research agency, which has not been formally reauthorized by Congress since 1994. The last bill, introduced two years ago, never made it to the House floor. But lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have said they plan to pass legislation reauthorizing the research office this year.
Mr. Whitehurst, in his testimony before the subcommittee, said taking steps to improve federal education research operations now could have far-reaching consequences.
“We are close to a point where the right investment in the right structure could get us close to a tipping point, where education becomes an evidence-based field,” he said. “Medicine only got to that point in the last 75 years.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Bill Would Remake OERI Into ‘Education Sciences’ Academy