School & District Management

Competing Plans Offered To Shield Research From Political Influences

By Debra Viadero — May 10, 2000 2 min read
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Policymakers and researchers floated ideas for ways to buffer federally funded education research from the changing whims of politics during a House education subcommittee hearing last week.

The May 4 hearing before the Early Childhood, Youth, and Families panel was held with an eye toward the upcoming reauthorization of the office of educational research and improvement, the agency that oversees much of the research financed by the Department of Education.

Hoping to improve the quality of education research, Congress in 1994 revamped the agency, which has an annual budget of about $824 million. The deadline on that reauthorization is now up, and many researchers and legislators seem to agree that the changes have had little impact.

“Most education research is not done well, is not of good quality, does not inform, and should not be trusted,” G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the child-development and -behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, told the lawmakers last week.

Part of the problem, Mr. Lyon and others said, is that politics, regardless of which party is in office, plays too strong a role in what type of research is supported, how the findings are disseminated, and what gets taught in colleges and universities that prepare the nation’s teachers.

But proposals vary on ways to shield research from political influences. One strategy, reportedly favored by Republican committee aides, calls for creating an independent education research agency—possibly modeled after the Federal Reserve Board.

“While there are some drawbacks to having the educational research agency located outside the Department of Education, they are outweighed by the benefits of having the research unit being relatively free from political interference and able to institute more rigorous and scientifically sound research practices,” said Maris A. Vinovskis, a University of Michigan history professor who is studying the OERI.

C. Kent McGuire

But C. Kent McGuire, the department’s assistant secretary in charge of research, said political independence could also leave education research with fewer champions in Congress or the executive branch.

“If it were to be outside the department, I think we should worry a lot about what kind of support there is for it,” he told the subcommittee.

National ‘Institute’ Proposed

Mr. McGuire favors a more centralized national institute for education research within the department.

To create a measure of political independence, he would replace his own job as assistant secretary with an institute director who would serve a six-year term. The assistant secretary now serves at the pleasure of the president.

That idea has been echoed by the American Educational Research Association, which represents 23,000 researchers. The organization has called for a presidentially appointed commissioner of education research, who would serve a fixed term.

“None of you have preached the status quo,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Delaware Republican who chairs the subcommittee. “Whether we can all agree on the same exact end, I’m not certain.”

Also unclear at last week’s hearing was the question of when the OERI reauthorization would occur.

While Mr. Castle said his own goal of passing a bill before Congress adjourns this summer was admittedly ambitious, prospects look even dimmer in the Senate.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as Competing Plans Offered To Shield Research From Political Influences

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