School & District Management

Panel Suggests State Compact For Research

By Lynn Olson — April 09, 2003 6 min read
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The National Research Council proposed an ambitious new research and development system for education last week and suggested that a compact of states play a central role in paying for it.

“State governments historically have not participated in the research and development enterprise,” notes the 116-page report by the arm of the National Academy of Sciences. Given the current fiscal climate, it adds, states will not be able to commit substantial new resources immediately.

The report, “Strategic Education Research Partnership,” is available in an “Open Book” format from the National Academies Press.

Print copies can be purchased for $30, prepaid, plus shipping and handling, by calling (800) 624-6242, or by ordering online.

But the report argues that states are the “logical investors” in education research in the long run, because they bear the primary responsibility for overseeing and financing K-12 education.

“Research is done under federal sponsorship, and there’s a lot of policy work that goes on inside the [Capital] Beltway,” said Joe B. Wyatt, the chairman of the NRC committee that produced the report and a chancellor emeritus of Vanderbilt University. “But the fact is, there’s not much that goes on in any school in this country that isn’t a result of state policy.”

The report calls for the creation of a “strategic education research partnership,” or SERP, that would bring together scientists and practitioners to address pressing problems and help significant findings gain traction in schoolhouses and statehouses.

As envisioned, the partnership would have three organizational parts:

  • A central headquarters would design and oversee a coherent program of research, set long-term goals, pursue sources of funding, and synthesize and disseminate findings.
  • Networks of educators and scientists from a variety of disciplines would work together around broadly defined fields of research, such as learning and instruction, schools as organizations, and education policy.
  • Most of the actual research would be conducted by teams of practitioners and scholars working in schools and districts that volunteered to serve as SERP field sites. Those sites would be akin to teaching hospitals in medicine.

The proposed interstate compact would help policymakers acquire the skills needed to frame, use, and evaluate education research and help in setting the research agenda. States would not pay to join the compact, but they would commit to contributing a small portion—a fraction of 1 percent—of their K-12 spending further down the road.

Launching the initiative and financing it throughout a seven- to 10-year trial period would cost about $500 million, the report estimates. While that price may seem high, the committee says, it amounts to less than 0.5 percent of all U.S. spending on elementary and secondary education.

The NRC committee urges private foundations to take the lead in underwriting the initiative in the near term. Businesses, Congress, and federal agencies also might provide financial support during the launch period. In addition, the panel suggests, some money could be redirected from existing federal and state education research budgets.

Bad Timing?

If all states joined an interstate compact to which they contributed just one-quarter of 1 percent of their K-12 education budgets, the report says, the total funds available for research and development would fall in the neighborhood of $800 million a year.

Still, the proposal couldn’t come at a worse economic time, some experts in state policy said.

“The idea has real merit,” said James B. Hunt Jr., a former governor of North Carolina. “But right now, when states are having to lay off teachers and cut out weeks of school and do other drastic things, I don’t think they’re going to put any money into any kind of multistate compact, no matter how valuable it is.”

“Potentially, I think there are some states that would be interested,” added David L. Shreve, the senior committee director for education at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “But this is absolutely the worst time to think about doing anything that costs money.”

Ted Sanders, a member of the NRC committee and the president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which also was formed through an interstate compact, did not dispute those assessments. But he argued that, particularly with passage of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, “the whole climate has changed relative to the demand for scientific evidence.”

The federal law, the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, makes more than 100 references to the need for educators to base their practices on “scientifically based research.” The proposed partnership, said Mr. Sanders, “creates a mechanism for the states to begin investing in research that’s focused on the clear questions that they believe need to be answered.”

To shield SERP from political influence, the NRC envisions a small governing board of perhaps a dozen members. The board would appoint a director for the partnership, who would ultimately decide on research projects and priorities.

A scientific-advisory board would oversee research designs and a rigorous peer-review process, according to the report. A second, agenda-setting advisory board would help the director identify critical problems of policy and practice and include teachers, principals, legislators, and others with everyday experience in education.

But the heart of the enterprise would be the unprecedented collaboration between scientists and practitioners working in concert on a sustained basis.

“I think it’s really important to be able to think differently about research and its connections to practice than, perhaps, we have over time,” said Paul D. Goren, the acting president of the Spencer Foundation, a Chicago-based philanthropy that helped sponsor the study.

“If the SERP process can help folks at the school and district level frame the important questions that they face day to day that research can actually address,” Mr. Goren said, “then that’s fantastic.”

Providing ‘Leverage’

The National Academy of Sciences launched what it billed as the Strategic Education Research Initiative in 1996, at the urging of its president, Bruce Alberts. In 1999, the NRC released a report, “Improving Student Learning: A Strategic Plan for Education Research and Its Utilization,” that outlined a 15-year strategy for increasing the usefulness of education research. (“NRC Seeks New Agenda for Research,” April 14, 1999.)

That report proposed a research program focused on four central 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.

The current, 15-member committee was charged with fleshing out the functional design for the organization of such a large-scale research program.

Its report points out that the proposed strategic education research partnership would not replace initiatives sponsored by the federal government or private foundations. “We’re hopeful that our efforts will blend in in a way that provides some leverage, each one to the other,” said Mr. Wyatt, the panel’s chairman.

Although the national academy officially ends its work on the initiative with the release of the new report, Mr. Wyatt said he and several other committee members already have submitted proposals to a number of foundations for seed money for the new organization.

“I’m hopeful that over the next several months, we will have things to report on the rollout of the plan,” he said.

In addition to the Spencer Foundation, which underwrites research coverage in Education Week, the study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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