Two years ago, a National Research Council panel published a report sketching out the “big picture’’ for a 15-year strategy to make education research more useful. Last month, a second panel began the painstaking work of filling in the details.
Over the next year-and-a-half, the newly formed Strategic Education Research Program, or SERP, panel will design an institutional structure intended to focus education research on a few important problems and manage large-scale, long-term work addressing those problems. The group, which met here for the first time July 13-14, also plans to draw up an agenda for research in two critical areas—student motivation and learning—to show how its ideas might play out in a specific field of study.
“In contrast to many other fields, from medicine to information technology, scientific research does not supply educators with powerful tools for improving what they do. But it could,” the research council writes in its charge to the new group.
The starting point for the panel’s work is “Improving Student Learning: A Strategic Plan for Education Research and its Utilization,” the report published by the first SERP panel. (April 14, 1999.)
The original panel was the brainchild of Bruce A. Alberts, the president of the private, congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences, the NRC’s parent organization. He called the group together in 1996 to see if education research might draw some lessons from an unlikely model: highway research.
Mr. Alberts said studies in highway construction and maintenance were badly underfunded and underused in the 1970s and 1980s—just as education research is today. Following on the recommendations of an NRC panel drafted to study that field, the Congress enacted a 10-year, $150 million program of highway research that led to major advances in highway studies.
To achieve similar goals in education, the education research panel concluded in its 1999 report, a national program of research must be strategically focused, build on a cumulative body of work, and involve new collaborations between researchers, educators, and policymakers. But the report made no recommendations on where to house such a program or how to pay for it.
‘A Big Challenge’
That leaves it up to the new panel to decide whether the organizational structure it designs should be a federal agency, a partnership of several agencies, a public- private venture, a federal-state enterprise, or something else.
“It’s a big challenge, but we think it’s a big problem,” said Alexandra K. Wigdor, the director of the study panel. Although education accounts for 7 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, and precollegiate schools serve 52.7 million children, the field is “largely uninformed by research,” she and other NRC officials say.
To help devise a research structure strong enough to meet the needs of such a vast enterprise, the council has put together a 13-member panel that includes corporate leaders, educators, and scholars in education, economics, and organizational behavior. The chairman of the group is Joe B. Wyatt, who served as chancellor and chief executive officer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., from 1982 until last year.
James A. Kelly, the retired president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the privately organized group that offers voluntary national certification for accomplished teachers, has also signed on to be an adviser to the group.
“The national board started, in effect, with a committee and a report, and so the Strategic Education Research Project starts with a committee and a report,” Mr. Kelly said. “When we started with the board, nobody could imagine what a system of national certification would look like, or that half of the teachers in the country would be offered substantial salary increases to achieve it.”
Similarly, he added, few can imagine now what form a strategic national program for education research might take.
Two separate panels working with the SERP group will aim to set the research agendas in motivation and learning. The main SERP panel will also work with another NRC group that is independently drafting standards for federally financed research in education.
It’s not likely, however, that the new group’s work will be finished before Congress takes up legislation to reauthorize the Department of Education’s main research arm, the office of educational research and improvement. “But this is a longer-term problem,” Ms. Wigdor said, “and the problem is not going away.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Panel To Detail National Strategy For Research