Federal

New Research Agency’s Independence in Question

By Debra Viadero — November 13, 2002 6 min read
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In signing legislation last week to create an Institute of Education Sciences to shepherd federal education studies, President Bush has put his stamp on the fourth major restructuring in 30 years of the Department of Education’s primary research agency.

Supporters and architects of the institute say it will be more streamlined, more focused on its central research mission, and more resistant to political interference than the Education Department’s research operations are now.

But even before the ink dried on the bill establishing the agency, the White House was sending out signals that it wants to maintain a grip on the institute. And that message has led some of the institute’s proponents to wonder whether the new agency will be any more politically independent than its predecessors.

Called the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002, the bipartisan legislation was the only major education bill passed by Congress this year. It effectively wipes out the department’s office of educational research and improvement, known as the OERI, as well as the job of the assistant secretary who headed it. The new research institute will be led instead by a director, who will likely be the OERI’s current assistant secretary, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, and a 15-member national advisory board. (“Research Bill, After Stall, Sails to Passage,” Oct. 23, 2002.)

Although the institute will still be part of the Education Department, lawmakers tried to buffer it from political interference by having its director, who is presidentially appointed, serve for a six-year term.

The director also will be able to appoint the commissioners who head two of the three national centers that fall under the agency’s umbrella. They are the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. The latter includes some of the evaluation duties now handled by offices within the department.

The president, however, will continue to appoint the commissioner of the third center, the existing National Center for Education Statistics.

And, in language echoing last year’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law says that research financed by the agency should be “scientifically valid.”

“This act will substantially strengthen the scientific basis for the Department of Education’s continuing efforts to help families, schools, and state and local governments with the education of America’s children,” President Bush said in a statement issued on Nov. 5, when he signed the bill into law.

How Independent?

What had members of the research community scratching their heads last week, however, was the rest of the president’s statement. It asserts, in lawyerly language, the White House’s and the Education Department’s right to supervise the new institute.

The statement notes, for example, that the director should operate under the secretary of education’s supervision when publishing agency reports—an arrangement that seems to contradict language in the law giving the director the authority to publish and disseminate reports without the secretary’s approval.

“That’s really quite unusual,” said Emerson J. Elliott, who was the commissioner of the NCES from 1984 to 1995. “I would say the White House is not too happy with with the bill.”

For representatives of education research groups, the statement’s language is raising questions about the level of independence the institute will be allowed.

“The whole idea behind creating a separate institute was to give more independence and a greater appearance of objectivity to the office,” said C. Kent McGuire, who headed the OERI under President Clinton. “One would only hope this language doesn’t threaten that.”

But a legislative aide to Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Delaware Republican who was the chief author of the bill, said she was untroubled by President Bush’s comments. “I don’t think it’s an attempt to undermine the authority or independence of the institute because clearly it’s in the department,” said Kara Haas.

To veterans of the federal government’s long-running efforts to foster credible education research, the small measure of independence that Congress gave the institute is its greatest strength.

Besides giving the director a six-year term and more latitude in hiring, the law gives the job Level II status on the federal pay scale. Assistant secretaries are Level IV employees, according to Mr. Elliott, a 38- year veteran of the federal education research bureaucracy.

“People will read that as equivalent to deputy secretary,” he said of the Level II designation.

At the same time, though, the legislation also authorizes the president to fire the director.

The question of political independence is one of several still to be answered in the new legislation. Some educators are also wondering what’s in store for the 30-year-old Educational Resources Information Clearinghouses, known as ERIC.

The clearinghouses collect, disseminate, and analyze research on a range of education issues. Under the new law, they can operate until their current contracts end. But the law is silent on what might happen next, saying only that the research agency must continue to collect studies on the 16 topics the clearinghouses cover now.

However, the law does keep largely intact the regional education laboratory system and many of the national research centers that operate now. It also authorizes up to 20 comprehensive regional-assistance centers to provide educational expertise to states and school districts.

Déjà Vu

In some ways, research experts said, the new arrangement is like the first National Institute of Education, which was formed in 1972 under President Richard M. Nixon. That agency was separate from, but on an equal footing with what was then the U.S. Office of Education, according to Thomas K. Glennan, that institute’s first director. Both the institute and the Office of Education, however, answered to an assistant secretary in what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Although begun with much fanfare, the old institute was nearly crippled a year later, when its funding was cut in half.

To Chester E. Finn Jr., who played a role in both creating and, later, dismantling the agency, the similarities suggest that improvements aimed at tinkering with the structure of the federal research enterprise are futile.

“The money ends up going to the same pigs in the trough no matter what the structure is,” said Mr. Finn, who headed the OERI during the Reagan administration and is now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. “The problems of educational research are not structural in nature.”

But this time around, the research agency’s architects benefited from experience, said Gerald R. Sroufe, the government-relations director for the American Educational Research Association. “Expectations are much more modest and much more realistic this time,” he said.

Regardless of structure, both the old institute and its newest incarnation face the same issue, said Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, the dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

“That is whether or not the agency can achieve the level of political independence it needs to nurture credible research,” she said, “and the challenge is going to be getting the funding necessary to do that.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as New Research Agency’s Independence in Question

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