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Can Research Serve the Needs of Education?

This report presents the general outlines for a program of research designed to strengthen current efforts for education reform. It advances a strategy to focus education research on a few critical topics that both address needs identified in professional practice and are likely to produce large payoffs. The committee hopes that the report will, at the very least, generate interest and stimulate discussion about how to use the power of scientific research to improve education. It is an invitation to everyone involved in education to discuss the feasibility of the proposed plan, to work out the details, perhaps to become allies in a common cause.

The report is thus addressed to many audiences. It is addressed to the federal government—federal dollars now constitute between 60 and 75 percent of total national resources for education research. It is addressed to state and local officials who have primary responsibility for the American education system. It is addressed to the thousands of teachers and administrators who every day face the immediate realities of educating America's children. It is addressed to the community of scientists and scholars who command powerful tools of analysis and observation that could strengthen teaching and learning. And finally, it is addressed to the philanthropic organizations that have played such an important role in promoting education during the course of this century.



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1 Can Research Serve the Needs of Education? This report presents the general outlines for a program of research designed to strengthen current efforts for education reform. It advances a strategy to focus education research on a few critical topics that both address needs identified in professional practice and are likely to produce large payoffs. The committee hopes that the report will, at the very least, generate interest and stimulate discussion about how to use the power of scientific research to improve education. It is an invitation to everyone involved in education to discuss the feasibility of the proposed plan, to work out the details, perhaps to become allies in a common cause. The report is thus addressed to many audiences. It is addressed to the federal government—federal dollars now constitute between 60 and 75 percent of total national resources for education research. It is addressed to state and local officials who have primary responsibility for the American education system. It is addressed to the thousands of teachers and administrators who every day face the immediate realities of educating America's children. It is addressed to the community of scientists and scholars who command powerful tools of analysis and observation that could strengthen teaching and learning. And finally, it is addressed to the philanthropic organizations that have played such an important role in promoting education during the course of this century.

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Education Reform and Education Research Education Reform: An American Passion Since the time of the Revolution, education has been an important part of the American ethos. When Europeans claimed that the social fabric would disintegrate without a king, the founders of the Republic argued that an educated citizenry would hold the polity together. A century later, as waves of newcomers filled the land, schooling was promoted as the way to make them Americans, to knit together a nation of immigrants. Now, two centuries later, the United States is in the midst of fundamental transitions: it can no longer dominate the world politically or economically as it did in the 35 years after World War II; industrial production is migrating overseas, changing the nature—and the intellectual and technical demands—of the contemporary workplace; the concentration of poverty and disadvantage that characterizes large cities has become an intransigent problem. Once again, education is at the top of the national political agenda. Every state has mandated reforms and countless local programs and alliances have initiated efforts for improvements. Education reform efforts in the United States have been almost continuous Because education holds so central a place in the nation, education reform efforts in the United States have been almost continuous. These efforts have been based on passion, conviction, and, occasionally, research. Almost all have been declared a success by at least some people. And indisputable progress has been made in terms of school attendance, years of schooling, levels of literacy, and the quality of classrooms and equipment. Yet, as the twentieth century ends, few people are fully satisfied with the condition of education in the United States Many individuals and institutions have been involved in school reform. From the great education reformers of the nineteenth century—Horace Mann in the 1840s, John Dewey in the 1890s—to the major philanthropies in the twentieth century—the Carnegie, Spencer, and Ford Foundations and the Julius Rosenwald Fund (which built schools all over the South) the idea of improving education in order to improve society has been a powerful force. Since the 1850s, when the principle of

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state-supported schools for all children triumphed in most parts of the country, state and local governments have played a central role in the governance of what rapidly became "school systems." In successive waves of reformist sentiment, schools have been used as the instrument for shaping a rural populace into an increasingly urban and industrial one. Each reform attempt is an exercise in optimism and creativity. Reform efforts require considerable energy and commitment. They also require financial resources and long time horizons. The dynamism and ferment that characterize education reform efforts in the United States have led to significant change and progress on many fronts. But the country has undergone even greater change, with the consequence that public frustration with the quality of education in the United States has been as constant as reform efforts. Each reform attempt is an exercise in optimism and creativity Can the balance between optimism and frustration be shifted? Can the likelihood that reform efforts will produce students who are better learners be increased? The Role of Research1 Research is one of the most important tools society has for ensuring that government policies and practices are thoughtful and effective. Research has, for example, been a potent force for improved public health: because of advances in biomedical research that produced the polio vaccine, public health officials could confidently inoculate the entire youth population with a live virus. So axiomatic is the profitability of research in agriculture that one of the nation's foremost seed companies was willing to invest 40 years of effort in the development of a seedless watermelon. In education, however, the potential of research has not been realized. The sheer complexity of the enterprise has been a factor, as have underinvestment, lack of focus, and the difficulties of translating research results for practical ends. 1   This section draws on an earlier report, Research and Education Reform: Roles for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (National Research Council, 1992).

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Complexity Education in the United States is an extraordinarily complex, dynamic system, which has to continually adapt to changes in the society. More centralized systems or more traditional societies, or simply smaller countries, present more manageable challenges for designing education research, but in any setting it must deal with the behavior and development of individual students, group dynamics of the classroom, and institutional change of school systems—all in the context of the evolving needs of the society. Research in education examines an ever-changing process, without end and without final answers. Yet good research can often make the difference between adaptations that improve the educational process and those that don't. Research in education examines an ever-changing process Underinvestment The federal government has made major investments in research in many fields in the last half century. As a result, medical treatment, defense, agriculture, space exploration, technology, and other social goods have made important progress. Although between 60 and 75 percent of support for education research comes from the federal government; that represents less than 1 percent of federal spending on education. And the dollar amount pales when compared with federal support of medical, defense, or even agricultural research. From another view, although education for kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) costs close to $340 billion per year (U.S. Department of Education, 1997), virtually no state funding supports education research. In short, the nation has made an enormous social investment in education with relatively little reflection, scientific rigor, or quality control. Lack of Focus Past investments in education research can only be described as diffuse. K-12 schooling in the United States is such a vast enterprise and takes place in such diverse settings that letting ''a thousand flowers bloom'' in education research appeared to

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be a sensible, responsive approach. The federal bodies that set priorities for education research have tended to frame their agendas very broadly. The foundations and agencies that fund research have encouraged and supported an extremely wide spectrum of research and development activities. This approach has resulted in innovative studies, fascinating findings, and isolated success stories, but it has not had the widespread effects on student learning that would create demand for the fruits of research. The National Research Council's recent assessment of the federal role in supporting education research concluded that the agencies responsible for education research have spread their limited resources "so thinly that mediocrity was almost assured. Only a few lines of research have been sustained for the time needed to bring them to fruition" (National Research Council, 1992:3). Parents and teachers want their children to succeed Difficulties of Translating Research Because educational practice in the United States is controlled at the local, indeed, the classroom level, the challenge of incorporating even the strongest research findings into over a million classrooms is daunting. It is not that most people who are involved in helping children learn do not want to do a better job. Parents and teachers want their children to succeed. Policy makers and administrators want to improve the performance of their schools. Curriculum developers and entrepreneurs want to develop new ideas and provide new products. But few of these people have access to research findings, and there is no centralized system (such as exists in Japan or France) to convey the most important research knowledge and to systematically train practitioners in its application. Furthermore, the language of researchers is not the language of practitioners; there is a cultural divide that hampers accessibility, and the incentive structures in research universities tend not to reward researcher-practitioner interface. As a consequence, improvement efforts, no matter how conscientious or well intentioned, are—and are likely to remain—hit-or-miss attempts.

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Toward a Strategic Approach to Research Despite this picture of unfilled promise, the nation does have resources to strengthen the role of research in education. Education researchers have at their disposal some very powerful scientific tools and access to a broad research literature in the behavioral, cognitive, and social sciences. For their part, teachers know the problems of education at first hand; like anthropologists, they understand the texture and rhythms of school life and learning, and many have crafted local solutions to difficult problems. Policy makers understand the larger realities of education—bureaucratic inertia, the difficulties of system-wide change, the political and economic dimensions of education. Can these considerable resources and energies be concentrated on the task of increasing the usefulness of research for policy makers, administrators, teachers, and others who have responsibility for the nation's schools? The challenge of incorporating . . . research findings into over a million classrooms is daunting To explore this challenge, in 1996 the National Research Council, the working arm of the National Academy of Sciences, convened a committee of 16 people broadly representative of the target communities: researchers in various fields, teachers, state- and district-level administrators, policy makers with federal and state experience, and analysts who have watched and commented on the education enterprise from some remove. The committee was asked to address four questions: Is it possible to identify a limited set of research questions of such crucial importance that answers to them could strengthen schools and bring about substantial improvement in student learning? Can a group of leading researchers, policy makers, and practitioners agree on what those questions would be? What would it take—in terms of resources, time, and organizational capacity—to answer those questions? What would it take to ensure the utilization of knowledge and solutions emerging from this effort?

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The committee grappled with these questions over a 2-year period. Its members took a hard look at the field of education research, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the existing knowledge base. They came back again and again to the real problems that teachers and principles and superintendents face every day and to the special needs of schools and students in communities plagued by poverty and its attendant problems. The committee also discussed at length what a strategic research program would look like. The committee became convinced that a Strategic Education Research Program as proposed in the following pages could increase the potential of research to improve education by focusing attention and resources on a limited number of critically important research questions and by placing utilization issues at the core of the effort. Defining Strategic While "strategic" is easy to understand in games like chess and in a military context (e.g., destroying industrial plants and communications facilities to compromise an opponent's capacity to mount military operations), what does it mean in the more pacific realms of learning and education? Having in mind one clear and overriding goal—substantially improving students' learning—the committee ultimately identified seven characteristics that would make a program of education research strategic. Strategic research would both advance fundamental scientific understanding and serve practical needs.2 If administrators, teachers, and other educators are to become consumers of research, then the research community will have to pay far closer attention to the needs of practitioners and policy makers. Conversely, if the ultimate goal of education reform is to improve all student learning and not just in a few classes or schools, then reformers would do well to build on systematic knowledge and the scientific tradition of hypothesis testing. Scientific knowledge about the workings of the mind and the 2   For an interesting discussion of the need to move beyond artificial distinctions between basic and applied science, see Stokes (1997).

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brain or the processes of learning, for example, can and should inform reform efforts. Strategic research would be highly focused. Improving student learning requires substantial resources and public resolve; supplies of both tend to be limited. It is therefore necessary to focus on a few very high priorities. Strategic research would address topics of self-evident importance. To be strategic, research must address topics that parents and the general public believe are crucial to improving the quality of education. Each topic should be grounded in the concerns of policy makers, teachers, administrators, and researchers, and solutions to each problem should be seen as valuable from all of their perspectives. Strategic research would be high-leverage research. The goal, in other words, is to pick topics likely to have the most effect on the specified outcome—in this case, improved student learning. Strategic research would address issues that form a coherent set. Focusing strategically suggests that each topic should be relevant to the others so that results are mutually reinforcing. This internal coherence will increase the likelihood that the institutions and individuals who influence children's learning will see the benefit of using well-tested education research. A strategic plan, by definition, has focus and coherence. Strategic research would be located at the nexus of scientific opportunity and practical need. It is critically important that the selected research topics are the product of informed estimates of scientific promise and likely to engage the most able researchers so that there is reason to believe that the program can be successful. At the same time, the research topics need to reflect issues and problems that are important to teachers, administrators, and policy makers. And, finally: Strategic education research requires continuity. As with other complex social systems, the problems and inadequacies in education defy simple solutions or magic bullets. In addition to focus and leverage and the other characteristics described above, it will require sustained attention over time to build a strong body of research that is useful—and used—in education.

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Benefits of a Strategic Plan In considering what strategic means in the context of education research, the committee also considered the benefits of such a program in comparison with the more scattershot approach that has typified education improvement and research. A strategic plan, by definition, has focus and coherence. Existing school improvement efforts are fragmented and largely uninformed by research. To have researchers, policy makers, and practitioners focus on a compelling set of educational issues and to conduct, disseminate, and apply research that addresses those issues could be a powerful engine for change. At the same time, a successful Strategic Education Research Program (SERP) of the kind proposed would seek to create a durable structure linking researchers, policy makers, and practitioners. The plan presented in this report provides for ongoing contacts among these actors and tries to ensure that knowledge and expertise move in all directions. In particular, it positions teachers both to help define the focus of research and to become active consumers of education research. A strategic program could also draw public attention to the utility of education research. Research and its dissemination are often a "hard sell" because they strike taxpayers as remote from their most urgent concern—improving student learning. A large-scale, strategic plan for improving student learning through research and knowledge would send a strong message that research and knowledge matter in the realm of education—that can and do translate into achievement gains for children. How This Plan Relates to Other Efforts While the SERP we propose is different from other reform efforts, it is emphatically not a replacement for them. For the SERP idea to come to life, education leaders will have to see its potential as a vehicle for leveraging existing investments by the federal government, state governments, school systems, and private-sector organizations. The U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), to name a few players at the federal level, have important ongoing programs supporting

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research and reform efforts. We believe a strategic research program can strengthen them and help them realize their goals. The Department of Education's Office of Education Research and Improvement (OERI) supports 12 research and development (R&D) centers and 10 regional laboratories. Established in the mid-1960s in response to concerns about the quality of education, the OERI centers have engaged in a shifting menu of basic and applied research and development. Several have made outstanding contributions over the years: the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, formerly an OERI center, has been a leader in the application of cognitive science to education; the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California at Los Angeles, a current one, has had a positive influence on testing research and policy. But with modest federal funds divided among many centers (each receiving approximately $1 million per year over a 5-year grant cycle) and each center pursuing its own mission, the centers do not represent the "critical mass" needed for significant progress in a major, complex field. In contrast to the R&D centers, the OERI regional laboratories have focused primarily on demonstrations, the development and dissemination of materials to state and local educational officials and technical assistance to educators. The 10 labs have focused on bridging the gap between research and practice. In general, surveys of educators suggest that the dissemination activities of the regional labs are reaching their audience. But evaluations of the labs have found little communication and coordination among the regional labs and the centers, although there are a few notable exceptions (Cross, 1989; Turnbull et al., 1994). In a somewhat different vein, in 1991 the National Science Foundation began an ambitious Statewide Systemic Initiative (SSI)—later expanded to include more focused urban and rural initiatives—to try to combat the overwhelming tendency of education reforms to be swallowed up by the existing system. The SSI is built on a set of ideas, articulated powerfully by Marshall Smith and Jennifer O'Day (Smith and O'Day, 1991; O'Day and Smith, 1993), that focus on the need for coherence and alignment of all parts of the education system. Some 26 states (including Puerto Rico) and 22 cities have received grants to date, and each was encouraged to develop its own vision of

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reform of science and mathematics education. Although none of the initiatives has been adopted on a statewide basis and there have been some outright failures, many of the participants think the SSI has been a worthwhile experiment. No one would claim that 7 years and an expenditure of $600 million has transformed science and mathematics education in any of the participating states or cities (Mervis, 1998). But much has been learned and even more will be learned as evaluations and case studies accumulate. A very different approach to education reform is proposed in the so-called PCAST report, The Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States (President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1997). This wide-ranging proposal calls for a very sizable investment in research on the use of technology to enhance learning. It touches on many important issues, including curriculum content and pedagogy, professional development, and equitable access to technology. It recommends a major program of experimental research—basic research in learning-related disciplines such as cognitive science and developmental psychology, early-stage research on the implementation of theory-based instructional programs, large-scale empirical studies to identify effective approaches to the use of technology in education. This proposal has not yet been implemented, but its lack of reference to any of the other major reform efforts suggests that its coordination with other current efforts may be modest. What we do have is an idea for a vehicle . . . that until now has been lacking The next two chapters lay out the elements of that idea: a strategic plan for education research and its utilization. It is possible to glimpse bigger possibilities in these programs—important research findings, helpful dissemination activities, valuable experience in making the many components of school systems work more effectively together, and the goal of making computer technology a useful tool in education—a whole that is something more than the sum of its parts. One could go on to the myriad of state and local reform efforts, foundation activities, and popular school improvement campaigns. The picture of current activities that emerges is a potpourri of programs and activities that together represent an enormous expenditure of energy and political capital but that exhibit an equally striking lack of coordination. The OERI centers are, for the most part, on too small a scale to make a difference. The regional labs are supposed to bridge the gap between research and practice, but they are only modestly coordinated with the centers. Moreover, the very distinctions

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between the missions of research centers and practitioner-oriented labs are likely to be a bar to the effectiveness of the OERI program. The National Science Foundation, in leaving the design of the SSI to each grantee, was not in a position to infuse the program with the cognitive and learning research it has supported over the years nor to build on the work of its sister agencies, the Department of Education and NICHD. To the extent that they exist, outside evaluations of the current programs suggest that, while each has been able to accomplish useful things, none has fulfilled its potential. The PCAST proposal may also represent the same danger—reasonable but too uncoordinated and too small to make a real difference in the nation's education systems. Can the energy, the creativity, the insights, and the lessons learned from the many research programs and reform efforts be more effectively focused? We do not claim to have the blueprint in hand for accomplishing this task. What we do have is an idea for a vehicle, a program of use-inspired research that is strategic enough to reinforce and extend what is good in current research and reform efforts and to create a synergy among the organizations—federal, state, and private—that until now has been lacking. The next two chapters lay out the elements of that idea : A strategic plan for education research and its utilization