COMMITTEE ON A FEASIBILITY STUDY FOR A STRATEGIC EDUCATION RESEARCH PROGRAM
RICHARD C. WALLACE (Chair), School Leadership Collaborative, University of Pittsburgh
DAVID A. GOSLIN (Vice Chair), American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, Washington, DC
EMERSON J. ELLIOTT, National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, Washington, DC
HERBERT P. GINSBURG, Teachers College, Columbia University
NANCY S. GRASMICK, Maryland State Department of Education, Baltimore
WILLIS D. HAWLEY, College of Education, University of Maryland
ANTHONY W. JACKSON, Disney Learning Initiative, Burbank, California
CAROL R. JOHNSON, Minneapolis Public Schools, Minnesota
MARTHA M. MCCARTHY, School of Education, Indiana University
RICHARD P. MILLS, New York State Education Department, Albany
P. DAVID PEARSON, College of Education, Michigan State University
S. JEANNE REARDON, Damascus Elementary School, Maryland
RUTH SCHOENBACH, WestEd, San Francisco
MARIA TUKEVA, Bell Multicultural High School, Washington, DC
CAROL H. WEISS, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University
RONALD A. WOLK, Consultant in Education and Media Relations, Warwick, Rhode Island
BRUCE M. ALBERTS (ex officio), President, National Academy of Sciences; Chair, National Research Council
ALEXANDRA K. WIGDOR, Director, Division on Education, Labor, and Human Performance
PEG GRIFFIN, Study Director (through 1997)
RIMA SHORE, Consultant
Education in the United States currently consumes about 7 percent of the gross domestic product, yet the state of education is increasingly an issue of deep concern to parents, political leaders, employers, and the public generally. The recognition that many big-city schools, particularly the schools that serve poor children, have become failures for almost all students has given particular urgency to the issue of school reform. As Education Week (1998:6) put it recently, “It's hard to exaggerate the education crisis in America's cities.”
One striking fact is that the complex world of education—unlike defense, health care, or industrial production—does not rest on a strong research base. In no other field are personal experience and ideology so frequently relied on to make policy choices, and in no other field is the research base so inadequate and little used. Comparatively little research is funded, and the task of importing even the strongest research findings into over a million classrooms is daunting.
In 1996 the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering (henceforth, the Academies), launched a study to determine the feasibility of mounting a long-term, strategic program of research focused on a limited number of topics judged to be of crucial importance for improving student learning in the nation's schools. The study was conducted by a multidisciplinary committee composed of education researchers, practitioners, policy makers and other experts chosen to bring the widest possible range of perspectives to this task.
Note: References are not included in this booklet but are available online at Search under title of report.
FOUR KEY QUESTIONS
The result of the committee's deliberations is a proposal for an ambitious and extraordinary experiment: the establishment of a Strategic Education Research Program (SERP) that would focus the energies of a significant number of researchers, practitioners, and policy makers on obtaining the answers to four specific, interrelated questions. The first three questions address fundamental issues in education:
How can advances in research on human cognition, development, and learning be incorporated into educational practice?
How can student engagement in the learning process and motivation to achieve in school be increased?
How can schools and school districts be transformed into organizations that have the capacity to continuously improve their prac tices?
The committee selected these three questions for a number of reasons. Together they lie at the heart of education. It is possible, in seeking answers to them, to draw on substantial research as well as to imagine the outlines of future studies. They speak directly to the problems that teachers and school officials encounter and to the concerns of parents and the public more generally. Perhaps most important, they hold the potential for leveraging large improvements in student performance.
How to realize this potential is not self-evident. There is no doubt that educational practice can be strengthened by careful scientific research. But it is not clear how to make the integration of research findings an organic part of the education system. Therefore, the committee proposes a fourth and overarching research question:
How can the use of research knowledge be increased in schools and school districts?
This question, expressed variously as knowledge utilization or knowledge mobilization, raises issues about the preparation of teachers so that they can be consumers of research, about the design of schools to create effective learning environments, and about bringing policy into alignment with new strategies for teaching and learning. Above all, however, it is about the translation of research findings into forms useful for educa-
tional practice. It will require large-scale, systematic experimentation and demonstration to transform knowledge about human learning and the development of competence into the working vocabulary of teachers and schools.
THE PROPOSED STRATEGIC EDUCATION RESEARCH PROGRAM
To address these questions, the committee calls for a large-scale and sharply defined program of research, demonstration, and evaluation. Much of the work will need to be embedded in school settings; all of it should be informed by the needs of the most challenging schools, in particular, high-poverty urban schools. The likelihood of real accomplishment will be increased to the extent that a process of continuous incorporation of findings is used to create a flexible design for the array of SERP investigations.
To initiate and guide these activities, the committee proposes the establishment of four interconnected networks:
a learning and instruction network,
a student motivation network,
a transforming schools network, and
a utilization network.
Each network will include distinguished researchers working in partnership with practitioners and policy makers and supported by a national coalition of public and private funding organizations and other stakeholders, including legislators, state education agencies, teacher associations, organizations representing the research community, and other groups. Members of the four SERP networks would conduct research designed to help answer each network's hub question. They would also stimulate other researchers to undertake relevant studies, synthesize findings from their own and others' work, and plan future investigations. In addition, a major preoccupation of all four networks, but especially the fourth, would be to find ways to ensure utilization of the research by practitioners. A core premise of the plan is that the program of research, synthesis, and implementation activities will be strengthened by the interactions among researchers, practitioners, and policy makers in the networks.
Given the complexity of the issues, the magnitude of the research challenge, and the stakes involved, the committee strongly recommends that this program be implemented with the expectation that it will continue for at least 15 years. The committee is confident, however, that
significant contributions to educational systems will be possible within the first 5-7 years because a considerable body of potentially useful research already exists in each area.
The committee offers suggestions for organization and management of the overall program in the body of [the full] report. The suggestions do not add up to a blueprint for SERP; a detailed plan can only emerge through discussions among all the professional groups in education and the potential funders of the program—federal, state, and private. But we are proposing a new model for education research as the heart of the SERP idea. This new model has six of the crucial features: (1) promotion of collaborative and interdisciplinary work; (2) provision of constant, ongoing commitment on the part of core teams of researchers; (3) a built-in partnership with the practice and policy communities; (4) iterative and interactive interplay between basic and applied research in a structure that combines the richness of field-initiated research and the purpose of program-driven research; (5) a plan that is sustained over a long enough time for results to be cumulative; and (6) an overall structure that is cumulative in nature—each step planned to build on previous steps.
Our excitement about the idea of a Strategic Education Research Program has not blinded us to the risks. It is clear that the quality of both scientific and organizational leadership will determine its success. The intellectual and management challenges that will have to be met are formidable and will demand exceptional talent, commitment, and perseverance on the part of all of those responsible for it.
How This Plan Differs from Other Efforts
Many individuals and organizations have recognized the potential importance of research to education. There have been numerous university-based and district-based efforts to narrow the gap between research and practice. At the national level, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board have constructed a broad framework for education research, identifying seven broad challenges that warrant public investment. All these efforts continue to make important contributions to the nation's education, but they do not rigorously focus the nation's knowledge, resources, and energies in order to improve student learning. They do not promote the systematic use of research by teachers, administrators, and policy officials to improve student achievement. And because political priorities tend to change frequently, they tend not to produce sustained and cumulating knowledge.
The Strategic Education Research Program proposed in [the report] represents the first large-scale effort of its kind. By design, the SERP plan is focused, collaborative, cumulative, sustained, and solutions oriented.
Focused SERP targets four hub research questions that hold great promise for strengthening learning in U.S. schools. This strategic focus will help harness the nation's powerful intellectual resources and expertise, making the networks more productive, more closely linked to classroom practice, and more accountable for demonstrable progress.
Collaborative Finding answers to each of the hub research questions will require the combined insights of many fields—including cognitive functioning, social processes, and organizational change—as well as the deployment of the full array of research methods. Asking the right questions will require the wisdom of those who are deeply engaged in practice and the insights of policy makers. The organization of the effort through carefully coordinated networks of researchers, educators, and policy experts will promote the needed cross-fertilization that is commonly missing from current research efforts.
Cumulative SERP recognizes that the traditional linear model of research—from basic research to applications—has not been productive in changing complex social systems like education. It envisions a new model of research, combining elements of field-initiated and program-driven research within a structure that will encourage a continuous process of taking stock so that each stage builds on what has been learned. Research or demonstrations in applied settings are as likely to define the next basic research questions as vice versa.
Sustained SERP will function over a 15-year period (with decision points about continuation along the way), with constant, ongoing commitment on the part of its participants. Network members will maintain their own identities and activities in their particular professions and disciplines, but they will commit a substantial portion of their time and effort to network activities for more than a decade.
Solutions Oriented SERP involves practitioners and policy makers in helping to define problems, devise solutions, and monitor the effects of research-based approaches. This built-in partnership with the policy and practice communities should have the healthy side-effect of cultivating a greater readiness on the part of local communities and schools to view research as a source of solutions for educational problems.
How This Plan Relates to Other Efforts
For the SERP idea to come to fruition, education leaders will need to see its potential for leveraging existing investments by federal and state governments, school systems, and private-sector organizations. The idea is not to replace important research and reform programs, but to strengthen them by finding unrealized synergies, providing a powerful
focus for the related activities, synthesizing what is known, and filling in gaps in the research. SERP could, for example, become a conduit for synthesizing and transmitting the findings from research, development, and demonstration projects supported by the Department of Education through its regional laboratories and research and development (R&D) centers; by the National Science Foundation through its cognitive research program, its new technology and learning centers, its Statewide Systemic Initiative (SSI); and by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, which has a strong program of research on the mechanisms of cognition and learning. SERP could also support the translation of research findings into practice by linking up with or supporting demonstration projects. Not least, it would support fledgling efforts to build better bridges, based on a foundation of mutual respect, between the practitioner and the research communities.
Why a Strategic Plan Is Needed
In part, the need for a strategic research plan grows out of the highly decentralized organization of education in the United States. More concretely, the answer lies with American students and American schools. Many students perform at high levels, but the nation's continued vitality as a democracy and its productivity in a global economy will hinge in coming decades on the knowledge and skills of the majority —the tens of millions of children who are not realizing their full capacities and are therefore unable to meet the intellectual demands of modern life and work.
Imagine what could be accomplished if the nation committed itself to a concerted effort to find out what needs to be known in order to improve achievement among these children. Imagine what they might achieve if the nation's leading researchers and education experts were to concentrate—not just for a month or a year, but for more than a decade—on how to facilitate and motivate their learning. That is the mission of the strategic plan for education research and its utilization presented in this report.
In the Preface [to the full report], Bruce Alberts [President, National Academy of Sciences] expresses his hope that this report will catalyze major new investments in education. As a first step, the National Academies propose to launch a year-long national dialogue during which the idea for a Strategic Education Research Program is discussed with all of the professional groups involved in education.
This committee strongly endorses that plan: We urge the federal
government—in particular, the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation—major foundations whose mission includes improving education, state and local education leaders, and education research organizations to join the Academies in this year of dialogue to see if, together, we can transform the SERP idea into a productive collaboration to use the power of science to improve education in the United States.