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Education reform will fail without better research, report says

Efforts to improve America's schools will fail without better research on how students think, how to structure schools and how best to educate minority students, says a new report by the National Academy of Education (NAE).

The academy, an organization of 75 education leaders and researchers, is now based at Stanford University.

The report, "Research and the Renewal of Education," said that much of today's educational research consists of short- term snapshots and much-argued minutiae. Vacillating leadership, lack of funding, and shifting priorities have undermined the educational research base.

Moreover, according to the study, funding for research has dropped dramatically in recent decades. For example, such funding through the National Institute of Education -- for many years the largest source of research support -- dropped nearly 80 percent between 1973 and 1986, and even more when adjusted for inflation. (The National Institute of Education was replaced by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in 1986.)

"While many businesses, such as Xerox and Hewlett Packard, use more than 5 percent of operating budgets to fund research and development, our education system spends only one- half of one percent on research," said Stanford Education Prof. Michael Kirst, who co-directed the study with Diane Ravitch of Columbia University's Teachers' College. "It's no wonder our schools are not making significant progress in improving academic attainment, and that states and local districts are struggling to find answers."

Kirst said previous education reforms similar to the "New American Schools" effort called for by President Bush in April have failed for lack of an adequate research base. In particular, he recalled the experimental schools programs that "flopped" during the Nixon administration in the 1970s.

"A whole experimental program costing millions of dollars passed into history developing no new knowledge," he said. "The programs generated interest, but left no long-term residue that helped schools work better."

Kirst said it is not yet clear whether Bush's proposed New American Schools Development Corporation will help educators distinguish between "what components and approaches are effective" and what are simply "good ideas that don't pan out."

Bush's proposal, Kirst said, "appears to be more oriented to technical assistance and monitoring of random innovation, rather than an effort to improve education through coordinated steps."

He said the program seems to emphasize the development side of research and development. Development projects, he said, "tend to do too many things at once, which makes it expensive to study which factors lead to change. Random, disconnected experimentation with no attempt to evaluate what leads to positive and negative results is ineffective in developing long-term improvements.

The report argues that educational research can lead to fundamental changes in American education if:

The report cited some of the best research of the last 20 years, which led the way in such areas as cooperative learning and mainstreaming difficult-to-teach students.

"While education yields no miracle cures, research can help turn 'good' practice into 'best' practice and build the knowledge base for successful change," Kirst said. "The ore we mine from our investigations can yield more effective and equitable schooling for the next century."

"Research and the Renewal of Education" was funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Copies are available through the National Academy of Education, Stanford University, School of Education, CERAS-507, Stanford, CA 94305- 3084; (415)725-1003.



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