Department of Education

Recommendations and Actions

ED11: Build a Professional, Mission-Driven Structure for Research


The Department of Education spends at least a quarter of a billion dollars on research annually. This includes basic and applied research, program and product development, program evaluation research, and statistics. Most research is conducted in four offices: the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), and the Office of Policy and Planning (OPP). Other offices also do research, primarily for program evaluation; however, they often arrange for OPP to manage their research activities.

Three of the principal offices operate national research centers. The largest is OERI's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES-- $125 million requested for fiscal 1994). Included in NCES is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP--$65 million in 1994). The second largest center is the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research ($67 million) operated within OSERS. Two smaller centers are funded by OVAE: the National Center for Research in Vocational Education ($6 million) and the National Institute for Literacy ($5 million).(1)

In addition to the NCES and NAEP, OERI also supports 18 national research centers ($29 million), 10 regional laboratories ($38 million) and 16 Education Resource Information Clearinghouses (ERIC-- $7 million). Education's national research and development centers are modeled after the Atomic Energy Commission laboratories. There have been as many as 25 centers, dedicated to topics from "Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning" and "Education in the Inner Cities" to "Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students" and "Gifted and Talented." In fiscal 1991, average funding for a center was only $861,000, and in most cases the money was divided among two or three separate institutions of higher education. The principal investigators at the centers, excluding the directors, spend an average of one quarter of their time on center studies. Of the 12 centers operating in the early 1980s, six have been terminated and three awarded to new bidders. Like the regional laboratories and ERIC clearinghouses (which are focused more on information dissemination), the national research and development centers are supported only by five-year grants or cooperative agreements.(2)

Much of Education's research structure was created long before the department was formed in 1979 and has not undergone a comprehensive, independent review. However, in 1992, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) did conduct a thorough review of OERI, the department's principal research arm.

The NAS study concluded that OERI has no coherent mission or strategic plan and no effective structure for long-term research and development. It found:

Long-term agenda setting undertaken in the early years of NIE [the National Institute of Education, OERI's predecessor] became difficult and then futile; quick fixes replaced thoughtful investments; resources were spread 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. There has rarely been support for the successive iterations of research, development, and testing that are needed in any field to develop marketable innovations.(3)

OERI has not used research conducted by independent individual investigators. The Academy observed that it is this type of research that harvests the insight, creativity, and initiative of researchers widely dispersed across the country. Only two percent of OERI's research and development (R&D) budget supports individual investigators doing field-initiated (extramural) research. The comparable percentages at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) are 56 and 94 percent, respectively.(4) Furthermore, basic research--investigation aimed at fundamental new discoveries--receives only 5.5 percent of OERI's R&D budget. By contrast, basic research receives 60 and 94 percent, respectively, of the R&D budgets of NIH and NSF.(5)

OERI has not been able to summarize and synthesize the results of its research efforts, and while it works hard to link research and practice, these efforts have not met with great success. Many of the innovations presented to teachers and administrators have been fuzzy, lacking in a clear rationale and specific procedures as well as convincing evidence as to their effectiveness. Others have been so specific--in an attempt to be "teacher proof"--that they have demeaned the teachers and undermined their talents and skills.(6) Research offices within OERI, within the department, or across departments operate with little coordination or cooperation. There are, in addition, major administrative flaws and weaknesses.(7)

A broad consensus holds that the fundamental difficulty with the Department of Education's research efforts lies in how they are organized. One state department of education official observed:

To us, the fundamental problem has been political. The Congress and sundry administrators have routinely been at odds over what should be researched. Hence, there has been minimal funding for research except the rather diffuse, short-term agendas. . . Unless there is a fundamental structural change to obviate this nonproductive arrangement, progress is unlikely.(8)

Members of Congress have held that ideological and political agendas have skewed the appointment of top OERI administrators, the selection of topics to be studied and how they are studied, the awarding of contracts, and the editing of reports and the timing of their release. On the other hand, members of the executive branch have charged that Congress has affected the research by favoring constituent interest with mandates and large set-asides for specific laboratories, centers, and studies, and by pushing other pet projects with threats against OERI's appropriations.(9)

Major Owens, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Select Education, concludes that:

"Despite the education research and development system's obvious need for more federal dollars, greater resources are unlikely to be forthcoming unless action is first taken to address more fundamental weaknesses in the way OERI funds and carries out research and development activities. Policy makers in Washington and educators throughout the nation now have little confidence that funds provided to OERI will be invested wisely or productively."(10)

Contrary to the perception of most critics, however, much education research is of high quality and directly relevant to public policy. Much of the intellectual underpinnings of the major reforms of elementary and secondary education, which are fully supported in recommendation ED01 and administration policy, were developed through OERI research. The issues now are to focus the research agenda and restore credibility among all interested groups.

There has been a decline in funding for education research and development, just as the nation is beginning to spend additional billions on education reform. The decline at OERI has not been offset by investment by other parts of the federal government. Between 1973 and 1989, the R&D budget of OERI and its predecessor agency, NIE, declined by 82 percent (in constant dollars). In 1973 the entire federal government spent $1.1 billion (in 1990 constant dollars) on education research and development; in 1991 it spent between $310 million and $364 million.(11) In response to these findings, the NAS study recommended major changes in how OERI is structured, funded, and staffed. The central thrust of these recommendations has wide support.


1. The upcoming reauthorization of OERI should include several of the central recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences report.(12) These include:

--- A stable and broad-based advisory board--including outstanding researchers, teachers, principals, parents, and state and local officials--should be established and charged with guiding the agenda- setting process of OERI.

--- The board should identify procedures for contracts and grant peer-review panels that ensure that research merit and programmatic merit of proposals are judged only by those with the appropriate professional expertise.

--- The currently fragmented education research structure (centers, labs, clearinghouses, etc.) and the functional division of research funding (institution-based, individual, etc.) should be replaced as it becomes feasible by a very few education R&D institutes established after the model of the National Institutes of Health. Each should target a specific problem area with a sustained program of research and development that includes field-initiated efforts, institutionally based R&D, and special projects. These institutes should be charged with conducting high-quality research and development in support of the national education goals.(13)

--- A Reform Assistance Office should be established to coordinate the integration and translation of research into reform assistance efforts.

--- OERI should report research findings directly to streamline its work and minimize opportunities for political pressure.

2. The Secretary of Education should request that the National Academy of Sciences extend its review to the rest of the department, looking at the other arrangements for research, especially NIDRR, the research aspects of OPP, and the small centers within OVAE.

The review should consider mission, governance, funding, coordination, sustained results, accumulation of results, and links to practice. It should recommend which other aspects of the Department's research activities should be incorporated into the OERI research structure.


Rebuilding OERI as a professional, mission-driven research organization is likely to receive considerable support. In the last Congress both the House and the Senate made considerable progress on bills to reauthorize OERI that incorporated many of the recommended features. The administration is working with Congress on those bills.

Fiscal Impact

Focusing education research on a few key topics in keeping with the department's mission and the National Education Goals would mean the current level of funding would be better used. There would be no other significant fiscal impact.


1. U.S. Department of Education, The Fiscal Year 1994 Budget: Summary and Background Information (Washington, D.C., 1993), pp. 65-66, 36, 38, 39-40.

2. Atkinson, Richard C., and Gregg B. Jackson, eds., Research and Education Reform: Roles for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1992), pp. 64- 68.

3. Ibid., p. 3.

4. Ibid., p. 118.

5. Ibid., p. 119.

6. Ibid., p. 130.

7. Ibid., pp. 121, 120, 87-95.

8. Ibid., pp. 110-111.

9. Atkinson, Richard C., and Andrew C. Porter, "The Department of Education's Support of Education Research" in John F. Jennings (ed.), National Issues in Education: The Past is Prologue (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa International and Washington, D.C., Institute for Educational Leadership, 1993), pp. 198-199.

10. Owens, Major R., "The Educational Research, Development and Dissemination Excellence Act: Imperative for OERI Reform," National Issues, p. 166.

11. Atkinson, Research and Education Reform, p. 3.

12. Ibid., pp. 3-8. 135-172.

13. Five specific problem areas were defined in HR 4014 considered by the 102nd Congress: the education of at-risk students; education governance, finance, and management; early childhood development and education; student achievement; and postsecondary education, libraries, and lifelong learning. See Atkinson, Research and Education Reform, pp. 146-148; National Academy of Education, Research and the Renewal of Education (Stanford, California, 1991), pp. 45-60; and the National Study Panel on Education Indicators, Education Counts: An Indicator System to Monitor the Nation's Educational Health (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, September, 1991), pp. 25-39.

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