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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Basic Research Hearing on Education Technology

October 26, 1999

On October 26th, the House Science Committee's Basic Research Subcommittee held a hearing to examine the current state of education research. Chairman Smith stated that the goal of the hearing was two-fold:

  1. to determine how the estimated $300M we spend on educational research each year can be better utilized to assure students are leaning at their maximum potential; and,
  2. whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth in terms of the dissemination and utilization of research that has proven successful.

Congresswomen E.B. Johnson noted the absence of connectivity between education research and effective strategies. She commended the Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI), but noted her concern with first year funding, especially the lack of contribution by NIH. Witnesses included Dr. Judith S. Sunley, Interim Assistant Director for the Education and Human Resources Directorate; Dr. C. Kent McGuire, Assistant Secretary, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, DoEd; Dr. G Reid Lyon Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH); Dr. Alexandra K. Wigdor, Associate Executive Director, Commission of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, NRC; and, Dr. Maris A. Vinovskis, Professor, Department of History and School of Public Policy, University of Michigan.

Dr. Sunley (NSF) addressed the state of education research in general, as well as the IERI initiative and the coordination of education research among federal agencies. She said the state of education research is mixed but improving, and that the PCAST report (Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States) issued a clarion call to mobilize an ambitious effort of rigorous research to enable large-scale improvement in technologically rich K-12 classrooms. Dr. Sunley stated that NSF is significantly upgrading education research efforts and spent $60M in FY99 on these efforts. She described briefly the types of activities supported by these funds. The three agency (NSF, DoED, NIH) IERI initiative, she said, seeks to support the development and dissemination of research-proven, technology-enabled educational strategies to improve the learning of core subjects in K-12, as well as teacher instruction in these areas. She stated that this initiative is pursuing uses of education research that engage partnerships and reshape the way the agencies interact with one another. She called for more studies concerned with the implementation of research.

Dr. McGuire (DoED) discussed the work of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI). He said education research is a complex, human, social real world venture that is a profession and not an academic discipline. Dr. McGuire concurred with Dr. Sunley's call for more studies on implementation and said this will be part of the IERI program. He emphasized the complexity of education research and the need to focus on a few really important problems. Dr. Lyon (NIH) said that not using and applying what we know is what's hurting our children. He discussed the work of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) which, he said, conducts longitudinal research on focused questions. He said there remains a gap between what we know and what is practiced in schools. He said the black hole is teacher preparation.

Dr. Wigdor (NRC) discussed the NRC's Strategic Education Research Plan (SERP) plan. She noted that the plan sets to undertake what the field has been lacking -- sustained research that is scientifically rigorous and focused on the practical problems of improving teaching and learning. She said SERP is based on the idea that collaborations on designing and carrying out research will make research more focused on problems in schools. She said researchers, educators, and policymakers are the heart of the SERP plan. Dr. Vinovskis (U of MI), whose comments focused on the OERI, said the federal government is not doing a good job of collecting and disseminating data, and that one limitation is lack of sufficient funding. He agreed with other witnesses that the federal government should focus its research efforts.

Rep. Smith questioned witnesses on how to improve student learning and pedagogy. Dr. Lyons stated that the issue is to develop a sustained multiagency program by bringing the different agency cultures together for science, math, etc. He said IERI is pushing the agencies to do what they don't now do in this area. Rep. Johnson asked when research outcomes could be implemented. Dr. McGuire said studies need to be large enough to be taken seriously and it is important to be clear about what the goals are. Research programs need to be designed to give us what we need. Dr. Lyons noted that we know enough in certain areas of reading, math, science, etc. to do certain things, but we are not doing them because of the lack of accountability in teaching and research training in colleges of education. He said philosophy and ideology guide education, and this is where the gap exists.

Mr. Ehlers said the key issues are how to sort out the good research from the bad, how to avoid fads, and how to implement what we know. He also noted that the present federal investment is inadequate. Dr. Wigdor said one way to avoid fads is through collaborations, staying focused, and a coherent set of goals. Dr. Vinovskis said we need to recognize how we go through these fads and avoid them. He said what should be looked at is what has been done and what was learned, instead of what will be done. Rep. Biggert questioned witnesses on early childhood education research. Dr. McGuire noted many programs at OERI that address this issue that are longitudinal, but because of insufficient funding it's hard to tell which programs work. Dr. Vinovskis urged the committee to look carefully at this subject and reinforced Dr. McGuire's comments. In the context of the discussion, Rep. Morella asked how Congress could help. Dr. McGuire said the OERI needs to have a permanent authorization.

Another area of concern witnesses addressed was the need for more teachers to have a respect for research. Dr. Lyons noted that teachers are not able to absorb the assumptions that instructional programs are based on. Dr. Vinovskis said the problem is the disparity between those who do the best research and schools of education. Dr. Sunley stated that the attempt to deal with all these issues is partially responsible for the fads we see. She said that when knowledge continues to be gathered in a narrow setting and then taken and moved to a larger setting, you end up with unintended side affects, which appear to be the next fad. This is why, she said, the focus of the IERI is to move from a narrow setting to a broad, documented process.

In summary, witnesses agreed that educational research is complex and programs need to be collaborative efforts, that are longitudinal, multidisciplinary with strong peer review, focused on a few key areas that can be studied long enough to make a difference. Witnesses also agreed that the IERI program is a good way to develop collaboration and cooperation by harnessing the expertise of agencies specializing in different kinds of educational research.