As Congress and the President search for ways to send more dollars to the classroom, cut waste and bureaucracy, and assure Americans that all children--regardless of their background and income--receive a quality education, the federal government's role in researching and disseminating proven teaching methods should naturally attract their attention.
Through the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), the government seeks to develop quality teaching techniques and encourage school districts across the country to adopt the most successful of them. Certainly, this is a worthy goal. There may not be a "magic bullet" for every problem in America's failing schools, but there are many proven, effective teaching methods that have been developed and that could be replicated in the classroom.
In light of OERI's potential to contribute significantly to the quality of the nation's education, however, a review of its activities is especially disappointing. Its work is fragmented and apparently vulnerable to politicization and manipulation.
This is especially true for OERI's regional education laboratories. These labs have been around for more than 32 years and have received over $750 million in federal funding. Yet, by nearly all accounts, what they have produced has been largely irrelevant to the classroom. Their work suffers from research overlap, an overemphasis on service delivery at the expense of quality, and a lack of objectivity and responsible scientific methodology. Moreover, recent reports by the Department of Education's own inspector general have revealed significant mismanagement of federal funds at some labs.
A review of lab Internet sites turns up few details on free-market ideas or initiatives such as school choice, even though some recent studies on school choice programs do demonstrate their successes and appeal to inner-city parents. On the other hand, the labs have been active promoters of fads. Rather than note proven methods of success to boost students' academic achievement, they emphasize such measures as making students "feel positive" about the classroom and school environment, "situational learning," "better academic self-concept," and "developmentally appropriate" teaching.
A June 1993 analysis of these labs by Maris Vinovskis, former Research Advisor to the Assistant Secretary at OERI and currently a professor at the Department of History and Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, provides further information on the questionable quality of research at five OERI regional education labs. Although Vinovskis praised the work of some labs, he concluded that after spending $811 million of taxpayer money between 1966 and 1991, the labs had little to show for it by way of success. His research found many flaws with the quality of research conducted as well as a disconnect between that research and practical advice for teachers.
Federal education research labs, as currently funded and operated, do little if anything to promote proven models of teaching that lead to higher academic outcomes. Lab funding should be tied to programs that boost academic outcomes. Moreover, either the labs should compete with other agencies and the private sector for federal grants to fund each project, or their funding should be turned over to the states to help individual states set up their own research entities.
Finally, policymakers should follow simple guidelines in deciding how to conduct and disseminate education research. The determining factor in deciding whether a program will be funded and implemented in the schools should be whether that program aims to increase students' academic scores, not how much the educational bureaucracy claims it will boost children's self-esteem or how much the education lobbyists like the program.
Nina H. Shokraii is a former Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.