Subcommittee Examines the State of Education Research
Education experts from the Department of Education, NSF, and NIH's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD), along with representatives from the National Research Council and the University of Michigan, asserted that research into learning and education practices in the past has been fragmented, underfunded, and of questionable quality. Annual federal funding for education research is approximately $300 million, which represents 0.1 percent of all education spending. Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) questioned whether that spending was being optimally utilized, and whether taxpayers where getting their money's worth. "New teaching methods often get introduced into classrooms with very little - if any - data proving that they actually work," he said. "We find ourselves in a situation where some experts tell us one thing - that reducing class size...makes a big difference - and other experts say just the opposite."
The witnesses agreed that what is needed is more focused, long- term research, prioritized around a small number of important questions. They also stressed the complexities inherent in scaling up research done in controlled settings to real classroom situations. Judith Sunley, Assistant Director for NSF's Education and Human Resources Directorate, called the state of education research "mixed but improving." She noted that advances in fields such as neuroscience, neural networking, language development, attention, memory, and concept acquisition "have the potential to reshape the questions and answers at the heart of implementing education research." A new Inter-agency Education Research Initiative to coordinate research across NSF, NIH, and the Department of Education, Sunley said, brings together NIH's methodological rigor, NSF's merit review process, and the Education Department's contact with the schools.
Assistant Secretary for the Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Kent McGuire, argued for more funding and improved authority for his office. Education research must focus first on a few of the most basic, fundamental questions, he testified; earlier efforts "tended to be piecemeal and ad hoc." Reid Lyon, Chief of the NICHHD Child Development and Behavior Branch, described advances in understanding how children learn to read, but added that in science and math, "we still don't know what it takes to teach certain concepts."
A number of lawmakers asked how to avoid fads in instruction. McGuire stated that educators were often "too quick to jump directly from research to the classroom.... We don't take time to test ideas and methods out in real settings." Lyon felt that teachers were not prepared to evaluate different instructional practices. The witnesses generally faulted colleges of education for not incorporating the latest research findings and being resistant to change.
The difficulty of focusing research on a few strategic questions became apparent as subcommittee members questioned the educational impacts of many extraneous issues. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) asked about prenatal drug abuse and the importance of breakfast. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) cited the issue of youth violence in schools, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) raised questions about social promotion and national testing. "I can't emphasize enough," Lyon replied, "if you go after [extraneous issues] before understanding learning, it will dilute both efforts.... We've got to prioritize."
In closing, Chairman Smith invited the heads of the departments and agencies represented at the hearing to offer suggestions. He indicated that he would consider changes in law or authorization of additional funding for education research if convinced they were necessary. His subcommittee would likely have to share jurisdiction for this topic with the Education and the Workforce Committee. With Congress bargaining frantically with the Administration to wrap up the remaining appropriations bills and go home for the rest of the year, this issue will not be taken up again until next year.
Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics