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Summer 2003 Vol. 3 No. 2

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Team Players in Proposed Education Partnership

Government agencies and private foundations have long supported education-research programs that are designed to improve schools and raise academic achievement. Such efforts have born some fruit, but still, research has not penetrated classroom practice deeply enough to significantly affect student learning.

A bold new R&D system is needed to encourage scientists and educators to work together and gain insights from one another, closely linking education research to the schoolhouse, says a new report from the National Research Council.

The report's proposed system -- a "Strategic Education Research Partnership" (SERP) -- would seamlessly weave education research and development with everyday practice in the nation's K-12 classrooms. Currently, researchers have few opportunities to study schooling up close, the report says. And educators seldom have a chance to scrutinize their own work or to shape research agendas.

Through the partnership, scientists, educators, and policy-makers could combine their wisdom and investigate issues over time -- accumulating research-based knowledge, taking stock of what works and in which settings, and figuring out how to expand effective approaches to teaching and school organization. Tackling teachers' problems with instruction and curricula would be a priority, said the committee that wrote the report.

SERP would have three organizational components. A central headquarters would oversee a coherent program of first-rate education research, set long-term goals, disseminate findings, and raise funds. Additionally, teams of seasoned practitioners and leading researchers in various disciplines would probe specific topics. Finally, their work would take place largely in schools and school districts across the country that volunteer to serve as field sites, the report says. These sites would be akin to teaching hospitals in the medical profession.

Providing and funding K-12 education services are primarily state responsibilities, so a compact of states would be at the heart of the partnership. One of SERP's chief goals would be to help state officials develop the skills to frame, use, and evaluate education R&D to meet their needs, the report says. But states alone cannot produce the new system. A broad coalition of stakeholders -- including federal authorities, private foundations, and businesses -- would be critical team players.

To take root and thrive, the initiative would require hard cash. The cost to launch SERP and fund it throughout a seven- to 10-year trial period is estimated at about $500 million. The committee called on private foundations to play the lead role in supplying SERP with seed money. Businesses, Congress, and federal agencies also might provide financial support during the trial period. As SERP matures, members of the state compact would be expected to take on financial responsibility.

Turning SERP's vision into a reality is a tall order. "Historically, there have been very few sustained incentives for a systemic relationship between research and professional practice in education," said committee chair Joe B. Wyatt, chancellor emeritus, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. "And currently, there aren't any broad-based institutions devoted to routinely facilitating such collaborative relationships for improving student learning. Effective links between research and practice, and between scientists and educators, are both fragile and episodic. A fundamentally different model for education R&D is imperative."

SERP, the committee noted, hinges on the will and resources of an extensive group of organizations and individuals committed to improving the education of all U.S. students.   -- Vanee Vines

Strategic Education Research Partnership. Committee on a Strategic Education Research Plan, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2003, 160 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08879-8, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $29.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Joe B. Wyatt, chancellor emeritus, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Spencer Foundation.

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences