Federal Underinvestment in Education Research

By Kuncl, Ralph W. | Academe, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview
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Federal Underinvestment in Education Research


Kuncl, Ralph W., Academe


The federal government has a bigger role to play in understanding how the "knowledge industry" of higher education works. Move over Big Science, it's time for the era of Big Education.

We are a knowledge-based society. But the knowledge business has a problem. It doesn't know enough. When General Electric or Microsoft has a problem, it spends several percent of its revenues-perhaps billions of dollars-on research and development. It does so despite enormous demands on the resources that drive its profits. Historically, -we as a society have pumped about 5 to 10 percent of total federal expenditures for defense and health into research and development-in spite of serious pressures to fund the delivery of national defense and health care. It is a great irony that education, a field that values new knowledge so much, lags severely behind in the proportion of outlays devoted to research.

Why invest in education research? Put simply, we have vast areas of ignorance in education. A small sampling of research questions applicable to all educational settings includes (a) How do students learn best? By experience? By drill? In play or sport? (b) What's the optimal class size (especially in K-12 education)? (c) How does ethnic diversity enhance learning, and what evidence shows that it does? (d) How do we achieve fewer dropouts? (e) What techniques work best for retention of knowledge? (f) How can basic cognitive science be translated into the classroom?

Some of these questions are gaining new attention. In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council published How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School to "explore the critical issue of how better to link the findings of research on the science of learning to actual practice in the classroom." In 2003-04, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched a program to establish some fifteen to twenty-five national "science of learning centers." The program aims to fund basic scientific research into how people learn in order to help inform educational practices and policy. The centers might explore, for example, robotics, artificial intelligence, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and the biological basis of learning. These trends represent the basic research side of research and development.

The translational side must necessarily follow. Smart research programs such as the NSF's science of learning centers recognize that as long as basic researchers have no ties to the applied researchers and practitioners in their field, their research will be effectively meaningless. So the NSF will fund outreach to users and assessment and dissemination of the research its centers produce.

Like the study of learning, research on the educational efficacy of a racially and ethnically diverse environment has also advanced over the past several years. The American Educational Research Association's Panel on Racial Dynamics in Higher Education published its findings in 2003 in Compelling Interest: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Colleges and Universities. Similarly, the American Council on Education's Office of Minorities in Higher Education continues to publish research annually in special reports. These efforts are interesting starts, but they are not nearly enough.

In higher education, an array of research issues face us, such as (a) How can college students best be encouraged to graduate in a reasonable time? (b) How do student enrollment patterns (full time, part time) affect the likelihood of completion of degree, subsequent degree attainment, and outcomes in the labor market? (c) What role does financial aid play in determining who goes to which institution and what happens to them? (d) How do different postsecondary curricula affect initial degree attainment, subsequent degree attainment, and labor market and citizenship outcomes? (e) In the competitive, stratified environment of U.S. higher education, how does wealth inequality influence the ability of institutions to fulfill their missions?

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