Education Research Flounders in the Absence of Competition from For-Profit Schools

By Lieberman, Myron | The Cato Journal, Spring-Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Education Research Flounders in the Absence of Competition from For-Profit Schools


Lieberman, Myron, The Cato Journal


Relatively little attention is paid to research in controversies over educational policy. For instance, A Nation at Risk (NCEE 1983), the most highly publicized document on educational reform in our nation's history, did not include any references to educational research. In addition, there is a broad albeit not unanimous consensus that educational research has had little if any impact on teaching or other aspects of education. Although commentaries differ on why this is the case, few allege that educational research has been productive or is likely to be productive in the absence of drastic change.

Professional educators often join in the severe but long-standing criticisms of educational research. Robert Slavin (1997: 22), one of the most prominent educational researchers in the nation, notes: "For decades, policymakers have complained that the federal research and development enterprise has had too little impact on the practice of education. With few notable exceptions, this perception is, I believe, largely correct."

Negative comments about educational research in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to the establishment of the National Institute of Education in June 1972. Its sponsor, the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), expected NIE to be similar to the National Institutes of Health, which conducts long-range studies on health issues. Nevertheless, one congressional opponent of NIE, Rep. William J. Scherle (R-IA), made a comment about it that seems as relevant today as when the comment was made:

   This provision simply opens the Federal Treasury to the same
   educational researchers without any assurance that the quality of
   education would be improved.

   The Office of Education in the last 10 years has spent approximately
   $1 billion on education research. Most of this was contracted
   out to various educational research organizations. Under this bill
   all that would happen would be that a new organization, the National
   Institute of Education, would be created to do the same thing which
   is being done now....

   By defeating this amendment, the House will have an opportunity
   to reject the concept that the way to solve problems is to recast
   an old agency with a new name and increase its size and scope with
   the same people who run the old program, with additional waste of
   time and effort [Scherle 1971: 39214].

The latest reorganization of the research activities of the U.S. Department of Education took place in 2001, when the Bush administration established the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), headed by an executive director appointed for a six-year term to facilitate bipartisanship in the department's research program. This may be a constructive change, but it will not affect the department's entire research program.

Educational Research and Drug Research: A Comparison

In view of the near unanimous consensus on the deficiencies of educational research, let us consider how it differs from research in the pharmaceutical industry, which is often cited to suggest the potential importance of educational research if it received comparable funding. Pharmaceutical companies conduct or finance a great deal of research. (1) Their research expenditures, accounting for billions annually, are made in anticipation of discovering drugs that will help millions avoid or overcome pain and disability or delay death. Because the researchers are searching for drugs that will be patented and widely utilized, their research focuses on drugs that can help large numbers of persons, or dominate a market niche.

The following analysis does not ignore the criticisms of the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the criticisms have merit, but no one questions the fact that the pharmaceutical companies develop valuable drugs based upon their research. Some argue that the companies charge too much or unjustifiably fail to make the drugs available in poor countries that need them desperately or do not publish the results of research with negative outcomes, but these issues would not arise if pharmaceutical research did not lead to valuable drugs. …

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