Who Really Establishes Education Policy?

by Judy Cresanta

wo of the least seen—but most influential—voices in establishing education policies are the regional educational labs and colleges of education. Nearly 30 years ago, Congress authorized money to create specialized regional labs to conduct educational research and development.

Ten regional labs and a handful of research centers are now in existence. The budget for these labs is $400 million per year and according to a recent article in Investor’s Business Daily, one quarter of this budget is spent lobbying Congress. The regional labs now operate under the direction of the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement [OERI].

Many controversial educational practices of the past several decades—mainstreaming, diversity studies, bilingual education models, drug prevention programs, student habits and personality surveys, whole language, etc.—found themselves "legitimized" through "research" at a regional lab.

Since a plethora of opinions exist regarding the best methods of providing an excellent education for students, especially those with special needs, the regional labs could have provided excellent raw data and pilots for specific programs, curricula, and instructional strategies.

Instead, reports issued by the labs rest primarily on a foundation built with unscientific speculation, anecdotes, subjective analysis, and qualitative rather than quantitative research. "We believe," "it seems," "we feel," are phrases usually found as prefaces to conclusions and recommendations promoted by the regional labs.

At the same time the regional labs are facing heavy criticism for non-scientific evaluation methodology, Robert Stonehill, director of state and local services for the Department of Education says, "No other set of institutions has generated as useful a body of ideas for making schools better." Stonehill says the work coming from the labs is necessary:

"We’re teaching teachers sophisticated methods of instruction that go beyond rote learning. Students are learning more analysis, more synthesis, more higher level thinking."

An assertion of this nature begs several questions, one of which is: Exactly how have schools become better during the 30 years the labs have been in existence?

Certainly public education faces enormous challenges that were barely present or non-existent 30 years ago, but education planners seem to be missing the point that whatever we have been doing in public education to countervail the erosion isn’t working very well. As difficult as it may be, everyone—beginning with parents—should face the facts about our educational problems.

Another institution with a lion’s share of responsibility are colleges of education, the places where teachers learn their craft. Yet, the average professor of education is moving farther and farther away from the teaching principles once considered honorable and essential. A New York polling firm, Public Agenda, surveyed 900 education professors across the country and here is what they discovered:

  • 86 percent said that "struggling with the process of trying to find the right answer" is more valuable than if "kids end up knowing the right answer to the question or problems." (What happened to insistence on both?)
  • 7 percent think teachers should be facilitators rather than conveyors of knowledge.
  • 12 percent think discipline is important.
  • More than half the professors think kids should be graded in teams rather than individually.

Almost unanimously the professors of education are opposed to centering a student’s educational experience on what was described as a "rigorous core curriculum" with a focus on reading and math. Practicing teachers participating in a similar survey disagreed to a large extent with the professors’ conclusions. Parents disagreed even more strongly.

Unfortunately, these professors of education—the teachers of our teachers—live in a world foreign to common sense and reality. They are creating a product for which no market exists outside their own ivory towers.

To a greater extent than in previous decades, students of today need to learn to read and follow directions and they must have strong written and oral communication skills.

They must be able to move expertly within several academic disciplines. This requires unswerving attention to absolute facts, strong logic and reasoning abilities built on the base of those facts, and a renewed emphasis placed on excellent written and oral communication skills.

Furthermore, we can all attest to the value of a well educated, well prepared teacher who maintains an orderly classroom and who inspires us to reach for understanding and excellence. This teacher is not primarily a "facilitator," though he or she facilitates learning by conveying knowledge and by expecting students to apply that knowledge as they learn to think for themselves.

Sensible decision-makers—be they teachers, lawmakers, parents or administrators—should banish timidity and stand up to the gurus of education doctrine. Their ideas are not holding up against the light of day. u

Judy Cresanta is publisher of Nevada Journal.


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