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Regional Laboratories and Research and Development Centers - The 1960s and 1970s, The (1980s) and Beyond

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The U.S. government authorized formation of research and development (R&D) centers and regional educational laboratories (RELs) in 1965 under Title IV of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Labs were reauthorized in 1994 under Title IX of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

During the Johnson administration's War on Poverty, the centers and laboratories were intended to be a network of institutions designed to revitalize American education through strategic research, development, and dissemination of new programs and processes. Since their inception, such external issues as the federal role in education and the allocation of funding, along with such internal issues as the challenge of applying research to real-world school settings, have significantly affected the mission and operation of these institutions. Nevertheless, laboratories and centers continue to house the federal government's most concentrated efforts to improve U.S. education through research and development.

The 1960s and 1970s

At the outset, legislators envisioned R&D centers as conducting sustained scientific research concentrated on academic subject matter content (e.g., mathematics), skills (e.g., writing), or processes (e.g., instruction). In July 1964, John W. Gardner, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, headed a presidential task force that proposed establishment of the RELs as a vital link to interpret, shape, and communicate the centers' research findings; tailor them for practical school use; and infuse them into the nation's classrooms, including college classrooms. This staged delivery system supplanted a diffused project-by-project strategy on research topics previously proposed for funding by university faculty.

Title IV of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act called for well-funded, large-scale institutions similar to atomic energy laboratories, the archetypes of R&D; however, appropriations for education R&D fell significantly short of that goal. Additionally, the legislation did not specify the number of laboratories and centers to be created, nor did it determine how they would be organized. By 1969, twenty RELs and eleven centers had been founded. The U.S. Office for Education closed fourteen of the laboratories in the next few years because of budget concerns and lack of confidence in their work.

In 1972 the National Institute of Education (NIE) was created, and the RELs and R&D centers were transferred to its jurisdiction. From 1973 to 1976, laboratories bid on individual projects defined by NIE through a program-purchase policy, rather than on contracts for institution-wide support. This process allowed for greater federal control, but reduced the laboratories' ability to address regional concerns. In 1979 education became a cabinet-level department. Laboratories and centers were placed under the jurisdiction of the Office of Education Research and Improvement (OERI) within the new Department of Education.

The (1980s) and Beyond

In the 1980s a fundamental change occurred in the government's attitude towards educational research: while it had been assumed in the 1960s that the government should shape the research agenda, it was now felt that state departments of education and private foundations should take the lead. The new role of the laboratories was to work "with and through" these other agencies instead of pursuing their own programs (Guthrie, pp. 9–10).

In 1984 and 1985 the first recompetition since the founding of the labs in the 1960s was held. RELs were required to submit five-year plans for their research, development, and dissemination activities. This recompetition also ensured that nine RELs would cover all regions of the nation. A tenth REL, which served Hawaii and islands in the Pacific Basin, was awarded in 1990. The contract period of 1990 to 1995 saw development of the Laboratory Networking Program (LNP), which allows the RELs to share their knowledge and experience as they collaborate on common issues.

The Request for Proposal for projects to be conducted between 1995 and 2000 initiated laboratory specialty areas, requiring that each laboratory exert substantial effort and resources toward providing national leadership in an area that reflects the laboratory's expertise and that is of national importance. Another focus of the contract was assisting states in designing and implementing Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) programs. RELs provided technical assistance and created national resources, such as a database of all CSRD awards across the country and a catalog of school reform models. The 2001–2005 contract focused on developing and codifying knowledge about how to improve the academic achievement of students in low performing schools.

The number of R&D centers has fluctuated from eleven in 1966 to a high of twenty-five in 1990 and to twelve in 2001. At the outset of the twenty-first century, the university-based centers focus on such topics as at-risk students, testing, teaching, early development and learning, and improving student learning in the content areas. Descriptions of the centers and their areas of research are detailed on the National Research and Development Centers page of the U.S. government's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) website. A description of the labs and their national leadership areas may be found on the Regional Educational Laboratories page of the OERI website.

Besides the relatively low levels of funding for RELs and R&D centers compared to scientific laboratories, the laboratories and centers have "suffered from declining budgets: In 1973 NIE provided $80 million for their operations (in 1990 constant dollars); by 1979 that had declined to $52 million; and in 1991 the amount was $47 million. For individual laboratories and centers, the effect has been more dramatic because there are now twice as many of them as there were in 1973" (Atkinson and Jackson, pp. 96–97). As a consequence, laboratories have had to become entrepreneurial almost from the beginning in order to secure sufficient operational funding.

While critics have pointed to laboratories' shortcomings, as noted by reviewers, no "systematic assessment of the laboratories' work" has yet been produced (Atkinson and Jackson, p. 78). After more than three decades, with the support of their regions and congressional representatives, laboratories and centers continue to receive funding from Congress.


ATKINSON, RICHARD C., AND JACKSON, GREGG B., eds. 1992. Research and Education Reform: Roles for the Office of Education Research and Improvement. Washington, DC: National Research Council, National Academy Press.

GUTHRIE, JAMES. 1989. Regional Educational Laboratories: History and Prospect. Washington, DC:U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

REGIONAL EDUCATIONAL LABORATORIES FOR RESEARCH, DEVELOPMENT, DISSEMINATION AND TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE. 1995. Request for Proposal 95–040. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.






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