Beyond Mutual Adaptation, Into the Bully Pulpit

Recent Research on the Federal Role in Education
Richard Jung
Education Access Strategies
Michael W. Kirst
Stanford University


The federal government has always been a junior partner to state and local agencies in financing and operating U.S. schools. The impacts of federal policies on the nation's classrooms, however, continue to fascinate researchers, policymakers, and the public. Interest and concern about this role intensified during the 1960s and 1970s, motivated in part by expanding expenditures as well as by the increasing directiveness of most new federal policies. Through the 1970s, the federal role emphasized securing extra services for traditionally under­ served students, promoting innovation, and supporting research.

In the 1980s, the federal government's spending for elementary and secondary education has not kept pace with inflation, nor has it kept pace with state and local support of schools. Relative to state and local levels, the U.S. Department of Education's share of elementary/sec­ondary school expenditures dipped to 6.1% by the 1984–85 school year, its lowest share in almost 20 years. Also, the regulatory pressures from the federal government in education during the 1980s have subsided. Nonetheless, this decade has witnessed an unparalleled out­pouring of research and commentary on a federal role that has exerted a substantial influence on elementary and secondary education.

This present article takes stock of the rapidly expanding literature on federal involvement in elementary and secondary education with three central purposes in mind: (1) to introduce several research resources to a broader audience; (2) to summarize the major findings, commonalities, and discrepancies in the pre-1980 literature; and (3) to present and assess literature on the federal role in elementary/secondary education subsequent to the publication of the most recent research anthologies. Accordingly, this review identifies trends and themes that surface from a rapidly expanding but dispersed literature on precollegiate education in the 1980s, encompassing both empirical research and normative commentaries.

The scope of this article was determined after reviewing abstracts from two literature searches: (1) an automated search of ERIC, and (2) a manual review of a bibliography file on federalism in elementary and secondary education prepared and maintained for the conduct of a national study of Chapter 1 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ECIA), which became law in 1981.

The ERIC literature review encompassed the years 1981 through 1985, and used the following major descriptors: (1) federal government, or (2) federal programs, or (3) federal legislation, and (4) education policy, or (5) government role. The search also automatically filtered out articles that pertained to countries other than the United States. The search yielded 187 entries. A preliminary review of these abstracts revealed serious limitations in using generic bibliographic searches such as ERIC for the purposes of this review. The most limiting aspect of the research reported in these abstracts was that it only included empirical work completed prior to implementation of ECIA. This legislation enacted important changes in federal education programs for school­-age children including streamlining the legal requirements of the largest federal education program for local school districts, the consoli­dation of 28 smaller elementary and secondary programs into a single block grant, and the curtailment of federal regulatory and monitoring authority. The limitations of this search procedure stem largely from the extended lag time between the fielding of empirical investigations in this area and the reporting of findings from these studies in professional publications.

For coverage of more recent developments, the review relied on a collection of reports and articles accumulated for a study of Chapter 1, ECIA, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Included in this collection are over 50 entries contributed by individual researchers and scholars, as well as by professional associations, advocacy groups, government agencies, and other research organizations. Among these holdings were three bibliographic resources of particular utility for studying the modern federal role: (1) The Directory of Researchers in Educational Finance and Governance, published annually since 1982 by Stanford University's Institute for Finance and Governance; (2) the past four editions of the U.S. Department of Education's Annual Evaluation Report; and (3) Data Bases Related to Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Programs, a compendium of descriptive summa­ries for approximately 50 databases on federal education programs contained on machine-readable tapes.

This review will focus primarily on a broad and largely uncharted literature that has evolved since the completion of the most recent research syntheses published in the early 1980s. It should be noted that federal policies established by the judicial system (e.g., desegregation and sex discrimination cases) were judged to deserve a full, separate study and therefore were not included in this review.

This article was originally published in the Educational Administration Quarterly.

Suggested citationJung, R., & Kirst, M. W. (1986, August). Beyond mutual adaptation, into the bully pulpit: Recent research on the federal role in education [Article]. Policy Analysis for California Education.