IN 1980, more than 2,400 organizations in the United States, ranging from large university research centers to small firms with only a few employes, spent an estimated $730 million to study American education. That is enough to finance the District of Columbia school system for nearly three years.

About half of the money came from the federal government, much of it channeled through the National Institute of Education, research arm of the Department of Education.

Now, the questions of whether the results of this effort have improved the quality of education and whether taxpayers have gotten their money's worth are drawing a multitude of divergent answers. Educational researchers say the issue is muddied by the fact that their work cannot produce the swift, uncomplicated answers often achieved in the so-called "harder" sciences such as physics and medicine.

For its part, the Reagan administration is proposing that the government drastically reduce its role in education research. Last month the Office of Management and Budget urged that the National Institute of Education (NIE) be phased out entirely by 1985.The effect of that cut alone could be devastating to education research efforts in this country.

Even before the call for the agency's demise, the NIE's budget for this fiscal year already had been cut sharply, down to $53.4 million from $65.6 million last year. The trimmed-down budget will allow for continued funding this year of research projects already underway, but will have money left over for few, if any, new studies, said Edward A. Curran, NIE's new director.

Michael Timpane, former director of the institute and now dean of Columbia University Teachers College in New York, said that if the federal educational research effort is "kept on these kinds of starvation rations for several years, all the momentum [of research] is going to be lost... if you lose that, you have to spend quite a long time getting it back together again."

"There needs to be a very fundamental debate about the federal role in education and we're not getting it," added Lawrence E. Gladieux, executive director of the College Board's Washington office. "Instead of getting debate, we're just facing a series of proposals to cut back without a lot of philosophy, analysis or rethinking.

"I think basic research should be accepted as a responsibility of the federal government, because it is in the national interest," he said. "The benefit of research of all kinds, including education, spills over state borders. And it is not likely the states are going to support education to the depth we need it for the future of this country."

Education research groups appear to have grown vastly in number over the past decade, although the first accurate count of them was not done until 1977 when the Bureau of Social Science Research surveyed all types of institutions except those within the federal government. The bureau's study found 200 of the 2,400 organization engaged in research spend about 70 percent of the available research money. College and university researchers spend about half the available funds.

Much of the growth spurt in education research can be attributed to a "push for public understanding of what is going on in schools, and for understanding how successful schools are," said David Florio of the American Educational Research Association. There was, also, a need to "create some meaningful information. Everybody wanted to know what test scores really meant. It was in the interests of school systems to be a little more sophisticated" in evaluating and explaining their operations.

The results of this push include several major studies of American high schools now being conducted by leading educators and institutions around the country. One of these studies is a project of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, planned for completion in spring 1983. It is a "review of high school curriculum, the way high schools work internally, their relationship to society generally and, specifically, the way they affect higher education," according to foundation vice president Verne Stadtman.

The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Department of Education, last year also launched a large-scale study of 30,000 sophomores and 28,000 seniors in 1,015 public and private high schools. The goal is to study the educational and occupational plans of these students and, through follow up surveys in coming years, to show the influence of their high school educations on their later careers.

A preliminary report was issued last spring and the agency plans to conduct or sponsor several other reports analyzing data that have been collected. The first of these analyses, published last spring, contained noted social scientist James Coleman's controversial conclusion that students in private high schools scored about two grade levels higher and showed higher rates of learning than their counterparts in public schools.

Other research projects, said Peter Rossi, director of the University of Massachusetts Social and Demographic Research Institute, have produced "some very, very basic sorts of discoveries. Some are so obvious it's hard to get excited, but they are very important."

For example, he said, "Just the sheer amount of teaching that goes on in the classroom turns out to be a small proportion of the time in the classroom. It's on the order of 10 percent. The rest of the time is spent on managing the class. If you increase that [time spent teaching] you get enormous increases in learning."

Stephen K. Bailey, Francis Keppel professor of educational policy and administration at Harvard University, called this "the time-on-task conclusion" and says, "It's a perfectly obvious point, but if taken seriously it would revolutionize American education."

Allan Odden, of the Education Commission of the States, a major research organization that administers the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress, observed that the research conducted in recent years in several areas of the national has produced a consensus "that we do know a number of principles of how to make schools work. We know if we follow those principles, things get better."

The characteristics of effective schools, he said, are: a principal who is a strong instructional leader, and knows how to manage time and people efficiently; teachers and students who agree that the school's mission is to have students acquire the basic skills; high expectations by students and teachers; an effective system for monitoring and assessing pupil performance, and a safe, orderly school, free of discipline problems and vandalism.

A number of educators and researchers fear the results of a severe cutback in educational investigation and evaluation. Reducing education funds is "cutting off your nose to spite your face," said Bailey, who completed a four-year term in October as head of the National Academy of Education. "The most basic investment of society is education and all we get from Reagan is the back of the hand."

Even before the cutting began, the Department of Education spent a smaller portion of its budget --.9 percent -- on research and development than do most other government agencies, most notably the Defense Department, which spends 10 percent of its funds on "R&D," and the Department of Health and Human Services, which spends 5 percent.

Rossi believes investigation into the "basic principles that underlie educational practice to increase the knowledge base we have concerning how best to teach children has finally begun to show some promise... particularly in the last 15 years of heavy federal investment in research."

But Rossi is among those who find some serious flaws in educational research. "The research area where most of the federal money goes is in a really sad state," he said. "This is into monitoring what's going on inside schools, and trying to figure out the impact of federal education programs. We're still at the point of not being really quite clear for what purposes the money is given. It's very difficult to trace the funds through the educational systems and to find out precisely in what ways it is being used."

Investigation into existing educational practices, he explained, is "inherently conservative... and does not encourage innovation and change. We should stop the trial-and-error types of fiddling around with the schools and spend much more time trying to understand the basic processes of learning... The study of what already exists only tells us what already exists."

Another veteran researcher, Bob Eckert, who has worked with the NIE and private organizations, added that too much money is spent on studying educational programs with which educators are already satisfied. A great deal of federally sponsored research is "in the evaluation area [and is done] to document conventional wisdom. So, a whole lot of money is spent to prove that a wheel is round and that it rolls downhill," he said.

Many researchers favor instead what Gladieux called "basic research on the educational processes, particularly the learning process, what makes education work and what does work and what doesn't." Gladieux also sees a need to solve the "chronic problem" of the "gap between research and practice.... The average classroom teacher doesn't see any results, and probably much of it is written in language not decipherable to the average practitioner."

Bailey said the field of educational research "is infinitely more complex than human cancer because you're dealing with problems of background, heredity, environment, specific chemistry of the learning place, teaching techniques, and you change any one of those variables and you make mincemeat out of the rest of them...." For example, he said, "a child in a small school where there are high expectations for learning will learn. You could use the same textbooks and the same teacher, and the child will stop learning when you move him into a violent urban high school. You don't have massive breakthroughs in research [because] there are so many variables."

These complexities spell problems for researchers at one of their major sources of funds, Capitol Hill.

"There is no large political constituency for educational research because there are no palpable short-term results," said Timpane. "[A member of Congress] never gets to stand on the courthouse steps and announce that he has sponsored a research project that has improved all the schools in his district."