These are days of turmoil at the usually quiet National Institute of Education, the research arm of the Department of Education that has been a New Right target because of its allegedly liberal, values-oriented research.

In the past month, NIE chief Edward Curran, the 48-year-old former headmaster at Washington's National Cathedral School, has circulated proposals to redirect research grants to study conservative themes, announced the termination of long-running contracts at 17 scattered research centers and labs, and started reassigning and firing top employes. Most recently, there were reports of a purge of the readers who review research applications.

The result has been cries of alarm from members of the tight-knit educational research community who see the actions as an attempt to politicize the 300-person agency. Some view Curran's assistants, Larry Uzell, a former aide to Sen. John P. East (R-N.C.), and Tom Asick, of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, as the political operatives with Curran as the front man. None of the three has a background in research.

Paul Hill, a former NIE researcher now with the Rand Corp. in Washington, said, "They clearly are trying to change the direction of the institute from what they perceive as being liberal, pro-minority, using education as a tool of social change. They're turning away from that to a much more conservative approach."

David Florio, legislative director for the American Educational Research Association, said his group is concerned because NIE's new plans include "fairly naive" topics that already have been studied in depth. The plans also pay little attention to recent efforts to study more effective schools, the role of tests, and school finance and managment, he added.

Curran said in a recent interview that the criticisms are "empty charges." He acknowledged that he is pushing NIE in a new direction. "I am aware that educational research has to be objective. But I think we have to look at some of the other sides of issues that I feel have been ignored over the past few years."

Educational research often is a murky area for the uninitiated. Members of Congress have criticized NIE for being too "ivory tower" in its approach and for not producing enough practical help for the classroom teacher and school administrator.

Conservative groups saw bigger problems. When the Heritage Foundation issued its conservative blueprint for change before Ronald Reagan's election, it said that the results of federally funded educational research were "at best spotty and inconclusive; at worst, they have been programs for indoctrinating students in ethical relativism and social determinism."

In its first-year report card on the Department of Education, it added that the department continued to fund "numerous questionable research projects." Curran is quick to put a NIE-funded feminist film called "Freestyle" in this category.

He said the purpose of the film is to strike down sex role stereotypes. "I don't question whether we should be concerned with sex role stereotypes," he said. "I question whether we should spend taxpayer dollars on that problem when we ought to be worrying more about how to improve student achievement."

The internal battle between the newcomers and the entrenched researchers first gained public notice in February when copies of the 1983 and 1984 planning guidelines were leaked to the trade press.

Suggested research topics included tuition tax credits, merit pay for teachers, whether free-wheeling, structured or pre-professional college program graduates are "richer, happier, wiser, and/or more virtuous," and the "effects on learning of a schoolchild's mother's holding a full-time job."

Curran said that some of the early ideas were dropped in the planning process, but he defended the shift. The idea to study the impact a mother's working had on her child's academic performance, for instance, "didn't come to me as a right-wing bullet," he said. "It's a concern I've had for a number of years."

The next step came in March, when Curran wrote the head of the 17 regional research labs and centers funded by the government, telling them that he was terminating their contracts a year early.

In doing so, he noted that they now would be required to compete with other groups, rather than have a guaranteed funding level. Since NIE was established in 1973, its budget has dropped from $136 million to $53.4 million, with level funding proposed for fiscal 1983.

Ten years ago, the labs and centers got $34 million, one quarter of NIE's budget. They now get $28 million, more than half the budget.

Some lab directors were quoted as saying they didn't mind the competition, but were fearful that Curran would use the fresh money to bankroll the New Right's research agenda. The NIE director retorted that the labs and centers seemed more interested in their own welfare. "It's new to me to see an interest group work so hard for its little piece of the pie."

The most recent step began early last month, when Curran and his deputies began reassigning NIE officials and informing 15 others their contracts wouldn't be renewed. Many of the researchers are hired on three-year contracts, outside civil service channels, and have had their contracts renewed once or twice already.

Some of those affected say privately they are considering a suit, on the grounds their bosses seem to be picking on women, who have been most affected by the cuts. Curran denied any sexist intent in the terminations. "I think it's time to bring new life, infuse new professional expertise into the institute," he said.

He also said that was the reason he has asked his special assistants to look for new grant application readers. In the past, Curran said, NIE seemed to rely on "a certain part of its constituency" in picking peer review groups. "If there's been an absence of the conservative view, we'll try to make sure there is a presence of a conservative view."