AERA’s Smorgasbord Caters to Wide Variety of Tastes

April 02, 1997 5 min read


With more than 1,500 separate sessions and upward of 3,000 individual papers or presentations, the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association offered a little something for everyone.

As usual, the thick conference catalog served as a road map to the minds of the research community.

Sessions and paper topics at last week’s gathering here ranged from the no-nonsense--"There Are No Excuses: All Children Can Learn"--to the mysterious--"Long White Coats, Silver Bullet Cures, and Hoodoo Medicine.” From the puzzling--"Studentship Reconsidered: An Effort to Detect and Counter the Operation of Student Subversion in Undergraduate Teacher Education Classes"--to the extremely technical--"Effects of Data Nonnormality on Fit Indices and Parameter Estimates for True and Misspecified SEM Models.”

Not surprisingly, “reform” dominated the list of subjects, with 128 sessions or papers listed in the catalog index. “Teacher education” and “teacher education/development” weren’t far behind, with more than 100. “Curriculum” weighed in with 66, and participants had 62 “professional development” items to choose from.

On at least one subject of vital interest to educators, however, the choices were limited: Those in search of “knowledge” found only one listing.

One theme of the March 24-28 conference was a focus on efforts by the 23,000-member AERA to reach out to broader audiences who can benefit from academic work, notably classroom educators and education policymakers. (“Scholars Seek New Audience for Research,” March 26, 1997.)

Toward that end, a new division of the 81-year-old organization made its debut here, with 30 sessions devoted to education policy and politics.

The division provides a home for some scholars who have felt left out in the past--notably specialists in legal issues and education finance.

“There was definitely a need for a division where policy and politics were center stage,” said Martha M. McCarthy, a professor in the school of education at Indiana University. “Legal researchers often felt disenfranchised from AERA.”

The new division seems likely to become one of the places where the worlds of scholarly research and real-life applications intersect.

“We need to be able to articulate the grounding for policy ideas more fully so that they don’t become stripped of much of their meaning,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a former president of the aera.

Much of that interaction should be directed at the 50 statehouses, where much of the current activity in education policy is taking place, said Rodney J. Reed, the dean of the college of education at Pennsylvania State University.

“My plea is for this division to become active in politics to influence policymakers at the state level,” he said.

Mr. Reed also underscored, however, the need for education researchers to remain focused on education’s bottom line. “All this research has to be focused on why kids are not learning,” he said.

At one session here, a group of researchers discussed how they explored the idea that going to community college tends to “cool out” students’ ambitions to go on to a four-year college.

The researchers--Ernest T. Pascarella and Marcia I. Edison of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Amaury Nora of the University of Houston, Linda Serra Hagedorn of the University of Southern California, and Patrick T. Terenzini of Penn State--studied 5,000 community college students from 16 states over two to three years. As part of the federally funded study, they gave the students a battery of standardized tests, tracked their graduation rates, determined their aspirations, and watched what courses they took and which majors they chose.

“Some students enter a two-year institution with the expectation that it will lead to a bachelor’s degree, but they end up taking remedial coursework,” said Ms. Hagedorn, an assistant professor at USC’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis. “They might go to community college for two years and not have a single credit that’s transferable.”

On the other hand, the researchers found, students whose grades and test scores suggest that they would have been successful had they gone straight to a four-year institution seem to do just as well despite their two years in community college. Their conclusion: It’s not the community colleges’ fault.

“Students are not being prepared appropriately for college,” Ms. Hagedorn said.

Students’ high school grades may be a good indicator of their productivity, according to a paper released here by a researcher at Northwestern University.

Shazia Rafiullah Miller, a fellow at the university’s Institute for Policy Research, analyzed data on 9,000 students who took part in the High School and Beyond Survey, a federal study that tracks students from the sophomore year until 10 years after high school.

Right out of high school, Ms. Miller found, there was almost no link between grades and earnings. But the picture changed dramatically a decade later. Higher high school grades translated to better incomes. For example, a man who had gotten mostly Bs in high school could expect to earn 14 percent more than a man with similar characteristics who had gotten mostly Cs. For women, the difference was even greater.

Ms. Miller said the differences were not just due to the fact that the former high achievers had gone on to further studies or earned college degrees. Only about one-third of the earnings difference could be explained that way, she found.

“High school grades are a good, already existing measure of human capital that employers could use,” she said. “So why don’t they use it?”

Tom Hoffer, a University of Chicago researcher who commented on the study, offered one possible explanation: Employers don’t trust high school grades.

The World Wide Web has grown exponentially in recent years. Yet few--if any--studies have explored how different groups of people respond to it as a learning tool, said Richard H. Hall, a University of Missouri researcher.

So Mr. Hall, an associate professor at the university’s Rolla campus, decided to take a stab at the issue himself. For his study, he showed 27 undergraduate students Web pages displaying either a picture of a neuron, a written definition of a neuron, or both.

The results, which Mr. Hall detailed here, were surprising. While all the students favored Web pages showing both pictures and words, male and female students disagreed dramatically over the effectiveness of the background.

The women interviewed were put off, it turned out, by the page with the most cluttered background. But the men “thought it was the coolest thing around,” Mr. Hall said. He said the differences had nothing to do with the students’ degree of previous experience with computers. His conclusion: “Gender is important to consider in learning from the Web.”