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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Frustrates Me About AERA

By Rick Hess — April 12, 2016 4 min read
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Over the past few days, nearly 20,000 education researchers descended on the nation’s capital for the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) 100th annual conference. As usual, the 2,000+ sessions included enough progressive politics and self-impressed navel-gazing to choke a horse. It had been a while, but in honor of AERA’s centennial, Francesca Pickett and I revisited a once-upon-a-time annual tradition and had some fun with the convening. When asked about the piece, I wound up repeatedly trying to explain the larger frustration that prompted it. In the spirit of clarity and convenience, I’ll try to articulate that sentiment here.

The thing is, the mockery serves a very particular purpose—which is mostly to try and cast into bas-relief the groupthink that suffuses AERA. I’m always struck that my AERA friends and colleagues don’t see the groupthink that I do. I suspect that’s because they’re deeply accustomed to the ideological homogeneity of the nation’s education schools. In their eyes, attendees at AERA think they’re engaging in wide-ranging debate when sessions grow heated between those fixated on questions of class, race, and privilege as the defining characteristics of American education—and those who are also fixated on issues of race, class, and privilege but think the first group isn’t radical or angry enough.

Now, that’s not every single individual at AERA. There is a rump group of economists and evaluators who consciously try to shy away from all this. They do their thing, and crank out their studies, but certainly don’t challenge the “hegemonic consensus” of AERA, figuring that they don’t need the grief . . . even if they think it ought to be challenged. The result: AERA is a place where Republicans can be compared to Nazis without anyone blinking an eye and where it’s a given that Obama’s education policies and Democrats for Education Reform are right-wing (!).

Indeed, despite the parade of sessions that feature attention to fraught topics like immigration, there are fundamental questions that go unraised—and that cannot be raised without triggering a meltdown. To suggest that illegal (or, in AERA parlance, “undocumented”) immigrants should perhaps be regarded as lawbreakers is to be branded a nut job—or a fascist. To suggest that a fascination with oppression and “privilege” has squeezed out notions of moral agency and personal responsibility is to set off a wave of eye-rolling and cringing discomfort, as attendees try to determine whether one is ignorant, willfully blind to structural inequities, or simply an old-fashioned racist.

The possibility that knowledgeable, informed, and reasonable people might actually disagree on these things is simply not part of the AERA worldview—primarily, I suspect, because it’s not part of the ed school worldview. For all the talk of diversity, creating safe places for inquiry, and wrestling with uncomfortable questions, far too many scholars seem to doubt that anyone to the right of, say, Hillary Clinton can possibly have thought seriously about any of these issues.

This is all especially frustrating because AERA is the national association representing the nation’s education researchers. It can and should be a place where serious questions are tackled in a serious way, and where disparate voices have a chance to fully and honestly grapple with the research and its implications, and it sometimes is. I had the chance to sit on a terrific panel organized by Vivian Tseng of the W.T. Grant Foundation, in which the Spencer Foundation’s Mike McPherson, the Ford Foundation’s Fred Frelow, and I talked about the role of foundations in education today—a frank, serious discussion that featured some informative disagreement and a lot of complementary insights. I also had the chance to be part of a pretty thoughtful discussion on the risks of social media in academic research, hosted by Julian Vasquez-Heilig, in which Nolan Cabrera, Sara Goldrick-Rab, and Diane Ravitch discussed our various experiences and perspectives in a collegial and useful fashion.

Along the way, though, I sat through audience questions asking how to better convince foundations to pursue a Bernie Sanders-esque reform agenda. I heard Republican governors whom I know and like denounced as cartoon villains. I heard people operating with the casual comfort of a political gathering—where speakers can make confident assertions on hotly debated questions because they know they’re among the like-minded. I would wholly expect scholars to chat that way if the occasion were a gathering of campus Democrats, but it’s a problem when it’s the reflexive norm at a major national research conference.

Anyway, that’s why I mock AERA. I wouldn’t say it’s out of love, exactly. But it is out of the hope that AERA can and should do better, and that it’d be a valuable and healthy thing if it did.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.