Education

Reporter’s Notebook

April 30, 2003 4 min read

War Concerns Lead Foreign Researchers to Stay Home

When more than 12,000 educational researchers from around the world converged here last week for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, a few of their number were noticeably absent.

The missing scholars came from the association’s growing foreign contingent. According to colleagues, many decided to skip the meeting because of concerns over the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the stepped-up security requirements they would have had to face to enter this country.

“I don’t think I would be here if I were not chairing a session,” said Nuzhat Amin, an associate researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, located in Toronto. To get a visa to attend the meeting, she said, some of her colleagues from other countries had to produce letters from their employers and bank statements.

Other researchers declined to come in protest of the U.S. involvement in the war, international scholars said.

“People here don’t realize most of the rest of the world is against the war,” said Sue Middleton, a researcher with the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Both foreign and American critics of U.S. policies in the Middle East came out in full force, nonetheless, for a last-minute, special session on the war and its impact on education and children. The session organizers were denied a more formal spot on the conference agenda because association leaders said their politically oriented meeting strayed too far from the AERA’s research mission. Organizers insisted, however, on space to rally for their cause.

“We’re a group of educators here, and all of us have significant rhetorical skills,” said Elizabeth E. Heilman, a Michigan State University researcher who spoke at the session. “Who better than educators to try to address the Bush administration’s rhetoric?”

Participants had lots to say, it turned out, on how fallout from the war in Iraq was affecting their own communities. They told of precollegiate teachers in New Mexico suspended for pasting anti-war posters on classroom walls and displaying children’s work on the subject, of Palestinian- American scholars receiving death threats, and of watching Australian children putting cowboy hats and tea towels on their heads and playing at war.

“We have K-12 teachers out there who are afraid to speak out, afraid to promote critical thinking in their classes,” said Michael Vavrus, a teacher-educator at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “Yet in our methods courses, we promote critical-thinking methodology.”

The dominant education issue, though, was the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, the latest revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Eight sessions directly addressed the new federal law, and many more focused more broadly on issues related to the widespread use of standardized tests that it calls for.

One of the more offbeat of those offerings was a study measuring test anxiety in nine elementary schools in Fayetteville, Ark.

Statistics professor Sean W. Mulvenon and two of his colleagues at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville surveyed students, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and principals in the fall and spring during weeks when students were taking exams. They discovered that teachers, for the most part, were more anxious about the tests than their students were.

Three-quarters of the students, for instance, reported to one degree or another that they liked testing week, “because we have less homework and less instruction in class.” In comparison, 86 percent of teachers reported feeling some anxiety about adequately preparing their students for the tests, and 67 percent of teachers said they believed their students suffered from test anxiety, too.

The good news was that neither teachers’ nor students’ level of anxiety seemed to be negatively linked to test scores. In fact, the schools in which students’ anxiety levels were lowest were among the poorest-performing in the district on the tests.

“This kind of substantiates the case that maybe it’s overstated that test anxiety is a problem,” Mr. Mulvenon said.

The five-day meeting also gave the Washington-based association an opportunity to unveil a new publication aimed at bridging the oft-criticized gap that separates research from practice.

Titled Research Points, the quarterly newsletter will provide reader-friendly summaries of research on a different topic each issue and will offer some solid, research- based recommendations for policymakers and practitioners.

“This association wants research to be heard, and recognizes now that, for that to happen, there has to be kind of a definitive statement,” said Lauren B. Resnick, the University of Pittsburgh psychologist who is editing the publication.

Research Points’ inaugural issue describes the research base pointing to the need for states to better align their precollegiate assessments with their academic standards. The association has printed 5,000 copies and plans to mail most of those to state and federal lawmakers, leaders of some of the nation’s largest school districts, state departments of education, and national education groups, among others.

The newsletter is available online at www.aera.net.

—Debra Viadero

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