In Research, Global Views Gain Ground
When 12,000 of the nation's education researchers gather in San Diego this week, they'll be joined by scholars from Namibia and the Netherlands, Spain and Singapore, Aruba, Australia, and more than a dozen other countries around the world.
More than 1,000 presenters from outside the United States are expected at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, evidence of the growing recognition that good ideas about schools and learning aren't bound by national borders.
"Just as we've seen all sorts of things become more globalized, education has become more globalized," said Richard Wolf, a professor of education and psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, who is the chairman of the AERA's international committee. "You can't just look within the borders of your own country and think that's the beginning and end of education."
But education researchers for years have done exactly that.
Even though pedagogy in this country leans heavily on the work of international scholars such as the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, American educational research has long had a reputation for parochialism.
"I have to say that we Europeans--and no doubt others outside the U.S.--often feel marginalized by the U.S. educational research establishment," said Philip S. Adey, a researcher at the Centre for the Advancement of Thinking at King's College in London.
The insular attitudes come in part because American-bred educational research has long been, as one scholar put it, "the biggest game in town."
With 23,000 members, the 82-year-old AERA, for example, is the largest and one of the oldest educational research organizations in the world.
And, outside of Britain, France, Germany, and a handful of other European countries that have longstanding university education programs, many countries send their young education scholars to American colleges and universities.
"I would expect by far that over 50 percent of all education research and development is U.S. education research and development," said Albert Tuijnman, a principal administrator for education at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 29-nation federation that promotes growth and world trade.
So, while American researchers could easily ignore contributions from around the world, researchers from outside the United States couldn't look anywhere but here.
"There is no choice simply in terms of the quantity of research out there," Mr. Adey said.
American researchers, educators, and policymakers began to look beyond their borders, however, in the 1960s when the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement conducted its first cross-national study of math achievement.
Since then, the Amsterdam-based group has conducted two more international studies of mathematics, three on science achievement, two in reading, and one each in French, English as a foreign language, computer use in schools, and writing, according to Mr. Wolf.
The comparisons showed that U.S. students were among the best in the world in reading, but lagged behind many other countries in math and science or scored about average.
"That was a big blow," said Harold Stevenson, a University of Michigan researcher who has made a career of studying education and child-rearing in other nations. "Why in the world should we not be doing well when we invest so much in education?"
Beginning in the 1970s, Mr. Stevenson and a handful of other researchers set out to answer that question.
Education scholars say the pace of cross-cultural research and collaboration has picked up in recent years. In the AERA, for example, foreign researchers--who made barely a ripple in the group two decades ago--now make up 15 percent of its membership.
"It is enormous how the international participation has grown over the years," said Erik De Corte, a professor of education psychology at the University of Leuven in Belgium and an AERA member since 1979.
He founded the organization's European equivalent--the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction--in 1984 to provide a forum for the European researchers that he met in the United States.
Even so, Mr. De Corte has never missed an AERA meeting and was even nominated to be the group's president a few years ago.
"While I still think the majority of American researchers can be a little bit parochial, the fact that I was nominated by American colleagues shows that also many Americans are developing and getting more open-minded," he said.
William Russell, the executive director of the Washington-based AERA, said some of the growth in foreign membership has been the result of deliberate efforts on the part of his group to attract those researchers.
Thirteen years ago, at the behest of researcher David Berliner, then the AERA's president, the organization began offering national research associations in other countries an open spot on the annual convention's program.
Typically, the studies from other countries were lumped together in one or two sessions. Now, however, contributions from foreign scholars are sprinkled throughout the annual meeting's telephone-book-sized catalog of seminars, paper presentations, and round-table discussions.
A session on parent involvement in schooling, for example, might include studies from three or four countries.
"I think that's a healthy sign," Mr. Russell said.
But the AERA's interest in international research also reflects attitudinal shifts in the field at large.
More American journals are publishing articles produced elsewhere, and studies by foreign researchers are also cropping up as references in U.S. research papers, researchers say.
"We've been sensitized in this country to the possibility that our views of the world may not be completely shared by everyone we meet," said Stephen Kerr, an education professor at the University of Washington, who has collaborated with researchers in Russia, Finland, and other countries. "All of that has thrown into question assumptions that we used to hold as being completely taken for granted."
While American academics once embraced standardized tests as a way to measure student learning, for example, many have now come to recognize that other methods might just as valuable--and, in some cases, better.
"Doubts about the applicability of social science methods mean that it's more acceptable to look at other ways of viewing the world," added Mr. Kerr, who is slated to take over the chairmanship of the AERA's international committee this week.
And advances in computer technology, notably electronic mail and the Internet, have made it easier to communicate with colleagues overseas.
"It used to be that you sent off an airmail letter, and you were lucky to get back a response a month later," Mr. Kerr said in a recent interview.
In Europe, meanwhile, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the creation of the European Union have removed some of the barriers to international collaboration.
Those developments have come as education has moved up on public agendas worldwide, said Mr. Tuijnman of the OECD, which produces an annual set of indicators gauging schooling in its 29 member nations. At the request of education ministers in those countries, the organization has been beefing up its own education research arm since 1990.
No Horse Race
Researchers on both sides of the Atlantic say the exchanges between countries are influencing the quality and the shape of education research.
"A lot of the early stuff was basically a horse-race kind of thing," said Lorin Anderson, the chairman of the editorial board for the International Journal of Education Research. "The most recent generation of research is really trying to develop some understanding of what can account for these differences. I think that's a big shift."
American researchers have traditionally been more oriented toward quantitative research methods, while Europeans favored more qualitative approaches, such as narratives or case studies. Researchers on both continents now are seeing the value of combining those methodologies.
"Having more tools," said Mr. Anderson, "makes you a better carpenter."