Annual Conference Spotlights Trends, Key Issues in Research

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San Diego

With more than 12,500 people in attendance and more than 1,400 separate sessions, the annual convention here of the American Educational Research Association was the largest ever.

The theme of the meeting this year was diversity, and the AERA devoted dozens of sessions to the complex challenges of educators faced with students from a wide variety of cultures.

Chrys Dougherty

The seminars, symposiums, presentations, and discussions scattered through conference rooms and auditoriums at the waterfront hotels also reflected current issues in education, from the obscure--"Item Pool Refreshment With Multistage Stratified Design"--to cutting-edge policy concerns--"Class-Size Reduction in California."

As with last year's convention in Chicago, the most popular topics here were education reform and teacher education, with more than 120 sessions each.1Other areas of concentration were professional development, with 76 sessions, curriculum with 72, and administration with 41.

Puzzled researchers trying to make sense of the multitude of topics and navigate the inevitable scheduling conflicts could perhaps find refuge in the six sessions in the catalog index under the heading "Stress/Coping."

Several studies in recent years have pointed to the potentially devastating effects divorce can have on a child's academic achievement. But having a divorced or widowed parent who remarries may be even tougher for children to handle, a study presented here suggests.

William H. Jeynes, an adjunct sociology professor at Wright University in Chicago, studied 25,000 8th graders who took part in the National Education Longitudinal Study to find out how different family structures affected children's achievement. Not surprisingly, he found that children from divorced families had lower grades and tested lower in reading, math, science, and social studies than children from traditional, intact families.

But children from divorced families in which a parent had remarried fared even worse, Mr. Jeynes found. And children from families in which a widowed parent had remarried did worst of all.

Having a single parent who had never married, or living in a family in which the adults were an unmarried couple, also had a negative effect on children's academic achievement.

When Mr. Jeynes adjusted the numbers to take into account differences in race, gender, and socioeconomic status among the children in the study, he still found significant differences between the academic achievement of children from intact families and those living with a widowed parent who remarried. The differential shrunk considerably--but did not disappear--for children in families where parents had divorced and remarried.

One reason that children seem to undergo more psychological stress in families in which a widowed parent remarried, Mr. Jeynes said, may be that children tend to idealize a parent who died and see a stepfather or stepmother as an intruder.

With increasing numbers of children in all kinds of nontraditional family arrangements, he said, "it behooves us as educators to sensitize ourselves to the challenges children face in different family structures."

Despite early-childhood experts' warnings against testing young children, most school districts give students some kind of standardized reading assessment before they leave 3rd grade, according to Chrys Dougherty, an assistant professor from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He surveyed 251 U.S. districts between 1993 and 1995.

He found that 90 percent of them gave primary-grade children some kind of formal test that included assessment of reading skills.

Since the late 1980s, groups such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children have cautioned against excessive testing of any kind for young children. Mr. Dougherty said he was stunned by his findings indicating that educators are not heeding that advice.

But he viewed districts' testing practices as positive.

"If children are not reading by the end of first grade, that's a risk factor for their future reading achievement, and it seems incumbent upon school districts to pay attention to that," he said.

The research association's annual awards presentations reflected the meeting's focus on diversity.

At least three of the awards went to scholars who specialized in issues of educational equity or cultural differences. Claude Steele, a Stanford University professor who examined how perceptions of racial stereotypes affect college students' performance on standardized tests, won a Presidential Citation for his work. And John Ogbu of the University of California, Berkeley, was cited for his work on how different kinds of immigrant groups resist or adopt dominant cultural norms.

Vanessa Siddle-Walker, who wrote a book on African-American students in a segregated school in the South, won an award given annually to researchers considered to have made a significant contribution to the field early in their careers.


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  • The AERA Web site contains a registry of education researchers as well as highlights of the annual meeting.
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