Where's the AERA? Critics Say They See A Leadership Void

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The American Educational Research Association gives an annual award to a member who does a noteworthy job of relating research to practice.

This year, the award went to ... nobody.

The irony wasn't lost on critics of the 23,000-member organization. If education research is to be improved and its reach expanded, they say, then perhaps the world's largest group of education researchers ought to play a role in making that happen.

Critics contend that part of the problem is that the Washington-based group, despite holding more than $8 million in cash reserves, has never sufficiently invested in its outreach and communication efforts.

"This should be AERA's shining moment," said Max McConkey, a longtime member of the organization and the director of the office of policy and communications for WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group. "This should be the time when Congress and the administration and the media and practitioners turn to AERA and say, 'You're the place we can get some answers.' And AERA unfortunately would be silent."

He and other critics contend that part of the problem is that the Washington-based group, despite holding more than $8 million in cash reserves, has never sufficiently invested in its outreach and communication efforts. In 1993, for the first time in its 83-year history, the AERA hired a full-time communicator to help raise its profile. But since that staff person left in 1997, the position has either been vacant or only briefly occupied.

And an outreach committee the association put together in the early 1990s was recently merged with another organizational committee, leaving some of the original committee members feeling that their efforts were abandoned.

An Issue of Scale

One symptom of the AERA's lack of commitment to improving the quality of research, its critics say, may be its annual meeting, a massive, five-day event that draws more than 11,000 researchers and scholars from around the globe. The most frequent criticism of the meeting, with 4,000 different sessions on its phone-book-size program, is that too many of the sessions are of poor quality.

With a little pruning, some in the research community say, the organization might be able to offer more consistent models of good research for the younger scholars who attend.

"Famous professor X may have to make four or five presentations in the course of the conference, and the nature of life is that you can't work up four or five absolutely fresh presentations," said Patricia Albjerg Graham, the president of the Spencer Foundation, a Chicago-based philanthropy that provides funding for education research and for Education Week's monthly Research section. "Since junior researcher Y will not see all of famous professor X's presentations, junior researcher Y may get the idea that it's all right to talk off the cuff."

But William J. Russell, who has served as the AERA's executive director for 27 years, maintains that improving quality and ensuring that findings get put into practice are two objectives that remain at the heart of the organization's mission.

The association's current leaders say they are hoping that its outreach efforts will be strengthened by merging the outreach committee into one that deals with policy and practice. The idea behind the hybrid committee is to create "consensus" panels--much like the scientific panels pulled together by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council--to review all of the reports on a single subject and to distill and publicize the findings.

The group's first such report, which dealt with racial issues in higher education, was released in April.

"We have a much richer understanding of aspects of thinking and learning," said Alan H. Schoenfeld, whose term as the AERA's president ended in April. "Now it's time for us to pull together some of those understandings."

"If this committee has a fraction of the impact that I hope it will have, it will be the most important thing I will have done as president," added Mr. Schoenfeld, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

'Multiple Purposes'

And the idea of reforming the annual meeting has been the focus of a perennial debate within the AERA. Organization officials said every session proposal is read by at least three reviewers. Roughly half the submissions are turned down.

"I think you have to think of the annual meeting as serving multiple purposes, and not just as a forum for models of the best possible research being presented," Mr. Russell said. "It's also part of an educational process for the folks who are doing the research--to give them the opportunity of presenting research and getting some structured feedback."

There are also practical reasons for keeping the conference large. University-based academics, for example, need conference presentations on their r‚sum‚s to help in getting tenure.

Even if the group agreed to shrink the annual meeting, deciding which of the organization's 12 divisions and 128 special-interest groups to trim would be a challenge.

In the broadest sense, many people might agree that there should be fewer sessions, Mr. Russell said, "but when you try to operationalize that for individual divisions it's like, 'Yeah, we need more prisons, but not in my backyard.'"

The organization is also planning to pose some hard questions to its members next year about the current proliferation in the field of newer forms of research.

The theme of next year's annual meeting, in New Orleans, is "Creating Knowledge in the 21st Century: Insights From Multiple Perspectives." Among the questions on which the organization is hoping to draw discussion are: "What standards should be invoked to judge the integrity or quality of research? What kind of responsibility should researchers take for the results? And how can educational research have integrity and clout without losing its cutting edge?"

Too Little Time?

As for the award for relating research to practice, AERA officials said there might not have been a recipient because the award committee did not receive enough nominations.

"People in the field might not know this award exists," said Lorrie A. Shepard, the association's current president and a professor of education and research methods at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I don't take the absence of an award to mean the field was scrutinized and there were no good candidates."

But many in the field are skeptical of the organization's professed commitment to issues of research quality and utilization. "I don't think AERA is going to be the organization that improves the quality of research," said Penelope L. Peterson, the AERA's president in 1996-97.

Association presidents, who work unpaid, serve for only one year, which can make it difficult to sustain a focus on a particular issue or problem.

The group's structure contributes to such skepticism, Ms. Peterson and others say. Association presidents, who work unpaid, serve for only one year, which can make it difficult to sustain a focus on a particular issue or problem.

One reason for the short term is that researchers are often reluctant to suspend their scholarly activities for more than a year--and universities may not be willing to release them for any longer period. And the presidents do participate in guiding the group during the year before and the year after their official terms of office.

In comparison, however, presidents of the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, can serve up to two three-year terms.

"The leadership is not around long enough to get anything going in a sustained way," Ms. Peterson said.

Need for Outreach Cited

Ms. Peterson, the dean of the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said the group's welcoming embrace of many forms of research may reflect wider cultural issues in the field itself.

"Maybe it has to do with this kind of a misplaced notion that in a democracy, everybody's ideas need to heard and valued equally and uncritically," Ms. Peterson said.

During her year at the helm of the organization, Ms. Peterson was frustrated in her attempts to shrink the size of the annual meeting, to set up a consensus panel on reading, and to beef up efforts to widen the audience for education research. While she did make some progress in expanding outreach, the issue has been less of a priority for some of her successors.

As a result, Ms. Peterson said, she has little hope that the AERA will be a major force in connecting what happens on university campuses with what's going on in schools and classrooms and school board chambers.

"I tried my best to reform AERA," she said, "and I really don't know what else to do other than to speak my mind now."

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Pages 33-38

Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Where's the AERA? Critics Say They See A Leadership Void
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