Larger Teacher Presence at AERA Meeting May Mark Change
A larger-than- usual contingent of teachers was included in the 13,000 researchers gathered here last week for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
Critics have accused the Washington-based group of doing too little to bridge the gap between research and classroom practice, and the teachers' presence represented new and ongoing efforts by the AERA—and the National Education Association—to extend the reach of education research beyond the ivory tower and into the front lines.
"I think researchers are embarrassed to only be talking to other researchers," said Lorrie A. Shepard, the outgoing president of the research group and a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "What we have in mind is more of a reciprocal model where we can inform each other."
About 130 teachers from New Orleans and surrounding school districts were paired with researchers on the fourth day of the April 24-28 conference.
They joined 37 teachers from Denver, Seattle, Memphis, Tenn., and Montgomery County, Md., who had been attending the meeting all week as part of a "conference within a conference" for teachers that has been run in collaboration with the teachers' union since the mid-1990s. The current collaboration, NEA President Bob Chase told the researchers and teachers during one session, could be the "beginning of a beautiful relationship."
"If you educational researchers try to write and speak with more clarity and directness, we teachers will learn the skills of systematic inquiry," he said.
Both groups, Mr. Chase added, "share a mutual belief in the capacity of science to improve the human condition." But at week's end, a few of the teachers remained skeptical that the two worlds of research and practice could easily unite.
"I think the quality of education research that I've been exposed to is very high, very rigorous, very thoughtful, and a great distance from affecting classroom practice," said Brad Jupp, a Denver middle school teacher on temporary assignment with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate. "I'm glad the NEA is here to bring some relevance."
Overall, attendance at the conference was the highest in the history of the 81- year-old research association. And scholars came from all parts of the globe, from Sweden to South America.
International members, distinguished by the colored ribbons attached to their conference badges this year, now make up about 15 percent of the association's 23,000 members.
Session topics ran the usual gamut. On the afternoon of April 24, for example, participants could choose from a session on what children learn from trading "Beanie Babies" or a discussion on "generalizability theory."
And, as always, the research presented dealt with many of the school improvement practices currently in vogue.
Block scheduling, for example, an understudied but increasingly popular practice nationwide, was the focus of one session.
Block-scheduling arrangements vary: Some schemes call for taking classes every other day; under other plans, students take only four subjects at a time per semester.
Either way, some educators see the practice as a means of increasing achievement by lengthening the amount of time that teachers have to teach a single subject on a given day. With more time, teachers can engage students in the kinds of hands-on, in-depth experiences that have been shown to promote learning. One national study from 1995 found that some 50 percent of U.S. secondary schools now use some variant of block scheduling.
But the researchers who spoke here found little evidence that students were learning more with the altered classroom schedules. In fact, in one study comparing three types of schedules at one Springfield, Ind., high school, the mathematics scores of students in the longer classes even went down.
"What we found is that math is a subject that has to be taught and learned on a daily basis regardless of the amount of time," said William R. Veal, an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In a different study presented at the same session, Joan Bush, a researcher with the Irving, Texas, school district, suggested one reason why: Teachers often don't alter their teaching to accommodate the change in classroom schedules.
Looking at 48 randomly selected high school classrooms in her district, she found that teachers were still spending the bulk of their time either lecturing or monitoring students as they did seat work.
Vol. 19, Issue 34, Page 6Published in Print: May 3, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook