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School & District Management Opinion

AERA Erasing Line Between Scholarship and Partisanship

By Rick Hess — March 07, 2012 5 min read
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The American Educational Research Association (of which I am a member) modestly labels itself “the nation’s leading scientific and scholarly association...devoted to advancing knowledge about education.” Readers may assume that AERA does its best to avoid gratuitous partisan political fights.

Ha!! Hah-hah! Silly readers. Indeed, it often seems that ed research is an excuse for AERA’s leaders to dress up partisan political leanings in something more impressive than fevered ideology. That said, I don’t mind the partisanship and ideology so much as I mind the hypocrisy, misuse of research, and attempt to hijack scholarly institutions.

What’s up? I recently opened the most recent “AERA News Highlights” to see tedious updates on NCES, AERA’s new logo, and the federal budget--all topped by enthusiastic announcements that AERA had denounced Arizona policymakers and decided to boycott Georgia for adopting laws intended to discourage illegal immigration.

With regard to Arizona, AERA decried the “elimination of the Mexican American studies program in the Tucson schools. AERA Council urged the Governing Board to design and reintroduce such courses and urged the State Legislature to repeal HB2281.” AERA went so far as to declare the Arizona law “educationally indefensible.” Why would a national research organization wade into a state’s course offerings? AERA explained that the legislature is “infringe[ing] on local school board autonomy,” “threaten[ing] the academic freedom of those who teach in and design courses for local school boards,” and that a “substantial body of research has shown that ethnic studies courses advance important state and national interests.”

First, let’s note that the AERA hasn’t seemed unduly troubled when local autonomy is compromised by state or federal prescriptions surrounding special education or anti-bullying. Second, it really ought to be denouncing state standards, the Common Core, and graduation requirements if local teachers deserve untrammeled freedom to teach or design courses. Third, the evidentiary claim is nothing short of ludicrous. It’s one thing to claim that some research may suggest that some ethnic studies have some benefits for some students at some times. But it’s a laughable misrepresentation of what research can “prove” for AERA to claim dispositive empirical evidence demonstrating the value of ethnic studies courses.

With regard to Georgia, in May of last year, Georgia enacted HB87, an aggressive law intended to discourage illegal immigration by restricting employment and stepping up enforcement of existing immigration laws. This is a controversial topic on which reasonable people can disagree. However, AERA summarily dismissed the law as violating AERA’s “code of ethics” and “democratic” values. AERA vaguely asserts that the law means that some AERA members will not feel “welcome” and that “some members have indicated that they...could be racially profiled and harassed” (the basis for this claim is not made clear). More broadly, and confusingly, AERA says, “AERA is giving priority attention to promoting consideration of the substantial base of science and scholarship that can address the topic of immigration and education and the assets for all of welcoming and inclusive educational environments.”

First, it’s peculiar that AERA has never expressed any concern about holding conferences in venues like San Francisco, where state laws or city ordinances may make some members from Christian colleges feel “unwelcome” or “harassed.” Second, illegal immigration implies costs and benefits for both children in this country illegally and for legal residents. It’s hard to understand how scholars can claim to be even-handed while boycotting a locale based upon its policies. For instance, AERA’s claim to be an independent voice would be more credible if it was boycotting not only Georgia (and, earlier, Arizona) but also “sanctuary cities,” which decline to enforce the nation’s immigration laws. Third, the casual and banal embrace of “welcoming and inclusive” schools, absent any acknowledgment of the costs or impact upon citizens, implies a decidedly one-sided take on the issue.

Rather than take sides in complex, emotional debates, AERA might have focused on helping examine how the disruptions caused by this kind of legislation affect children who are illegal immigrants and their peers. It might have asked scholars to cost out how much money is diverted from children who are legal residents of Georgia to those who are not. It might encourage scholars to ask how much illegal immigration burdens educators or how an influx of low-income, non-English speaking students may distort our view of school performance.

AERA suggests that the research “proves” that the policies in question are bad. That’s just sophomoric. Research can no more prove such a thing than it can “prove” the right process for determining citizenship or what should be the “right” population makeup of Georgia. These are all contested questions that involve weighing competing interests and considerations. (For a much long exploration of all this, see my book When Research Matters).

Unlike the self-assured leadership of AERA, I see the issues here as complex ones on which people of goodwill can disagree. I don’t begrudge AERA’s leaders their right to think these are misguided policies. If they, as individuals, wish to berate state legislators, more power to them. It’s that whole free speech thing. But, as an AERA member, I wonder why they feel obliged (or authorized) to critique these policies in my name and that of the research community.

I’d like to think I could belong to the nation’s largest association of educational researchers without having to fear that personal political agendas are being pursued in my name. It’s a mystery to me why AERA doesn’t understand that this undermines the profession’s credibility and reduces confidence that education scholars can distinguish between their personal politics and their scholarship.

Two choices. AERA can clean up its act and start behaving like a scholarly, rather than a political, organization. Or, if AREA continues to engage in partisan advocacy, it seems appropriate for state legislators and university trustees to start asking whether researchers at public institutions ought to be using public funds to pay for membership, travel to its conferences, or conduct AERA-related business.

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