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School & District Management Opinion

Education Researchers Should Think More About Educators: Notes From AERA

By Rick Hess — May 06, 2021 4 min read
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Longtime readers know that I’ve been a critic of the American Education Research Association for many, many years. I find it too ideological, too focused on advocacy, and too taken with incomprehensible jargon. Indeed, I wrote a bit about all this just last week at Forbes. I hate to beat a dead horse. But Steve Rees, the founder of School Wise Press and leader of its K-12 Measures team, reached out recently with an intriguing, distinctive critique of AERA—positing that it reflects a community of researchers too focused on what they find interesting and insufficiently attentive to things educators might find useful. I thought it worth sharing. Here’s what he had to say:

—Rick

At this year’s annual American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference, education scholars presented 2,188 papers, symposia, and roundtables—all of it online, of course. I was happy to “attend” without the cost of travel. But I was especially eager to scout new findings on two topics—dyslexia and identification of English-learners—relevant to districts in California my firm serves as analytic partner (we help district and site leaders find better evidence and make better sense of it).

Happily, I was able to search the text of all presentations, independent of tags and keywords. Kudos to AERA for this. With high hopes, I typed “d-y-s-l-e-x-i-a.” Six instances of the term appeared. I thought that I’d perhaps misspelled the word. I tried again. Six results. Of all the learning disabilities, dyslexia ranks highest. According to the International Dyslexia Association, as many as 15 percent to 20 percent of Americans may be dyslexic. How could education researchers pay it so little attention?

Next, I tried two terms that are at the center of the stormy debate about how to teach reading: balanced literacy and structured literacy. They are proper nouns. They describe two different approaches to teaching reading. The pages of Education Week have dedicated many column inches to this debate. But the scholars presenting at the AERA conference are apparently not interested. I discovered a grand total of one mention of either of those two terms.

I soldiered onto my next topic: identification of English-learners. I was happy to discover a fair number of presentations (124) that fit my clients’ interests. In the past, I have found practical, actionable research by Peggy Estrada of UC-Santa Cruz on long-term English-learners, so this term was at the top of my list of things to search. But total references in this year’s AERA conference to the term “long-term English-learner” numbered just 24.

What I couldn’t help but notice at this AERA conference was the amount of attention to race and ethnicity. So I queried a few terms. Here’s what I found:

equity …………….… 507 results

gap ………………….. 380 results

intersectionality .. 372 results

whiteness …………. 466 results

In light of the news of the last year, I understand why these dimensions of education are front and center now. I understand and favor a forceful, visible, and moral dimension to research. But what I don’t understand is the shortage of attention to subjects like dyslexia, the teaching of reading, and identification of second-language learners. Just consider the weight of “whiteness” to “dyslexia” (78-to-1) or to “long-term English-learners” (19-to-1). It is a striking imbalance.

“Whiteness” may be an important and relevant topic for a conference of political scientists, anthropologists, or sociologists. But why is it so forward in the scholarship of education researchers? I suspect it is a sign that many of those who produce education research are producing work for other scholars. Too many are self-sequestered in universities, separate from the larger world of K-12 schooling. This leaves them inattentive to the practical research needs of educators and those who manage them.

As a broker of research to those education leaders, I feel the pain of the district people we work for. They need clear-headed evaluation of curricula. They need to know the imprecision of the assessments they use. They need to know why the teaching of foreign languages to so many high school students goes to waste. They need to know where their dollars produce the best return-on-investment. These are practical questions, not political ones.

Let me share an example of why I value practical, actionable research so highly and am disheartened by those who invest their time elsewhere. In our work with clients in California, we have seen districts differ greatly in their pace and approach bringing emerging bilingual students (English-learners, or ELs) to fluency in English, taking anywhere between four to seven years to reclassify these students. The research of Peggy Estrada, whom I mentioned earlier, on the ways that district rules create long-term English-learners proved to be enlightening for a client in Napa County, where more than 40 percent of the students are identified as ELs. Estrada’s research with Haiwen Wang comparing two districts’ approaches to determining when students should be reclassified as fully English proficient got the attention of higher-ups and has now sparked a reexamination of districts’ policies. Having research that was relevant and actionable made the difference.

The William T. Grant Foundation has been flagging this problematic gap separating practitioners from researchers for several years. They don’t want to see time and money wasted on research that is impractical or irrelevant to practitioners. Their investment in research-practice partnerships looks promising. Let’s see if they can help bring to life the sort of practical, actionable research that pays off in the best possible form: good ideas that spread far and wide.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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