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School & District Management Opinion

Fascists in Flip-Flops: Musings from the 2010 AERA Conference

By Rick Hess — May 05, 2010 4 min read
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Props to sly Mike Johanek, director of UPenn’s midcareer Ph.D. program and Race to the Top reviewer extraordinaire, for this post’s title. Only question for you, readers, is the identity of the fascist. I will say that I may have been the only conference attendee in chilly Denver wearing flip-flops. Result: I did a panel with University of Wisconsin’s Michael Apple and he probably looked more like the D.C. policy wonk, while I probably bore more than a passing resemblance to the stereotypical critical race theory prof. Keep reading, and I welcome comments on who you think Johanek’s fascists are.

Anyway, last Friday, while I was in another room trying to be a good team player and do my duty on the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting policy committee, the AERA governing council voted to wade into the impassioned debate over Arizona’s controversial new immigration statute.

The near-unanimous resolution (one council member abstained) said the law “is so broad in its reach and enforcement powers that it can have an adverse impact on the freedom to travel or assemble” and announced that AERA “will no longer hold meetings or conferences in the state of Arizona.” Well, okay.

I had a much more adverse reaction, though, to the Saturday news conference held to announce the resolution. At that event, CU-Boulder professor Kris Gutierrez, AERA’s president-elect, wore a modified conference name badge that read “I could be illegal” (these were widely seen that evening, making them AERA’s hottest 2010 accessory). In the announcement, Gutierrez flatly declared that AERA would use its resources to disseminate research on the negative effects of the law. UCLA education professor Patricia Gándara, co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, sought to provide a researcher’s measured take, opining, “We are very concerned that Arizona is turning into the new apartheid South.” (Deb Viadero discusses on Ed Week here).

Gutierrez said, “As education researchers, we need to be concerned about the effects this new law may have on fostering an environment of fear with consequences for students’ learning, educational achievement, and attachment to and belief in the social institutions of society.”

Fair enough. But I’d like to think that education researchers would be equally concerned with the impact of illegal immigration on the educational circumstances of native-born students; the impact on states and districts already coping with fiscal shortfalls; and the effect on teachers and principals forced to cope with a slew of non-English speaking students. This strikes me as a balancing act in which one will be steered by personal values and experiences. I have no problem with AERA members choosing to denounce the law. I am troubled by the organization formally embracing one side and by the notion that “educational researchers” can find questions only on one side of the issue.

The role of research organizations is to inform rather than to dictate public deliberations. The announcement will unavoidably raise doubts about the credibility and bias of AERA’s research. This could undermine broad-based support for the education research enterprise, make education research look like a partisan exercise, and undermine the credibility of a field that has long struggled to gain public respect.

The announcement reflected a broader AERA mindset. One reason I rarely attend sessions is that, in the kinds of sessions in which I tend to participate, there’s a routine in which the audience cheers and applauds familiar anti-accountability, anti-market, pro-empathy tropes. So, at the session I did with Apple and USC’s Dominic Brewer, we were repeatedly treated to bursts of applause when audience members asserted “rather than support charters, we should ensure that all schools succeed,” suggested that Brewer and I ought to employ critical race analysis in our work, and so on.

The irony was that the session was introduced by remarks bemoaning how rarely AERA hosts conversations among scholars of competing perspectives. Few in attendance seemed to recognize that this might be, in large part, because accomplished policy thinkers and “right-of-center” scholars have little incentive to attend a conference where the audience isn’t even going to pretend to be interested in what they have to say.

It’s strange to me that so many AERA attendees spend much of their time talking about the importance of creating hospitable, welcoming, and nonthreatening school and university environments, but that their efforts to create “safe spaces” don’t extend to their own scholarly conference. In fact, when I raised this issue on the annual meeting committee, one colleague observed that, “Well, people cheer at football games, don’t they?” So, is that the operative analogy? Sure, we do. And if the assumption is that AERA discussions are like football games or political rallies, then no sweat. And that’s of a piece with Gutierrez’s Saturday remarks. However, if AERA aspires to be an intellectual forum, then environment and context matter.

Look, AERA doesn’t have to actively welcome divergent views, but it ought to promote a culture that’s not inimical to the free exchange of ideas. This is an area where I have some experience. In my time at AEI, I’ve hosted public forums with individuals such as Sharon Robinson, Jim Cibulka, Alex Molnar, Kevin Welner, Randi Weingarten, Dennis van Roekel, John Podesta, Susan Fuhrman, Jim Shelton, Kati Haycock, Hank Levin, Diane Ravitch, and many others who disagree with me on questions big and small. If I have managed to ensure that none of these individuals was ever subjected to booing or one-sided cheering, I’m convinced the nation’s premier educational research association can manage the same--if it chooses to.

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