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School & District Management Opinion

Time to End Public Subsidies of AERA

By Rick Hess — March 14, 2012 4 min read
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Last week, I questioned the American Educational Research Association’s (of which I am a member) decision to adopt a partisan stance in charged debates over immigration policy and high school classes that promote racial pride. In a public response, the AERA, which bills itself as “the nation’s leading scientific and scholarly association...devoted to advancing knowledge about education,” doubled down, declaring (in an extended RHSU comment) it stands by its decision to boycott Georgia over the state’s immigration policies and to denounce as “educationally indefensible” Arizona’s move to limit K-12 ethnic studies offerings.

Unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between a political agenda and promoting public debate, AERA insisted it has a responsibility “to disseminate... research findings in order to facilitate an informed public policy decision-making process.” Okay. If AERA wants to host debates where researchers debate policies or flag relevant research, that’s cool. However, how boycotts or angrily upbraiding legislators serve to promote “informed public policy” is beyond me.

AERA justified its boycott, explaining, “Some members have indicated that they would not attend a meeting in Atlanta where they or other participants from Mexico, Haiti, and other countries could be racially profiled and harassed.” I trust a research association like AERA has evidence on this score, and isn’t merely allowing members to indulge in lazy, offensive stereotypes about the citizens of Georgia or the law enforcement community. When AERA produces the research documenting that conference attendees in Atlanta have been harassed due to the state’s immigration policies, we’ll have something to discuss. Right now, though, AERA is savaging the people of Georgia and taking sides in a charged debate based on nothing more than a claim that it’s received reports of vague, unsupported concerns from anonymous AERA members. Am I the only one who’s got a problem with that?

Meanwhile, AERA reiterated its bizarre claim that “a substantial body of research has shown that ethnic studies courses advance important state and national interests"--missing an opportunity to concede that the research is, at best, decidedly mixed. Indeed, questions like “should we teach racially-themed high school classes” ultimately can and should turn more on values and democratic debate than evidentiary claims by social science. As Columbia’s Jeff Henig and I argued several years ago in “‘Scientific Research’ and Policymaking: A Tool, Not a Crutch,”

Generally absent from debates over methodologically complex and technical work...is an appreciation of what the 'scientific method' can and cannot deliver. In many of these debates, research is unlikely to provide the definitive judgments [we might wish]...Scholarship's greatest value is not the ability to end policy disputes, but to encourage more thoughtful, disciplined, and tempered debate...Research as a collective enterprise--the clash of competing scholars attacking questions from different perspectives, with varied assumptions and methodologies--can leave us wiser and better equipped to make good choices. Ultimately, though, sifting through the accumulated evidence can only inform decisions; it cannot relieve us of them."

AERA’s stance here fails miserably on all these counts. This is especially weird, because AERA is usually quick to explain that the complex, uncertain nature of education is why it’s vital to support “mixed methods” research (e.g. stuff like ethnographic accounts). Indeed, given that AERA has historically cautioned against putting too much faith in the power or results of experimental research, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s basing its stance on politics rather than principle.

Meanwhile, even the AERA’s ardent defenders aren’t helping its cause. Paul Thomas, a frequent commenter on RHSU, defended AERA by explaining that “ALL human behavior is political.” Over at School Matters, Thomas elaborated, “The fact [is that] teaching [is] always political.” If even AERA’s defenders concede it’s pursuing a political agenda, that’s saying something. My friend Sara Mead weighed in to defend the AERA, but first felt compelled to concede, “There’s a fair amount worth mocking where education research is concerned, and...[the] hypocrisy, sanctimony, narrow-mindedness posing as open-mindedness, and soft-headed thinking in the field.”

Before we get to the key takeaway, three things to keep in mind. One, I’ve no problem with individual scholars choosing to denounce policies or take political stands. But I have a huge problem when they hijack a scholarly organization to which I belong and then speak in its name. Two, I’ve no problem with AERA sponsoring debates, convening commissions, or flagging studies relevant to important public questions. However, boycotting or denouncing specific states is a helluva lot different from informing the debate. Three, as I noted last week, AERA is remarkably inconsistent when deciding what to boycott or denounce--and its record bespeaks a starkly partisan agenda.

Bottom line: Faculty, researchers, students, and administrators at public universities and colleges (and the occasional public K-12 system) use public monies to participate in AERA. They use institutional travel funds to attend AERA gatherings. University libraries use public funds to subscribe to AERA journals. Researchers at private and public institutions may use public research funds from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, or IES to pay for travel to AERA or to fund expenses associated with publishing in its journals. Since AERA refuses to distinguish between operating as a scholarly and a political organization, public officials would do well to inquire whether tax dollars are underwriting AERA and whether this is an appropriate use of public funds.

I’d especially encourage those officials who don’t subscribe to the AERA’s agenda--including legislators; SHEEO members; university trustees; and those active in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, American Legislative Exchange Council, or the State Policy Network--to take a hard look at how scarce public funds are being spent. So long as AERA seems determined to hew to a politicized agenda, it seems reasonable to ask that members pay out of their own pockets to attend its gatherings or receive its publications.

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