The American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting here nearly coincided with the centennial of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. But if San Franciscans could rebound so completely from a natural disaster that devastated their city, they surely could cope with 14,000-plus educational researchers descending upon them from all corners of the globe.
This year’s meeting, held April 7-11, drew researchers from 49 countries and featured 4,000 different sessions on everything from instant messaging to neuroscience.
Predictably, a popular topic of debate and discussion was the No Child Left Behind Act. One facet of the 4-year-old federal law is that it requires school districts to allow students who attend public schools that repeatedly fail to reach performance targets to transfer to ones that do reach those targets. Nationwide, only a small percentage of eligible students take advantage of that option. But what happens when they do?
Academically speaking, the answer may be “not much”—at least not at first, according to one study presented here by a group of researchers from the National Research and Development Center on School Choice, a federally financed center based at Vanderbilt University. The researchers based their conclusions on test-score data gathered from 2002 to 2005 on 220,000 Idaho students in grades 2-10.
In terms of average growth in mathematics achievement, the study found, transfer students seemed to learn no more in the first year at their new schools than did the peers they left behind in their old schools.
Bettie Teasley, the doctoral student who presented the findings, cautioned against reading too much into those results. Because they measure year-to-year gains, the numbers gauge only one year of learning.
“This could just indicate that there’s a delay in the compensatory effect,” Ms. Teasley said. “It’s just too early to tell.”
Improving high schools was another popular session theme and one that also mirrors national debates in the field. In one such presentation, Valerie E. Lee, an education professor from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, discussed results from case studies of five high schools across the country that had long-established schools-within-schools.
Nationwide, many policymakers and educators have been calling for smaller high schools—whether completely separate schools or several schools within the same building—in the belief that students fare better in more personalized and egalitarian learning environments.
But the schools that Ms. Lee and her research colleague, Douglas Ready, followed were as academically stratified as traditional comprehensive high schools. Most of the schools-within-schools were organized around career themes. Certain career academies attracted higher-achieving students, while the low achievers congregated in others, she said.
“Students wanted to be with their friends, and they chose places based on what kinds of academic demands the units would make on them,” Ms. Lee said.
Her recommendation: Educators planning to carve smaller learning communities out of their own high schools should put careful thought into how they’re designed and how students are assigned to them.
The annual meeting is also a time for the 90-year-old AERA to transact its own business. An important item on that agenda this year was eliciting feedback from members on a set of draft standards for reporting research results in the journals that the AERA publishes.
A year in the making, the standards are an attempt to inject a measure of quality control into a field that has long been criticized as a soft science.
“We believe that many studies are actually not used as well as they could be, because they are not reported as well as they could be,” said Larry V. Hedges of Northwestern University, a member of the panel that developed the standards.
The standards, which cover commonly used qualitative as well as quantitative research designs, call upon scholars to be clear about the study’s purpose and the contribution its findings make to the field, to make sure that conclusions follow from the evidence, and to describe the methods used, among other conventions.
But some members were leery of the effort.
“Standards make me very nervous,” said Patricia Lather, a professor of social and cultural foundations at Ohio State University in Columbus. She worried that the guidelines might stifle newer, more innovative forms of research.
The association will be collecting comments on the draft the rest of this month. A final version is due to the group’s governing council in June.