Researchers Seek Bigger Policy Impact;
New Journal Planned
More than 12,000 researchers trekked to Seattle last week for the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association. One goal of this year’s conference was to spotlight educational researchers’ potential contributions to public-policy questions surrounding education.
“We have something to say,” the program for the April 10-14 conference program noted. “We need to say it.”
That stance could represent a bit of a turnabout for the 86-year-old organization, which counts more than 26,000 members worldwide. The Washington-based group has faced criticism in the past for not working more actively to get its members’ work into the hands of policymakers, practitioners, and the press.
Among the more than 1,000 sessions on the program this year were talks on “Drawing the Connections Between Research, Policy, and Practice” and “How Research Can Better Inform Education Policy.”
Members of the British Educational Research Association offered a more lighthearted take on the same theme. The title of their session was “Fuzzy Generalizations: Transforming Research Findings Into Fuzzy Predictions Which Can Inform Teachers’, Researchers’, and Policymakers’ Discourse and Action.’'
But the American research group also showed at the meeting that it was willing to do more than talk about its responsibilities to the field.
During the group’s open business meeting on April 10, association officials announced plans for two new initiatives: a journal for “regular” people interested in education research, and a $10 million grant program intended to nurture future generations of education scholars. The grants, which could be made for up to three years, would go only to postdoctoral fellows working in close collaboration with more seasoned mentors.
The purpose of the new journal, which is expected to be up and running in a year and a half, is to bridge the gaps between research, practice, and policy. The publication does not yet have a name, but organization officials promised that it would not be known as “Education Today,” after the well-known psychology magazine geared to a popular audience.
With so many sessions scheduled at AERA gatherings, it’s hard to believe any corner of education is understudied. But that is the case with professional-development schools, according to researchers who presented findings here from a five-year study on that subject.
Professional- development schools are “real” schools in which university scholars and practicing teachers work together in new ways to train preservice teachers for the classroom. Typically, students work in the schools an entire academic year— much longer than they do in traditional student-teaching assignments—while at the same time taking university-based education courses.
About 500 such partnerships exist now, but researchers say little is known about their effects on schools, universities, and the teachers they produce. That is why the National Education Association in 1995 launched a five-year evaluation of fledgling professional-development-school collaborations in seven states. Those states are Maine, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming.
The evaluation, however, yielded spotty results. Most of the university faculty members, mentor teachers, and students agreed that everyone shared the same vision for the partnerships. But the university educators and the mentor teachers were slightly more divided over the extent to which real collaboration was occurring. One possible cause: Professors felt overworked and unrewarded by their universities for their work in the professional-development schools.
But 70 percent of the university faculty members and more than half the mentor teachers agreed that the quality of instruction for preservice teachers had improved as a result of the collaborations.
Even larger percentages of university and school-based educators agreed that the preservice teachers trained in the professional-development schools were “more able” teachers than peers coming out of traditional teacher-education programs.
But the principals who later hired those teachers offered mixed evaluations of the new recruits’ teaching effectiveness. At one site, a collaboration run by Fairfax, Va.-based George Mason University, principals rated professional- development-school graduates significantly higher than other new teachers.
But in Texas A&M University’s collaborative, principals saw no differences between the two groups of beginning teachers. Professional- development-school graduates in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming were rated more favorably by principals than those with similar experience from other programs.
The NEA research team, which also includes researchers from each of the seven sites studied, hopes to use more rigorous methodology to undertake the second phase of the study. That phase will zero in on the student- achievement question.
As the conference ended last week, the research group also bid a formal farewell to its longtime executive director. William J. Russell is retiring in June after 29 years in that post. Mr. Russell, who has maintained a low public profile with the group, initially joined the organization as a part-time intern. He became its executive director two years later.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook