Politics & Policy

Celebrating a Century of Advocacy Masquerading as Education Research

(Bowie15/Dreamstime)
When science, politics, and pedagogy intersect, the results can be grimly amusing.

This week, 20,000 education researchers will descend on Washington, D.C., to attend the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference, which this year celebrates AERA’s centennial. The event marks a century of the organization’s efforts to promote rigorous, relevant educational research. Former AERA president David Berliner has deemed education research “the hardest science of all,” explaining that it’s tougher than “splitting either atoms or genes” because it’s confounded by “ordinary events of life” like a “a messy divorce, a passionate love affair, hot flashes, a birthday party . . . [or] rain that keeps the children from a recess.”

In fact, AERA has a long history of scholarship that seems more interested in promoting personal political agendas than in actually researching education. Even a cursory perusal of the annual meeting’s program has long been enough to suggest that the taxpayers, legislators, and philanthropies who fund this research ought to wonder if they’re getting good value for their money.

More than a decade ago, we started occasionally highlighting some of the work on display at AERA’s annual fête. Many of the scholarly offerings were so sad they were funny. Over the years, we flagged such priceless gems as “Cyber-Sista Cipher: Black Female Students’ Color Consciousness and Counterstories as Hush Harbor in and for Universities” and “The Formation of the Subjectivity of Mail-Order Brides in Taiwan and Their Educational Strategies Toward Their Children.” If that is not the American academy at its finest and most relevant, it’s hard to know what would be.

We’ve admired AERA’s buffet of risqué titles, noting such papers as “Unzipping the Monster Dick: Deconstructing Ableist Representations in Two Homoerotic Magazines” and “The Educative Ga(y)ze: How Bodies Get ‘Seen’ on Mobile Phone Apps for Gay Men.” We’ve been dazzled by the scholarly genius of works like “To Know That We Know What We Know, and to Know That We Do Not Know What We Do Not Know, That Is True Knowledge” and “Semiotics and Classroom Interaction: Mediated Discourse, Distributed Cognition, and the Multimodal Semiotics of Maguru Panggul Pedagogy in Two Balinese Gamelan Classrooms in the United States.”

The taxpayers, legislators, and philanthropies who fund this research ought to wonder if they’re getting good value for their money.

We’ve tried to do justice to path-breaking scholarship like “Peace in Every Breath: College Students Surprise Themselves as They Defuse Their Anger,” “Existential Yoga: The Educational Event of Thought Bending Back Upon Itself,” and “Can the Very Thought of Education Break Bricks?” We’ve also flagged works that brings identity politics to glorious new heights, like “Chicanas from Outer Space – Chupacabras, Selena as Marian Image, and Other Tales from the Border” and “What Might a Transnational (Queer) Daughter Make? Staking Claims to Feminism via Race, Space, and Time.”

This centennial year offers its own special triumphs. Yet in an academy where sushi and yoga have been redefined as cultural imperialism, chalk markings for Donald Trump’s candidacy trigger claims of racial intimidation, and finger-painting lounges are available for college students traumatized by the presence of campus speakers, even the most transgressive work has trouble keeping up with the silliness.

Not that education researchers haven’t given it their best shot. While some frumpy scholars are tinkering with questions like the cost of college or the impact of charter schools, the real action at AERA will be at sessions like “Creative Interventions: Reimagining Transformative Modalities of Storytelling for Disrupting the Hegemony of Curriculum.” For those seeking something with fewer four-syllable words and more emphasis on “white saviorism” (or shoes), there’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero: Disrupting White Saviorism, Fragility, and Innocence Through a Critical Race Theory Curriculum” and “Defining Our Classroom Selves: Our Gender, Our Shoes.”

In the finest academic tradition, the rough plight of graduate students comes in for plenty of politically correct navel-gazing in papers like “A Critical Race Examination of the Neo-Liberal, Neo-Colonial, and Neo-Racist Implications of U.S. Admissions of International Doctoral Students of Color” and “We, Monsters: An Autoethnographic Review of Literature of Experiencing Doctoral Education Programs.”

The controversial Common Core will be in evidence too. Some of the Common Core scholarship promises to be surprisingly and reassuringly scholarly, as in the case of “Preparing Students for the Common Core State Standards in Reading: An Evaluation of the McGraw-Hill Reading Wonders Program.” But interest in such dry work will be inevitably dwarfed by the likes of “Actions and Reactions in the Aftermath of Freddie Gray: Voices from Baltimore Schools” — which will explore how to “fuse Common Core standards with a student advocacy agenda.” That’s the education research we know and love, 100 years on.

— Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Francesca Pickett is the nom de plume of a veteran education researcher.

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