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American hope put to the test

It wasn't all doom and gloom in Chicago when US researchers got together. David Budge reports

SCEPTICS often question whether education researchers really know what they are talking about. But occasionally it is obvious that they do. You merely need to read the title of a paper and then check to see who has written it.

Ethnic diversity and citizenship in Japan, by Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, of the University of Tokyo, is a classic example.

Unfortunately, I did not manage to hear the extravagantly surnamed Murphy-Shigematsu deliver his paper at this year's American Educational Research Association conference in Chicago. But I make no apologies.

Despite predictions that attendance at the conference would slump this year because of the Iraq war, the Sars virus, niggardly university travel budgets - and the fact that it can be freezing in Chicago in late April - at least 10,000 academics managed to attend. And as up to 100 of them were presenting papers simultaneously in three convention hotels, you simply had to catch what you could.

This year it was, however, difficult to come away without some papers on testing because "Accountability for educational quality" was the conference theme.

In a sense, accountability is nothing new to the Americans. School league tables began in Boston in 1845, only to be abandoned as a "waste of time" two years later.

But it is an issue again because of the No Child Left Behind legislation that George W Bush introduced last year in an attempt to help low-achieving pupils in "high poverty" schools. Although its intentions appear good, many regard this Act as the government's greatest-ever intrusion into local control of education because of the new regime of annual testing it will introduce (see TES, May 2).

"We have moved from the belief that the state can achieve anything to the view that it can't do a thing," said David Plank of Michigan State University. "We're into the demolition phase."

However, not everyone was fretting over the dismantling of the public education system. Sonia Nieto of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, had more personal vexations, judging by her paper title: Judith Butler is full of crap. I was born a lesbian: ethical dilemmas in applying queer theory to respondents who essentialise their identity. In-your-face papers like that are one of the joys of AERA conferences. The improbable combinations of paper title and author are also fascinating. What about Girlie C Delacruz on Examining the relationship between knowledge-based assessments and rifle-shooting performance?

But this year it was the acronyms that were a particular delight. The longest one I encountered was DISCOVER (Discovering intellectual strengths and capabilities through observation while allowing for varied ethnic responses). However, TEA was even better. Can you guess what it means? No, I didn't think you could because it is the Rumplestiltskin of education acronyms: Teachers experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic.

The repartee is often amusing, too, and it can be triggered by unlikely topics, such as the What Works Clearinghouse that is to carry out systematic reviews of research studies. Professor Bob Slavin, of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, complimented the three academics and senior civil servant, Martin Orland, who set up the reviewing system, but added:

"I think they have the ability and the integrity to carry it off. They are also kinda nerdy, which helps."

"But you didn't see us dancing on Tuesday night," Martin Orland replied, unconvincingly.

Such exchanges were important in lifting the mood because there was much to be miserable about. Many of the US researchers were distressed about the Iraq war. The 90-year-old Pulitzer prize-winning writer Studs Terkel, who spoke at the conference, also criticised the invasion, referring to the "Pox - not pax - Americana".

But it was the chasm-like racial and class divides in US education that appeared to concern the researchers most. The latest national analysis of maths results shows that the average grade 12 (age 17 to 18) African-American student is scoring below the average grade 8 (age 13) white child. Researchers can help by identifying such inequities, but education alone can do relatively little to remedy the deep-rooted problems that produce such results. As the sociologist Basil Bernstein once remarked: "Schools cannot compensate for society".

Even great cities seem incapable of achieving a solution. Chicago has built the tallest skyscraper in the Western world and it has even made its principal river flow backwards. But, as the AERA conference-goers discovered, it has not managed to eradicate its ghettos.

It is therefore hard to see how the social and educational divides can be bridged in the near future. However, as Studs Terkel still retains some optimism about Chicago and America - his new book will be called Hope Dies Last - perhaps we should too.

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