Buddy, can you spare a paradigm?

19th April 1996 at 01:00
David Budge reports from the American Educational Research Association conference in New York

The New York Hilton's toilet attendants, doormen and other uniformed flunkeys didn't make a fortune in tips last week. The city's high-rollers had packed their Armani beachwear and jetted off to the sun, and their place had been taken by 11,000 academics attending the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Dollars - and even dimes - were therefore in short supply, though paradigms were everywhere.

The AERA chose to hold its conference in the Manhattan Hilton and the nearby Sheraton because they have almost 3,000 bedrooms between them and more ballrooms and conference rooms than you can imagine. The association stages the biggest education conference in the world and it has to avoid pokey venues - such as Seattle.

Hence the rare sight of massed anoraks in the Hilton lobby and the earnest but ironically incongruous discussions about inner-city deprivation under the chandeliers of the Sheraton's Versailles ballroom.

The paradox was not lost on those researchers who had smiled wryly at the sight of down-and-outs leaning against the USA Today newspaper-vending machine near the Hilton's limousine-congested entrance. Were they trying to make a sardonic political point?

But the incongruity of the setting was not the main problem that the conference-goers - many from Britain and Europe - had to cope with. The really hard thing to come to terms with was the conference's scale. Nearly 1,000 symposia, seminars, invited addresses and round-table discussions were packed into just five days. At certain times there were as many as 57 simultaneous events.

Ann Lieberman, a former president of the association, admitted that the structure of the conference is so complex that she holds special classes on "How to navigate your way through the AERA meeting" for graduate students who attend it in the hope of finding a research job. "I've been coming for years but even I find it difficult to cope with," she said. "It is so big and unwieldy that it can be alienating."

As a result, even professors with an IQ of 180 got lost in the maze of hotel corridors or, overwhelmed by the choice of seminars, slumped down in a repro Louis XIV armchair, and either watched the academic world go by or chewed the fat about the lean time that education research, teacher development and public education in general, are having in the US.

Others avoided dissonance by circling only those seminars organised by their own special interest groups (AERA has more than 90 such groups covering topics as varied as Hispanic research issues and chaos and complexity theory). I asked one education statistician from Texas who had come to town to talk about hierarchical linear modelling if she had branched out and listened to seminars on other subjects, but she clearly misunderstood my question. "Yeah, sure, " she replied. "I did go to one session on multi-level modelling."

The narrow focus that some researchers adopt is perhaps understandable, but given that the theme of the conference was Research for Education in a Democratic Society it was disappointing that several of the sessions on African-American or Latino under-achievement were only attended by "people of colour" (the current politically correct description) while seminars on gender sometimes attracted not a single male of any colour.

The conference organisers, aware of this tendency in their membership, contrived to mix the audiences by choosing papers with titles such as "Ethnomathematics: Yup'ik, Navajo and Yoruba Examples", but in general the research tribes avoided such overt pairing .

The quality of many of the papers and discussions helped to compensate for that failing, however. The AERA conference attracts the cream of the research community and this year some of the biggest names, school improvement guru Michael Fullan, New York reformer Deborah Meier and James Comer, director of Yale's influential School Development Programme, accepted invitations. Even that eminence grise of the sociology of education Basil Bernstein, who is now 71, put in a rare appearance and made a profound effect on his audience.

But not a word of his speech was reported in the New York Times which largely ignored the conference even though education - or rather America's poor educational rating in comparision with competitor nations - is one of the biggest political issues in the States. Several high-ranking politicians and government officials took part in open discussions on national education imperatives and research priorities, but they attracted no more publicity than Bernstein et al. The NYT, and the other New York dailies, were more concerned with the Unabomber, a plan to move the Yankees baseball team out of the crime-ridden Bronx, and the arrest of a serial killer. Oh yes, and the death of the former postal worker who claimed to have written the "Hokey-Cokey" (which the Americans call the "Hokey-Pokey"). Now that was news.

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