In New Orleans educational research is served up at a national conference with a dash of 'feel my pain' and a good shake of eclecticism. David Budge reports.
IT IS a sultry evening in New Orleans, the voodoo capital of the United States.
A few hundred yards away in the ghost-ridden French quarter, tourists are buying "hex your ex" effigies to stick pins in, or setting off on the Rev Zombie's haunted house tour.
But inside this strangely cold, windowless hotel room, 40 intense men and women are listening to one of their "high priests" uttering incantations that only the initiated can understand - "hegemonic discourse ... performative ethnography" and, most sinister of all, "Bandura's triadic reciprocality".
Yes, the American Educational Research Association, and its 13,000 followers, is back in town.
This year's theme is "Creating knowledge in the 21st century: insights from multiple perspectives", but there is hardly a futuristic feel to the conference. As always, the gathering is spread over three giant hotels furnished in Versailles kitsch, presenters are using overhead projectors (circa 1970) rather than new technology, the queues for coffee are as long as ever, and the main topics are all-too-familiar: black underachievement, bilingual education for Hispanic children, and the patchy success of the latest reforms.
Even so, the AERA conference is never "Dullsville, USA". If a session begins to pall - "I wish to offer 22 definitions of decentralisation and related views of its effectiveness" (unfortunately an accurate quotation) - you gather up your papers and shuffle off to an adjoining room or hotel.
The AERA conference programme is as thick as a phone book but it reminds you more of one of those New York deli menus that offer 18 types of salami. Wanna find out about "virtual gorilla modelling"? We got it. "Teaching dribbling to third-graders?" That too. "Home economics in Malta?" Yup. "How to tackle mechanics dynamics using rollerblades?" Yesiree. "Sex education for the Apocalypse?" Natch. "Understanding Norwegian college students' performance on the LASSI motivation subscale?" Ah think we got some of that in the basement. Eclectic, did you say? And then some.
Inevitably, some of the papers seem trivial and there is a fair amount of what could be termed "rear-view mirror" research. If you spend too much time trying to calculate how many hours adults devoted to educational pursuits in 1991 you may well run smack into a large, unseen obstacle on the road ahead.
But one of the most "dated" of this year's presentations was also among the most memorable - Susan Kardos's poignant account of clandestine Jewish schools in Warsaw during the Second World War. She dedicated her paper to "the martyrs and heroes of the ghetto, whom I have come to better understand, to admire, to long for and to love".
Several of the more dispassionate presenters talked about topics such as "bully-proofing" as if it was Scotchguard, but Susan Kardos was not the only heart-on-my-sleeve researcher. Beth Hatt of the University of North Carolina described the pain of having a brother who took to drugs and ended up in prison.
Some American researchers also display an exuberance that we never witness at European research conferences. No British researcher would title her paper:
"Phenomenal women, that's us! Black women middle school principals" (there are no exclamation marks in British research). And no UK researcher would ever call himself Bertram "Chip" Bruce.
Even the most seasoned European visitors always experience a culture shock at this confrence. Is the woman at the adjoining table really breakfasting on bacon and strawberries - on the same plate? Did I really see a tree being felled by termites (the experience of Cardiff University's Stephen Gorard)? Do Louisianans really eat alligator sandwiches (yes they do).
But the UK contingent will have returned home with more than Dixieland jazz CDs and the plastic beads thrown from the Easter Day floats. The AERA conference always extends your vocabulary - "heteronormativity" is apparently "the pervasive assumption that all children and adolescents are heterosexual". And it is a rich source of fascinating facts. Did you know that a researcher called Doss wrote the first important US study of drop-out rates?
The conference presenters had a lot to say about this and other big issues such as the mayoral takeovers of education in Chicago and Detroit and the inequities of high-stakes testing. Charter schools, which our own Government is modelling its city academies on, also attracted their share of criticism. The best that anyone was prepared to say was that they might be "part of the answer, but not the solution in themselves".
But many minds were still on last year's shootings in Columbine school, Colorado. Al Gore, who like George W Bush turned down an invitation to address the conference, told the national media what we all know to be true - random shootings are very hard to prevent. But he could have phrased his comments better. There was no "magic-bullet answer", he said, before he could bite his tongue.
Had he attended the AERA conference and listened to the discussions on school violence he might have offered a more considered assessment. But high-flying politicians seldom consider it necessary to attend research conferences. More's the pity.
Next week: the pick of the AERA papers
SHOOTING FROM THE HIP: BEST QUOTES
"We didn't get real fancy with our statistics. If you can't explain it to your momma, you can't explain it to a legislator."
Gary Peevely, Tennessee State
"The important thing for me is not Dolly Parton but epistemology." Researcher who had just given a paper on colonial education in Zimbabwe.
"God spoke in English, he spoke to King James, he wrote it down and he made no mistakes." Michael Apple, University of
"You can really get your fingernails dirty analysing these (educational special needs) figures if you are a numbers nerd like me. When I entered this room I immediately counted the 15 lights in the ceiling and seven panels in the back wall." Edward Sabornie, North Carolina State University.
"NWA's (Niggas with Attitude) invocation to 'fuck the police' indicates a high level of critical literacy as these teenage rappers are able to, after observing and analysing their own community, label the root of the problem as something outside of themselves."
Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell, University of California,
IF THE HAT FITS...
Best session title
"Educational administration: the field that mistook its research for a hat"
Best paper titles
"The science of the lambs: what business is doing to our schools" - David Berliner, Arizona State University
"Characteristics in restructuring high school students' frameworks of gaseous kinetics in Korea: a psychological point of view" - In-young Cho, Hyun-Ju Park and Byung-Soon Choi, Korea National University of Education
"Another damn thing we've got to do: a case study of teacher perceptions of professional development" - Jim Knight, Kansas