Roar of paper tigers

27th April 2001 at 01:00
13,000 delegates, 3,000 papers, an awful lot of coffee and a clutch of brilliant insights. David Budge looks back in wonder at the huge American Educational Research Association Conference in Seattle.

When the World Trade Organisation held its conference in Seattle in 1999 tens of thousands of demonstrators clashed with tear gas-spraying police. When Microsoft founder Bill Gates spoke at an education technology conference in the city two months ago an earthquake struck.

But when 13,000 members of the American Educational Research Association hit rainy Seattle earlier this month not a dog barked. Little wonder they spent even more time than usual agonising over how they could make a greater impact on the world.

If Williamson Evers, an education adviser to George "Dubbya" Bush, is to be believed, this sad state of affairs is only temporary. George W may not be the most cerebral of US presidents but, according to Dr Evers, he cares deeply about education and spent part of his first day in office conferring with researchers. "To some extent this is now a researchers' paradise," Dr Evers told the conference.

Nobody laughed, but neither did they look terribly convinced. George W has ignored much of the research evidence about controversial new testing programmes that not only determine whether American children are held back a year but whether failing schools are taken over by their states or school districts.

Most US researchers believe that such "high-stakes" tests stink worse than an Alabama skunk but they cannot complain if politicians don't listen because they are, again, offering them conflicting advice.

New York University professor Diane Ravitch neatly highlights this perennial problem with a story about checking into a hospital with heart symptoms: "I had this vision: 'Oh my god - what if, instead of medical researchers, I were being treated by education researchers?' I had a fantasy of people disagreeing about how you make a diagnosis.

"Everyone was saying the tests for my illness were ineffective and they didn't trust tests at all. And they were arguing endlessly about whether I was even sick, and was I going to die on the table."

Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University researcher who does have the ear of policy-makers, offered the conference another metaphor in response to such complaints: "Education research studies that appear to be antagonistic to one another are often actually looking at different parts of the elephant."

Her analogy isn't altogether convincing, however. As this conference again demonstrated, education researchers do disagree rather more than they should, even though theirs can never be an exact science.

And, like most of us, they have other faults. A minority of the AERA presenters played up to their stereotypical image by presenting papers with pretentious titls such as: "Stepping through the looking glass: education in the space between modernity."

But then language is always a problem at such conferences. One researcher, who appeared to be of sound mind, told his audience: "Individual differences further illuminated contextual differences in cognitive activation, and largely accounted for contextual differences in emotional activation."

Another said that he had used "chi-square tests of crosstabulations of dichotomous variables" to discover that the roads that rural school buses use are bumpier than urban ones.

Through the looking glass indeed. But what made the experience even more fantastical than Alice's was that sign-language experts were faithfully translating such texts for a group of deaf researchers. It was an epic achievement.

But, as always, this behemoth of a conference, which had to be spread over two giant hotels and the Seattle convention centre, offered ample compensations - and more coffee shops than usual, this being the home of Starbucks.

Important papers were presented on high-stakes testing (see next week's TES), violence in schools, and corporate America's growing involvement in education.

And there were dozens of papers on race - perhaps the biggest topic at AERA conferences. Why have African-Americans fallen even further behind whites and Asians in reading? Which of the Asian-American sub-groups are doing best academically and why?

The stupendous variety of papers at AERA conferences never fails to impress. In one hotel room researchers were "exploring human kindness through the pedagogy of aikido". Next-door they were discussing school leadership issues in the new Inuit homeland of Nunavut.

Researchers - and a handful of journalists - scurried back and forth for five days, catching as many of the 3,000 papers as they could. Ultimately, you were left with the impression of having stood under a waterfall of research and emerged with only one brimming bucket.

Still, it was better than catching nothing at all.


"Trouble in Lake Wobegon: filling vacancies for teaching positions in Minnesota" - Steve R Yussen, University of Minnesota.

"Proud to be a nerd: developing a student culture of excellence" - Rosalie Romano, Ohio University.

"Sometimes you just need a white guy" - Lillian Vega-Castaneda, California State University San Marcos.

"Differential bundle functioning on mathematics and science achievement tests: a comparison of non-aboriginal and aboriginal students" - Christine Vandenberghe, University of Alberta.

"Milk sellers and hotel dragons: habit, perception, and recognition in Proust"- Dee Russell, Georgia College and State University "The nanny cam, latex gloves and the two finger touch: new technologies for disciplining bodies" - Richard Johnson, University of Hawaii.

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