AERA President Barbara Schneider on Why You Need to Come to Philadelphia

February 2014

Most of us in the United States seem to be wistfully awaiting an early spring, having lived through one of the most brutal winters to hit the East, Midwest, and South in decades—setting new records for cold, snowfall, and treacherous ice cover. For us as education researchers, a wish for an early spring coincides with the early annual meeting of AERA, now less than six weeks away. Celebrating AERA’s 98th birthday, this year’s meeting has been created on the 21st-century theme of innovation, beckoning researchers to think hard about change and reform. The theme, “The Power of Education Research for Innovation in Practice and Policy,” was formed to herald the value of education research and its imprint on innovation—broadly conceived—and its impact on practice and implications for policy at multiple levels.

Mark Berends, the program chair for this meeting, and I reached out nationally and internationally, seeking scholars with new ideas, interventions, methodologies, and evaluative techniques. We sought researchers who were also concerned with the costs and potential of improving learning and instruction and the organization and management of our education system. Attempting to move away from the debates that traditionally have characterized our research enterprise, we are highlighting the work of individuals who are on a path to expedite change, who view schools as social systems within community contexts, who recognize the changing population of U.S. education institutions and the problems of our minority populations soon to become the majority, and the interrelationships between the rising income gap and a static and profoundly unacceptable gap in educational achievement and attainment.

By the early 1900s nearly all of the states had enacted compulsory school attendance laws, most requiring students to complete secondary school and hiring truant officers to ensure that reality. Despite those efforts, many students failed to graduate, and dropout rates through the 1950s, especially in some geographical areas and among some populations, were abysmal. Now, a hundred years later, we have a K–12 system (with some states still not requiring kindergarten) constructed to prepare young people for further education or the labor market. The technological world of today and its global reach requires a deepened numeric and linguistic literacy and cultural awareness that many maintain cannot be easily accommodated in our current curriculum and education enterprise. Some scholars have found that at one end of the schooling spectrum, mandated preschool will help young children acquire early cognitive, emotional, and social skills that facilitate learning and interpersonal competencies. At the other end, some researchers have shown that raising expectations for education and training beyond high school will help to extend adolescents’ abilities, skills, and knowledge integral to successful adulthood. How can we bring about change to advance children’s learning and their social and emotional development, and ensure them the opportunities that their futures demand?

The theme for the 2014 Annual Meeting program is designed to connect research with questions of innovative change. Our focus encompasses not only how children learn but also what they should learn, what their teachers need to focus on, how the schools and neighboring contexts must meet the needs of children as they develop, and the methodological and technological innovations that bring us closer to achieving a strong, high-quality education system. We are challenged as researchers to learn what needs to be changed and how we can responsibly make it happen, relying on robust evidence and cultural understanding. Recognizing the importance of preschool education, we have reached out to scholars and some federal policy-makers who do not usually present at AERA. There are symposia that highlight what research reveals about the value of preschool education and its long-term benefits, the programs that are most effective in enhancing learning, and the steps that need to be taken to ensure wider access for all students. Poverty remains a fundamental concern, but our interest is in what education research can convey about innovations to diminish the impact of constrained resources, both within and outside the home and school.

Our attention to learning extends through middle school, high school, and postsecondary institutions. The Presidential symposia include a number of sessions on what should be learned in school, how we can maximize the resources we have, and what are the likely trajectories of students who follow divergent paths outside traditional learning environments. Our interest is in examining the interconnections of learning, instruction, and assessment. As state agencies move to implement the Common Core State Standards, we have invited presenters whose work develops—and underscores the need for—innovative approaches to high-quality assessments.

The importance of innovation and its evaluation is perhaps best illustrated by the i3 Program instituted by the federal government. Considerable resources were devoted so that some of the most promising innovations, grounded in research principles and evidence, could be taken to scale. From reading programs to whole-school reforms, these initiatives have just recently been evaluated by third-party experts. We are excited to make them and their evaluations part of our program.

Whether it is tools for maximizing search engines to perform tasks never before imagined, smart-phone or web-based systems for data collection and analysis, games for learning, or online courses, today’s scientific world is one of technology innovation and use that require ongoing professional learning. From the digital world we have sought a number of innovators and have included interactive sessions that demonstrate how researchers are creating and harnessing technology to improve learning and instruction and our education systems more generally.

Big data, learning analytics, and administrative data that expand opportunities for new approaches to longitudinal analyses all have become focal points of policies related to student, teacher, principal, and program evaluation. Some educators have worried that we may be stifling creativity, suffocating under a blanket of information. But the major challenge that we face as researchers is how to harness the wealth of information and systems being created to advance the quality of education that our children receive. While some may believe data are pervasive, there are still people who are not being captured by the numbers, whether through regulatory miscounting, as in the instance of undocumented students, or through lack of information, as in the case of the numbers of uncounted transnational students—U.S. citizens living with their foreign-born parents in non-U.S. countries. Numbers are critical, but their use and purpose remain key, not only for understanding population shifts but also for their possibilities for improving learning and quality of instruction.

To strengthen the emphasis on innovation, a number of the Presidential sessions have been organized in collaboration with the Research and Science Policy sessions. Here we have drawn attention to the new techniques for evaluating learning and instruction with the most up-to-date methodologies. How can we measure education research productivity at the individual, program, and institutional levels, and perhaps most important, how can we continue to widen the pipeline to encourage more underrepresented groups in STEM fields?

Not forgetting that we are a part of a broader international community, we have included sessions on the latest PISA results and what they may or may not mean for understanding achievement in the United States. Recognizing our global community, we have included a number of sessions that call attention to innovative work being undertaken in other countries that is designed to enhance creativity, increase interest in STEM, and improve the implementation of new evaluative techniques for measuring performance of higher education institutions.

How can we make change happen? We have designed sessions regarding research-practice partnerships, what they are engaged in, and how they are being implemented and evaluated. One of these sessions is being organized in conjunction with a special issue of an AERA journal dedicated to how researchers in universities are working in collaboration with researchers in state agencies and districts to solve lingering and new problems impacting the educational system.

Our emphasis has been one of stretching research boundaries, in both what we study and how we study it, and in how we see the strengths, limitations, and potential for our futures across a variety of AERA divisions and special interest groups. We have tried to be inclusionary in our quest for understanding change in our dynamic field. Looking across the program, we hope that there are a number of sessions that speak to the membership and spark that familiar sense of, “Oh, this is a session I really want to go to!” We have asked our session organizers to shorten presentations and leave more time for discussion and intellectual exchange, which we hope will continue long after the meeting. And with the new soon-to-be-live AERA website, there will be many opportunities for this to happen.

Philadelphia has a distinctive historical lineage as the great meeting place for a “revolution” that eventuated in a form of democracy unique in our modern world. We have tried to conjure that spirit of reform and invite you all to join with us as we engage in serious questions about the whys and hows of innovation in education practice and policy.