The American Educational Researchers Association (AERA) may find itself in the crosshairs for political correctness and staking out controversial positions, but a true bill of particulars against the organization would include its inability or unwillingness to act as an honest broker in determining the validity of education research.
Writing at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Dan Willingham responds to the recent screed by Sharon Begley of Newsweek, who described education research as a “national scandal.” There is a lot of excellent research, but there’s also “a lot of dreck,” he observes. But good luck telling the difference. A professor of psychology at UVA, Willingham points out that psychology “is more vigilant in its self-regulation, particularly through its professional societies,” which he notes are “deeply committed to scientific rigor, they are run by scientists, and they publish very high quality research.” But where do you turn if you’re a teacher looking for research on teaching children to read?
“The American Educational Researchers Association (AERA) ought to be logical place, but it has not shown a lot of interest in taking on the job. I think a large part of the reason for this is that it is an enormous organization that includes scholars from very different disciplines: psychology, economics, political science, critical theory, history, feminist studies, etc. These different fields not only have different criteria by which evidence is evaluated, they have different definitions of what it means to “know” something. Small wonder, then, that AERA is seldom ready to make a flat statement on a research issue.”
This lack of clarity opens the door for “commercial interests and frank snake-oil salesmen” to hijack the conversation on research issues, observes Willingham, which “damages the field, and ultimately harms students.” He suggests AERA start by getting its members to decide which issues within education are amenable to a scientific analysis. “Education researchers frequently lament policy makers cherry-picking research findings to support positions that they advocate for non-research-based reasons. Until researchers get their act together, we continue to invite them to do so,” he concludes.