The Politicization of Education Research and the AERA

Richard Phelps:

A story line in one of my favorite television shows—a courtroom drama—concerns a rogue judge caught tipping the proverbial scale of justice toward his own personal biases. At his disciplinary hearing, the presiding judge says to him matter-of-factly, “You’re not supposed to care who wins, remember?”

As it is supposed to be with judges in the U.S. court system, so it is supposed to be with academic research faculty. As Bertrand Russell implored, objective scientific inquiry requires that investigators not be diverted by what they wish to believe, or think would have beneficial social effects if it were believed. If not genuinely disinterested, objective scientists should at least conduct their research such that unfavored outcomes are possible. Otherwise, outcomes are predetermined, and the activity is not research, but advocacy. If research is performed for the sake of advocacy, that fact should be made transparent.

To the casual observer, the name of the century-old American Educational Research Association (AERA)—a professional organization largely comprising education school professors—might sound like any academic society, such as the American Historical Association or the Association for Psychological Science. Indeed, that juxtaposition fools many who naïvely assume the AERA to be a comprehensive resource for objective expertise.

In its early days, a century ago, the AERA hosted objective research in the teaching and learning of subject matter knowledge and skills. That was before the creation of graduate schools of education, back when most education researchers were either psychology professors or state or local agency program evaluators, and teachers were trained in apprenticeship-like programs at “normal schools.” AERA’s current mission statement hints at this legacy.