Monday, April 10, 2006


Silly Season for the School Scholars
By Frederick Hess and Laura LoGerfo

Amidst the relentless warnings that America’s schools are only graduating two-thirds of eighteen-year-olds, are failing to produce the scientists and engineers we need, and must address stubborn racial achievement gaps, more than 14,000 of the nation’s education researchers are gathered in San Francisco for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

Their task is not easy. Former AERA president David C. Berliner has explained in Educational Researcher, a prestigious education journal, that education research is “the hardest science of all.” Berliner argued that educational science is much harder than “splitting either atoms or genes” because those who study schooling find their research confounded by “the ordinary events of life” such as “a messy divorce, a passionate love affair, hot flashes, a birthday party, alcohol abuse…[or] rain that keeps the children from a recess outside the school building.” Clearly, the scholars gathered in San Francisco would have no time for the frivolity one might find at a gathering of biochemists or physicists.

In San Francisco, it quickly became evident that the scholars had buckled down to the crucial, serious work at hand. Professors had unflinchingly tackled each of the five major fields of educational inquiry: imperialism; ghetto culture; hegemonic oppression and right-thinking multiculturalism, cyber-jargon; and the utterly incomprehensible. Sure, there was also some boring work on questions like student achievement and policy evaluation, but you only had to follow the crowds to see where the action was.

Flipping open the two-inch thick program of research presentations, no responsible educator concerned about imperialism could bear to miss the session that featured “Na Wahine Mana: A Postcolonial Reading of Classroom Discourse on the Imperial Rescue of Oppressed Hawaiian Women,” “Every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep and Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: Paradoxes of Race in the Production of Political Knowledge of Decolonizing Nationhood,” and “Written On, Written Over, but Refusing to be Written Off: Indigenous Educators Teaching in the Empire.”

Implications for future research abound. If shut eyes are not sleeping, are they absorbing algebra? Where do goodbyes go when they are not gone? And, of course, is the empire likely to strike back?—and if it does so, how many oppressed Hawaiian women will be further victimized by the postcolonial discourse?

Researchers seeking to celebrate ghetto culture were riveted by the scholarship of “’Ho No Mo’: A Qualitative Investigation of Adolescent Female Language Reclamation and Rejection.” A subsequent piece of research, “’He’s Driving a BMW and I’m Riding the Bus’: Examining Spirituality in Urban Youths’ Lives,” no doubt delved into the question of what happens after the ho’s are no mo’. Meanwhile, the burning issue of hip hop pedagogies was explored by the research session on “Black Language, Literacy, and Liberation: The Promises and Challenges of Critical Hip Hop Language Pedagogies.”

Those more interested in hegemonic oppression could not afford to miss “The Formation of the Subjectivity of Mail-Order Brides in Taiwan and Their Educational Strategies Toward Their Children.” The import of an oppressive “majority culture” was tackled in a provocative piece that unfortunately suffered from a limited sample size: “Translating, Paraphrasing, Helping: Coming of Age for One Child of Immigrants.”

One scholar of multiculturalism showed how to do away with injustice and racism, while promoting compassion and wisdom, in “Resisting Resistance: Using Eco-Justice and Eco-Racism to Awaken Mindfulness, Compassion, and Wisdom in Preservice Teachers.”

Other work promised to promote proper multicultural teacher attitudes: as with “Teaching White Preservice Teachers: Pedagogical Responses to Color-Blind Ideology” and “Overcoming Odds: Preparing Bilingual Paraeducators to Teach for Social Justice.” Breakthrough research on this front included “Discovering Collage as a Method in Researching Multicultural Lives” and “Artistic Code-Switching in a Collaged Book on Border Identity and Spanglish.”

Among the panels tackling the pressing questions of “queer studies” (formerly “gay and lesbian studies”) were “Queering Schooling and (Un)Doing the Public Good: Rubbing Against the Grain for Schooling Sexualities,” “The Silence at School: An Ethnodrama for Educators About the School Experiences of Gay Boys,” and “Working Against Heterosexism and Homophobia Through Teacher Inquiry.” Unfortunately, this work may have felt a bit conventional to those researchers fortunate enough to catch the 2004 analysis of ableist oppression in homoerotic magazines: “Unzipping the Monster Dick: Deconstructing Ableist Representations in Two Homoerotic Magazines.”

Cyber-jargon is a rapidly growing field, with scholars tackling such pressing questions as what happens when dyads co-quest in Quest Atlantis. One intriguing session included scholarly analyses that tackled “The ‘Unofficial’ Literacy Curriculum: Popular Websites in Adolescents’ Out-of-School Lives,” “Not Just the OMG Standard: Reader Feedback in Online Fan Fiction,”and “English-Language Learning in a 3-D Virtual Environment: Native/Non-Native Speaker Dyads Co-Questing in Quest Atlantis.”

Perhaps the most stimulating work is that penned by authors who dabble in utter incomprehensibility. The allure of this work resides partly in trying to discern what the authors are actually talking about. Scholarship like “Semiotics and Classroom Interaction: Mediated Discourse, Distributed Cognition, and the Multimodal Semiotics of Maguru Panggul Pedagogy in Two Balinese Gamelan Classrooms in the United States” and “Education a la Silhouette and the Necessary Semiotically Informed Alternative” leaves one a bit breathless.

Work that may not be quite as dazzling, but that boasts its own pleasing bouquet of complexity, included “Fostering a Distributed Community of Practice Among Tribal Environmental Professionals During Professional Development Courses” and “Vygotskian Semiotic Conception and Representational Dialogue in Mathematics Education.”

Of course, beckoning any researcher truly concerned about teaching and learning was the Presidential Session that featured a compelling new paper: “’Mami, What Did Nana Say?’ Public School and the Politics of Linguistic Genocide.” This special session called to mind one of the more compelling papers presented at a past AERA: “Chicanas From Outer Space – Chupacabras, Selena as Marian Image, and Other Tales from the Border.”

Perhaps none of this should surprise. After all, Nel Noddings, the president of the National Academy of Education, spoke for many education researchers when she complained, “Why the emphasis on experimental and quasi-experimental research, when there’s so much other good stuff out there, I don't know.”

Given the challenges facing our schools, and the fact that most of these researchers are supported and employed by public institutions, it might make sense for educational researchers to devote attention to analyzing public policy, improving teaching and learning, and addressing the practical concerns of parents and teachers.

Such topics were pursued in San Francisco, of course, but if those engaged in serious work want their work to be accorded the respect they seek, they need to emerge from their hushed sessions and do something about the prominent place their profession grants to scholarship that promotes narrow values, spouts incomprehensible nonsense, and studies the semiotic conceptualization of hegemonic linguistic genocide (or dyadic co-questing in Quest Atlantis).

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Laura LoGerfo is a researcher with a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Michigan.