Thursday, April 10, 2014

AERA Hangover

Part of the Division J Post-Conference Download series

by Andre M. Perry, Founding Dean of Urban Education, Davenport University

I always leave the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) annual meeting with a hangover of renewal; the meeting generates in me energy to write 1,000 articles before the next. However, my arrival to my students and communities and the substantive problems they face quickly sobers me up. My return from AERA always represents what is effectually a vast gulf between the research of higher education and the political goals that should motivate it.

Having identified as a researcher then later on as an administrator in both K-12 and higher educational settings, I occasionally hallucinate during my colleagues’ paper presentations at AERA. I see a professor in regalia in an ivory tower meticulously describing the damage the oncoming wrecking ball will cause. In other words, the study of higher education needs fewer words, less data and more political action.

During my academic time at the University of New Orleans, Louisiana spent $1.4 billion for higher education in fiscal year 2007-08. However, in 2013 Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget devolved to contain $284.5 million for colleges and universities. Many researchers meticulously situated the 80 percent reduction in state funding to a conservative agenda bent on political patronage. Following suit, university administrators managed their own downfalls by finding creative ways to cut budgets. While professors accurately described these phenomena, particular industrialists, lobbyists and non-governmental organizations in Louisiana mobilized constituents, aligned agendas and leveraged resources to redirect funding away from students and their postsecondary institutions.

Meanwhile at my former institution of UNO, leaders and researchers of higher education ostensibly did not have the skills to protect ourselves from a rival agenda or to defend the principles we stood upon. Many of us graduated from programs that taught us policy analysis, but didn’t teach us advocacy. We separated our research from political actors who could have found mutually beneficial ends. The field of higher education research seeks approval from peer reviewers (who are trained with the same deficiencies), rather than the positive impact our research can have on a community. I was warned by a higher education faculty and administration to not get too involved for it would hurt my chances of getting tenure (which I received) and my activities would stain the work. This was particularly surprising given our post-Katrina context. I couldn’t sip that Kool-Aid. What happened to improving my community?

If higher education research is to be taken seriously, researchers must see themselves as members of a political community bolstered by unappealable principles. Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch are rigid, often inconsistent and highly unreasonable. However, they defend their respective political communities and influence real outcomes. I can hear taunts from atop the ivory tower that say higher education doesn’t need another divisive character. However, higher education researchers do need principles, leadership and a true political agenda that advance those principles. Like it or not, researchers are influenced by multiple agendas. I would rather have my research promote my field’s political needs.

Our research must become more politically relevant. As a higher education scholar that worked in a post-Katrina environment, I can say my academic work helped erect effective schools, hire teachers committed to New Orleanians, increase college access and assist undocumented immigrant find postsecondary options. Research can stem from and give birth to outcomes that can be measured based on human capital gains. Research can produce political outcomes that don’t compromise the principles it stands upon.

Researchers talk of change that our political behaviors don’t reflect. One could easily argue that most higher education research defends the status quo because of its political detachment. Aloofness in higher education research conveniently serves the aforementioned conservative agenda. The language used in many of the sessions I attended on college access represented the same exclusivity the professors incoherently decried. I used to think that professors understood that discourse on “discourse” stays within the confines of privilege. Illuminating student outcomes using yet another design falls short of providing underserved students an education that results in employment. Waxing poetic about the travails of marginalized populations and evils of neoliberalism won’t pay students’ tuitions. An academic agenda for higher education should be measured based on its ability to deliver real human capital gains.

I actually entered the field in 1998 when President Bill Clinton pledged “to make the thirteenth and fourteenth years of education – at least two years of college – just as universal in America by the twenty-first century as a high school education is today.” I’m still waiting to see a readily accessible research agenda that is part of a movement toward that end. However, in the K-12 reform community, there’s an expectation that research contributes towards academic growth, school erection, improved teacher training, or some other tangible outcome. You don’t have to agree with what new-aged reformers stand for, but seeing a political agenda reflects their influence on delivering it.

If anyone outside of the AERA is to deem higher education research worthy, we must demonstrate its relevance. Education research can be and should be measured by its ability to add human capital to people who need it most. Enough with the affectations of word-making and “discourse shifting.” Enough replication of findings long since found. Enough of the poorly veiled polemics that are positioned as research based in discovery. As the urban research group N.W.A. once said, “Don’t get high off your own supply.”

It’s time higher education researchers made our politics explicit and our research matter. 

Dr. Andre Perry (@andreperryedu), founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

This post is part of our Post-Conference Download series. Over the weeks following the 2014 Annual Meeting, we will feature several reflections on the conference.

No comments:

Post a Comment