Stop public support for the American Education Research Association

From April 11-14, the American Educational Research Association will be gathering in Philadelphia for their annual meeting. Given massive learning loss and plunging faith in higher education, the challenges confronting the “world’s largest education research organization” are real. The list of topics calling for rigorous inquiry is staggering: exploding absenteeism, artificial intelligence, the effects of cellphones and social media, chaotic classrooms, the impact of new laws expanding school choice and science-based reading, the cost of college, and the state of free inquiry on campus, to name a few.

There’s much useful research to be done and free-flowing debate that’s needed. Unfortunately, AERA is more interested in progressive jeremiads than in doing such work. This year’s conference is titled “Dismantling Racial Injustice and Constructing Educational Possibilities: A Call to Action,” and AERA isn’t even trying to elide the politics of the affair. The “Call to Action” title is fitting: It’s very clear that the point of the gathering is to proselytize rather than to ponder.

The program asserts that “the disruption of truth, attacks on race theories, banning of books, and erasure of histories have become commonplace” and asks how attendees can “take an intersectional approach” to “eradicating racism” and “all other forms of oppression.” Now, despite AERA asserting that this “call for a global conversation on race, racism, and its redress is long overdue,” wily observers may note that it doesn’t actually seem all that different from such recent AERA conferences as ”Cultivating Equitable Education Systems for the 21st Century” or “Leveraging Education Research in a ‘Post-Truth’ Era.”

The sprawling conference, with more than 2,500 sessions and 14,000 attendees, boasts four “featured” speakers. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, billed as a “pioneering scholar and writer on civil rights, critical race theory, [and] Black feminist legal theory,” will speak about “defending the freedom to learn in the war against woke.” AERA president Tyrone Howard will offer thoughts on “recognition and redress of racial injustice in education.” Gloria Ladson-Billings, an early proponent of critical race theory, will address “’Not Yet at Plessy’: 70 Years Post-Brown.” And Dolores Delgado Bernal, professor at Loyola Marymount University, will draw on her work offering “a critical race feminist praxis” and “pedagogical, methodological, and activist approaches to social justice.”

While AERA’s formal mission is to “advance knowledge about education, to encourage scholarly inquiry related to education, and to promote the use of research to improve education and serve the public good,” it exhibits remarkably little interest in knowledge, inquiry, or healthy discourse. Indeed, AERA operates more as a bastion of far-left, identitarian groupthink than a scholarly organization.

In 2020, for example, AERA coauthored a “Statement in Support of Anti-Racist Education,” which made clear that AERA members “must stand against the notion that systemic racism does not exist.” That same year, the president of AERA denounced “white supremacist tests” for “traumatiz[ing] students of color” by telling them “they are not smart or good or qualified.” So much for measured discussion of assessment.

In 2021, AERA members unanimously passed a resolution to no longer hold conferences or public events in states with “anti-trans laws.” While the resolution itself was rather vague, it quickly became clear that state laws requiring that parents be informed of how their child’s gender is identified at school, restricting access to puberty blockers, or mandating that biological males not participate on girls’ sports teams would be deemed as hateful “anti-trans” measures.

In 2022, AERA submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of race-based admissions practices. In 2023, when the court found such practices to be unconstitutional, AERA issued a statement denouncing the ruling as a “low point” likely to visit all sorts of ills upon higher education.

AERA isn’t just failing to promote responsible research, it’s actively undermining it. After all, it impedes the ability of researchers to fearlessly ask hard questions when their professional association holds that only certain views are defensible or legitimate. When AERA’s leaders adopt a party line on hotly contested questions that promises to stifle useful inquiry or quell informed debate, the distinction between a research association and an advocacy organization has been lost.  

All of this serves to raise two very practical questions: Why should taxpayers be subsidizing this outfit, and why should public officials accord it any weight?

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If AERA were strictly a private entity, this would all be troubling enough. But AERA is not a strictly private entity. It partners with the National Science Foundation to award research grants. It is funded in significant part by membership fees, subscriptions to its journals, and faculty travel budgets. For academics at public institutions, many of these dollars are supplied by taxpayers. Even at private institutions, many of these funds flow from taxpayer-financed grants awarded by federal research agencies.

Federal entities should stop partnering with AERA, and Congress should insist that no more research funding flow to the organization. The legislators who fund public colleges and the trustees who oversee colleges and universities should find better uses for the funds that currently make their way to AERA’s politicized coffers. There’s no reason for taxpayers to be subsidizing “research organizations” that eschew research for ideological advocacy.

Rick Hess is a senior fellow and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on K–12 and higher education issues.

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