Dear NERA Colleagues,
As I was considering what to include in my first President’s Message, I began to reflect on the various events that occurred in 2016. We suffered great losses including several beloved authors, pop icons, and activists such as Eliezer Wiesel, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Prince, Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali. Our community also lost Roscoe Brown, NERA’s President in 1969 who was a war hero and one of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. All of these people had a profound impact on how we view world events and participate in activities to support social justice. Interestingly, we as educators are not unlike these prominent public figures in that we also influence society through our work educating children and young adults to think about problems we face in society and methods for developing possible solutions. In addition, our research can shape our world views through its impact on public policy. These effects were prominent throughout the 2016 NERA conference where I saw stimulating research being presented and discussed among graduate students, academics, and professionals who care deeply about education.
One of the most challenging aspects of 2016 was the United States presidential election which was the most vitriolic campaigns in recent history. During the campaign, it appeared that winning through any means necessary was more valued than making accurate claims that were consistent with empirical evidence (although this can be said about most elections, it seemed to be worse in 2016). In fact, one of the things that shocked and frustrated me about the election was how often candidates or news agencies made assertions without a shred of empirical evidence or, perhaps worse, that were in contradiction to empirical evidence. As an educator and a scientist, I find the lack of respect for empirical evidence and how to use data appropriately appalling. Once I got over my shock, I started to think about how we can solve this post-truth political problem. How can we teach and emphasize the importance of the appropriate use of empirical evidence? An obvious solution (but not the only solution) is through formal education. As educators in PK-12 and higher education, we have the ability (and perhaps responsibility) to emphasize to our students the importance of and how to use empirical evidence to evaluate claims and ideas (or hypotheses) as well as the strengths and limitations of empirical evidence. We are familiar with basic research concepts such as reliability, validity, and generalizability – concepts that should be taught to all students throughout all of the grades to support critical thinking skills. By the time students graduate high school, they should understand the interplay between theories, hypotheses, facts, and observations. With these skills, we will have citizens who can evaluate the validity of claims and the quality of data sources for themselves to aid in decision-making. It is important to note that use of empirical evidence is not relegated to just the “science” domains such as chemistry, physics, or biology, but to any field that makes an empirical claim such as psychology, history, and other areas of social science.
Despite the sad and frustrating events that occurred in 2016, there were many successful events that we should be proud of and celebrate. For example, thanks to Charlie DePascale and the conference co-chairs, Joshua Marland, Scott Monroe, and Molly Faulkner-Bond, the NERA 2016 annual meeting was an enormous success. The conference theme was appropriate and timely given the importance and impact of disseminating information on peoples’ behaviors (e.g., voting in the 2016 presidential election). Regardless of how much high quality research is being conducted in education, if we do not find a way to communicate the research findings to the public in an understandable manner, the positive effect will be trivial or lost completely. The two keynote speakers, Lee Badgett and Jonathan Supovitz, gave informative and thought-provoking talks on how to communicate research effectively to the public. The invited panels also provided useful information on communication from interesting perspectives. The professional development workshop topics were diverse and covered many important methodological skills educational researchers use to conduct research. The paper and poster presentations were exciting, exhibiting high-quality research that can have a positive impact on education. Lastly, Charlie DePascale’s Presidential Address was a humorous, enlightening, and thought-provoking view of validity (effectively illustrated through references to Taylor Swift).
Regardless of the challenges we face in the near future, I remain optimistic that we can have a positive influence on society through education. Stephen Pinker, a Harvard professor in psychology, has argued that the world is becoming more peaceful. I would like to think that education is playing a role in making the world a better place and we as educators are partly responsible for the positive changes. Although education is not a panacea for society’s ills and problems, it can have an enormously positive impact. In fact, without a well-educated public, it is not possible to have a well-functioning democracy. To do our part, the conference co-chairs, Daniel Jurich, Jason Kopp, and Whitney Smiley, and I are working diligently to plan the 2017 NERA conference, which will be held on October 18-20 at the Trumbull Marriott. The conference theme will be Using Technology to Advance Education: Challenges and Opportunities. We invite you to join us to share all the ways that you are doing your part to enhance the educational community. We are very excited to serve the NERA community and continue the excellent tradition and quality NERA members have come to expect.