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Bill Tierney

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Plus Ça Change …

A common pattern can be seen in the historical development of professional associations. About a century ago, as disciplines formed on university campuses, professors felt the need to discuss one another’s ideas. The first annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, for example, in 1906, consisted of 115 individuals assembled at Brown University to hear seven academics present papers. The authors read their papers and the group discussed them over a two-day period. For ASA and other associations, disciplinary journals were the next step.

AERA began when eight white men—seven administrators from school districts and a fellow from the Russell Sage Foundation—decided to hold a meeting in 1916. They wanted data to improve schools. This was our Association’s first Annual Meeting, and in 1919 the Journal of Educational Research became its flagship publication.

Those who brought associations and their publications to life at the start of the 20th century could never have predicted, and would likely have rejected, the shape of those associations a century later. And they would surely have looked askance at the annual meetings of today. The assumption then was that a scholarly paper needed to be read aloud in its entirety and discussed for several hours by the assembled audience. The speed of publishing was inconsequential. The idea that scholars could reduce their work to 15-minute talks or disseminate papers instantaneously would have provoked serious questions.

Associations, like all organizations, are embedded in the sociocultural contexts of their times. Either they evolve to stay current, or they become insignificant and die. This month at our winter meeting the AERA Council acted in several areas to maintain ties with our past and thereby increase our relevance in the future. As I noted in an earlier e-mail, after reviewing the more than 500 responses to a call for comments on the proposed merger of the two sections of AERJ (returning to the original format without separate sections), Council voted to accept the Journal Publications Committee’s recommendation in favor of the merger. Council also reauthorized the $250,000 that is spent more or less yearly on fostering research conferences on topics related to education research. And, extending AERA’s longstanding mission of serving the public good, Past President Arnetha Ball’s new Education Research Service Projects initiative has (like the conference’s program) generated a healthy number of applications, currently under review by a subcommittee of Council. The service projects and the conferences program are only part of the significant amount of funding we devote each year to research, training, and mentoring activities aimed at improving the quality of education research and enhancing our impact on policy and practice.

During the same period, Council took innovative steps. For the first time in a generation, it asked the Journal Publications Committee to come forward with a proposal for a new journal on education research—an open access journal, which could appear as early as next year. Council also approved the findings and recommendations of the Task Force on Bullying. And it is changing and adding components to the Annual Meeting, which I will discuss as the meeting draws near.

To be sure, any new endeavor is an experiment, and experiments can fail. Making knowledge widely available in real time through an open access journal is a significant step toward the goal of increasing our impact—if it succeeds. And, as many AERA members noted, merging the two sections of AERJ could enhance and broaden the reach of the articles that are published—although if poorly handled, it could have the opposite effect. But to simply stay the course risks being buffeted by societal changes rather than leading in the new environment.

Finally, Council itself, as the Association’s governing unit, needs to change. Council will soon put forward a concept paper on governance. One of its recommendations will be to improve our committee structures to more fully engage the membership and enhance AERA decision-making processes.

Plus ça change often has a negative connotation, as if to say the more things change, the more they fail, or get nowhere (plus c’est la même chose). I don’t see it that way. If we are to maintain the culture of structured academic discourse and critique that is our hallmark, then we cannot maintain the status quo. To stay the same, we must change.

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