05/02/2013 12:46 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2013

American Education Research Association Meeting in San Francisco -- a Site of Contention and Hope

The annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) is a little bit of everything. After all, there are 18,000 researchers for the meeting in San Francisco this week -- graduate students, professors, and private foundations -- coming together to share and reflect on the research on schooling today. With the tremendous amount of heat and rhetoric pouring out about school "reform" in the media, you might think getting in to AERA would be a pretty hot ticket. For the most part, though, the meeting is a calm and sometimes boring series of papers given, CVs burnished, and careers advanced.

All the many areas of contention, of debate, of struggle in school reform can be found here. At its best, the debate gets to the question of how we frame the conversation, what really is education for? Is it a massive project to prepare passive cogs to fill the corporate slots? Is it a place where young people acquire insights and imagination to construct the kind of world they want to live in? Is it about reproducing racial, class, and gender hierarchies from generation to generation or realizing a democratic idea? Is it all competition, between students, teachers, schools, states, and nations or can it engender cooperation and caring?

We all know that there are horrendous developments in schooling -- the defunding of schools, the privatizing of education, the attacks on unions, and the ascendance of companies like Pearson who are taking over evaluation and testing -- all for the purposes of profit. The cheating scandal in Atlanta is just a tip of the iceberg and you can be sure that it is common throughout the system under the tremendous pressure exerted by Arne Duncan's Race to the Top.

But there are also many reasons for hope -- extensive local initiatives, push back, and deep teaching. And remember, there were never good old days when schooling was equitable and caring. But, leaning against the authoritarians, we have always been able to see thoughtful teaching, community initiative, and transformative experiences in schools. And there is plenty of research and evidence that goes against the faith-based and dogmatic assertions of the market-force so-called reformers. An example of engaged research can be found in groups such as Chicago's CReATE.

Speaking of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, note that he has been invited to AERA by those who like to rub shoulders with power. His address, planned for Tuesday, April 30, at 3:30 at the Hilton Union Square, is entitled "Choosing the Right Battles: Remarks and a Conversation." His own children, you must remember, are offered an education which encourages inquiry and critical thinking, arts and enrichment; the teachers at his kids schools are involved in an extensive conversation about what makes good teaching and evaluate their work based on those local standards -- not based on test scores. We remember that John Dewey declared that we should wish for all children what is offered to those most privileged. It is just not fitting to see our leaders establish a deep education for their own kids but mandate standardization, passivity, and closings for the poor.

Arne Duncan will be picketed by union members, youth, and researchers when he shows up. There should always be a conversation, an engagement, between officials like this and people on the ground. But after the conversation is over, Duncan will go back to his office where he wields tremendous power; we will go back to broken and besieged schools. So it is not an even or fair conversation.

There are many groups doing fantastic work in education policy and practice. Some of those who are deeply involved at the AERA meeting include Edu4 -- Reclaiming the Conversation on Education, the National Association for Multicultural Education/NAME and Teachers for Social Justice. You see them everywhere wearing red armbands and calling for educators to reclaim AERA -- in the interest of communities, students, and teachers.