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Professor named AERA fellow

| Thursday, March 6, 2014

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) recently named Notre Dame sociology professor Mark Berends a fellow in recognition of his scholarly contributions to education research.

Berends was accepted as one of 22 members of the association’s class of 2014, which is currently composed of 557 AERA fellows. He will also act as the program director for this year’s AERA meeting, a conference with more than 2,400 presentations and dozens of features of leading researchers in education.

“Part of this AERA fellows is recognizing people that have had a long history of research that is informative and helpful to the field, so I’m very humbled by it,” Berends said. “It’s a great honor.

“AERA is an organization with some 25,000 people — there’s a whole array of people that do work like I do and people that do other work, so one never knows how they’re going to get recognized in that.”

The AERA fellows are selected on the basis of sustained excellence over a long period of time, and Berends said his career began at the RAND corporation, an independent objective “think tank” that does research to inform policy. He said that’s where he began applying sociology to educational reform, and learning to work on large team-based research projects with significant policy implications.

“When I was there at the time there was a policy movement called ‘comprehensive school reform’ — that they would redo schools, [with the idea] that our schools are terrible, we’re not competitive in the world, we need to break the mold,” Berends said.

A large project was conducted over several years in the 1990s that examined new designs for schools, he said.

“That work stood the test of time in some ways, and other people tried to replicate it,” Berends said. “It was very mixed because they were trying to develop these new designs for schools, but then they were basically selling their products to school districts which have certain constraints and regulations, and so instead of ‘break the mold’ ideas, it became more ‘fill the mold.’”

While at RAND, Berends said he researched test score trends in different demographics and examined family changes and schooling situations of students. This eventually led to an appointment at Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education.

“That [appointment] played into some of that work and also comprehensive school choice where we were fortunate enough to get a big research center funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to look at school choice, whether that’s charter schooling, home schooling, scholarships or vouchers, a whole array of these kinds of choices,” Berends said. “We looked not just at differences in test scores, but whether these schools were really different: was the organization different, was the instruction different, was the teaching force different?”

Now at Notre Dame, Berends acts as the Director of the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity (CREO), part of the Institute for Educational Initiatives. His research continues to focus on school choice and educational policy, with a couple of projects currently underway.

“One is that Indiana has implemented a choice scholarship program, a voucher, for low and modest income families to take money to attend a private school,” Berends said. “We have a data-sharing agreement with Indiana Department of Education, and we’re looking at the early effects of that on state test scores. Not only public schools, but a lot of the private schools [also] take state tests so it’s a nice comparison.”

Although Berends is using shared data, he also supplements more traditional metrics with a comprehensive approach including interviewing and tracking student integration and social networks.

“A lot of my work over time is not only looking at test scores, which sometimes tend to be a horse race, but more ‘what are the conditions under which schools can be effective, whatever the type’ — whether that’s a Catholic school, a charter school and so on,” Berends said. “We’re always trying to get more information, whether that’s through quantitative or qualitative measures.”

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