Aydarova and Topper honored with AERA national awards

By

Jennifer Priest Mitchell

Olena Aydarova, postdoctoral scholar, and Amelia Marcetti Topper (PhD, '15) were recognized with prestigious dissertation awards from the American Educational Research Association. Founded in 1916, AERA is the leading organization for advancing knowledge about education and promoting the application of educational research.

Aydarova’s research focuses on, among other issues, what makes a teacher qualified. The postdoctoral scholar at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College was chosen as one of only two recipients of the 2016 Division K Outstanding Dissertation Award.

The award honors scholarship of exceptional conceptual, methodological and literary quality on an important topic in teaching and teacher education. Special attention was given to studies pursuing issues of educational opportunity and equity.

Aydarova’s work, "Teacher Education Reform as Political Theater: Modernization Dramas in the Russian Federation," is a study of teacher education reform in Russia and behaviors by policymakers that delay reform. She conducted repeat interviews with educational researchers and leaders as well as students and faculty in university teacher education programs between 2011 and 2014. She also visited classrooms, conducted focus groups and analyzed reports.

Her research revealed that some leaders in the field dramatized issues to misdirect people’s attention toward situations that were not actual problems. For example, many people who thought of themselves as reformers were consistently reporting that lower-performing students were dispoportionally applying and being admitted to teacher education programs. However, those claims were based on comparisons of students in teacher education to students in medical university programs. The data for comparisons was inconsistent, but by creating this false issue that teacher preparation programs only attract lower achieving students, the reformers created a crisis to divert attention from changes they made behind the scenes in institutional policy. Aydarova's research led her to recommend changes in teacher education that would allow preservice teachers to be more knowledgeable and to be involved in improving teacher reform.

Defining student success was one theme of the dissertation by Amelia Marcetti Topper, honored with one of only two 2016 Division J Dissertation of the Year Awards. Division J considered dissertations completed during 2015 that advanced knowledge in the field of higher education and made innovative use of methods and theory. Her work, "A Multiplicity of Successes: Capabilities, Refuge, and Pathways in Contemporary Community Colleges," was completed at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeanne Powers.

Like all educational institutions, community colleges are receiving increased scrutiny and pressure to be accountable. Topper’s work aimed to broaden definitions of success and the view of what tracking and reporting can actually show. Her research included a case study of one community college where she conducted a large-scale student survey, many follow-up interviews and reviews of institutional documents.

Topper investigated students’ college experiences not merely as a series of steps through a curriculum or degree pathway, but as journeys deeply situated in and shaped by particular places and communities. She studied the community college as a “place of refuge” for students. The AERA awarding committee reported that Topper’s voice, perspective and findings emerged with authenticity as she engaged the dissertation as a genre with historical expectations and mutable boundaries.