Student Achievement Q&A

Research, Pedagogy, and the Academy: A Q&A With Gloria Ladson-Billings

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 10, 2017 1 min read
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Washington, D.C.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, one of the nation’s preeminent researchers on educating diverse students, on Friday became the new president of the National Academy of Education. The announcement was made at the group’s fall research retreat here.

Ladson-Billings, a professor of urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies how schools and teachers can be more effective teaching students of color, and hiring and retaining more teachers of color. She wrote the 2009 book The Dream Keepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children and the 2001 book Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms.

She also previously led the 25,000-member American Educational Research Association as president from 2005-2006, but said the 300-member Academy has provided her with opportunities for deeper mentorship of young doctoral and post-doctoral researchers. She should know: Ladson-Billings said she first began her groundbreaking work on culturally relevant pedagogy in classrooms as a postdoctoral fellow of the Academy in 1989.

Ladson-Billings sat down with me to talk about research under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the implementation of culturally relevant pedagogy, and her vision for the Academy. (This Q&A is edited for length and clarity.)

On the National Academy of Education’s Evolution:

I think in the last four years the Academy has gotten on much sounder fiscal footing, and really expanded the doctoral fellowships. “I have a vision of creating more synergy with other Academies—Science, Engineering—because the one thing they all have in common with us is education. You don’t get to be a doctor without education; you don’t get to be an engineer without education.”

On the Role of Research in Education Policy:

Policy shifts quickly. It would be really, really great if we could be more nimble. Academy members almost always end up on [national] panels. We’re seen as leaders of the research. But two reports came out last year, on science literacy and communicating science literacy to the public, and something that came out of both is [that] facts actually don’t override people’s deeply held beliefs. In some ways no matter what we do on the research end, if someone really believes something, it’s hard to convince them, even with research. So at best, what we can do better is to translate research, instead of yelling at people and saying you’re not intelligent, you’re ignorant, you are not paying attention to the research. It would be a much better strategy to say, ‘How do I say this in ways that you can at least hear me and maybe evaluate better?’ At the same time, I think we have an obligation to hear what people are saying in spite of the fact that we have facts to the contrary.”

When Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Is Misinterpreted:

The challenge for research is always in the translation from research to practice. ... I’m a person who has conceptualized and theorized an idea and actually seen it in place, observing expert teachers. But what I hear people say or do in schools under the name of culturally responsive teaching, I say, ‘Oh, no, that’s not at all what I meant. No, stop!’ People think, if I have the faces all colored on my bulletin board, I am being culturally relevant—where you still have certain kids who are not achieving and no focus on the achievement of those kids. It’s not just looking at cultural aspects of the curriculum; it’s also ensuring you have laser like focus on student learning. “It’s not just endorsing or validating the culture kids come with; it’s giving them access to at least one other culture, so they leave school at least biculturally competent. You are covering not just black or brown kids, but white kids; white kids should not go out into a very international, global workforce and only understand themselves or their culture.”

On Making Learning Relevant to Students:

For kids, it’s the ‘so what’ question, and we typically don’t have good answers for them. Our answer typically is, ‘You’re going to need this next year,’ and kids figure out by 4th or 5th grade that we’re lying. “You learn how to read, you learn math and science and social studies because it is going to help you solve real problems. We see teachers often don’t engage with problems at all ... or they [do] the opposite and take up a problem that’s not a kid’s problem because they are jazzed about it. I’ve gone into schools where the kids were deep into saving the rain forest, and I say to the kids, ‘Where is the rain forest?’ and they say, ‘I don’t know; she (the teacher) just likes this.’ ... Teachers have to be attuned to the question.”

Ladson-Billings was elected to a four-year term. For more, see her discuss her research in this 2015 lecture:

Photo: Gloria Ladson-Billings at the National Academy of Education annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Source: Sarah D. Sparks


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.