Gloria Ladson-Billings to lead National Academy of Education

Leadership that Matters

Leadership is not just about the position one holds — it’s about bringing people together to accomplish something collectively. In this issue of Learning Connections, we are putting the spotlight on leadership that brings about change in the evolution of beliefs, values and behaviors.

Leadership that Matters is centered on the efforts of School of Education faculty and staff who are working locally, around the country and across the globe to make a positive difference in real and relevant ways.

After a remarkable run at UW-Madison,
Ladson-Billings shifts focus to leading National Academy of Education

After spending more than 26 years as a faculty member on the UW–Madison campus, Gloria Ladson-Billings officially retired from her post as the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education on Jan. 4.

When asked about the timing of her retirement, Ladson-Billings laughed.

“It’s because I couldn’t stand another winter in Madison,” she said after wrapping up the fall semester this past December — and prior to heading south to spend parts of the next three months in Apollo Beach, Florida.

Summer 2018 Learning Connections CoverBut don’t misunderstand. After dedicating most of her academic life to examining the practices of teachers who are successful with struggling students, Ladson-Billings isn’t going to be spending endless hours relaxing in the Florida sun. Her scholarship on culturally relevant pedagogy and critical race theory in education has never been more important or relevant, and her role as a leader in the realm of education research never more prominent.


• In November, Ladson-Billings began serving a four-year term as president of the National Academy of Education, which supports research for the advancement of education policy and practice in the United States. Its members are a select group of education experts from around the world.

• In January, she was ranked No. 3 in Education Week blogger Rick Hess’ annual ratings of the most influential education scholars in the United States.

• In April, at the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) Annual Meeting in New York, Ladson-Billings received both the Lifetime Achievement Award from AERA’s Division B (curriculum studies) and AERA’s 2018 Distinguished Contributions to Research in Education Award. AERA is a national research society with 25,000 members. 

• Also in April, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences announced Ladson-Billings was elected to its 2018 class of members. Founded in 1780, the American Academy honors leaders in science, the arts, business and American life. Other members elected this year include former president Barack Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Alexander Hamilton, Charles Darwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. are among those previously recognized by the Academy.

• And in May, Ladson-Billings received her fourth and fifth honorary degrees. On May 7, she received the honor from the Erikson Institute in Chicago. On May 19, she was recognized by Morgan State University in Baltimore, where Ladson-Billings earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1968.

“These are tremendous honors and I’m deeply appreciative to be recognized in these ways at this point in my career,” says Ladson-Billings, who continues to serve as a professor emerita at UW–Madison with the departments of Curriculum and Instruction, Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and Educational Policy Studies. “But there is more work to be done. My big job now is to really focus on the responsibilities and leadership of the National Academy of Education.”

'I'm not going to Wisconsin'

Prior to a chance meeting with UW–Madison’s Carl Grant in 1989, Ladson-Billings never gave a thought to a career in Wisconsin. An assistant professor at Santa Clara University at the time, Ladson-Billings was presenting in New York on her post-doctoral fellowship work, which was sponsored by the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation. Her keynote at an event hosted by the College Board centered on culturally relevant teaching and effective instruction for black students.

“When I first heard Gloria speak, I could tell she had absolute clarity and a heightened consciousness about the problems and challenges facing students of color, and I believed that UW–Madison would be the ideal place for her to do this work,” says Grant, who today is UW–Madison’s Hoefs-Bascom Professor of Teacher Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Carl Grant and Gloria Ladson-Billings
Carl Grant and Gloria Ladson-Billings pose for a photo in April
during the School of Education's annual American Educational
Research Association reception in New York.
When her talk was nearly over, Grant ran out of the room. And as Ladson-Billings was wrapping up with a Q&A, he was standing in the hall, gesturing to her. The two met a few moments later and Grant told Ladson-Billings she needed to come work at UW–Madison.

“I’m not going to Wisconsin,” Ladson-Billings replied.

Grant was able to persuade Ladson-Billings to take a campus visit and deliver a presentation as part of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research’s Minority Visiting Scholars Program. After a long day on the UW–Madison campus — meeting School of Education faculty members, dropping in on classes and giving presentations — Grant took Ladson-Billings to a dinner at then-chancellor Donna Shalala’s residence. Upon arrival, Shalala asked Ladson-Billings: “What do we have to do to get you here?”

“I was caught so off guard,” says Ladson-Billings. “I said, awkwardly, ‘I already have a job.’ And she said, ‘That’s not the question I asked you.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my god, who is this little lady.’”

The recruiting pitch intensified from there and Ladson-Billings ultimately arrived at UW–Madison in the fall of 1991 as an assistant professor specializing in social studies and multicultural education. She kept telling herself she didn’t have to stay in Madison long if she didn’t like it.

Shortly after her arrival, in 1994, her groundbreaking book, “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children,” was released. It is here that Ladson-Billings expands on and advocates for “culturally relevant teaching” in a work that represents a new paradigm regarding ways to reduce academic disparity between mainstream and minority students. “The Dreamkeepers” was updated with a second edition in 2009 and continues to be used in teacher education programs around the country.

As Ladson-Billings describes her work, culturally relevant pedagogy is premised on three pillars: a laser-like focus on student learning; an attempt to develop cultural competence in all students; and sociopolitical consciousness.

Carl Grant Quote“What I mean by developing cultural competence is that we must help kids understand assets that are part of their own culture, while simultaneously helping them become fluent in at least one more culture,” she says. “So it would mean youngsters of color have to learn the mainstream culture, but at the same moment youngsters in the mainstream need to learn some other cultures.”

Socio-political consciousness, notes Ladson-Billings, means that when a child asks, “Why do we have to learn this?” — a culturally relevant teacher has a thoughtful answer for why a topic is important.

During her time at UW–Madison, Ladson-Billings authored or edited 12 books, published 49 journal articles and 65 book chapters.

“Professor Ladson-Billings is among the world’s most impactful and significant anthropologists of education,” says William Tate, the dean and vice provost of graduate education at Washington University in St. Louis. “For three decades, Gloria has been a productive scholar and thought leader whose conceptual and empirical approaches to the study of teaching and structural inequality offered insight into the mechanisms associated with sound teaching practice with students of color.”

During her years on campus, Ladson-Billings became the first black woman to become a tenured professor in the School of Education in 1995, and she developed two key graduate-level courses that have been consistently over-subscribed: Curriculum and Instruction 744: Multicultural Perspectives on Education; and C&I 844: Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.

Gloria Ladson-Billings at AERA 2018
Gloria Ladson-Billings delivers a few remarks in
April at the School of Education's AERA reception
in New York.
She received the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education post in 2004, was president of AERA for 2005-06 and chaired the nation’s No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction at UW–Madison from 2008-11. Indeed, she is a key reason that department has held the No. 1 ranking every year since 2001.

All the while, she has helped the local Madison Metropolitan School District with various projects while consistently traveling the country, and even the world, speaking to captive audiences about her vital work in applying critical race theory to the field of education.

Combined, her many efforts have led to new models for examining ways to reduce academic disparity between mainstream and minority students. Research linked to culturally relevant pedagogy has been used by scholars across the globe as a framework for their own work.

“Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings is a creative and committed scholar whose work over a lifetime has had an enormous impact on improving the lives of young people, teachers, and community members,” says School of Education Dean Diana Hess. “Her willingness and ability to simultaneously lead national organizations with verve and grace, make tremendous contributions in her faculty role as a teacher, scholar, and campus citizen, and serve the community in myriad ways is impressive and unusual. The School of Education and UW–Madison are better places because of her work.”

For decades now, this work has been noticed by the best-of-the-best. Heavyweights like Harvard and Vanderbilt tried to lure her away from UW–Madison for faculty positions, while Stanford and Michigan State considered her for dean posts. Ladson-Billings earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University in curriculum and teacher education.

“I never went out job hunting but got offers and calls,” says Ladson-Billings. “Every once in awhile, if I’m down, I’ll pull out the letters Harvard was sending me and think, ‘They liked me. They really liked me!’ ” Ladson-Billings says with a laugh.

She adds: “Those places are, perhaps, more sexy or glamorous than UW–Madison. But one of the reasons I stayed for all these years is I was able to do great work here. We do a really good job at UW–Madison of striking a balance between research and impacting practice. There is something about this place that really worked for me.”

'Your legacy can't just be you'

Ask Ladson-Billings about the highlights — or about what she is most proud of during her many years at UW–Madison — and the Philadelphia native and former Philadelphia public school teacher and administrator centers her responses around her students.

At the end of 2017, she had been a doctoral advisor for 45 Ph.D. students, including 17 African American women. She is continuing to supervise eight more doctoral students through 2018. Over the years, there have been significantly more master’s and undergraduate students who have mentored under her.

“There are lots of great scholars out there,” says Ladson-Billings. “But who are your students? Your legacy can’t just be you.”

Yet Ladson-Billings isn’t looking to create clones who follow her every move.

Gloria Ladson-Billings
Gloria Ladson-Billings
“She’d say, ‘I’m not trying to create a mini me,’” says Kevin Henry, who earned his Ph.D. from UW–Madison in 2016 and today is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. “She gave us the vocabulary and the methods so we can examine issues on our own related to power and marginalized groups and equity in education. There is so much work that can be done in this realm and she wants us to have our own voices and identities.”

“One of the reasons she is a rock star is the way she fosters the opportunity for scholars to grow into the person they want to be,” adds Shameka Powell, an assistant professor at Tufts University who earned her Ph.D. at UW–Madison in 2015. “She is not in the process of replicating herself through her students.”

While these talented scholars will help push Ladson-Billings’ work forward for decades to come, her own work as president of the National Academy of Education is only just beginning.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to be called upon to lead what is the premier assemblage of education scholars in the world,” says Ladson-Billings. “There are no shortages of challenges across the United States and around our world. I’m excited about finding ways to bring insights from education research and practice to bear on different domains.”

In particular, Ladson-Billings says she’d like to build a closer, more collaborative relationship with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Grant, for one, is confident Ladson-Billings will shine in this new leadership role, much as she has done her entire academic career.

“Gloria will be highly successful at the National Academy of Education because she is super smart and a visionary,” says Grant. “She understands exceptionally well current problems in education and their historical lineage and intersections with political, social and civic issues, and institutions.”

Adds Vivian Gadsden, a former president of AERA (2016-17) and the William T. Carter Professor of Child Development and Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education: “There are those who inspire, there are those who motivate us to do better and there are those who provide us with the intellectual girth to think in big terms. Gloria is a combination of these different identities, enhancing knowledge and theory and shaping the field.”

Gloria Ladson-Billings pull quote
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