Q&A with Gloria Ladson-Billings

Q&A with Gloria Ladson-Billings, Curriculum & Instruction:

Professor’s urban education work has both local and global reach

Gloria Ladson-Billings is UW–Madison’s Kellner Family Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. She is an award-winning scholar and former president of the American Educational Research Association whose work centers on examining the practices of teachers who are successful with struggling students.

Ladson-Billings is perhaps best known for her book, “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children,” which was first published in 1994 and continues to be used in teacher education programs around the country. In that work she advocated for what she calls “culturally relevant teaching.”

Photo and quote from Gloria Ladson-BillingsAlthough her research and publications over the years have made her a rock star in many education circles, this Philadelphia native and former Philadelphia public schools teacher and administrator is much more than a theorist. In fact, she remains committed to getting off the UW–Madison campus and personally making a difference in the lives of students, teachers and educators both locally and across the globe.

“One of the reasons I have stayed at UW– Madison for 22 years is we try to strike a balance between research, or discovering knowledge, and impacting practices,” says Ladson-Billings. “You’d be surprised at how many of our counterparts don’t have their top researchers engaged in schools.”

The range of ways in which Ladson-Billings conducts outreach efforts to help change the ways in which people think about education is truly remarkable.

In the past six months alone, a sampling of those efforts included:

• Being part of a transition team that helped new Madison Schools Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham diagnose the state of the district;

• Working as a faculty leader for the eighth annual Hip-Hop in the Heartland Educator and Com­munity Leader Training Institute. Held on campus, this event equipped attendees with a better understanding of how to apply the learning principles behind traditional spoken word and hip-hop;

• Spending a week at the University of Minnesota, Morris as that institution’s 2013 Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Liberal Arts, where she dropped in on local K–12 schools in western Minnesota and provided lectures, workshops and discussions to Morris students;

• Delivering the keynote speech at the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) 2013 National Conference in Milwaukee;

• Headlining the fourth annual Teaching with a Purpose Conference in Portland, Ore., which this fall directed its attention at a “call to culturally responsive teaching;”

• And traveling to Beijing, China, to give a keynote talk at the annual International Alliance for Leading Education Institutions Conference, which this fall focused on “access policy of higher education.”

Ladson-Billings sat down with Learning Connections to talk about her work and the role academics can play in impacting practices in the classroom. Following is an edited transcript:

Gloria Ladson-Billings speaks at the University of Minnesota, MorrisLearning Connections: You are considered a national leader in scholarship concerning African American children. Is that the main focus of your work?

Gloria Ladson-Billings: Yes. But it would be a mistake to look at it as work that is only trying to help black kids. It really is to help kids, period. It turns out I’ve decided to look at the kids who are struggling the most. But anything I learn as a result of looking at those teachers that are successful with black children is likely to help any teacher in any classroom.

When I travel internationally, people never ask the question, “Oh, why are you focused on black children?” They just go, “What from your work will help us in our context?”

LC: You are credited with the concept of “culturally relevant pedagogy.” Why is this important and what does that mean?

GLB: Culturally relevant pedagogy is premised on three things. One, a laser-like focus on student learning. Two, an attempt to develop in all students cultural competence. What I mean by that is you help kids understand assets that are part of their own culture, while simultaneously helping them become fluent in at least one more culture. 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. Youngsters of color also need to value the culture they have. And the third piece is what I call socio-political consciousness. Kids say, “Why do we have to learn this?” And what I’m saying is a culturally relevant teacher has thought about this and has answers for why a subject or topic is important.

LC: I have heard you are not a fan of the commonly used term, “achievement gap.” Why is that?

GLB: There are health disparities in our society. Employment disparities. Wealth disparities, and on and on. So to isolate achievement, as if everything else is a constant, is disingenuous.

So I have tried to reframe the debate around the education debt. Listen to talk radio or read the newspaper, and everyone is talking about, “We’ve got to do something about the (national) debt.” People feel some responsibility when we talk about debt, and I’m trying to get people thinking about achievement debt. A gap makes it seem like you need to catch up. The debt, for me, helps to evoke some shared responsibility.

LC: This topic, whether we call it the achievement gap or education debt, has been garnering local and national headlines for years, if not decades. Is there any progress being made?

GLB: This is not new stuff. I think when it comes to educational reform we, as Americans, have a short attention span. We are great thinkers and innovators. We have great ideas all the time, but we are poor implementers. Right now everyone is trying different things — let’s do charter schools, let’s do vouchers, let’s go get teachers from Teach for America, let’s make teacher ed students stay in school even longer. It’s like, we’re doing everything and nothing at the same time, and that’s my frustration. We need to focus.

LC: If there is one thing you wish every teacher or member of a community knew about this achievement gap, or deficit, what would that be?

GLB: That despite what it looks like, students show up with incredible strengths and assets. Kids are capable of much more than we think, and right now our expectations are being set way too low.

LC: What role can, or should, academics play in making sure our schools change for the better?

GLB: I’m going to make a distinction between academics and education academics. Our colleagues across campus have a mission as far as schools to discover new knowledge. While we have that same mandate, we have a second mandate, and that is to impact practice.

We need to meet those twin goals, and that’s something I think we do very well here.

LC: As you have established your reputation, are you any more likely to make your voice heard than you were, say, five or 10 or more years ago?

GLB: Fifteen or 16 years ago, as I was approaching 50 years old, I told my husband, “You know, when I turn 50, I’m really going to say what’s on my mind.” And he looked at me and said, “You’ve been holding back?”

I guess I’ve pretty much always said what’s on my mind.

LC: Any thoughts of retiring?

GLB: You know, I really feel energized by this new generation of students. We’re seeing teachers find ways to use hip-hop as a teaching tool to engage students. People are thinking about schools differently and thinking about learning differently and using new technologies. It’s all very energizing.

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