Gloria Ladson-Billings

Conversations with Distinguished Educator, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, PhD, Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education, University of Wisconsin at Madison. Author:The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children 

This is a transcript of the complete interview, November, 2009. 

 

Gloria Ladson-Billings is the Keller Family Chair in Urban Education, and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin. She is the former president of the American Educational Research Association, and was elected to the National Academy of Education. She has spent more than a decade teaching and consulting in the Philadelphia Public School system. Dr. Ladson-Billings is the author of the acclaimed book The Dreamkeepers that weaves research and storytelling to describe the multiple and complex ways teachers engage in the achievement of African American students. Her research encompasses academic achievement, cultural competence and socio-political consciousness. Welcome Dr. Ladson-Billings. 

Gloria Ladson-Billings is the Keller Family Chair in Urban Education, and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin. She is the former president of the American Educational Research Association, and was elected to the National Academy of Education. She has spent more than a decade teaching and consulting in the Philadelphia Public School system. Dr. Ladson-Billings is the author of the acclaimed book The Dreamkeepers that weaves research and storytelling to describe the multiple and complex ways teachers engage in the achievement of African American students. Her research encompasses academic achievement, cultural competence and socio-political consciousness. Welcome Dr. Ladson-Billings. 

Dr. GLORIA LADSON-BILLINGS: Well, thank you. 

BELANS: We are really grateful for you being a part of our ongoing conversation on culturally- relevant teaching. This is actually a term you have helped seep into the KIPP culture, as well as others, and into our consciousness. This conversation flows beautifully from our previous interview with Dr. Martin Haberman who is ardent about teaching our kids: what he calls a matter of life and death. He talks about the importance of getting the right teachers in the classroom and the need to continuously be asking what else I can do to make sure our kids are learning at the highest level. We pick up with you and go deeper. 
You make your case in The Dreamkeepers through the stories of teachers. I want to begin with the story of a fifth grade student as a way of introducing this. While Barack Obama was running for president, I visited KIPP Polaris Middle School, which is located in Houston. This is our only all boys school. The school is located in the strip mall in one of the most challenging parts of Houston, in fact, across Texas. Marquise, a fifth grader, takes me on a tour. This is a wonderful hallmark of a KIPP school. It begins with Fredrick Douglass, whose enormous mural, painted by a neighborhood artist, greets you as you enter the front door. Marquise is animated as he tells the story of Fredrick Douglass. About fifteen minutes later, we enter a classroom. I notice across the room there is a photograph of Barack Obama. I ask Marquise what Mr. Douglass would think of Barack Obama. Without skipping a beat, his eyes wide and his scrawny little body lit up, he exclaims, “Oh, Mr. Douglass, he would be speakless!” I thought: what a sophisticated little boy to make that connection. Then I thought: what a beautiful example of the impact of cultural relevancy. Here is what I wonder Dr. Ladson-Billings: how do we keep Marquise in school?

 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: Well, everybody knows and I think all of the literature and cognition tells us in learning that success breeds success. It is not to say that we don’t make school challenging. It basically says that when people start to encounter failure, the one thing they want to do is avoid it. One of the ways to avoid failure is to not engage at all. My concern for the children like Marquise is that they don’t start to encounter failure at a level that is unbearable to them, and they decide this is not worth it. 
A big part of the success that will have to happen for that case is that we have to do what I call Show Up. I did a piece some years ago after a three-year research project with a colleague. We were looking at early literacy. I called the piece Just Showing Up. I took that line from a line of Woody Allen when he was asked how do you explain all of this directorial and success. He said, “Just showing up.” His argument was that some things don’t happen because we just don’t even show up. 
My concern as I go in and out of schools is that there are children for whom teachers, parents, counselors, and social service workers are just not showing up. It is not that they are mean to the kids. It is not that these kids aredisruptive. They just don’t show up for them. 
We asked them to revise the research protocols that basically have teachers on the front end identify those kids about whose literacy they were most worried, and we made them show up for kids because we constantly asked questions just about those kids. So every session, Marquise would be in that conversation. “So tell me what is going on with Marquise?” Teachers knew there was no avoiding it, because that question was going to come up. Then they realized they had not spent enough time with Marquise to be able to give a coherent response. 
The biggest thing that may be happening with our kids is not bad teaching, but no teaching. Our kids are under-taught. 

BELANS: So Marquise is already on a good road. He is excited to be in school. He was enlivened by the experience. He made these great connections between his story about Frederick Douglass and what he might say about Barack Obama. People are showing up now, and he is in a school where people are showing up. He will stay in a school where people show up. But something happens to our young African American boys and we are losing them in schools at a much higher rate. I am wondering if there is something we are missing. What is your research showing? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: Clearly the teachers in our research have not only shown up for them on a daily basis, but they have been clear about the kids’ goals for themselves and their parents’ goals. They have not tried to treat the children as if they have become rescue projects. Instead, they have engaged with the community and made sure the kids have enough community support. But it is not just the teachers.

We are so under-utilizing what is available in the community because we have presumed there is nothing there and that is not the case. Research tells us that 85% of kids who attend church are prone to finish high school. We know this. But we have really narrow constrictions of what kind of engagements we can have, so we look at separation of churches and feel we could never go over to that church. But that would be exactly the place to be – to talk to church leaders, to talk to those community leaders and see what it is that the school can do in partnership with that church. 
People talk about someone struggling because they are from a single-parent household. That is not necessarily true. That is not the issue. In this current society, two people can’t really raise a kid well. It is going to take a lot of people. I know we had that trite expression that it takes a village. The difference between middle class kids and working class kids is typically the amount of adults that are around them. In school, the adults that surround them are the teachers from eight to three or eight to five. That is not enough adults. The children in my neighborhood head off to soccer where a bunch of adults work with them there. Or they leave school and take a dance class, or they leave school and take a music class. They have fewer and fewer opportunities to be left to their own devices. There is always some adult that is surrounding them. 
One of the things that we are missing is the intergenerational support. Now we have a lot of grandparents who actually have to be parents. That is the worse thing you want to be. You want to be a grandparent. I could tell you that a grandparent is the best gig I have ever had. I get to be cool grandma. I get to fill them up with candy they are not supposed to have. I get to bring all of these wonderful books, and play. But again, that is another adult. In the midst of those interactions, I hear things. When I heard that my third grader had a teacher who said she was spoiled and that her parents did too much for her, I could intervene. 
Having all those adults is the biggest difference. How do we make sure that we keep enough adults around Marquise so that peer pressure, which comes to all children regardless of race and ethnicity, will have less influence than that of trusted adults? 

BELANS: You say in your writing that the primary aim of culturally relevant teaching is to assist in the development of a relevant black personality that allows African American student to choose academic excellence, yet still identify with African and African American culture. I am wondering how we balance helping our kids know what the dominant culture is and yet at the same time maintain their own cultural identity and pride? Should we teach our kids to code switch? 

 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: Why not? Learning more language is better than learning less. What it takes is an appreciation on the part of that teacher that what the kid is bringing is of value. If you think he has that terrible street language, if that is your perception, you are going to try squash that out. But if you know enough about the development of Black language, and the fact that the very structure that the kids are using is the same structure that comes out of any number of West African languages and shows up again across the sea islands. I am not talking about vocabulary because vocabulary changes. New culture creates vocabulary. But the structure of the language has remained the same. The kids understand you actually do have a language. You don’t have a corruption and it is not slang. Every linguist will tell you this.
 

BELANS: In a teachable moment where a child is using the historic, cultural structure, what happens at that moment when that comes up? What should a teacher in that moment say and do? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: I have perfect examples from my research when a teacher might say, and because she was also a Black English vernacular speaker she could say, “We”, but you could certainly say – you might say, “My mama, she be here at 8 o’clock.” Here is a translation;” not here is a correction, but here is a translation to a standard form. Not the standard form. Each of those words is carefully selected. So she has what the kid said on one side and the translation on the other. They really look at it. So what we are going to say is what words are different. You will actually have the conversation about the language. In this classroom the kids would often ask, when they had an assignment: “Is this standard form?” The teacher might say: “it is your journal and you can write it anyway you want.” Or they might say: ”it needs to be in a standard form because we are sending this as a letter to someone who speaks a different language.” 

BELANS: What if I am not of the culture? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: Then you have some work to do, don’t you? 

BELANS: I have some work to do. That is the experience of many of our KIPP teachers and leaders who feed in from TFA. What is the work we have to do? How should I be thinking? What do we need to do? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: The first thinking we have done is going to be the most difficult. That is, you have to learn about your own culture. Ninety percent of the students that I teach are white and they don’t know anything about their own culture. What makes that unfortunate is it means that they presume that what they have is something universal and “normal.” They don’t believe that what they have is actually local and it is specific to them, but it is itself a culture. That cultural exploration, figuring out why I do what I do, how I came to do it, is revelatory. 
I often do this exercise with teachers in which I talk about taking all the white individuals to dinner. We are all going to go out and have a big steak dinner. We will get the vegetarians some baked tofu slab steak. We are all going to have something that we are going to have to cut. I talk abut sitting down with the fork and knife and say you get your steak and have it cooked to perfection for you. Whether you like it rare to the point where it is moving or done to the point that you can stick dollars in it because it is like a wallet. However you like it, you are going to get it. You are going to typically pick up your fork on the left with your left hand, even though you are right handed. You are probably going to stab this piece of meat, then pick up the knife on the right side, and cut across that meat to get a bite-sized piece. I often will stop and ask: “Did I say anything strange? Have I said anything that no one recognizes?” Everybody is with me.

So now you are cutting it. Now it is cut. Now stop that picture in your mind right there. What do you do next? There are, of course, nine or ten people who say: “I switch hands. You will do that little hand jive through the rest of the meal, even though you have already cut the bite-sized piece. Your left hand had access and you could go directly from the plate to your mouth. Why do you keep switching? What is this extra movement about?” 
They will say that this is what my mom taught me, or it is etiquette, until we finally get to a place where it is a cultural thing. That is how invisible your culture is to you. It never occurred to you that the way you are eating is culture. If you had gone to Europe, people are not eating like this. Why do we do it? Because it has something to do with the old country we are in. One of the ways that you marked yourself as an American was to do this little switch hand thing. 
If you just think that is normal behavior, that there is no culture component to it, it is hard for you to see what is delimiting you and determining how you make decisions. That very first piece of work is what I would call that kind of culture exploration. 

BELANS: So a School Leader could, at the very beginning of the year, design a PD around ways for us to get to know our own culture. That may be a way to approach cultural relevance so that we understand. Is that something you would prescribe? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: It is certainly an activity I would want teachers to engage in. Even though they are all probably coming from verified schools, there is probably a degree of regionalism. I give the example of when I went to undergraduate school, I chose a Historically Black College. I had been integrated in junior high and high school, and I really wanted to go to a Black school. For Thanksgiving, I went home with my roommate, which was a taboo. I had already broken a norm in my family by not coming home for Thanksgiving, but I was going to be sophisticated and go. 
I talked about how at this Black woman’s house that they had a Thanksgiving meal that was exactly what I had experienced for the eighteen Thanksgivings before: roast turkey, cornbread dressing, baked macaroni and cheese and candied yams. All the stuff they have on TV, we would have that. Mashed potatoes were Monday through Friday and now for Thanksgiving. 
We go through all of these things, but they had a dish of sauerkraut on the table. I said to my roommate, “What is that?” I knew what it was, but I said, “What is that?” She said, “It is sauerkraut.” I said, “What is it doing on the table?” She said, “We often have sauerkraut.” I said, “No you don’t.” We went back and forth over this. It is apparently a Maryland thing. We were two Black girls growing up in east coast cities, it was something regional. That little bowlof sauerkraut worried me so bad  that by the time I got to the dorm and called home and let my folks know I had gone to Thanksgiving dinner and was back and everything was fine, the first thing out of my mouth was “Mom, guess what those people had?”

 

BELANS: Part of what you are talking about is how easy it is to judge others when we are teaching and getting into judgment. I am curious about something. I find this a radical notion what you have written about: that teachers are not there to get students to feel good about themselves. 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: I think that is linked to some notion of sympathy. Sympathy is not that productive in terms of helping people learn. For me sympathy is saying something like: “I am really, really sorry for what has happened to you.” The unspoken part of that is, and I am really glad that it is not happening to me. I have been to a funeral and you say to a person, “Oh, I am so sorry.” But in the unsaid, it is and I am really glad it is not me. What I am trying to get teachers to cultivate is empathy, informed empathy that says I know what it feels like to be in this very same situation. 
Feeling sorry for kids gets you to a place where you forget that your primary obligation is to foster student learning. That is what you are getting paid for. There is nothing in a job description and any teaching job that I have ever seen that says lets get the kids feel good about themselves. Number one: most kids actually do feel good about themselves because the so called low self esteem that we keep talking about is situational. If you follow kids and actually show up at church with them, if you see them at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club, they feel pretty good. The question becomes: why do they feel so bad around you? 
That is another kind of question. It is like I feel pretty good about myself everyday, but if I had to go over there to the Nuclear Physics Department; I would probably feel pretty bad. I want teachers to stop saying that people have low self-esteem, because there are not that many teachers that have PhD’s in Psychology. How are you diagnosing this? What are your qualifications for saying this? Let’s leave that language outside of the classroom and instead let’s talk about what is my responsibility as a teacher to insure that this classroom is learning. That is the number one responsibility you have. 
I think what is starting to happen is people start beginning to think my responsibility is to make somebody feel good. You can do things to make people feel good, but it doesn’t mean it is good for them. 

BELANS: You also say that cooperative learning is prized in schools of education and in schools themselves, but you argue that it may not be culturally relevant. Could you talk about that? 

 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: What I was trying to talk about is the fact that we have laid aside certain forms ofpedagogy. We don’t ask ourselves if it is working in this circumstance. We really end up prizing the method over the results. Again, I will give you a very simple example. I know that aspirin reduces a fever. If my kid has a fever, yes I will give my kid an aspirin. If the fever doesn’t come down and I call the pediatrician and the pediatrician says to give more aspirin, I may say I will give more aspirin. But if the fever is still elevated, I am not going to keep giving aspirin. At some point I say I know aspirin works 99% of the time, but this .01% it is not working and I am not going to let my kid die over this. That is the way I feel about people’s dogged determination over one particular strategy. I want people to stop committing to the method and start committing to the kids.

The teacher I am looking for says: “I have a whole big bag of tricks here, and I really like this strategy and if it doesn’t work for this kid, I am willing to do something else.” I personally love cooperative learning. A colleague and I, Joyce King, used to do workshops. The very first day we would put these teachers in groups. They had some group project they had to produce by the end of the week long workshop. I will never forget a women coming up to me and saying: “I am really rethinking this cooperative learning because I have two guys in my group who are doing nothing but reading the newspaper.” And I said: “But you would not have known people were getting paid like this unless we put you in groups like this.” She said: “I am always putting my kids in groups and it never occurred to me how frustrating it is when people don’t do their part.” 

BELANS: You also talk about in group cooperative learning that the children who are more vocal will get paid attention to and others will recede. That may be another reason not to do that. 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: This is coming from a person who is, in my mind, the real dean of cooperative learning, Elizabeth Cohen. Liz has done a lot of research to show that because kids come to classrooms with “status characteristics” – their race, their gender, their social class, their language, their mode of origin -- those status characteristics force others to presume some certain things about them. She was able to demonstrate that in a cooperative group it is very easy for the dominate members to start ignoring the contributions of the subordinategroup member. After you have been ignored two or three times, you don’t participate anymore. It is like why am I knocking my head against the wall, they are not going to take my suggestion anyway. 
She gave this wonderful example of how in the sixties we had the women’s consciousness raising groups and people were coming up with workshops for women like how to fix your car. The problem with those groups is you have a room full of women who already know women are competent. But what happens when one of those women gets out on the road and her car breaks down, before she can get the hood up good, a man comes by and says move out of the way and let me look at this. So this failure to see the competence on display in a group, in which someone has always been dominant, doesn’t even allow you to exemplify. 
There are often times when people assume that you can’t do the role. I have had that happen where I have sat by myself and people totally ignored me. Then it turns out that when they give the bio and I get up, and then they go “Oh.” I probably have thick enough skin that it tickles me. But I am not six. I am not someone who came to school and for five years my grandmamma, my auntie and everybody told me how special I was. When I show up at school, my teachers say that I am this. What happened? I don’t want to be that. That kind of construction of who thesechildren are has terrible implications.

 

BELANS: You have mentioned language a couple of times now. Thought and language so intertwine, I am wondering, are there other phrases that you hear happening a lot in urban schools that just set your teeth on edge. 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: I gave you low self-esteem. I hear it all the time; you know our children have such low self-esteem. Based on what? There is no evidence, but the kids begin to carry these labels and they live down to those expectations. If you go back and look at the early work that Marva Collins was doing, I am not saying that everything she did was perfect. What struck me was how Marva Collins talked up the kids. Everybody was a genius. Everybody was brilliant. Everybody was smart. She just constantly said this over and over. When they went back over 13 and 14 years to interview these young adults, they would say that after you hear someone tell you every single day of your life you are brilliant, you start to believe that. 

BELANS: What if you are not acting brilliant? What if you are slumping in your seat? What if you are not participating? What if you are not turning in your homework? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: You still have the same language. You are a brilliant person, though you are not demonstrating it. I know you are smart, but you are not showing me that. But you don’t say you are an idiot or you are a moron or at risk. I have heard people say things to kids that you just can’t believe someone would say. Those words have powerful impact on how kids see themselves and what they believe their capabilities are. 
My favorite thing happens in The Gamekeeper study and I don’t think I put it in the book. The principal, in her wisdom, decided to put all of the highest test performers in one classroom and call that the Gifted and Talented Classroom. The classroom was listed with the teacher’s name and under the teacher’s name the acronym GATE. The teacher I was working with was across the hall from her and one of the kids said those kids are GATE. What does that mean? She just rattled off the acronym GATE, Gifted and Talented Education. The kid said: “Well it says GATE,what are we?” Without missing a beat, she got out a pen and tagged Mrs. Bellow, Fourth Grade, better than GATE. That is what she put out there. She said I don’t care what they are, this is what we are. 
This constantly reminding our kids that they are a part of something bigger, that their capabilities are not limited by their skin color or by their first language or by their socioeconomic level is what it takes. I grew up in a kind of community like that. Everyone in my elementary school was African American except for one family. That one white family was the poorest family I had ever seen. None of us wanted to be them. But we had a group of teachers who were constantly telling us you can do this and I don’t want to hear any excuses. You are able to do this.

 

BELANS: So I am wondering when we talk about able to do and getting ready to do, and getting kids in a learning mind, if that hasn’t been the experience they have been having in school, and now they are in a situation at KIPP where we are all about everybody can learn, and yes we are here to be in a learning mind, and you are all smart. This is all the things you are talking about. I am wondering about one of the things that I think about a lot, which is in creating the KIPP culture, you can almost always tell you are in a KIPP School. Kids are sitting up straight, tracking on the speaker. When they travel from classroom to classroom, they are in single-file lines: Everywhere from complete silence to maybe they are allowed to whisper, but in single-file to the next classroom. There are very big strict kinds of rules about how we behave. I am wondering where the line is drawn between teaching kids to get into the learning mind and behavior and oppression. 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: I am a little concerned that they would equate regimentation and control for learning. Because that is not what I see when I go to middle class schools. My kids have had the pleasure of going to middle class schools and they were permitted to be children. They were permitted to be eight years old. And eight year olds are squirrelly, they just are. 
It bothered me that on the one hand we supposedly know all of this stuff about childhood and adolescent development and yet we won’t permit it. I will raise the question of where is the fear of things getting out of control coming from. 

I taught kids in South Philadelphia. Pick a worse place. I took those kids on the public bus. 

 

BELANS: How did you prepare them? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: I said here is what people are going to expect you to do. They are going to think these kids are going to be so out of control. But we are going to fool those people. We will show them that is not how we behave. We have this ongoing conversation. 

BELANS: What if a white person says that to a classroom of children of color? Here is what people are going to expect of you. How does that land? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: The woman that I called Ann Lewis that is exactly what she did. But Ann spent so much time in the community. She was a known quantity. I don’t think it is possible that you can just float into a community and think you are doing some kind of missionary work and expect to get those results. 
I have been watching a young man in the San Francisco Bay Area who has a private school. One of the requirements for attending this school is that you must live in this particular neighborhood. There is nobody in a private school that lives in that kind of neighborhood. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods. What you see in this school is a deep respect for the intellectual capabilities of these young people. The mantra is that we are preparing you to go to college.

This guy in ten years has not lost one kid. He has a 100% high school graduating rate and a 100% college going rate. He has done so well that now generally his commencement speakers are former grads who themselves have finished college. They go to places like Columbia and Yale and Stanford and Berkeley. 

BELANS: Because he is doing what?

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: The curriculum is like that of a prep school.

BELANS: How does he get the mindset for that? What is he saying? What is he doing? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: He is saying it is a no tolerance place. Basically you have two curriculum choices, college prep and college prep advanced. The only thing we are focused on is getting you to college. That is all we are focused on. You get out of here and you get to college. 
They also know there is a deep dedication on his part. He has moved into the neighborhood. He actually lives on the school grounds. He has a house on the grounds. I said to him: “Do you actually have to live here?” He said, “I can’t go live up on the hill and pretend like who gets on the City Council, or that what the commissioner does in this community doesn’t impact me. Then I have got that level of investment and people actually believe that I mean well and that I am sincere. “ 

BELANS: I am wondering as you are talking about the kinds of things we have to do in schools, the kinds of ways we have to be in the community, the kinds of mindsets we have to have as teachers, the kinds of thinking that drive language that drive action. What are the one or two biggest mistakes we make when we teach in urban schools? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: It seems to me that people come to urban schools without a vision of possibility. I am not saying they are not idealistic. I think people do come in and think I can have excellence in here. I am not certain they really have the vision that we walk in there and you actually see the next Martin Luther King. That you see actually see Barack Obama in that room. That you actually see a physician that is going to be a skilled surgeon. 
I think when people go into middle class schools, they see that. They go: that is Dr. so and so’s son, and I know he is going to be a doctor. That is Professor so and so’s daughter, and I know she is going to do . . . But I think they go into urban schools and think my God, these poor pitiful kids. Isn’t this sad. If you are starting there to begin with, it is like the kid’s whole humanity is diminished in the midst. The second thing that happens in that setting is that to protect oneself, you don’t have teachers who reveal much of their own humanity. There is a person there but there isn’t much depth. So when the kids don’t feel any obligation to treat that person humanely, it doesn’t seem like a real human being. So they then act up and don’t treat the person humanely. The natural response on the part of the teacher is to not be very humane towards the kids and think of the kids as less than humane.

Now you have a situation where the teachers are thinking: I am dealing with these savages and the kids feel like I don’t have any obligation to treat this person like a human being because they are not really human beings. That bad dynamic just keeps going until we understand that we are dealing with human beings and they have a full range of emotions and feelings, and that we know so little. 
Trust me; I don’t care about all these people saying this is brain-based with them. No such thing. I am telling you this from a neurosurgeon. I sat with a neurosurgeon who said: “I don’t know why teachers are so gullible about this stuff. The fact is we don’t know very much about the brain at this point.” Since we don’t know very much, why not assume the best. Why not assume that there is an infinite capability in the brain and that everybody has one? 

BELANS: This goes back to something you said earlier, we have to get to know our own culture. We really have to do the hard work of our unexamined isms it seems. That is the hard, scary work. 
I am watching the time and I have a couple of questions I want to get to here. There are big mistakes we make. There are a couple of things we have to do. You talked about some of those. The other thing you talk about is Teach for America has all the right intentions, but the results aren’t producing better student performance. What’s going on there? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: There is an underlying notion that if we just want to do good, we could. And it doesn’t take a whole lot of work to be able to do that good. That underlying assumption is undermining the actual good intentions that the young people who go into Teach for America have. I am not attributing anything to the mission or level it on the part of the people who have gone into Teach for America. 
I have to go talk to a whole group of teachers tomorrow up in Appleton, brand new teachers. One of the things I am going to tell them is it doesn’t matter what they teach to you at the University of Wisconsin or Marquette or any of these other campuses in Wisconsin. When you leave us you will be a beginner and you can’t skip over that step. You will be a beginner just like a person coming out of law school. In any other profession, we would have sense enough not to give you the toughest assignment. We understand you are still learning a lot. 
One of the big problems with Teach for America, I think, is that it really doesn’t give people a chance to begin and make the mistakes that beginners make. It also doesn’t spend enough time helping people understand the cultural foundation of this thing we call education. Do we ever ask Teach for America people how is it that you happened to be successful in school? What are the assumptions that you have about what it takes to be a good student? When we look at Ivy League grads, 40% of them is a legacy. That data is real, 40% had parents who went to an Ivy League school. If you already have that makeup, how is that different from someone who doesn’t have any of that in place?

 

BELANS: We want to take people with really good intentions. We want them to get this vision of possibility. We want them to get the skills and tools. Then it is up to the School Leader and the Instructional Leaders to offer the kinds of things that bring them from good to great. How would they get it? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: The problem I have is that I am in very few schools in which the leadership is acting truly as Instruction Leader. I remind principals all the time that I don’t care how good your intentions are, I don’t care how skillful you are, you cannot teach 700 kids. I have never seen it happen. I have never seen the principal teach all the kids. Your audience, your responsibility is to the people who have to teach the kids. It is to the teachers. If I just ask principals each time I go in, tell me what you taught to your teachers last week, very few of them have a real answer for me. Just like I have a responsibility as someone who is teaching students to plan out and have a syllabus, have a strategy and make adjustments, principals and School Leaders have that same responsibility. I think too many of them are kind of going seat of the pants. I would say I want to make sure all of my teachers learn x. How many of the School Leaders know what the skill set is of the people they are leading? 
When I go in schools and I talk about parent involvement, parent participation and parent support I will get someone to say these parents don’t do such and such. You can’t get these parents to come up here. I usually ask the question: “Is there anybody here that has not had trouble getting parents to participate?” Every now and then I will get one or two people who say: “My parents come.” So what is it you know that the rest of the people in the school don’t know? Why haven’t we tapped you? 
I have not been in many schools where principals can accurately tell me here is my skill set. Here are my good time managements. Here are the people that can have you reading in a week. Here are the people that can get the parents. All of that should be a part of the skill and knowledge inventory of what every leader would have to have. I think people have hunches and explanations, but I don’t think they have very systematic plans for them. 

BELANS: We are going to be bringing this to a close in a couple of minutes and before I do I wanted to just tap into this piece you wrote for the Harvard Educational Review on education for everyday people, Obstacles and Opportunities Facing the Obama Administration. I want to go back to Frederick Douglass and use your critical relevancy theory. The critical relevancy theory is the idea of telling a story and projecting ahead. Being fanciful out there, out on a limb making up something just try out what it might look like. 
Using the critical relevancy theory I am wondering what you might imagine Frederick Douglass would say to President Obama.


Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: Actually it is critical race theory. I can imagine Frederick Douglas saying, you know, Mr. President, my house is right across the river in Anacostia and I can look from my front porch to Capitol Hill. I sat in that White House. I actually was one of the few African Americans to have the ear of the President. And yet it has taken these many years to get you to sit in this office. Don’t presume that there isn’t going to be some retreat. Don’t just have a steady march ahead. You seem to have progressed, but we can slide back. I would imagine that Frederick Douglass would tell him a cautionary tale about seizing this particular opportunity, because we may not see it again for awhile.
 

BELANS: Dr. Ladson-Billings, I want to thank you very much for joining us and being so generous with your time. We really appreciate you and I am going to invite you to stay on the line when everybody else gets off. But first we have a few minutes where Dick Streedain and Dick Best have a few comments, but thank you again so very much. Do you have one 15 second thing you can say to us that you are burning to say? 

Dr. LADSON-BILLINGS: I would just say that people, you are engaged in the most important work we have in a democracy. In some other social system it may not be as important. But in a democracy there is nothing more important than educating citizens. It is not having people pass tests, it is not having people make AYP, it is not having people all lined up and looking spiffy. It is about how we help to produce a literate engaged citizenry. That is really our job and I would ask them to not lose sight of that. It is the ultimate goal as a three-legged stool. Everybody knows what happens when you take a leg off a three-legged stool, you have nothing. You can’t even put anything on a stool if it is missing a leg. 
I talk about the student learning that is achievement and the cultural competence and the socio- political consciousness. We did not get to that. I think the path that people really flock down is the socio-political consciousness, in what I call so what factor, I have earned it and so what. People don’t understand that it is designed to help make life better. I could be independently wealthy. We still need to develop a socio-political consciousness. In a democratic society that is the piece that is missing from almost every body else’s approach. You hear the kid’s culture, but if the kids get all caught up with I am smart and I am cool, it becomes a sort of self advertisement. You have to have a larger purpose from which to pool the game of knowledge. That is the part that scares me that people don’t get. 


 

BELANS: Thank you so much, thank you Dr. Ladson-Billings.

We are grateful to Drs. Dick Streedain and Dick Best, co-directors of the KIPP/ NLU (National Louis University) Masters in Educational Leadership Program, for their vision for these conversations. The series is hosted by Linda Belans, EdD, founding Sr. Director of the KIPP Leadership Coaching Program. Director of Coaching for KIPP. A special shout out to 2009-10 Fisher Fellows Glenn Davis and Shannon Wheatley who serve as producers for the series. This is a transcription of the audio recording of the conversation on November 11, 2009 with Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings. 

 

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Please share this transcript with attribution: KIPP/NLU Masters in Educational Leadership program.
For more information: Please contact Linda Belans: linda.belans@gmail.com