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EDUCATION

The next civil rights fight: Scholar Gloria-Ladson Billings believes African American students deserve better

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Gloria Ladson-Billings travels the world, speaking and teaching about racial disparities in education. A professor in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her books -- including the bestseller The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children -- are considered part of the canon for teacher educators. Ivy League schools have tried to lure her away, but she has turned down offers from Harvard and Stanford, where she got her Ph.D.

Despite her high international profile, Ladson-Billings, also a vice chancellor of academic affairs, has mainly worked behind the scenes in local school matters. But that changed when she became an advocate and board member for Madison Prep, the Urban League of Greater Madison's proposal for a charter school designed to serve primarily African American and Latino students.

The contentious battle for Madison Prep provided a more public forum for Ladson-Billings to discuss disparities in the Madison schools, surprising some who didn't know there was a local expert on the topic with deep roots in the community.

She remains disappointed that the Madison school board in 2011 voted against the proposal.

"It was excruciating," she says. "Anybody who knows me knows that I have been a strong public-school advocate. And Madison Prep would have been a public charter. But what I learned is that the idea that communities of color would make their own decisions about their children's education is not permitted."

That stung, after a lifetime of scholarship dedicated to the idea that black students deserve better. "We said all along the point of the school is to feed any new ideas, any innovations, any breakthroughs back into Madison schools," Ladson-Billings says. "It's not to just be this little jewel over here on the side."

Although she says the Urban League has moved on, Ladson-Billings doesn't consider this fight to be over.

"I think it might look a lot different than that particular plan, but the opportunity is there, and I think we should revisit it. But I don't want to bang my head up against a brick wall."

Culturally relevant teaching

For the past 22 years, Ladson-Billings, 66, has made her home in Madison, a city plagued, like many urban areas, with significant educational disparities between white and nonwhite students. Last year's graduation rate for black students enrolled in the Madison schools was 53%, according to figures released by the Madison Metropolitan School District.

"If we have 'a good school system,' we must always ask: good for whom?" says Ladson-Billings. "We're not doing a great job serving all kids. If I'm white and middle class, I can get a fine education in Madison public schools. But it's not the same for black students."

Raised by a father with a third-grade education and a mother with a high school diploma in a working-class area of West Philadelphia, Ladson-Billings scrambled her way up the academic ladder, experiencing her share of racism and segregation along the way. She has never forgotten where she came from and who helped her get there -- and how she had to work harder than her peers to have her intelligence acknowledged.

Her scholarship is dedicated to the notion that educators need to get past thinking of black kids as having "deficits" and "disadvantages." She gave a groundbreaking presidential address at the 2006 American Educational Researchers Association conference, where she suggested reframing the idea of "achievement gap," which implies that students are lacking, to "education debt." That phrase focuses on society's responsibility to "pay down a mountain of debt that we have amassed at the expense of entire groups of people and their subsequent generations."

The mischaracterization of African American children, in particular, has galvanized Ladson-Billings to write about ways to educate and inspire them. Dedicated to discovering what kind of instruction works in diverse classrooms, she is credited with coining the phrase "culturally relevant teaching," an educational philosophy rooted in using students' home cultures to engage them.

Though immersed in these issues, Ladson-Billings was not immune to the problems facing black families in the local public schools. She has her own stories to tell of fighting for her daughter to get equal educational opportunities in Madison.

Knock-down drag-out

After raising three sons in California, Ladson-Billings moved to Madison while her daughter was in kindergarten. Her daughter spent 12 years in the Madison public schools and then attended UW-Madison.

When the teachers at Spring Harbor Elementary did not think Ladson-Billings' daughter belonged in advanced algebra, she sprang into action. "I have the scars from fighting," she says.

First she asked what test the district had used to determine her daughter's placement. She happened to know the UW professor who had designed the measurement. She drove down University Avenue to his office and asked him if the school was using it properly; he said they weren't. She marched back into the school and said they had it wrong. Then she organized a parents' meeting.

"All the black and Latino parents met at the old Sequoya library," she says. "Everybody had a horror story."

Ladson-Billings says their children had been discouraged from taking foreign language classes and were not getting advanced math classes. She sent a letter to the principal explaining that the parents felt their children needed more opportunities to excel at Spring Harbor. After a "knock-down drag-out" meeting, where every teacher showed up, she says things started to change.

"Sure enough, my daughter turns out to be the top student in the class," says Ladson-Billings. "So if I'm fighting like this, what's the mother on Allied Drive doing? What's the mother in Darbo-Worthington doing? Here I am, a mother with a Ph.D. in this field. People call me from around the world to talk about this stuff and I have to fight for my daughter's particular education that she's entitled to."

At Spring Harbor, the talented and gifted coordinator started meeting with all the black and Latino students and asking them not whether they wanted to be a part of the program, but which one they were interested in.

"Part of it is creating a school culture that says this is an expectation for every single student that walks through the door," says Ladson-Billings.

No whites in Philly

After returning from an autumn trip to Stockholm, Sweden, Ladson-Billings sat down with me for nearly two hours at Union South and never once checked the time. She's a consummate storyteller, drawing on stories from her own life and education to inform her educational philosophy.

"I always remain hopeful," she told me. "Part of it is looking over my own life. There's absolutely nothing in my life history that predicts me to be an endowed full professor at a major university."

Growing up in West Philadelphia, Ladson-Billings jokes that the city was so divided among ethnic enclaves that she "actually never met any white people. I met Irish people, Italians, Jews, Polish people. At that time none of those groups would have identified as 'white.'"

Ladson-Billings lived in a mixed ethnic neighborhood, but because all the white kids went to Catholic schools, the public elementary school had only one white family among almost 700 students. She was deeply influenced by her fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Benn, whom she writes about in The Dreamkeepers.

"Mrs. Benn looked like someone out of central casting for schoolmarms," says Ladson-Billings. "She looked severe. Had a part down the middle, granny glasses, flower dresses, cotton stockings. She just seemed mean." She was also black, like her students.

A minister's wife, Mrs. Benn formed a school choir that performed around Philadelphia. It was mandatory, says Ladson-Billings, whether you could sing or not. The teacher celebrated African American singers like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.

"That woman changed my life," says Ladson-Billings. "She would close the door. Tell us to put those social studies books away. She literally opened up the world of all these magnificent black scholars." She had "an absolute belief we could learn almost anything."

"She told glorious tales of exploration and invention," Ladson-Billings writes of Mrs. Benn in The Dreamkeepers. She was a great storyteller and, unlike any teacher I had ever known before, she made a point of telling us what 'the colored folks' contributed to this story."

Mrs. Benn introduced her class to W.E.B. Du Bois, the sociologist, historian and civil rights leader who also influenced Ladson-Billings; now she's writing a book about him.

'Some kids had more'

By middle school, Ladson-Billings' parents felt the neighborhood school was deteriorating. They enrolled her in an integrated school across town, and she needed to take a bus and trolley to get there.

"It was the first moment in which I realized that some kids had more," says Ladson-Billings. "Not just more, they had a lot more. And having a lot more meant they were seen as smart. Not because of what they knew, but they had things."

Her classmates had typewriters, for example, and lived in neighborhoods with trees. She failed a science project because she was supposed to collect deciduous leaves.

"Remember, I don't live in their neighborhood. I took the bus over there. In my neighborhood, the city in all its wisdom had taken down all the trees and replanted one type of tree. I could pick up leaves forever, but they would all say sycamore, sycamore, sycamore," she says.

That's one reason she's quite skeptical of any education reform based on standardized testing. "Are you testing what they know or what they have?" she asks.

Ladson-Billings graduated high school in 1965, near the top of her class. Against her parents' wishes, she chose to attend Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore. "That is the best decision I ever made," says Ladson-Billings, noting her adviser was Benjamin Quarles, a noted scholar on blacks in the colonial period. Surrounded by people who looked like her, and with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, Ladson-Billings thrived, graduating with a teaching certificate and degrees in history and education.

"I wanted to be a writer. I didn't want to be a teacher," she says. "But when you come from a middle-class family you cannot go home after you have spent these people's money and go upstairs and say 'I'm a writer now.' You have to go where there's a paycheck."

The N-word

Ladson-Billings earned those early paychecks teaching public school in South Philadelphia, a white, working-class ethnic area, much like South Boston. "My family said, we have to have a little prayer meeting because she's going 'down there,'" says Ladson-Billings.

The schools were under a court-mandated desegregation order. "It was not a very cordial environment I was going into."

She was one of three black teachers in the school. "I cannot tell you how many times I was called the N-word by parents," says Ladson-Billings. "I can't tell you how many kids were taken out of my classroom until the principal put a stop to it."

Something shifted for the young teacher when a student's father died. Ladson-Billings collected money from the students, wrote a sympathy card and decided to deliver it to the family's row house.

"I get to this house, my 21-year-old self, with a card. And the man is laid up in the house in a casket, in this little house," she recounts. "If you know anything about black people, we do not like to be around dead bodies. Here I am with these white people, a dead body, and they are telling stories about him, drinking Irish whiskey."

She decided to stay to show her respect. "The word spread through the community that I had honored and respected them," she says. "Things turned almost on a dime."

A place to flourish

After teaching in the public schools for 10 years, Ladson-Billings decided to pursue higher education. She got her M.A. at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Then she settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and earned her Ph.D. at Stanford. She taught at Santa Clara University and landed a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, which allowed her to research The Dreamkeepers.

After she gave a talk in New York, UW-Madison professor Carl Grant "bolted out of the room," as Ladson-Billings put it, to be the first to talk to her when she exited. "He said, 'You need to come to Madison,'" she says. "I didn't want to come to Madison. Who wants to leave California?"

Grant persisted, inviting Ladson-Billings to Madison for a presentation and dinner at former Chancellor Donna Shalala's home.

"I should have known I am not smart enough to deal with Donna Shalala," she recalls. "She said, 'What do we have to do to get you?' I said I already have a job. She said, 'That's not the question I asked you.'"

Grant says he couldn't be happier with that move.

"What I saw in Gloria was just terrific potential, someone I knew would be good for Wisconsin and Wisconsin would be good for her. I thought this academic culture and life would be a wonderful place where she could flourish. And she's done that."

More than two decades later, Ladson-Billings and Grant have helped make a name for the UW's department of curriculum and instruction, which consistently ranks number one on U.S. News & World Report's ranking of graduate schools. The two co-wrote the Dictionary of Multicultural Education, published in 1997. Grant says they work well together and also commiserate about football.

"She's originally from Philly and I'm from Chicago, and we are both here in Packer territory."

Grant says Ladson-Billings has an "excellent sense of humor" and is supportive of others. "She's a strong member of the Madison community and her church. She's always giving and always trying to figure out a way that she can give."

Civil rights progress

To see Ladson-Billings in action, I sat in on one of her Multicultural Perspectives in Education classes right after her trip to Stockholm. She started by passing out a bag of Swedish candy to her students, a multiracial and mostly female group of graduate students and Ph.D. candidates.

Students reported on field research they'd done on community organizations in Madison, discussing how the Urban League and the Boys and Girls Club serve young people of color.

Ladson-Billings talked about W.E.B. Du Bois, saying the founder of the NAACP and first African American to earn a Ph.D. "could never get a job at a mainstream university." Then the students listened to a scratchy recording, made nearly 45 years ago. The voice was that of a black veteran, beaten down by racism and poverty, talking about his early school experiences.

Later I asked Ladson-Billings why she chose to play that recording. "It's because of the similarity of the experience kids are having right now with what was happening 45 years ago with that man -- and what was happening 100 years ago with Du Bois. Are we making any progress?"

Then she proceeded to answer her own question. We are making progress, she says, but we're not finished. "I sent my own children to college, and they had unpleasant racial encounters. They were thrown by it. They said, 'I thought you guys already took care of this.'"

Personal challenges

While driving cross-country to take her new position at UW-Madison, Ladson-Billings found a lump in her breast. It was diagnosed as cancer, and she underwent chemotherapy.

These days she's in good health, but devotes time to fundraising efforts for cancer research. She recruits large teams (more than 100 last year) to run and walk in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. In particular, she called on the congregation of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where she is a deacon. She gives her own scarves to women who are losing their hair because of chemotherapy.

Ladson-Billings says this brush with her mortality made her write The Dreamkeepers for a wider audience. "I could have been dead, you know? It's like, I don't have time to write this dense, academic book. People need this information."

She says she feels blessed to have a job that "lets me do my work." Years ago, when a colleague told her she should spend less time volunteering in the community and focus on getting tenure, Ladson-Billings told him, "I will always have work. I might not always have a job, but I will always have work. I could be the fry girl at McDonald's and I'd still be doing this work."

As Ladson-Billings continues her life's work, she likes to remember the people who struggled to give her opportunities and education.

"As bad as things are, we have to remember that I am someone who is about four generations out of slavery. Three out of sharecropping. Two out of legal apartheid, legalized segregation. My mother couldn't try on hats in a downtown department store. State-sanctioned segregation: You can't drink out of that water fountain. You can't go to that school. Somebody struggled against it.

"So you would tell me that educating kids is actually impossible? In light of that?" she asks.

Ensuring that all children get an equal chance at a quality education is the next chapter for the civil rights movement, says Ladson-Billings.

"This is my task. I can't hand it off to someone and say 'you do it.' I'm still doing it."

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