Lecture: Learning, Educational Attainment Rest on Belief in Students

WASHINGTON – Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings offered polite criticism, weighty research insights, and humor on Thursday at the Eighth Annual Brown Lecture in Education Research at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington.

“I want to argue that education and race – in this case, literacy and race – have been intricately linked for centuries,” said Ladson-Billings, who has co-edited six books, written four books and published numerous educational articles. “Until we begin to unpack those linkages, we will continue to struggle to make sense of how race operates in our research and scholarship.”

The event was hosted by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which established its lecture series in 2004 to commemorate the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 outlawing public school segregation.

Ladson-Billings delivered Thursday’s lecture, entitled “Through a Glass Darkly: The Persistence of Race in Education Research,” to discuss the connections among research, education, and the quest for social equality. Besides being the Kellner Family Chairwoman in Urban Education and professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she’s been a member of AERA since 1989 and the organization’s past president from 2005 to 2006.

One central highlight during the 40-minute speech came when she parsed the challenge for those teaching Black students into three concepts: student learning, development of cultural competence and promotion of socio-political consciousness.

“It did not rest on tinkering with the curriculum, or demanding absolute quiet, or having everyone wear a uniform,” she said. “It rests on a teacher who believes deeply in the intellectual capability of the student and his or her own efficacious abilities.”

Throughout her research career, she noted, Ladson-Billings has battled racial stigmas attached to Blacks and other underrepresented minorities. While conducting research during a doctoral fellowship, she noticed the key words online for Black and African American education were referenced as “see culturally deprived” and “see culturally deficient.”

But Ladson-Billings challenged those phrases by stating how historically Black colleges and universities produce 79 percent of Black dentists and 50 percent of Black teachers. She also mentioned how some prominent education researchers disputed the worthiness of Blacks and Latinos. For example, well-known eugenicist and Stanford University professor Lewis Terman administered tests to Spanish-speaking individuals and Blacks in 1916.

According to Ladson-Billings, a portion of Terman’s conclusions about Blacks were “children of this group should be segregated into separate classes. They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers…from a eugenics point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”

Ladson-Billings gave a couple of reasons to explain why she focused on Terman, whose work is still studied today.

“Clearly no African-American, or Latino children were thought worthy of Terman’s work,” she said. “We do not discredit his sampling techniques despite his exclusion of entire groups of eligible subjects.”

She also humorously said she and Terman both are Stanford alumni, but “I know how much cognitive dissonance my very existence would present for him.”

Ladson-Billings’ research on Terman alarmed part-time graduate student Janine DiGiovanni.

“If we are touting these theorists, why are we presented with some pigeon-holed ideas?” said DiGiovanni, 29, an education major studying curriculum and instruction at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md. “It just shocked me because we study Terman. I have never heard anything like that until Dr. Ladson-Billings’ lecture. I wanted to hear more.”

Ladson-Billings’ graduate education and research career began in Baltimore after her graduation from Morgan State University in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in education. She later earned her master’s degree from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1972. Ladson-Billings later received a doctorate in curriculum and teacher education at Stanford University in 1984.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she focuses on teaching and researching topics in cultural studies, education anthropology and critical race theory.