Know Your Madisonian: From Philadelphia Public Schools to President of the National Academy of Education
July 22, 2021 | By Elizabeth Beyer, Wisconsin State Journal
Gloria Ladson-Billings, UW-Madison professor emeritus and a nationally renowned leader in education, was raised in a working class family in 1950s Philadelphia where she developed a love of writing and history but struggled with turning her passion for the two subjects into work.
“You don’t just come home and say, ‘Ta-da! I’m a writer!’ You have to earn a living,” she said. “I was puzzling over that, and my friends at school were saying, ‘Well, you know, you could actually become a teacher.’”
She went to college in Baltimore, at Morgan State University, but it wasn’t until Ladson-Billings was in the classroom working with students that she really fell in love with teaching. After college, she went back to Philadelphia to start her teaching career. Years passed and she moved across the country to California to get a doctorate from Stanford University. She then became a coordinator of teacher education at Santa Clara University, where she also taught as an adjunct professor.
During that time, she became a Spencer Fellow with the National Academy of Education. The names and projects of her fellowship class were published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which got her noticed by a Bay Area publishing executive who encouraged her to turn her fellowship project into a book. That book, “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children,” focuses on how to lift up African American children, and all children, in the classroom through culturally relevant and supportive curriculum.
While writing the book, Ladson-Billings continued to publish articles, one of which got her invited to speak at a conference in New York in the early ’90s. When she concluded her speech, Carl Grant, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the UW-Madison School of Education, dashed out of the room to catch her.
“He said, ‘You gotta come to Wisconsin.’ And I’m like, ‘To where?’” she said, laughing. She shrugged off Grant’s proposition initially, but agreed to give a talk at UW-Madison. Grant arranged an itinerary for Ladson-Billings’ visit, and the last item on her schedule was dinner at then-Chancellor Donna Shalala’s house.
Ladson-Billings, who was elected to a four-year term as president of the National Academy of Education in 2018, has written three books as a solo author, including the acclaimed “Dreamkeepers,” and has edited eight. Now a grandmother of five, she retired from the university in 2018, but has been busier than ever the past few years.
You’re the first Black woman to become tenured at the UW-Madison School of Education, can you talk a little bit about that?
I hadn’t even considered it. I just knew we didn’t have very many Black faculty when I came. … Dr. William Tate, Grant and I were the three Black folks in my department.
I don’t know that it felt a particular kind of way. There weren’t a lot of us at Stanford. I have gotten used to being the one-and-only in a lot of circumstances. People had mentioned it in different settings and you get a round of applause, and I’ve taken to saying, “Don’t applaud that, that’s embarrassing.” The university has been here since what, 1848. I tell people, “I am old, but I’m not that old.” The idea is that it’s taken until 1995 for you guys to do this? It’s embarrassing.
What are some of the projects that you’ve worked on that have had a lasting impact on you?
“Dreamkeepers” has taken on a life of its own. It is in its third edition, it’s a bestseller. … It’s become the basis for a majority of teacher education programs.
The work that now I’m getting pilloried over is the critical race theory work. I published one of the first articles on critical race theory in education in ’95, so here we are in 2021 and these people are having a fit over this.
I’m very proud to be affiliated with (anti-racist) work, and right now, the National Academy (of Education) has just released a new report on civic discourse and civic engagement, because we were seeing the deterioration of civic debate. This project is really a call to action for our schools to think about the role of civic discourse and civic engagement.
We’ve been arguing that civic discourse and engagement is something that cuts across curriculum. In a mathematics class you might ask a question about inequality in representation or something like red-lining: How does that happen? What do the numbers look like? Well, there are civic implications to creating segregated neighborhoods. Or in science: Why would you have an inordinate amount of people of color more impacted by COVID-19? So then you begin to ask questions about things like underlying conditions or questions about genetic issues. … It’s a way for us to have a deeper conversation about our civic engagement.
You retired from UW-Madison in 2018, but you’ve been busy since then. So what’s going on?
One of the real draws for me to stay in Madison is my involvement with Mt. Zion Baptist Church. I joined the church as soon as I came here, and they’ve just been a wonderful support for me, my family, and I’ve been actively engaged with them.
When I think about my own work, I think it is a combination of faith, family, community and intellectual pursuit. I think I’ve found a way to bring those all together.
You have said public education is the foundation of democracy. Can you expand on that?
I gave a talk for Stanford a couple of weeks ago and I used the quote from Benjamin Franklin coming out of the Constitutional Convention, and a woman asks him, “Mr. Franklin, what have you given us?” And Franklin’s response is, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” He didn’t say if we, the founding fathers in this building could keep it. He said if you as a citizen can keep it.
There is no way we can keep it without educated citizens, it’s just not possible. It’s in school that kids really learn democracy, in public school because it’s the place where everybody has access. It’s why the fight is so vicious right now around this notion of which history to teach? People mad about the 1619 Project curriculum materials coming out of New York Times versus the Project 1776 that the previous president wanted people to have. The thing about our history is that it isn’t pretty, but it’s real, and it tells us who we are, warts and all.
People say to me, “You seem to be down on the U.S.,” and I say, “No, you don’t understand. I am the greatest patriot you will ever meet, because I want the country to live up to its ideals.” The 14th Amendment says I’m supposed to have equal protection under the law. I look at something like what happened to George Floyd and he wasn’t given equal protection under the law, so I want (the U.S.) to live up to who we say we are and not just be content with where we are.
I believe school is the place that can make that happen.