Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings is the former Kellner Family Distinguished Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and faculty affiliate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She was the 2005-2006 president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Ladson-Billings’ research examines the pedagogical practices of teachers who are successful with African American students. She also investigates Critical Race Theory applications to education.

Dr. Ladson-Billings spoke to Emily Freitag about the need for a “hard reset” in education in the wake of the current national crises. Watch or read the abridged Q&A below.

EF: Please tell us a story from your own journey as a learner and how that informs your perspective about learning.

GLB: I grew up in Philadelphia, which at the time was a very large city, much larger than it is today. It was what legal folks would call a “de facto segregated city” because of the segregation of its neighborhoods. Now, I’ve more recently started saying that it’s all de jure—there’s no such thing as de facto. It’s just a matter of where up the stream you put the segregation. In the North, the segregation was put in housing, but it was deliberate and it was legal to do that. As a result of that, I attended an almost exclusively black neighborhood school. There were some white students in my neighborhood. Most of them chose to go to Catholic schools. So, we saw white students, but they didn’t go to school with us in my elementary school. Going to that school and having mostly African American teachers, I heard over and over that I was capable of doing things. “You shouldn’t be afraid to try this.” And, “Why wouldn’t you think you’re smart enough?” This constant, almost drumbeat of “You can do this.”

I went to integrated junior high and high school. My junior high school experience was just horrible. And I don’t know if it was horrible because it was junior high, and it’s just horrible anyway, but I did encounter some issues of racism from adults in that setting. My high school was also integrated, but more equally integrated. I say “integrated” as opposed to “desegregated.” There was no court order. It’s just where my high school sat, it was on the cusp of a Black and Jewish neighborhood. It was almost 50% Black and Jewish. My high school was very academically rigorous. But at the same time, it was socially very comfortable for me. It was tracked, and in academic courses, I had hardly any black classmates. I can remember being in school sometimes on a Jewish holiday before Jewish holidays were considered school holidays, and it would just be me and the teacher because everybody was gone.

I had those experiences and I chose to go to a historically black college. Now some people find that really odd, particularly white colleagues, because I was accepted at really “good” white schools, including Ivy League. But I chose a school in Baltimore, Maryland. It just seemed like a fit for me. It was a city school. There were a lot of working-class kids. I just felt like I’ll fit here. My parents didn’t go to college. My father didn’t finish third grade. My mother did have a high school diploma. So to them, college was college. They didn’t really know there was a difference between Penn and Morgan State, which I chose, and I’m glad they didn’t. I think what helped them to let me go is that I had an African American family physician, and he told my mother, “Please let her go to the black college. School is more than going to classes. If she goes to Penn, if she goes to Temple, she’ll be fine in the classroom. But she will probably never have a date. She will probably never participate in extra or co-curricular activities because they just won’t be open to her. Going to a black school will give her the full college experience.” And he was right. So I had those book-ending experiences of my elementary school and my college, and I’m used to that level of what we now hear as “black excellence.” So it’s frustrating for me to hear a different narrative about what kids cannot do.

EF: Thank you so much for sharing that. Let’s dig in—in this COVID context, with so many people talking about the “COVID slide” and exacerbated inequity and in a time of importantly heightened focus on the experience of black students in particular, what do you hope educators will hold on to as things that we know work as they prepare to support student learning in the coming year?

GLB: Let me give you a little bit of a context because I’ve been giving a lot of talks about what I’ve called “the need for the hard reset.” I use the analogy of these devices that we own. We know when things go really bad and you can’t find help on the internet, you finally make your way back to the Apple Store or wherever you got it. And they try a few things. But then they come with the dreaded words, “We’re going to need to do a hard reset.” If they say that to you, and you don’t have everything backed up, what you’re going to get back from them will be a working device that has none of the stuff you had in there before. Your pictures are gone, your contacts are gone, and it’s going to be like it was from the factory. I’ve been arguing that what needs to happen in our schools is a hard reset. People don’t want to hear that. People keep saying, “We just need to get back to normal.” Going back to normal for the kids who are most vulnerable is not a solution, because normal was where the problem was.

People keep saying, ‘We just need to get back to normal.’ Going back to normal for the kids who are most vulnerable is not a solution, because normal was where the problem was.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about nations that have had to start over because of something catastrophic. We’ve been talking about the “two pandemics.” I was recently at a conference and one of my co-presenters said something that really struck me. He said, “No, we’re in the midst of four pandemics.” There is COVID-19. There is racism, that’s another pandemic. But there’s also the looming economic pandemic. We’re propping things up with stimulus packages to try to keep people from falling through the cracks but that’s not sustainable. There’s going to be a real economic pandemic. Finally, there’s the climate catastrophe. We look at these things from afar and think, “Oh, that’s over there.” So, yes, they had these terrible fires in Australia, like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We’ve seen glimpses of it. Katrina was a glimpse of it. And we’ve seen other floods. All of these things are happening at once.

I’ve been interested in looking at, How do nations come back when they go through something catastrophic? I’ve looked at a major disruption in schooling, which is World War II for places like Japan and Italy. Japan, of course, went through the devastation of relentless firebombing and then ultimately the dropping of the atomic bomb. They totally redid their school system when they came back. Totally. They didn’t just say, “We’re back. Let’s turn to page 27.” One of their big innovations was that they decided to be more intentional about being co-educational. Before World War II they didn’t really care if girls got an education. That was a huge change. They also changed their organization of school so they actually made their school organization more like the US so that it was sort of a K–6, three grades, and three grades. In Italy, similarly, they were concerned that we cannot raise another generation of fascists. We’ve suffered all this death, all this destruction. And so if you’ve heard of the Reggio Emilia Preschools, which everybody just loves, they came out of that. It’s like, what do we need to have in place to create the kind of productive citizen, not a nationalist, not someone who would think it’s okay to go around the world and kill other people.

My concern is that we keep using input models. What do we want to put into schools? More math, more reading, more physical education, more art. Each of these things is good in and of itself, but we’re not asking the fundamental question: What are you trying to get out of it? What do you want to see at the end? And not answering that question keeps us chasing our tails. We keep doing the same things over and over and over again. The Germans said, “We want people who can come and produce in this society. We don’t want a bunch of soldiers. The agreements don’t allow us to build an army again. We’re going to make sure that people can be productive.” So the entire Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, and auto motors got together with schools and said, “Okay, here’s what we can promise you in terms of working with students so that everybody can have a living wage because they can come out of these schools and come into our programs.” So, what we are lacking is vision. The only thing we know how to do is what we’ve been doing.

My concern is that we keep using input models. What do we want to put into schools? More math, more reading, more physical education, more art. Each of these things is good in and of itself, but we’re not asking the fundamental question: What are you trying to get out of it? What do you want to see in the end? And not answering that question keeps us chasing our tails.

EF: I find that very compelling. What would be some of the pillars that you think we should do the hard reset around? What would you propose in that vision?

GLB: One of the things that you’re probably hearing a lot of conversation around, but maybe not much substance, is social emotional learning. But what does that mean? Does social emotional learning for a youngster in the suburbs look like social emotional learning for a youngster in Manhattan? Does it look like social emotional learning for a youngster in rural Wisconsin? What might be the most comforting thing for a kid in rural Wisconsin is to be able to be in a cow pasture. Whereas in Manhattan, it might be to have a headset on and have the playlist I love the most, because that’s the music that makes me feel happy. We’re using the term “social emotional learning” because we have in our mind one way to do this. You know, everybody on a yoga mat, thumb and first fingers together going “ommm.” That might be okay for some kids, but we cannot presume that’s what’s going to be needed for all kids.

In addition to social emotional learning, and I don’t hear as much about this, is that there is a real need for good mental health assessment. Just like we don’t take kids in the school without looking at their vaccination cards, we ought to be able to say that this kid is mentally ready to engage in the kinds of activities that schools tend to work on. We have had kids who have not only missed the human contact of being in school every day and seeing their friends and interacting with caring adults, we have also had kids who have been traumatized by this. Whether it is someone who has been in a household where there has been some abuse, whether it’s someone who has been in a household where there has been neglect, unfortunately there hasn’t been enough food for people or people couldn’t keep the lights on. And there are kids who have seen people die. A lot of our kids saw somebody die just by turning on the TV, they saw a man die while they were sitting in their living room. Many other kids who, because of the unevenness of COVID-19, have known family members, friends, and neighbors who have died because they have been deemed “essential workers.” They’re driving buses, they’re working in grocery stores, they’re working in the pharmacy, and they’ve been exposed and have died. And it’s not as if kids don’t know anything about death, but they have died without proper ritual. In the African American community, one of the things that are really sacred is, and we don’t even call it a funeral, we call it a homegoing. You are going home because your home is otherworldly. It is for families and friends and loved ones to have that closure, to have people gather around you, to hug you. George Floyd’s family gave us the homegoing we needed. We needed to see the people stand up and speak well of him. We needed to have the singers. We needed the eulogy. Because we haven’t had that, what we’ve heard is it can only be seven people at a funeral home. So, when I think about the heavy lift of both the social-emotional and mental health needs, I’m not as worried about the academics. The academics will come. Kids will learn. Kids are like sponges. They will learn. But if we don’t attend to these really important emotional and mental needs, I don’t think we have a fighting chance.

EF: Thank you for sharing that. I heard in another conversation you were talking about this grief hanging around kids’ experience. The context of children’s experience of the pandemic is really their experience in school.

GLB: One of the things I’ve noticed in my neighborhood and from my viewpoint, I live in the suburbs. I live in a nice neighborhood. What has struck me is that the teachers in the nearby elementary school, they’ve done these sort of drive-by caravans. Nobody’s come and dropped off a math packet. Nobody’s come and said, “Okay, we’re going to go over some reading skills with you.” No, people have driven by balloons, festive cars, and signs saying “We miss you. We love you all.” That’s what the kids have responded to—being able to see their people. To me, that’s a cautionary tale. We can’t rush back into turning our children and youth into students as opposed to whole people who have been through something. You’ll hear a statement like, “We’re all in this together.” Well, we’re all in the same storm. We are not all in the same boat. Some of y’all are riding this storm out in a luxury liner. You have money in the bank. You would rather be doing something else, but your inconvenience is just that—inconvenient. Some people are trying to make it in a rowboat, and they’re taking on water. For them what’s scary is the end of the month, because when is it that the landlord no longer has to give them grace? Those are the challenges that lie ahead for us.

EF: I’ve heard from a lot of principals and teachers that their biggest fear right now is, How do I keep my students engaged? And I think a lot of that comes from feeling like some of the distance learning works, but some of it really didn’t. Yet, I watch our world right now and I see our youth very engaged in the world. What do you think? Are we even asking the right question when we say, “How do I keep my students engaged?” And how do we as educators think about that job in this particular time and context?

GLB: I would say that the sentence is incomplete because what’s implied in that is, How do I keep youth and students and children engaged in what I want them to be? I think one of the things that our young people have learned is there’s other stuff to be engaged in. If you’re looking for engagement, you have to be willing to say, “How do I merge the things that I am seeing as important with the things that kids see as important for maximum engagement?” If kids are worried about unequal treatment by the police, then we need to have that conversation so that they can, for example, write the letter that goes to City Hall. My goal is to get them to be proficient writers. Their goal is to make a difference in what’s happening in their neighborhoods. Or, if they make a claim that, “The police always hassle us,” okay, that’s an assertion. Where’s the data? I’m in math now, and I need you to survey the rest of your classmates. Let’s compile the data. Let’s do the graphs. Let’s do the charts. All of the stuff that I really want to teach you, I’ve got to teach you in a way that captivates your interests and your desire to know certain things.

If you’re looking for engagement, you have to be willing to say, ‘How do I merge the things that I am seeing as important with the things that kids see as important for maximum engagement?’

EF: Let’s take that to the school leader and system leader lens. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on curriculum and standards. I think for so many leaders they have a thing that they’re driving towards, and that is what they’ve been tasked with. How do you create room to follow student interest in meaningful ways in that context?

GLB: I had a conversation with nine school superintendents in the Bay Area in late spring. One of the superintendents was clearly agitated over the fact that he knew he was going to lose money. And he says, “I’m a small school district, and I’m already hearing I’m taking a $3.5 million hit.” And I said to him, “Well, you’re going to take a $3.5 million hit if what you plan to do is what you’ve been doing. If you’re planning something different, you could plan it costing three and a half million dollars less than what you had. Knowing that, what would you plan?” He just kind of looked at me and said, “I just never thought of it like that.”

Everybody’s thinking we have to go back to what was there. I’ve had teachers railing against these things. I’ve heard plenty of complaints about standards and standardized curriculum, things like Common Core. And I’ve often asked teachers, “What’s in this that you don’t want students to know?” There’s nothing evil about the standards. What is problematic, however, is this dogged devotion to doing it one particular way, insisting that the only way that a student can learn similes and metaphors is through a particular kind of literature as opposed to being able to pick up some hip hop lyrics and say, “What does he mean when he says, ‘I’m silent like a G in lasagna’?” We have to know more. And that more that we have to know is about students’ lives, about their culture, and about their experiences. It’s in some ways the laziness on our part. We’re used to using The Scarlet Letter, which I can tell you universally, nobody likes. I don’t care where they are. Do you believe the author sat down and said, “Oh, I’m going to write a book for ninth graders, all about a woman who was accused of adultery?” I mean, it makes no sense. Someone made a decision that the book belongs there. But maybe it doesn’t. Last week, I had a conversation with a reporter out in New York who was looking at summer reading lists. She sent me reading lists from 15 different high schools in New York. She wanted some statement from me about what I thought and I said, “There’s nothing wrong with the books. The books tell me nothing.” I need to know what you intend to do with the books. If you want to, you can count how many books are written by Black people, how many books are written by Latinx folks, how many books are written by people of Asian descent. You can do that. But you can still do bad things with a book written by Black people. You can still do some great things with a book written by a white person. If you’re not paying attention to kids’ interests, the text can’t teach itself. So, in some ways, I’m agnostic about standards until you start telling me things like, people cannot go onto the next grade if they don’t meet standards, or it’s not a good school if you don’t have this percentage of kids proficient on the standards. No, that standard is just telling me what you’re not teaching well. It’s not telling me what kids don’t know.

EF: What do you see educators do, maybe from a place of very good intentions, that we actually know does not work, particularly in supporting unfinished learning? Meaning things that we’re really at risk of doing in the coming year, as that is more front and center for so many educators.

GLB: One is being quick to go to remediation. Now, just think about that in principle, I begin behind everybody else, and the way you expect me to catch up is to slow me down? That’s just basic physics, that doesn’t work. If anything, I should be accelerated. And that’s the work Hank Levin did in the late 70s, early 80s. Accelerated learning demonstrating that kids who were behind needed to be moved up faster.

The other thing that I have concerns about is that students are not just students, but they are whole human beings, so they come into schools and classrooms with a variety of life experiences, we make some judgments about those life experiences. As a consequence, we don’t hold kids to the so-called standards. We do what I call giving them permission to fail. “Oh, don’t worry about that, maybe tomorrow you’ll feel more like working. Oh, I understand things are tough for you.” Whereas we would never do that with the kids for whom we have the highest expectations. For them, we demand success. We demand it. “You must do it.” Now, doesn’t mean we’re harsh with it. What we may do with that is they turn in something we don’t think it’s quality, and we say to them, “I’m going to give you another chance to work on this because here’s what’s wrong with it.” As opposed to those kids for whom we permit to fail, they turn in something and it’s low quality, and we say, “Well, this is probably the best you can do.” And we will accept that. I hope we don’t fall back into that.

We do what I call giving them permission to fail—‘Oh, don’t worry about that, maybe tomorrow you’ll feel more like working. Oh, I understand things are tough for you.’ Whereas we would never do that with the kids for whom we have the highest expectations.

EF: You’ve done so much research around this conversation about expectations and what teachers have high expectations for different groups of students. From that learning, what do you hope educators keep in mind this year about what we know about how to influence our own expectations of students, or for leaders about how to set a culture that supports that for their faculty?

GLB: The challenging part is that a lot of this has to do with people’s belief systems and you don’t change belief systems just by telling people to have high expectations. Teachers are people too. If we’ve been influenced by our own backgrounds and experiences and if we’ve never seen excellence among certain groups of kids, it’s really hard to tell us, “You’ve got to believe this kid can be excellent.” There’s a fair amount of unlearning that teachers have to do about who is capable. And we have to have better, for want of another term, formative assessments to be able to watch students along the way as opposed to slamming them at the end of the semester or at the March testing period. One of the things that I’ve kind of railed against, and I don’t think many teachers like me for saying this, but I just think homework, for the most part, is a waste of time. How do you give credit for something that you’ve had no ability to supervise? And we’ve all seen the juxtaposition between somebody who does this fabulous homework, but they struggle on an assessment in the class. It’s because somebody else is doing the homework. We’ve all seen it. Most of our international peers don’t really do homework. What they tell kids to do is read and study. Read and study, because it’s going to be in class where I can assess what you know. We as a nation give too much credit for what kids have, as opposed to what they know. If you have two college-educated parents, you have access to high-speed internet, you have disposable income in your household that can buy you science kits and memberships to the Museum of Natural Science, you have that, but that doesn’t tell me what you know. To the degree that we get better at figuring out what kids know, then we can give them honest assessments of their abilities.

EF: Thank you so much for this conversation. I Iook forward to continuing to learn from your work.