Conversations on Quality

An interview with Gloria Ladson-Billings

By Wayne Au

Illustrator: Joseph Blough

Photo: Joseph Blough

Gloria Ladson-Billings is considered one of the leaders in scholarship concerning the education of African-American children today. Most notably she is credited with the concept of “culturally relevant pedagogy,” which is explored in great depth in her book The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, where she asks the African-American community in her study to identify good teachers (regardless of race) and develops profiles of those teachers. Ladson-Billings is currently the Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and holds the office of the President of the American Educational Research Association.

RS: What is quality teaching? How do we assess whether teachers are achieving it?

Ladson-Billings: We can’t settle on what we mean by teacher quality. The most reductive notions have to do with how many courses somebody has in a subject area, where they graduated from, and how much time they’ve spent in the field. The more expansive notions have to do with what we see happening in a classroom where teachers are actually teaching. Almost no one has time to do that. There is a pre-service component to teacher preparation that allegedly has that. Student teaching is such an artificial environment. It’s controlled, and everybody knows it. The student teacher knows it. The cooperating teacher knows it. The kids in the class know it. The supervisor shows up and everything is a performance. It’s been staged. That’s just a fact of life of most student teaching.

We don’t really get to see teacher quality until we see someone who has full responsibility for their classroom, and in which we see them on site and we get to talk with them in an environment where they are now teaching. That would give you a sense of the range of teacher quality. So, until we can do that, we’re stuck with a set of performances and artifacts, and then we are deducing from those what teacher quality is. Because it’s on a statewide level now, it’s pretty much around licensure. Now thatnot to say that I don’t think we should have licensure. I think we should, but I think that licensure is a floor; it’s not a ceiling.

RS: So how does this issue of definition affect who gets in the classroom?

Ladson-Billings: Because we’ve got a very minimum standard — you have to have successfully gone through a teacher education program — then the definition of teacher quality sort of falls back on the programs that have recommended teachers, and that’s pretty much it. It’s not so much that we’ve looked at that individual in relation to the skills that she or he has developed.

I don’t think we pay enough attention to the context in which people do their work. Just because somebody is a good teacher for a certain community doesn’t mean that they are a good teacher in every community. And most teachers don’t get tested in that way. A lot of the people who end up in urban communities, however, are there by default. There isn’t anywhere else to go. There are no other jobs. So they’re in a place that they feel ill prepared for, where there isn’t much success around them and they don’t actually have the ability to build their quality.

The other problem is that we expect teacher quality to show up on day one of the teacher’s job. No one would expect attorneys or physicians to be at the top of their form on their first jobs. So we don’t have a progressive way of looking at teaching as a craft that one gets better at with more time, more experience, and more knowledge.

RS: Do you see the provisions for “highly qualified” teachers found in NCLB addressing this problem?

Ladson-Billings: No. I think what it does is it at least creates some minimum floor below which some things can’t fall. So if you take California for example [where Ladson-Billings used to live and teach], we both know that there are places in California where you just need a pulse. They actually had some specified number of college units and didn’t care what they were at one time. They may have changed that, but it used to be that to get an emergency credential you needed 98 units. That wasn’t even a college degree. A college degree was like 120. Having a provision for what constitutes a highly qualified teacher at least raises that for places like that. But that doesn’t mean that you’ve now got everybody as highly qualified if you take that literally. It doesn’t mean that they are among the best available.

RS: What do you think the issues of race and culture are in relation to highly qualified teachers?

Ladson-Billings: Well, part of being highly qualified as a teacher is that you actually understand kids, you understand community, you understand context — so that you go into a setting and you’re able to understand enough about the setting, enough about yourself, to be able to be effective.

The person that comes down from New Trier [a wealthy district] schools in Illinois and says, “Oh, I really want to teach in Chicago because I really want to make a contribution,” but thinks that the way they taught in New Trier is the way to do it on the south side of Chicago hasn’t accurately read the situation, hasn’t made good use of their own decision-making and problem-solving skills. Now I’m not saying that the kids on the south side of Chicago aren’t entitled to an enriched curriculum. You know if you really think Shakespeare is important, then it’s important. I don’t think that you should not teach Shakespeare because the kids are in Chicago, but the way in which you might teach it might need some radical changes.

Issues of race are tied to more macro-social problems that the society has not and apparently will not address. For example, the society has never made a commitment to school funding equity. It seems to me that’s a minimum responsibility the society must meet. The second issue is that of truly desegregating schools. Those two elements have never truly been tried and until we see those two things through I think we just continue to rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

RS: So how would you define a quality teacher?

Ladson-Billings: I don’t think you can think of a quality teacher absent student learning. I’m being careful of what I’m saying here. I’m not saying “achievement” just simply because people read achievement as test scores. That’s not what I’m talking about. If the kids aren’t really learning anything, how can you be highly qualified? That has got to be an ultimate goal of the enterprise — that students come out able to solve problems, able to make decisions, able to critically analyze their environments. If that’s not happening I really don’t care what your certificate says.

If students come away from a class not really having learned to do some basic things like think and problem solve and make decisions, then I don’t see how you can call it highly qualified. I know people don’t want to say that the teacher is responsible for this, that, and the other, but how do we justify our place in the society if indeed it is not our responsibility to help kids learn? I don’t even think there is anything you can say on paper about that teacher that can be the sole determiner of highly qualified teaching. Highly qualified teaching is intimately tied to results, but I’m not talking about results as standardized tests.

Wayne Au ( is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a Rethinking Schools editor.