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Fall 2001
The Reformer
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Armed with impeccable credentials, political savvy and unwavering conviction, Jeanne Oakes is on a crusade to ensure that every child has a fair shot at a first-class education
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By Judy Lin-Eftekhar
Photography by Everard Williams Jr.

Everyone talks about fixing the schools. But is anyone actually doing anything about it?

Jeannie Oakes recalls being in a meeting with some 30 administrators and researchers from around the country, everyone talking on and on about the problems of urban schools, but no one getting to the heart of the issue.

After a while, Oakes couldn't take the nattering any longer. "Finally I said, 'You know, maybe we have exactly the schools we want ... schools that are set up to enable just a few students to do well while others are prepared for places in society that bring them less privilege and material rewards. Maybe one of the functions of our schools today is to justify the unequal structure we have for jobs and income and social status in this country.' "

Not words one might expect to endear her to the educational establishment, perhaps, but Oakes Ph.D. '80 readily admits that she often walks a fine line, one that tends to diverge on matters of education reform from that of traditionalists.

"I guess they think I'm a little over the edge," she says. "But I try to say things in a way that doesn't make other people feel like they are being foolish or stupid. I do it more to prod them along, to get them to think about what's really going on and to say 'Whoa! Wait a minute! Maybe we should consider that.' "

What Oakes, UCLA's Presidential Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, wants them to consider is the premise that a one-size-fits-all approach to education can't work in our stratified society. Rather than reforming around the edges by, for example, simply cutting class size (which itself creates a host of new problems when there aren't enough qualified teachers for the additional classes that are created), Oakes argues for a "democratic social movement" of parents, students, community organizers and civic leaders to shape educational priorities, rather than leaving them in the hands of the system. Only then, she says, can fundamental changes be made that open the gates of education to all children, no matter what their racial, cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds.

That her words may cause disquiet among some at the higher echelons of education policymaking doesn't muffle Oakes' voice. Indeed, her voice resonates, loud and clear. It is heard in Sacramento, where she travels frequently, recently testifying before state legislative committees on K-12 education and university outreach and meeting with lawmakers to talk about the problems immigrant children face in the state's schools. It is heard beyond the state's borders when she appears as an expert witness in desegregation cases, gives lectures or serves on committees such as the National Academy of Sciences' panel to review advanced coursework in high school science and mathematics -- a panel she was invited to join, she says, to ensure that the group "doesn't forget about equity issues."

Oakes' solid research, and that of her UCLA colleagues with whom she closely collaborates, is the foundation of her unassailable credibility. And it is her research as applied to the cause of positive social change for which she is perhaps most highly regarded. Her goal: "To undo the destructive connections our culture makes between race, class and intelligence."

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