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"I greatly admire the way that Jeannie has integrated the highest-quality research with a commitment to social justice," says Kevin G. Welner J.D. '88, Ph.D. '97, assistant professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-director of that school's Education in the Public Interest Center. "She stands as a living demonstration of how these two objectives can, and should, go hand in hand. In doing so, she offers us all a superb model of a morally grounded scholar."
Through her dogged efforts, Oakes has collected the hard data to back up her claims of educational inequality. Her pioneering and controversial book Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality catapulted her into the national spotlight and spurred a nationwide reform campaign. In it, she revealed that low-income students and students of color are most often the ones identified as "low-ability" or "slow" learners, due primarily to cultural or racial differences that are mistaken for low intelligence. The book, first published in 1985, was recently named one of the 60 most important books of the century by the Museum of Education at the University of South Carolina.
That groundbreaking work was done 16 years ago, but there's no dearth of related issues today to occupy Oakes' attention. Education reform continues to be a hot-button topic -- take note of the emphasis it received in the last presidential campaign. Closer to home, news stories out of Los Angeles recently screamed yet again about how the standardized test scores of K-12 students consistently lag behind national averages, and how African-American and Latino students fall on the very lowest rungs of achievement.
And while L.A. Unified administrators prided themselves on bumping up the test scores a few notches this year, Oakes was not as sanguine. "We have an enormous responsibility to gather information about the conditions under which children are asked to learn," she says. "What if for the past four years a child has not had a certified teacher? What if there aren't enough desks or no science labs? To judge students based on a test score without taking the big picture into consideration is just unfair."
After an early-morning jog, Oakes jumps into her aging BMW and pulls out of the driveway of her home in Mandeville Canyon, where she lives with her husband and frequent collaborator, Martin Lipton, a communications analyst for the education school's Institute for Democracy, Education & Access (IDEA). She is heading to her campus office in Moore Hall, which brims with photographs of her four young grandchildren, shelves crammed with books and videos such as I've Got the Light of Freedom, Outsmarting IQ and Stand and Deliver, and a wealth of framed certificates and commendations.
In addition to research and teaching, Oakes heads two new initiatives aimed, respectively, at improving Los Angeles schools and enhancing student diversity within the University of California -- IDEA and UC ACCORD (All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity). These initiatives, as Oakes sees them, go to the heart of UCLA's mission as a major urban university -- focusing the institution's formidable resources on significant social issues.