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Oakes' knowledge of educational inequity comes from first-hand experience. Following a conservative, middle-class upbringing in La Mesa, and college at San Diego State University and Cal State Los Angeles, she taught in Glendora, Calif., where she was assigned to teach three different levels of an English class, including one in which the students, from the very first day, identified themselves as "the dumb class."
It was clear to Oakes -- and equally evident to her students -- that they were being tracked according to their perceived abilities. When Oakes questioned the practice of tracking, her efforts served primarily to get her into trouble. It was then, she recalls, that she realized that teachers, even if they have good ideas, "aren't given the time of day."
After seven years of teaching, Oakes returned to grad school. She earned her Ph.D. in education from UCLA in 1980 and worked for the Rand Corporation as an education researcher. She joined the UCLA faculty after the publication of Keeping Track.
In her latest book, Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform, Oakes reports on the efforts of educators in 16 schools around the country to eliminate inequalities. The book was coauthored with her husband, UCLA colleague Karen Hunter Quartz Ph.D. '94 and Steve Ryan Ph.D. '99 of the University of Louisville.
One close-to-home effort she is most proud of is the revamping of UCLA's teacher-education program in 1992, shortly after the insurrection that followed the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of African-American motorist Rodney King.
On the day the unrest flared, Oakes was meeting with colleagues in a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise. "We could see the fires starting around the city," she recalls. "After our meeting, as we crawled through the traffic in our expensive cars back to our nice houses, I thought about the families who lived in the neighborhoods that were burning. I realized then that it was important to pay closer attention to what's happening in Los Angeles."
Impelled by that crisis, Oakes and her colleagues took a hard look at the university's teacher-education program, which had a reputation for graduating well-prepared teachers who would immediately be snatched up by the city's best middle-class and suburban schools. Today, the program, known as Center X -- "where research and practice intersect for urban school professionals" -- focuses on turning out "social-justice educators" who are trained to hit the ground running in some of the city's toughest inner-city schools.