Ladson-Billings talks to ‘60 Minutes’ about the power of great teachers and schools

UW–Madison’s Gloria Ladson-Billings appeared on “60 Minutes” Sunday evening and was part of a segment that put the spotlight on two high school seniors from New Orleans who came up with trigonometry proofs for the Pythagorean Theorem, a problem that stumped the math world for centuries.

The “60 minutes” segment also highlighted the power of dedicated teaching and its impact on academic success. The students who came up with the proof attended St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans, where 99 percent of the students are Black girls — and all are high achievers.

Ladson-Billings is a professor emeritus with the School of Education who previously held the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education. She has dedicated her career to examining the cultural foundations of teaching and learning that lead to educational improvement for students who are most marginalized in schools.

Gloria Ladson-Billings

The “60 Minutes” segment noted how part of the success of St. Mary’s is rooted in the idea that all students can succeed — no matter the environment one lives in. Indeed, for 17 straight years 100 percent of its students have been accepted to a college or university.

Ladson-Billings helped put into perspective this success. Following is a transcript of what Ladson-Billings had to say about this in her interview with Bill Whitaker.

Ladson-Billings: What we know is when teachers lay out some expectations that say, “You can do this,” kids will work as hard as they can to do it.

Whitaker voiceover: Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, has studied how best to teach African American students. She told us an encouraging teacher can change a life.

Whitaker: And what’s the difference, say, between having a teacher like that and a whole school dedicated to the excellence of these students?

Ladson-Billings: So a whole school is almost like being in heaven.

Whitaker: What do you mean by that?

Ladson-Billings: Many of our young people have their ceilings lowered. Somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, their thoughts are, “I’m not going to be anything special.” What I think is probably happening at St. Mary’s is young women come in as, perhaps, ninth graders and are told, “Here’s what we expect to happen. And here’s how we’re going to help you get there.”

Bill Whitaker and Gloria Ladson-Billings
Reporter Bill Whitaker and Gloria Ladson-Billings.

Ladson-Billings is the author of the critically acclaimed books, “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children,” and “Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms.”

She was the first Black woman to become a tenured professor in UW–Madison’s School of Education in 1995. In 2005-06 she served as president of the American Educational Research Association, and in November 2017 was elected to a four-year term as the president of the National Academy of Education.

Ladson-Billings formally retired in 2018 after being on the UW–Madison faculty for more than 26 years, but she remains active in her work.

To learn more about Ladson-Billings, here is a story from University Communications about her amazing career that was published in 2019.

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