UCLA education think tank sides with activists, draws criticism

After two decades at UCLA, renowned education professor Jeannie Oakes has left for a higher-profile job. She'll be in charge of education grantmaking at the Ford Foundation in New York City. Part of her legacy at UCLA is an eight-year-old education think tank that's offered scholarly reinforcement to education activist groups in their efforts to improve public schools. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Not long ago, two UCLA school of education researchers briefed L.A. Unified's school board on new research that criticized some L.A. Unified high schools. School Board President Monica Garcia liked what she heard.

Monica Garcia: Congratulations and thank you for continuing to struggle with us. We will get there.

Guzman-Lopez: "There" means improved graduation rates at L.A. Unified. The researchers belong to UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access – also known as IDEA. It works closely with activists endorsed by board president Garcia.

IDEA also helps statewide groups make a better case for education reform. IDEA founding director Jeannie Oakes believes that access to academic research on education can help activists make good arguments for their cause.

Jeannie Oakes: Communities, especially the communities most affected by the problems of inequality and low quality schooling, needed to really be engaged if the problems were going to be solved.

Guzman-Lopez: The UCLA think tank runs on a $2 million budget. Half a dozen faculty from the university's school of education collaborate on periodic studies alongside graduate and undergraduate students.

Recent reports critiqued high school suspension and expulsion policies, and questioned the prevalence of military training extracurriculars – or Junior ROTC – at mostly low-income high schools. Another study detailed the difficulties black and Latino students face entering college after a voter-approved ban on affirmative action in California.

Many education policy experts praise IDEA's passion for change. Others, such as UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, contend that the institute crosses the line from observation into advocacy.

Bruce Fuller: So, there's no doubt they've had an enormously positive effect. I think the only question some scholars raise is whether, they could step back and take a truly objective look at their own methods.

Guzman-Lopez: Fuller says scholars, especially at public universities, should maintain their independence. He says IDEA endorses an approach to school district reform that dismisses internal change and endorses pressure from outside groups.

Long-term improvement needs both, Fuller says. Michael Kirst of Stanford's School of Education praises IDEA because, in his opinion, scholars and school advocates have always worked with one another.

Michael Kirst: UCLA started as a teachers college. And so their ties to the local schools have been long and historic. What you're seeing is the latest manifestation of this kind of tradition of very applied work, working in partnership with practitioners at the local level.

Guzman-Lopez: IDEA co-founder Jeannie Oakes says administrative restructuring and external pressure will lead to a better L.A. Unified. She's hearing other colleagues say the same about their local school districts.

Oakes: I think there's a big push nationally, not as strong a push as I'd like to see, for universities to be more engaged in communities.

Guzman-Lopez: At her new job overseeing education grants for the Ford Foundation, Oakes will be able to incubate the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access model throughout the United States. The Ford Foundation spent about $50 million on education initiatives in this country last year.