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Jeannie Oakes: 1943-2024

By John McDonald and Joanie Harmon

Founder of UCLA’s Center X and Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access created the University's signature teacher education program, committed to creating social justice educators for urban schools.

The famed education philosopher John Dewey believed that education should be about something more than economic competitiveness.  In his lecture at the dedication of UCLA in 1930, he noted, “Its goal should be the creation of human beings in the fullness of their capacity.”

UCLA Presidential Professor Emerita Jeannie Oakes, was the embodiment of that goal. After a life and career that informed and inspired many, Oakes, 81, passed away on April 25, at her home in Berkeley. Her research, teaching and scholarship reached for the fullness of their capacity and set the direction for a UCLA School of Education and Information Studies intent on helping all students achieve their own. Oakes’ ideas and work at UCLA set a moral compass for a department of education committed to opportunity, equity, and justice, and established a research and teacher education program to develop educators to “change the world.”

At UCLA, Oakes was the Presidential Professor Emerita in Education Equity. In her time in the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, she founded Center X, the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA), and founded and directed the University of California All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (UC ACCORD). Most recently, Oakes served as director of education and scholarship at the Ford Foundation, and in 2016, served as the 100th president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

“These details only scratch the surface of Jeannie’s professional accomplishments, and they do not even begin to reveal the personal impact she had on so many people,” says Wasserman Dean Christina Christie. “Always known for her kindness and warmth, Jeannie was a mentor and friend to everyone she met. Her husband, Martin Lipton, shared that she was, ‘proud to be part of a community that fought to make the world a better place,’ and that she hoped we would all carry on with this work.”

Professor Oakes earned her master’s degree in American Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, her bachelor’s degree in English from San Diego State University, and achieved  her Ph.D. in education at UCLA in 1980. She remained on campus as a research associate working with noted scholar and UCLA Education Dean John Goodlad, conducting research for his groundbreaking book, “A Study of Schooling.”

Oakes left UCLA in 1985, joining RAND as a senior social scientist in its education and human resources program, and built her reputation as an expert in educational indicator development. It was during this time that she penned her seminal work, “Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality.” Published that year by Yale University Press, the book shone a harsh light on the pernicious impact of student tracking, making clear its grounding in the racial and class inequalities of America and its role in helping to perpetuate them. “Keeping Track” would be published multiple times and was named one of 60 “Books of the Century” by the University of South Carolina Museum of Education for its influence on American education.

In 1989, Oakes returned to UCLA as a tenured professor in the school of education, conducting research on school reform and teaching urban school policy and history in the division of Urban Schooling. In a 2017 interview with UCLA Ed&IS magazine, she told the story of sitting in a 10th floor conference room in a high-rise tower on Wilshire Boulevard, with an expansive view of Los Angeles from a suite that served as the offices of the UCLA School of Education while Moore Hall was being refurbished. The day was April 29, 1992 and from this vantage point, Oakes said she and others watched the first wisps of black smoke that would become the fires of the uprising and destruction fueled by the Rodney King verdict. 

“We could see the fires and smoke erupt,” Oakes said. “It was tragic and frightening.”

Driving home in traffic, Oakes said she was struck by the notion that, “… something was very wrong. Here we were, this group of extraordinary scholars, working and known across the world, and almost none of us was doing anything meaningful about Los Angeles. And we needed to be doing something.”

In that moment, the seeds of UCLA Center X were planted. As its founder, Oakes would join with colleagues to lead the development of a new teacher education program at the University, dedicated to the recruitment, preparation, and support of caring, quality teachers committed to social justice for students in urban schools in Los Angeles. Center X transformed UCLA’s approach to teacher development.

“I remember very clearly being at the [UCLA] Lab School when we got started and the programs came together,” says Jo Ann Isken, a former teacher and interim executive director of Center X. “We shared a common vision that we would come together around a belief in social justice with a mission of really working to create transformational teachers. Jeannie has been one of my life’s guiding lights. I feel her presence and the tremendous responsibility of carrying on her legacy.”

The lessons learned at Center X would fuel the development of “Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform,” co-authored by Oakes, Lipton, UCLA colleague Karen Hunter Quartz, and Steve Ryan, an assistant professor of secondary education at the University of Louisville. Published in 2000 by Wiley, the book was lauded by Jonathan Kozol as, "A convincing portrait of teachers actively engaged in educational reform...offering a hopeful yet realistic vision of revitalized democracy inspired by a passion for the public good.”

Hunter Quartz, who is now the director of the UCLA Center for Community Schooling, began working with Professor Oakes in 1990, when Oakes invited her to write a proposal to the Carnegie Corporation to study a national middle school reform initiative called Turning Points.

"The next year, we began an ambitious five-year study of reform implementation in 16 schools across five states," says Hunter Quartz. "Jeannie helped me, as a Canadian, develop a deep and critical appreciation of American culture. I have very fond memories of traveling with Jeannie--exploring small towns, enjoying meals together, and visiting bookstores where she would share her love of American fiction.

Jeannie Oakes, UCLA Presidential Professor Emerita in Education Equity, and Karen Hunter Quartz, director of the UCLA Center for Community Schooling, began working together in the 1990s, conducting a study of a national middle school reform initiative called Turning Points. Pictured here, visiting the White House. Courtesy of Karen Hunter Quartz

"When we arrived at schools, I recall the thrill teachers and principals felt when they met Jeannie," says Hunter Quartz. "I felt so honored to be in her presence and learn from the deeply respectful ways she related to educators, listening intently to understand and lift up their voices. 'Becoming Good American Schools' is a testimony to the power of these voices, framed by four cultural struggles that define public education in this country. My own dissertation on the culture of school reform landed in Chapter 8 and I recall probing conversations about civic virtue and social change. These conversations have continued over the past 34 years. In 2006, Jeannie helped support the development of the UCLA Community School and most recently has led the national movement for community schools."

Oakes was the author of 17 scholarly books and monographs and more than 100 published research reports, chapters, and articles, several of which she co-authored with her UCLA colleagues. Major publications include, “Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning,” co-authored with Linda Darling-Hammond (2019); “Learning Time: In Pursuit of Educational Equity,” co-authored with Jorge Ruiz de Velasco and Marisa Saunders, associate director for research, UCLA Center for Community Schooling (2017); and “Beyond Tracking: Multiple Pathways to College, Career, and Civic Participation,” co-edited with Saunders (2008). Oakes co-authored “Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice” (2006) with UCLA Professor of Education John Rogers.

“There is a painting in the Center X conference room that features the following quote from Jeannie Oakes: ‘My job is about casting issues in a different light. It is about the constant struggle of ordinary people to make schools better than the larger society in which they exist,’” says Rogers, who currently serves as director of IDEA and faculty director of Center X.

“Throughout her remarkable career, Jeannie authored groundbreaking research that illuminated why schools are the way they are and how they can become more just and democratic,” says Rogers. “Jeannie Oakes created powerful spaces where graduate students, teachers-in-training, civil rights lawyers, community leaders, and many others joined together in this beautiful struggle. She will be greatly missed.”

Professors Oakes and Rogers founded IDEA in 2000 with the goal of using UCLA’s research capacity to bring together diverse communities of Los Angeles in addressing the most critical issues in public education. IDEA faculty, postdoctoral scholars, staff and graduate students partner with students, parents, teachers and grassroots organizations to conduct research on the possibilities and challenges of educational change.

“Supporting an increasingly diverse democracy to be even more democratic – culturally democratic as well as politically democratic – is the challenge of our time,” Oakes said to UCLA Newsroom in 2016. “I would love the federal government to support work in that area. A lot of my UCLA colleagues are doing that kind of work, and those are my roots as well.”

Oakes co-authored two other books with her husband Lipton, including “Teaching to Change the World,” with Lauren Anderson and Jamy Stillman (5th ed, 2018); and “Making the Best of Schools: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers” (1990).

Oakes was a member of the National Academy of Education and a senior fellow-in-residence at the Learning Policy Institute. She has been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the California Education Research Association; the Multicultural Research Award from the National Association for Multicultural Education; the Jose Vasconcellos World Award in Education; and a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America. In 2016, Professor Oakes was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Board for Education Sciences.

Along with serving as president of the AERA in its centennial year, Oakes was honored with three major awards from the organization including the Early Career Award, recognition for an Outstanding Research Article, and the 2001 Outstanding Book Award for “Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform.”

Oakes is survived by her husband Martin Lipton and her children Lisa Oakes, Steve Luck, Tracy Oakes Barnett, Ron Barnett, Lowell Lipton, Rene Huey Lipton, Ethan Lipton, Arin Arbus, and seven grandchildren. At this time, her family has no plans for a memorial.