In Memoriam: 2015-16 AERA President Jeannie Oakes
In Memoriam: 2015-16 AERA President Jeannie Oakes

June 2024

By Linda Darling-Hammond, Michelle Renée Valladares, and Kevin Welner

AERA 2015–16 President Jeannie Oakes, 81, died on April 25. Her ground-breaking scholarship examined the effect of policies on the education of low-income students of color and championed equity-minded reform. Oakes was a preeminent education policy scholar and an advocate of policy-relevant research and of equity and justice for all. Her scholarship, mentorship, support, and friendship left an enormous impact on the field, her peers, and the generations of researchers who followed her. 

Jeannie Oakes was always listening, which may be why so many people listened to her—teachers and colleagues, lawyers and lawmakers, youth and community organizers, funders and philanthropists, and of course her own students and advisees. And when we listened, we learned and were inspired. One of Jeannie’s favorite words was “generative”; she heard people’s ideas, worked to understand people’s strengths and situations, and collaborated in ways that generated new concepts, approaches, insights, initiatives, and institutions.

Whenever education-equity work was being done, Jeannie seemed to be there, seamlessly combining scholarship with justice, quality with kindness, and wisdom with joy. Yet Jeannie was as humble as she was accomplished and would be the first to remind us that these accomplishments were built in community and collaboration and not by her alone.

AERA was one space in which Jeannie engaged in these challenges. She advanced research, created communities for scholars to learn together, and challenged us to expand the public reach of our work. In addition to serving as AERA’s 100th president, Jeannie helped create two SIGs—Tracking and Detracking, and Grassroots  Community and Youth Organizing. She was honored with AERA’s Early Career Award, Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award, and Outstanding Book Award, and Division L’s Outstanding Policy Report Award. Yet Jeannie’s impact extends far beyond our professional organization.

After graduating from UCLA, Jeannie published her most well-known book, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, in 1985. A review of the book by Adam Gamoran noted that, “Oakes's book surpasses previous work on tracking by looking not simply at where and how students are assigned to tracks but at what happens to them once they reach their classrooms. . . . Oakes finds that lower-track students are exposed to less valued knowledge than higher-track students, . . . spend less time on-task and receive less instructional time from teachers whom they perceive as less enthusiastic. In addition, they have poorer opinions of themselves and lower educational expectations for the future than their average- and high-track counterparts. . . . Keeping Track provides the first evidence that such between-track differences occur systematically in American middle and high schools."

At the RAND Corporation, where she and Linda were colleagues, Jeannie built a body of work focused on equity and how it could be addressed by policy. One powerful example is her 1990 report Multiplying Inequalities: The Effects of Race, Social Class, and Tracking on Opportunities to Learn Mathematics and Science. In 1986 Jeannie published an early framework for statistical reporting that shed light on students’ learning opportunities: Educational Indicators: A Guide for Policymakers (see also Oakes, 1989).

Jeannie returned to UCLA in 1989 as a tenured professor in the School of Education. There, she formally and informally mentored countless students, whose work continues to impact education research, policy, and practice. Those who learned under Jeannie’s tutelage, including Michelle and Kevin, refer to her diaspora as her Jeannie-ology. One of her first advisees, Robert Cooper, describes Jeannie’s approach to advising as “relational, transformative and enduring.” “Jeannie possessed an innate ability,” he explains, “to see areas of potential in people and had a keen eye for recognizing strengths and areas for growth. Her leadership style fostered an environment of trust and collaboration, empowering all those around her.”

Jeannie’s highly influential 1992 Educational Researcher article, Can tracking research inform practice? explained that when school leaders and others focus on the technical considerations of changing a practice like tracking, they will come up short if normative and political matters are not also addressed. This equity-minded framework for school reform became a significant contribution to the fields of education research, philanthropy, and policy, pushing those fields to wrestle with the ways that values, beliefs, politics, and power inequalities reinforce tracking and other inequitable policies and practices.

Early on, Jeannie very intentionally engaged with audiences beyond other scholars. During the 1980s, school districts that were under desegregation orders increasingly used racial tracking to subvert between-school desegregation by resegregating students within schools. Between 1988 and 1994, Jeannie served as an expert in four such cases in federal district court.

Her research also increasingly involved collaborations with community-based organizations, activists, and educators. For example, Jeannie joined colleagues in creating Center X, UCLA’s innovative teacher education program. Center X aims to recruit, prepare, and then support teachers who will advance social justice for K–12 students in Los Angeles schools. The center grew out of the glaring racial and economic inequality made evident during the LA Uprisings. As the city burned, Jeannie and her colleagues reflected on how to leverage the people and resources of UCLA toward advancing education in Los Angeles’ most underserved schools.

In 2000, when the ACLU crafted its Williams v. California lawsuit alleging dramatically inadequate and unequal funding of schools, Jeannie coordinated a research team of experts. Her one demand of the plaintiffs’ lawyers was that the research she and others conducted would later be made available to academics and the public (and, in fact, it was published as a 2004 special edition of Teachers College Record). She and her colleagues developed a body of evidence demonstrating how inequitable access to funding translated into inequitable access to qualified teachers, curriculum, facilities, and other key educational resources, and how these disparities, in turn, influenced education outcomes. The Williams lawsuit was settled in 2004, with the state agreeing to increase funding (by almost a billion dollars), establishing minimum standards for educational resources across the state, and paving the way for an even more progressive finance system launched a decade later.

Beginning with the Research on Democratic School Communities (RDSC) project, Jeannie built research teams at UCLA that were true communities of practice. They allowed graduate students to move from learning on the periphery to leading at the center. Some of the RDSC work is reported in Oakes et al., Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform (2000), which won AERA’s Outstanding Book Award in 2001.

Over the years, Jeannie drew a great deal from her collaboration with her husband, Martin Lipton. Those working directly with Jeannie knew his meticulous feedback and deep contributions to her work and our collaborative projects. Among their many collaborations, Jeannie and Martin co-authored the first edition of their groundbreaking textbook, Teaching to Change the World (now in its 5th edition, with added co-authors), which has helped prepare a generation of future teachers.

In addition to Center X, Jeannie co-founded UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (UCLA IDEA). The university center aimed to use research as a tool “to confront the broad social norms or the political arrangements that supported [educational] inequality” (Oakes & Rogers, 2006, p. 26). Among the innovative activities at UCLA IDEA, the Futures Project aimed to systemically and sustainably disrupt high school inequality; the Education Justice Collaborative brought together civil rights attorneys, community organizers, and researchers to examine and develop solutions to statewide education inequalities; and the Education Opportunity Reports innovatively presented state data on college opportunities and roadblocks to college access for every school district and legislative district in the state. Jeannie also co-led a multi-year project to advance the idea that high schools can and should prepare students for both college and meaningful careers.

In 2008, Jeannie brought her insights and passion to philanthropy as director of education and scholarship at the Ford Foundation. She also worked across philanthropy, research, education, and community sectors to seed several networks supporting public education, many of which still thrive today, including the Partnership for the Future of Learning and the Education Funder Strategy Group.

As Jeannie was wrapping up her time at Ford, she was elected as AERA’s 100th president. She chose the conference theme, “Public Scholarship to Educate Diverse Democracies.” Kevin and Michelle were honored to serve as her program chairs. Along with the meeting itself and work with AERA to organize a Knowledge Forum with 31 “Ed Talks”—each one a short, engaging presentation by a prominent scholar sharing their work with policy leaders and a broad public audience.

“Public scholarship," Jeannie observed in her Presidential Address, “deepens scholars’ knowledge production because when it is done well, it is inclusive and empowering—both for education professionals and the publics who are facing immediate problems. Engaging in the messy world of practice, culture, and politics, public scholarship can yield knowledge that is more complete, more responsive to the problems at hand, and ultimately, more useful” (Oakes, 2018; watch the video at

Jeannie next joined Linda at the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) as a Senior Fellow, where she helped launch a line of research on community schools that has had an enormous influence nationwide. In 2017, under Jeannie’s leadership, LPI collaborated with the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) to conduct a major review of the evidence base for community schools, identifying the positive outcomes of such schools and their key components, and stimulating major investments across the country. The report won AERA Division L’s award for Outstanding Policy Report. With collaboration from the LPI team and many partner organizations and policymakers, Jeannie’s efforts led to increases in federal funding for community schools, state investments in California, New Mexico, and Vermont, and local initiatives in the nation’s largest school districts (e.g., New York City and Los Angeles).

As Jeannie would remind us, the work of equity is nowhere near done. We all must continue this work, and as we reflect on Jeannie and her many contributions, we cannot help but feel inspired. That inspiration, not sadness, is what Jeannie would most want us to feel at this time.

“As we negotiate a culture that increasingly exhibits anti-intellectual, anti-scholarship tendencies, public scholarship can help us work with and for an engaged, informed citizenry,” Jeannie said in her AERA Presidential Address. “As our intellectual forebears believed, such a citizenry is absolutely essential to have a democracy fully committed to principles of equity and inclusion.”