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Dr. Thandeka Chapman

Thandeka K. Chapman, PhD


Associate Professor, Education Studies




How would you describe your research on social mobility? 

My research explores the educational experiences of students of color in K-12 public schools. Using mainly qualitative methods, I examine student outcomes related to school, district, state, or federal policies, which propose to increase access and equity for racially and socially marginalized students. Many of the education reforms, such as desegregation initiatives, charter schools, and multicultural education are the result of the country’s struggles to consistently produce quality learning environments for students of color, where their culture, language, and individual selves are integrated into highly resourced academic settings. In the United States, the system of public education was designed as a double-edged sword. Public education was meant to produce social mobility and to maintain the status quo of the ‘underclasses’ in the same moment. My scholarship examines how institutions and social and political systems create both avenues for success, as well as barriers to equitable education for students of color.


What led you to be interested in these topics? 

 I call myself a Black Power Baby because I was born in the 1970s. Both my parents are educators and activists who utilized their resources to challenge injustices in education. Conversations about race and racism were regular dinner topics while I was growing up. And as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a teacher. But the three events that shaped my career trajectory were 1) When I attended a boarding school; 2) When I attended college; and 3) When I became a teacher.

            The student body at my high school was multicultural. We hailed from rich and poor, rural and urban, bi-lingual and monolingual families across the state of Illinois. We lived and learned together for three years. Our conversations about our families, histories in the U.S., hometowns, etc. were organic and impactful. During those years, I became fascinated with cultural differences and similarities. Later in life, I realized that the majority of students never have the opportunity to meaningfully engage with people who are racially and ethnically different from themselves. Athletics and military service are the two best options for young people to build bonds across racial groups.

            After high school I attended Spelman College, one of two historically Black colleges for women in the U.S. At Spelman, I learned about myself, different Black communities, and the Black Diaspora. In my K-12 education, I only had two Black teachers--third grade and sophomore year of high school. At Spelman, almost all of my professors were Black women. I gained self-confidence and a greater understanding of the Blackness and the history of the world. Spelman saved me from a life time of ignorance and insecurity.

            Lastly, I became a ninth-grade teacher at East High School in Rockford, Illinois. My position was created as part of the last comprehensive remedial order to desegregated an urban district in the U.S. I walked into a school and district that were struggling to change every aspect of schooling as they knew and liked it. I taught English Language Arts to racially and socially marginalized students who often needed more support than I could give them. Even though I had my teaching credential, I was not prepared to teach these amazing kids.

            After three years of teaching, I returned to graduate school to learn how to change the system and give racially and socially marginalized students high quality education. With my research, I strive to change the education system so that students receive the same types of experiences I had in school- meaningful, integrated spaces, culturally responsive curriculum, caring adults, rigorous academic work, and multiple opportunities for success. I want to change the system of education to reflect and value all students, not just a small percentage of students.


Of the findings that you’ve had in your own research, which have excited you the most-- and why?

I get excited about my research every time I step into a classroom or interview teachers, students, and parents. What I value the most about my research is being able to highlight the complexities of students’ experiences and examine the factors that influence their decisions around schooling. My research is not about a final result, but the thought processes, experiences, laws, policies, history, and resources that impact student outcomes. I also appreciate how my research questions challenge traditional research findings, which historically position students and families of color as deficient and problematic. My research offers the field of education a different way to investigate education outcomes for students of color.


If you could make any policy recommendation based on your own research (without regard to political possibility!), what would it be? 

 The public education system is the largest ‘touch stone’ for people living in the United States. Approximately 90% of us attend public schools during our matriculation through K-12 education in the U.S. My research documents the complex and intertwining factors influencing the educational experiences of students of color. However, my policy recommendation is to raise teacher salaries to be equivalent to--or above--salaries in other professions. Teachers have the most influence in students’ lives. They write the discipline referrals, choose classroom leaders, group students by ‘achievement’ in elementary school, and endorse students for gifted, talented, and honors courses. Teachers disseminate knowledge in particular ways, justify or demonize certain morals, values and behaviors, and encourage students to work hard and do better. The power of teachers to uplift or injure children cannot be underestimated.

            Raising teacher salaries would elevate the profession and recruit more teachers of color, particularly men of color. Currently, high achieving students of color often do not choose teaching as a profession because of the low-status and salary, even when they are drawn to the profession. To reform the current system, we need a comprehensive plan for change that requires conversations about education equity and access. That being said, I would start with changing the demographics of K-12 teachers.