John Rogers: Empowering Communities to Improve Public Schooling

Research focuses on educational and civic trajectories of urban youth, voter awareness.

Professor of Education John Rogers is nationally recognized for his leadership in improving public schooling for the nation’s most vulnerable children.  As director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) and faculty co-director of UCLA’s Principal Leadership Institute, Rogers is a top UCLA expert who studies public engagement and community organizing as strategies for equity-focused school reform and democratic renewal, drawing extensively on the work of John Dewey to explore the meaning of, and possibilities for, democratic education in the 21st Century. Rogers received his Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University and his B.A. in Public Policy and African American Studies from Princeton University.

Two important community-strengthening projects under Rogers’ leadership are the First Vote Project, which grew out of his work to empower young people in low- income neighborhoods, and most recently, his leadership of the Los Angeles Forum for Equity.

The Los Angeles Forum for Equity brings together a network of expert researchers, community organizations, and school-support agencies to develop and share a framework for implementing the new Local Control Funding Formula in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), Sacramento’s education finance reform, aims to decentralize control over how dollars flow to local schools and communities, while concentrating additional support for students from low-income families, English learners, and foster youth. This new funding paradigm presents schools and school districts with opportunities to strengthen public schooling, but also creates fresh challenges in creating and implementing new budget policies that will have the greatest impact.

That’s where John Rogers and his colleagues are stepping in to provide school and community leaders with the vital information and resources to make budget decisions under LCFF.  The Los Angeles Forum for Equity will convene key stakeholders and provide them with the research-based data and analysis needed to best distribute the benefits of LCFF in ways that will support LAUSD’s most underserved student populations.  Rogers has received funding from the Stuart Foundation and the California Community Foundation to implement the work of the Los Angeles Forum for Equity.  (The California Endowment also provides support for the Forum.)

Commenting on the new Local Control Funding Formula framework, The California Teachers Association (CTA) says that, “California has dropped to 49th in the nation in per-pupil spending in the last year and has consistently hovered in that range during the last 20 years. While the LCFF does not provide sufficient funding to get California to at least the national average, it’s a proposal that will significantly increase overall state spending for all schools while providing additional resources to disadvantaged students.”

UCLA and UC Berkeley experts have partnered to conduct the Forum’s research, to create demographic maps that show where students who qualify for LCFF live, and to develop a series of budget options for school and community leaders.

This month, the Forum’s research and public engagement contributed to the development of a Los Angeles Unified School District resolution.  The “Equity is Justice” Resolution calls for the district to create an index to identify schools experiencing the greatest needs and target these schools for additional resources.  In June, hundreds of youth and parent members of InnerCity Struggle and the Community Coalition (community-based organizations affiliated with the Forum) rallied outside the board in support of the resolution.  On June 10, the “Equity is Justice” resolution passed on a 5-1 vote, marking a new direction for Los Angeles schools. Rogers views the Board’s action as a hopeful sign.

“The Board vote reflects the civic power of organized youth and parents as well as the persuasive force of evidence-based arguments on where resources are needed most,” he says.

The Los Angeles Forum for Equity is addressing better public schools through empowering better policy, budgeting, and leadership.  One of Rogers’ other projects, The First Vote Project, seeks to address urban schooling by directly empowering young people.

The First Vote Project, which Rogers says emerged out of the unprecedented youth engagement in the 2008 presidential election, is centered on his study of youth organizing groups and how they encouraged people in their communities to vote. He says that this level of activism was unusual because the youth were from working class and immigrant communities where a substantial portion of the population would not have had citizenship status. He says that this did not deter the levels of participation, as US-born youth, documented immigrants, and undocumented youth joined together to help bring about change by supporting the actions of those citizens who could vote.

“Encouraging people to vote, talking about the election, and registering people to vote are ways for people who are non-citizens to participate in civic affairs,” Rogers says. “They can’t cast a vote, but their interests are expressed in these other ways. There’s a sense in which they are helping to shape the conditions in their communities.”

Rogers underscores the importance of robust civic learning and engagement for low-income youth, and says that it is particularly critical in low-income communities and immigrant communities where civic participation levels have not historically been as high as in other communities. His 2013 study titled, “Learning to Lead: The Impact of Youth Organizing on the Educational and Civic Trajectories of Low-Income Youth” (with Veronica Terriquez, USC), examines the many positive outcomes that occur when low-income and immigrant youth participate in youth organizing, addressing issues such as educational equity and school policy making. Their findings charted the effect of youth organizing on 18-25-year-olds who had participated in these activities.

“Youth organizing groups have focused most of their attention on educational reform,” says Rogers. “One of the reasons that I’ve become interested in this is that efforts to make schools more equitable and responsive to the needs of the community traditionally have focused a lot of their attention on teachers or researchers, [who] have a limited role that they can play in transforming the politics. Youth and community organizing groups can play a really substantial role in changing the inequalities that exist.”

Rogers posits that the experiences of collaboration, interacting with community leaders, public speaking, and other related activities, builds skills that give the youth a sense of leadership. Academic achievement and ambition was also enhanced, with the alumni of youth organizing groups being four times more likely to go to college than their non-involved counterparts.

“A lot of the activities were in school settings, but they also did something that is hard to accomplish in a school setting, which is to take people out of themselves,” says Rogers. “As a youth organizer, you make cold calls, knock on doors, speak at rallies, and the like. When we interviewed these young adults, they often said how those actions brought them out of their shells. A number of them talked about being shy, and not having a public voice. And these outreach activities gave them in a way in which they were supported, a process through which they developed a public identity.

“They were far more likely to volunteer. They were more likely to register to vote. They were more likely to follow the news closely. So, on a variety of different dimensions, there were higher levels of civic engagement. When asked questions like, ‘Can young people make a difference?’ they were more likely to say yes, and to have specific examples. When asked about what it means for a young person to be politically engaged, they were more likely to talk about ways that people can come together to take joint action- some sort of collective sense of making a difference. So they had a very different sort of identity.”

UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies stands apart from other graduate education schools in the nation in its commitment to social justice, which is based on the faculty’s shared belief that a vibrant democracy requires equal access to quality educational opportunities for all citizens. IDEA is one of the important research institutes here at UCLA that actively carries out this work.  The institute seeks to understand and challenge pervasive racial and social class inequalities in education. In addition to conducting independent research and policy analysis, IDEA supports educators, public officials, advocates, community activists, and young people as they design, conduct, and use research to make high-quality public schools and successful college participation the standard in all communities. IDEA also studies how research combines with strategic communications and public engagement to promote widespread participation in civic life.


Photo by Jennifer Young