Robert Cooper Honored With AERA Leadership for Social Justice Award

Director of UCLA Education Minor Program and PLI co-director recognized for nurturing of equity-driven school leaders.

Robert Cooper, associate professor of education in the Urban Schooling division of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, has been selected to receive the Teacher of the Year Award from the Leadership for Social Justice SIG Awards Committee of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Cooper, who directs the Education Studies Minor Program at UCLA, as well as Co-Faculty Director of the UCLA Principal Leadership Institute, is lauded for his work on equity-minded school reform and the politics of education.

“This is an incredible honor,” says Cooper.  “I think the hope of every educator is to make an impact on his or her students. To be recognized for that effort is not only a very rewarding feeling, but also very humbling.”

“Nobody exemplifies dedication and brilliance in social justice teaching better than Professor Robert Cooper,” says Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco. “The entire GSE&IS community joins me in heartfelt congratulations to Professor Cooper for his exemplary teaching and this outstanding achievement.”

Cooper is currently working on a five-year project funded by the California Academic Partnership Program (CAPP) that looks at the ways schools can better prepare and increase the number of students of color by establishing and fostering a college-going culture for their students.

“I take as a starting point that all students have the capacity and ability to learn and the right to pursue a college education,” says Professor Cooper. “The fact that so many students from marginalized backgrounds fail to enroll and persist in college has served as the motivation driving my research”

The project is currently in its third year. Cooper’s research team recently released a report focused on how educational expectations shape the educational opportunities available to students.

“Specifically, the report explores the ways in which clear college expectations are communicated explicitly or implicitly to students, their families, and other stakeholders in schools,” says Cooper. “The report also explores the role and influence of college-going expectations in developing a positive school culture that supports students who are being academically challenged and prepared for college enrollment. This type of school culture provides social-emotional support for students and  shifts the focus of understanding school change from content and outcome frameworks to illuminating the educative process. This line of inquiry speaks to the important role that institutional culture plays in determining the success, failure, and future of students.”

Building on this research, Cooper and his team will be working with six high schools across California this summer to host a 9th grade “College-Going” Boot Camp for approximately 300  low-income students of color at UCLA.  Schools will work in concert with the camp to support this fall’s incoming 9th graders and their families in navigating their entrance into high school and the college preparation process.

“Studies suggest that many students experience difficulty transitioning from middle school to high school, finding it hard to adjust to a new school, new social context and new academic expectations,” notes Cooper. “Research indicates that the way in which students move from middle school to high school predicts their success in 9th grade and ultimately their success in high school.

“The transition from middle school to high school takes place at the time of several important physical, social, and environmental changes in the lives of all adolescents,” he says. “This period plays a significant role in students’ future academic trajectory and career choices.”

Professor Cooper’s research interests also include the politics of education and the implementation and replication of equity-minded reform. He has served as a Sloan Public Policy Fellow at Brandeis University, and a CORO Public Affairs Fellow. He earned his Ph.D. in education at UCLA, his master’s degree in public policy at Brandeis University, and his undergraduate degree in government at Pomona College.

Cooper was previously honored by AERA in 2015 with the Exemplary Contributions to Practice-Engaged Research Award. With his research team, he will be presenting five papers at this year’s Annual Meeting of AERA in San Antonio, April 27-May1, including “The Impact of Tracking and Discipline on the College-Going Engagement of Students of Color,” “Family Engagement During Transitions to Secondary and Postsecondary Educational Settings,” and “Developing, Implementing, and Sustaining Systems of Support and a College-Goiing Culture.” Cooper will also take part in an Invited Speaker Session on “Bringing Mental Health Into the Classroom: Policies, Programs, and Practices for Resilience.”

Professor Cooper’s greatest hope for his students at UCLA is “that they begin to see social justice as a tool for looking at why and how society – schools more specifically – are unjust for some. I also hope they will imagine the role they can play in reconstructing a more socially just and healthy social order.”

“All of my courses are taught from a social justice perspective, meaning that I seek to explore and discuss the role and influence that race, social class, culture, and politics play in shaping the systems and structures of our country,” he says. “Invoking a social justice framework means situating our understanding of the structures and systems of our society within the historical struggle against race and class oppression [and] examining school policies and practices with an eye on who in society benefits from them and how these benefits are tied to inequalities associated with race, social class, language, gender, and other social categories.”