Institute for Learning
There’s a new Executive Director at the Institute for Learning; Angela Allie joined the IFL in September. With the IFL’s focus on equity and school improvement, the search committee was tasked with finding a candidate who was familiar with the inner workings of a school district at all levels, an advocate for the nation’s most vulnerable students, and be able to respond to the challenges that come with leading academic experts. Allie checks each box.
She brings to the position more than 20 years’ experience in systemic school change, culturally relevant teaching, and professional learning for racial equity in K-12 settings. Since 2016, Allie was the Executive Director of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Equity Office. While there, she worked to ensure educational equity across all schools as part of the district’s Equity Plan.
Prior to taking that position, Allie was principal of Propel Andrew Street High School. The school was ranked as one of the Best High Schools in America in 2014 for math and reading proficiency and college preparation by U.S. News and World Report. Before that, she began her career as an English teacher at Pittsburgh Oliver High School in 2002.
How long have you been in education and what brought you to this field?
As a child of two public K-12 teachers, I feel like I’ve been in education all my life! Even as a student in grade school, I was planning my own lessons and sometimes rewriting my teacher’s lessons in my head.
Wait, as a young student you were already designing your own lessons?
Yes, I recall inserting myself into lesson design and asking teachers, “Can we do it this way instead?” My favorite question from teachers was, “What do you think?” to which I’d light up and say, “I’m so glad you asked!” I had the nerve to write myself into the learning experience with authority—not because I was a “know-it-all;” to the contrary, I was deeply invested in my learning, and I wanted to know more. That investment and my love for literature led me to become a high school English teacher. But I was also motivated by another reason that continues to shape my purpose in education today.
And what reason is that?
I was troubled by how access and opportunity were being shaped along race and income lines, and I was smack in the middle of it. Because of the social capital and middle-class privilege inherited as a child of educators, I had ready access to the most experienced teachers and advanced courses in magnet schools along with the safety nets to keep me from feeling the consequences of typical childhood missteps. Even then, I started to disengage because of my own feelings of isolation caused by culturally dismissive schooling. I wasn’t seeing myself reflected in ways that reinforced my value in educational spaces. Rather, I started to question my value and belongingness. I was a developing Black scholar who preferred Morrison over Faulkner, spoken word over poetry, collaboration over competition, and cultural liberation over assimilation. These differences were always in tension, warring like Du Bois’s double consciousness. I also became keenly aware of the tracking and two-tiered schooling systems that locked most Black students out of opportunities. I felt the absence of my fellow Black students in advanced courses and often wondered where they were being educated and why. I was one of two Black students in my International Baccalaureate English class. What would I do with this privilege, even while experiencing my own marginalization?
So how has this influenced your decision-making as an educator?
I work to help create more equitable and just systems that honor the dignity and intellective capacity of those who have been historically and systemically excluded from a cognitively demanding and culturally relevant education. It means addressing access and opportunity gaps in curriculum and instruction, programming, and resource distribution. It means drawing from the voices of those closest to inequities to reclaim education as a space for enlightenment and humanization. For the past 22 years, this has been my lens as a teacher, principal, and district leader.
Angela Allie (front right) and members of the IFL visiting with the Dallas NSI team.
What’s a pivotal change you’ve made along your educational journey?
One critical shift that has transformed my understanding of educational disparities is reframing achievement gap discourse to the education debt (Ladson-Billings, 2006). Rather than focusing on the outcomes of unequal access and opportunity and viewing so-called “underperforming” students as the problems to be fixed, I’ve turned my gaze to manufactured gaps in opportunity and access and how Black, Brown, and Indigenous families are systemically excluded from quality education.
What changed in your practice once you made that shift?
Having a deeper understanding of historical and current patterns of exclusion has helped me to identify policies and practices that reinforce systemic inequality. Operating from a deep and authentic appreciation for the legacy of brilliance inherent in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities has opened me to culturally relevant practices that build upon learner assets. This starts with a belief that every student is brilliant, can contribute to their own and others’ knowledge, has the capacity to become smarter and has the right and responsibility to own their learning. Furthermore, when we meaningfully integrate diverse ways of knowing into the classroom, everyone’s learning is enriched. This shift prompts me to constantly reflect and act upon ways we can transform the educational system to become more just and how we must normalize excellence for all students, particularly those we’ve pathologized as intellectually inferior.
Where did you see this show up in your practice?
As a principal, I really had to interrogate my core beliefs to remain focused on the education debt and avoid falling into deficit thinking about students. At the time, there was a lot of language around school improvement that centered on quickly turning around “low-performing” schools. Much like the school I led, these schools tended to serve predominantly African American, Hispanic, and/or economically disenfranchised students. The dominant narrative was that they were “tough” schools with “out-of-control” students, so the only imaginable leadership solution was to gain control over students, particularly through zero tolerance discipline and test prep curriculum. Within this approach, students are subject to below grade level materials and direct instruction under the guise that they lack the fundamentals, aren’t primed for cognitively demanding tasks, and cannot contribute to knowledge construction. If students could behave and demonstrate proficiency on the state test, that meant success. But I understood quality education differently. I was guided by Carter G. Woodson’s (1933) assertion that education “must result in making a [person] think and do for themselves…to live more abundantly and to make life better.”
How can that mentality survive in a high-stakes environment?
Well, it was put to the test! Initially, when I wasn’t seeing the student achievement gains that would tell the story of my success as a principal, I had to resist any inclination to fault the students and their families and take a really hard look at my leadership and what students were being asked to do—Was it worth their while? Were they at the center of it? Did we put into place the necessary conditions for students to thrive? That introspection really prompted me to assess my beliefs. I think everyone has those checkpoints where you’re forced to revisit your beliefs and make sure they line up with your actions. I had these taken for granted views that had gone unchallenged at a systems level. Now I had to prove to myself that even in these different, unpredictable circumstances the core principles of empowerment and humanization belong.
Where did that introspection take you?
The exploration became: What would happen if the school community co-designed a school where students wanted to be, where they could see themselves reflected in the curriculum, have rightful space to create and contribute, and have the human and material resources to support their growth? It turns out, student achievement can happen, but also so much more: a community of critical thinkers who demonstrate deep learning and application beyond a test score and the development of habits of mind that leverage student agency and grow their intelligence and critical consciousness. Among the many system changes made, we implemented an inquiry-based curriculum with high-level
performance tasks and culturally relevant pedagogical practices, eliminated exclusionary instructional programming and practices, and talked openly and intentionally about the role that race plays in schooling. Among the many improvements seen, student joy is the most noteworthy.
The field of education comes with challenges. What has kept you going?
With educational justice as the goalpost, battle fatigue is real. The battle for me is always situated within a much larger struggle, one that is shared and passed on to me by my ancestors. It remains a personal challenge of mine that the progress toward educational justice is so slow and, in some ways, moving backwards. This is a challenge that is dear to me because Black people are the pioneers of educational access and we continue to advocate for a fair and accessible public educational system for all people, which we have yet to fully realize. I have a tall order, and I have hope. I rest on bell hooks’ (1994) assessment that “the classroom […] remains a location of possibility” (p. 207). Also, anytime I grow weary, I think about the generations of young people who persist despite the struggles and barriers they face. They don’t have the luxury to opt out, and I shouldn’t either.
What brought you to the IFL?
I’ve carried the Principles of Learning with me throughout my teaching career, principalship, and adult learning practices, primarily Accountable Talk1 moves, socializing intelligence, and self-management of learning, which are deeply rooted in student empowerment and agency. They have served me well. When matched with a rigorous curriculum, critically conscious and culturally competent educators, and a coordinated system of coaching and support, the classroom of “possibility” can become a reality. Now I get to lead and learn with an amazing team of teaching and learning specialists who are leading for change in the very ways that have transformed my practice. I also look forward to taking equity work out of a compartment separate from teaching and learning and integrating it into everyday classroom practice where students directly benefit.
In your personal life, what are you learning right now?
As a mother of two toddlers, I am learning more about grace and love. Raising children has really been teaching me that even though I am responsible for them, they do not belong to me. My job is to be a learner of them and to work on my capacity for total acceptance. My assignment is to pay attention to what works for them, even though it may be very different from what works for me. I’m learning to trust myself, that I can be whatever this assignment will require of me, that I can grow the skills needed because I am genuinely interested in adapting to show them that love is my bottom line. My agency and strength lie in my willingness to continually reshape what love needs to look like. And that doesn’t make it any less genuine. The most beautiful part of this journey is that I’m not just practicing these behaviors for my children; ultimately, all my closest loving relationships are teaching me how to be a better person to myself and to others.
Hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress. New York: Routledge
Ladson-Billings,G., (October 2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/3876731?seq=1&cid=pdf-reference#references_tab_contents
Woodson, C. G., (1933) The mis-education of the Negro. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers.
Works of W. E. B. Du Bois
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1896) The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. New York, NY: Longmans, Green, and Company.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (August 1897). Strivings of the Negro people, Atlantic Monthly, 80, 194-98.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1899). The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago, IL: A. C. McClurg & Company.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1909). John Brown. Philadelphia, PA: George W. Jacobs & Company.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (December 1911). The quest of the silver fleece: A novel. Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, 20(78), 382. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15265/15265-h/15265-h.htm.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1920). Darkwater: Voices from within the veil. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Howe.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black reconstruction: an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The education of black people: Ten critiques. Chicago, IL: A. C. McClurg & Co.
Addition references can be found at http://www.webdubois.org/index.html.