A Soliloquy on Viewing the Life of Professor Edmund W. Gordon from the First Decade of His Second Century

“Dr. Edmund W. Gordon has been one of the leading intellectuals in the field of education for longer than I have been alive. I have the privilege of counting him as one of my mentors and guides for over 30 years. From the first time I met him at Yale University, I was impressed not only by his towering intellect but his warmth, compassion, and humanity. As a young scholar just beginning my career in academia, I learned through his example that intellectual greatness does not have to be accompanied by arrogance and self-centeredness. Throughout his long distinguished career, Dr. Gordon has demonstrated a deep commitment to using his scholarship in service of justice and the betterment of society. For this reason, the 100th anniversary of his birth is a moment when I and countless others must give thanks for all that Edmund W. Gordon has done, personally and professionally, to advance education and justice.”

—Pedro A. Noguera, Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California

“Ed Gordon is an intellectual, spiritual, and physical force of nature. What’s most dazzling to me is that even as he enters his second century on this earth, Ed continues to reflect and write, provoke and inspire, and thus shape the fundamental debates about equity and opportunity, education and development, and, above all, social justice in our society. Ed has spawned a cadre of devoted proteges, fans, and followers who will carry his work forward for generations to come.”

—Hugh Bernard Price, Past President, National Urban League

Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant: What Educators Today Can Learn from the Life’s Work of Edmund W. Gordon on his 100th Birthday

On a warm September morning in 2016, a group of respected education leaders, including the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the former assistant secretary for civil rights for President Obama’s Department of Education, and the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, gathered in a crowded auditorium for a naming and groundbreaking ceremony for the flagship facility that would soon house the new Edmund W. Gordon Brooklyn Laboratory High School in downtown Brooklyn.

We named the school after Dr. Gordon, who is celebrating his 100th birthday today, to honor his singularly wide and deep influence on the fields of education and civil rights. A research scientist, author, professor, civil rights leader, former minister, and psychologist, Dr. Gordon’s mentorship and ideas have shaped Brooklyn LAB practitioners’ approach to their work, particularly in student assessment.

At the ceremony, Harlem Children’s Zone President Geoffrey Canada, whom both Time and Fortune have named as among the greatest leaders of our time, reflected on Dr. Gordon’s contributions: “All of my thinking about education comes from how [Dr. Gordon] has led this field, saying there are fundamental principles that we have to have as educators if we’re going to level the playing field. Dr. Gordon, on behalf of all the educators in this country, on behalf of America’s children, I want to personally thank you.”

As we join with Dr. Gordon’s colleagues, former students, family members, and educators to salute a century’s worth of his accomplishments and celebrate his 100th birthday today, it’s striking how important and relevant his life’s work continues to be as we devote ourselves to building back education following the global COVID-19 pandemic. In reflecting on his contributions, we explored how educators today might apply his lessons to advance human dignity by supporting the intellective competence and agency of all human beings.

Modeling Dr. Gordon’s dedication to justice

Few thinkers of the past century match Dr. Gordon’s intellect, energy, and humanity—or his impact on learning and development. Born in Goldsboro, North Carolina, on June 13, 1921, Dr. Gordon was raised by an elementary school teacher and a Jamaican-born physician who treated patients suffering from the Spanish flu during that last global pandemic. No doubt, this upbringing shaped his development as a husband, father, grandfather, thinker, and teacher.

After earning degrees from Howard University and Columbia University’s Teachers College, Dr. Gorden embarked on a storied career researching and writing about equity in education. Dr. Gordon’s distinguished career spans professional practice and scholarly life, but one common thread is a dedication to justice. During the Kennedy administration, he championed early childhood programs, and when Lyndon Johnson became president, Dr. Gordon was tasked with evaluating the Head Start program. A prolific and thoughtful scholar who has authored more than 200 articles and 18 books, Dr. Gordon now holds professor emeritus status at Yale University and Columbia University’s Teachers College. Earlier this month, Teachers College renamed its Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) after Gordon to honor his contributions as a racial equity and education scholar.

Some of Dr. Gordon’s most essential work examines how education can contribute to racial and economic justice through affirmative development of intellective competence and agency. One of his mentors and personal friends was W.E.B. Du Bois, and Dr. Gordon have said that his father kept a copy of Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction displayed on his bookshelf. Dr. Gordon’s subsequent friendship with one of the greatest civil rights leaders and thinkers of the 20th century had a critical impact on the direction of his own research. During his career, Dr. Gordon has examined outcomes for children of color and those from low-income families, and the importance of public education to support human rights-based and equity-centered affirmative development for all.

Today, many educators point to Dr. Gordon as their own inspiration and mentor, and ground their work in the Gordon Paradigm on Research and Practice. Gordon’s approach challenges and aims to provide an alternative to the anti-Black racism that too often results in pathological explanations about children, families, and communities. “We often look at students of color from low-income backgrounds with a deficit lens, without acknowledging the wealth of experiences and potential they bring to us,” said Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of Digital Promise. “Thanks to Dr. Gordon’s work, we have the foundation for all educators to understand the role that student agency plays in educating our most historically marginalized students, and the work that we need to do to help students persevere and advocate for themselves with authority.”

Dr. Gordon’s lessons focus on how school systems can and must do better for learners and families. It’s incumbent on educators to apply Dr. Gordon’s lens and rethink our mindsets, approaches, and systems so that we can move away from teaching and learning as the transmission of knowledge. As educators, we do best by students when we enable learners to orchestrate and mediate their own learning. Dr. Gordon often quotes William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Using evidence to serve, inform, and enhance learning

Dr. Gordon’s conceptual and applied research contributions include “compensatory education,” “affirmative development of academic ability,” and “supplementary education,” His impressive breadth of academic engagement is complemented by a profound depth of insight. The field, and our school, have much to learn from Dr. Gordon’s work on assessments that are fair and beneficial to students.

Brooklyn LAB has been one of the many beneficiaries of Dr. Gordon’s imperative that education should cultivate intellective competence. Through a Fellowship with the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, Brooklyn LAB’s founding team came to understand the importance of assessment for learning—that is, assessments that not only measure learning, but also generate actionable evidence to improve and inform teaching and learning.

As in so many domains of his life, Dr. Gordon brought together a group of education leaders whom he had mentored individually and collectively for decades. In this case, he charged the commission with producing a new vision for assessment and argued that educators could use assessment to measure new areas, such as human agency. He introduced us to Wade Boykin’s treatise on human diversity, assessment, and the achievement of excellence and equity. We reviewed the challenges and opportunities of assessment for English language learners through Kenji Hakuta’s work. Throughout, Dr. Gordon insisted that the measurement sciences can and should be of greater service to teaching and learning, and that developments from science and technology will both demand and enable progress.

In asking us to reimagine how and what we assess in education, Dr. Gordon was challenging us to think beyond the learning that takes place in school and expand our view of what it will mean to be an educated person in the mid-21st-century.

As Emile Sessions, director of policy data and evaluation at Black Entrepreneurs NYC put it: “He is always reminding us that ‘education is not coterminous with schooling.’ I carry Dr. Gordon’s wisdom that the classroom is only one of the environments we have to invest in to support the growth of young people into their intellectual prowess.” Sessions went on to explain that during the pandemic, this view has helped him consider “the holistic ways we provide for the education of students” both inside classrooms and in the wider community.

But Dr. Gordon’s influence is not limited to education. His leadership, guidance and friendship have had a profound impact on generations of his students, colleagues, family, and friends. Among his most enduring friendships was with former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, who passed away last year. Mayor Dinkins’ daughter, described Dr. Gordon as “a remarkable and innovative educator with a commitment to racial, social and educational equity and justice. He appreciated students’ academic, in-classroom, performance, as well as their dedication to cultural and social causes critical to one’s political and educational development. Dr. Gordon is a role model and an exemplary human being.”

Dr. Gordon cites his happy marriage to his wife, Dr. Susan G. Gordon, as the crowning achievement of his life. Drs Susan and Edmund Gordon have expressed pride to have four accomplished and humane children who work to do good in this world. His daughter, Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, said Dr. Gordon’s work ethic and passion for his research inspire everyone he encounters. She described him as “the most intellectual person [she] has ever met and one the most dedicated human beings” she knows. A perfectionist, her father “puts huge amounts of thought and energy into everything he does, and usually excels at it.”

An invitation to share in our celebration and recognize a remarkable human

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to celebrate life and cherish loved ones. As we do that today, celebrating the life and work of Dr. Gordon, we invite you to contribute your own tribute in a document Brooklyn LAB will collate and share with Dr. Gordon and his family. Educators and scholars at Brooklyn LAB appreciate the chance to hear from those who are applying Dr. Gordon’s work and have ideas on how to apply his thinking to contemporary conversations around the future of education when it comes to justice, fairness, and humanity. Please send your contributions to us here.

Dr. Gordon has dedicated his life to equity in education, and we have much to learn from his work and the Gordon Paradigm on Research and Practice.

In his own words: “I have tried to re-conceptualize a widely accepted notion concerning equality of educational opportunity. Some of my students and I believe that given the state of educational development for the diverse population of students in the U.S., the pursuit of equity in opportunities is more appropriate than the pursuit of equality, defined as sameness. We also believe that equity will require that we take advantage of recent findings concerning the nature of human learning that move us away from teaching and learning as the transmission of knowledge and technique [and] toward learning as the enablement of learners to orchestrate and mediate their own learning.”

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