Faculty Spotlight

May Faculty Spotlight with Associate Professor Judith Kafka


Among the many, varied political and social issues in the world, those outside of the educational sphere may not realize the complexity of issues that schools not only face, but create in society. In this month’s faculty spotlight we chat with Associate Professor Judith Kafka about schools and education in the context of racial and economic inequality, and more.

Tell us about your research interests – how do they intersect with your teaching?
I'm interested in the ways that schools have historically sat at the intersection of political, social, and economic tensions in our country, and I have a particular interest in the ways that education has at times been seen as a way to reduce inequality and at other times been used to promote or maintain inequality. The classes I teach all address these issues from different perspectives.

Right now I am teaching a course in the Macaulay Honors College that is focused specifically on public education in New York City and the ways that schools have been both shaped by and helped to shape demographic and residential patterns here. I teach an elective in our Bachelors of Public Affairs program that considers school reform more broadly and asks students to interrogate the possibilities and limitations of asking schools to reform society. I teach a graduate level course on educational policy that focuses a little more on policy solutions to current educational problems, but we are still looking to the past to help us make sense of the present.

I love that I can integrate my research into classroom discussions, and that classroom discussions can in turn inform my research.

What is your current research project about?
Right now I am researching school segregation in Brooklyn. I first conceived of the project as trying to answer questions about how diverse parents think about school choice in an environment where there are no zoned schools. I've been following parents of fifth graders in a school district that has neighborhood elementary schools but students are assigned to middle schools based on a process of matching parental preferences to school preferences. The process has historically resulted in great racial and economic disparities in the composition of student populations in different schools, but there has been an effort to change that and I wanted to learn what role parents were playing in this process, and indeed if parents even think about issues of diversity, equality, and access when choosing schools for their children.

As part of this project I wanted to establish the history of the district and the district boundary lines, and I was shocked to discover how little has been written about the history of Brooklyn schooling outside of a few high-profile historical moments. So now at the same time that I am researching how policy and practice interact on the ground in the context of middle school choice today, I am also working on a very long history of segregation and inequality in Brooklyn schools, going back to the so-called "colored" schools of the 1800s and working my way forward. It has been a very exciting project - with lots of surprises along the way, and I'm having a lot of fun conducting this research.

What drew you to the Marxe School. What keeps you here?
What drew me to the Marxe School was the interdisciplinary and highly-engaged faculty. Everyone here is interested in matters that affect the public sphere, but they approach their research differently. This makes for a lively and collegial environment. I was trained in a school of education and most of my colleagues in my field work exclusively with other education researchers; I like that I am in a more integrated setting. It makes me constantly think about the value of my research and how to make it accessible to a larger audience.

As much as I enjoy my colleagues, however, what keeps me here are the students. They are smart and engaged and care a great deal about society. Many of them have overcome incredible challenges to be here; others have not. As a group they are diverse in every way imaginable except that they do not take their educational opportunities for granted. They are eager to learn, which makes teaching them extremely rewarding.