Q&A with Ezekiel Dixon-Román

Ezekiel Dixon-Román, an assistant professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), had an adventurous high school career, attending four different schools in three different states. He started out at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the city where he was born and raised.

His mother, who worked for IBM, was transferred to Austin, Texas in 1993, where Dixon-Román attended Round Rock High School.

After 15 months in Austin, Dixon-Román’s mother was transferred again to Durham, N.C.

“This is one of the reasons why those of us that have been IBM kids refer to IBM as ‘I’ve Been Moved’ rather than International Business Machines,” Dixon-Román says.

In Durham, he enrolled at Jordan High School before redistricting transferred him to his fourth and final high school, Hillside High.

Dixon-Román says all four high schools were unique and had varying demographics and resources.

“Much of the experiences that I had in high school were very formative in the kind of questions that I come to in my work today,” he says, “particularly dealing around questions of the social reproduction of inequality, and their implications in human learning and development.”

Upon graduating from Hillside, Dixon-Román says he was all set to return to his native New York and attend St. John’s University, but a staff member at North Carolina Central University convinced him to try the nearby historically black institution. He did, and graduated cum laude in 2000.

With his bachelor’s degree in hand, Dixon-Román went on to receive his master’s in social sciences from the University of Chicago, and another master’s in psychology from Fordham University, where he also earned his Ph.D. He served as a research associate and statistical consultant at Columbia Teachers College and a post-doctoral fellow and lecturer at Northwestern University before joining Penn in July of 2008.

In addition to his appointment in SP2, he has a secondary appointment in the Graduate School of Education and is a faculty associate at the Center for Africana Studies and a faculty affiliate in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program.

The Current sat down with Dixon-Román in the Caster Building to discuss what he found appealing about a historically black college and university (HBCU), his time spent in Cuba, U.S.-Cuba relations, forthcoming changes to the SAT, and the recent racial unrest in Ferguson.

Q: You studied psychology and Spanish as an undergrad at North Carolina Central University in Durham. Why did you want to attend an HBCU?
A: A couple things. One is when I applied to college, I applied to both predominately white universities and historically black universities. It wasn’t until literally the Thursday before classes started at Central that I knew I was going there. I worked as a lifeguard in Durham and I knew the director of student life [at North Carolina Central], Dietrich Morrison, and Dietrich had invited me to come to orientation. He ran the orientation and said he would waive my fee and all. Going to the orientation, meeting the folks that I did, learning much more about Central opened my eyes to what I didn’t previously think or imagine. To put this in further context, Hillside High School, which is where I graduated from, was like two miles down the road from North Carolina Central, so there was also this sense of not getting away. And a lot of my peers ended up going to Central, so I was like, ‘I want to go somewhere else.’ But I didn’t actually realize until I went to orientation how much of a new and different world it actually was. The other piece to why I went to a historically black university is my brother went to Cheyney University, so I already had a sense for what a historically black university actually provides, experience-wise. Being in a community that’s predominately comprised of black students and faculty, being able to have a number of faculty of color as well as mentors, the familial environment that is fostered, was something that I already had a sense for and really helped as far as making my decision. My experiences at Central—academically, socially, and professionally—were extremely valuable and formative. In many ways, I think it really helped to instill a sense of resilience and self-efficacy in helping me to navigate and negotiate the various situations and circumstances that I have encountered.

Q: You studied abroad in Cuba while an undergrad in the summer of 2000. How was the experience?
A: Life-changing. As a Spanish major, we had to do a study abroad. I wasn’t interested in doing the traditional Spain or Mexico, not to make a qualitative distinction, but being half Puerto Rican, I was really interested in a more Caribbean Latino abroad experience [and] it had to be either the Dominican Republic or Cuba. It was in my junior year that it was actually publicized that Cuba was going to be offered as a study abroad. I saw the advertisement for Cuba and immediately contacted Lana Henderson, the program director. At the time, she was the dean of arts and sciences and had, from the very beginning I set foot on Central’s campus, always been someone who was supportive and enabling for me. I immediately contacted her and told her I was definitely interested. The focus of the program was on African roots in Cuban culture, so I immediately jumped at the opportunity. There is also some personal history here. I come from a family of activists on my father’s side, in particular. My father and aunt were part of the Puerto Rican Student Union in New York City in the 1970s, and my uncle was a Young Lord—they were the Latino equivalent to the Black Panther Party. They taught many of the ideals of the Cuban Revolution. They were very much in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, so I grew up in a home and a family that had very much romanticized narratives of the Cuban Revolution and Fidel [Castro] and Che [Guevara]. That seed was planted early, that seed of interest in Cuba and wanting to know more.

Q: What was Cuba like?
A: You hear many people say—and it’s very true—that when you go to Cuba, it’s like stepping back in time. While I found that to be accurate, I think it also understates how it affects you and how Cubans, in particular, affect you. Just to give an example, I remember walking on the Malecón in Havana with two peers and I came across this one man who just came up to me and started talking. Cubans want to talk to you, especially when they find out that you’re not from Cuba and you’re from the U.S. They want to talk to you; they want to learn more. If they can speak any English, they’ll try to practice their English, too. This one Cuban asked me where I was from, and I said, ‘The U.S.’ Then he asked how long we had been [in Cuba]. I think at the time we had been there for like a week and a half maybe, 10 days, and he was like, ‘So now you’re Cuban.’ And I took a step back, not in the moment but in my head, thinking and really reflecting on how profound a gesture that was. We’re growing up in a country [the United States] that’s very much xenophobic. Its very foundations are situated on and comprised of processes of exclusion and marginalization that actually seek to construct not just identity but difference as a way of constructing power relations or even maintaining and reproducing power relations. But, here I am in a country [Cuba] that is supposedly completely politically and economically in opposition to the very country that I grew up in, oppressive to its people, where the people are said to be discontent, and the ongoing historical relations between the two countries had been very antagonistic. And this man says, ‘Now you’re Cuban,’ not simply a gesture of inclusion but of embrace. That’s in many ways what you find with many Cubans, this sense of richness, warmth, openness. It really began to make me think about, in much further and deeper ways, alternative possibilities. Alternative political economic systems, alternative educational systems, social systems that may, in fact, enable equitable and just democratic possibilities. In no way am I suggesting that Cuba is that perfect system, but it seemed to me that there were some things that could be learned. That’s what brought me to do research on the social system of comprehensive education and youth culture in Cuba.

Q: You received your Ph.D. in psychometrics. What exactly is psychometrics?
A: There are a couple ways of defining psychometrics. One is the theories and methods of educational and psychological measurement. Another iteration of it is just measurement of statistics more broadly. Much of the methods that psychometrics have developed or used are often employed throughout the social sciences. Its history is situated in intelligence testing. Literally, its inception comes out of the development of intelligence testing and, in fact, goes back to anthropometrics and psychophysics. I have written about some of this history and philosophy of science of psychometrics as a way of questioning some of the various Modernist assumptions that undergird educational testing and assessment.

Q You were a research assistant at The College Board, which administers the SAT, from 2003-2005. The College Board has announced some forthcoming changes to the SAT in 2016. What are your thoughts about these changes?
A: The SAT has gone through many iterations since its original version in 1926. This is nothing new. The history of changes to the SAT have often been more ideological and political than due to new empirical evidence on the measurement of ‘ability.’ The College Board announced that in 2016, they’re going to have a new SAT, as they did in 2004, when another new SAT came about. Along with that—this is actually a really new aspect—is they’re teaming up with Khan Academy as a way to provide free test prep. To me, this is one of the more interesting aspects. The fact that it’s supposedly a new SAT, I think that those distinctions become minimal in the larger scheme of the social world, particularly when you’re considering the high stakes of college admissions. But the fact that they’re teaming up with Khan Academy, a program that has gotten a substantial amount of recognition, funding from the Gates Foundation and all, as a way to provide access to test prep for those test takers that traditionally would not have access to it [is interesting]. The question for me is to what extent will it matter? When we look at the literature on test prep, consistently what we see are marginal gains. In fact, it’s on the order of like a 10- to 20-point gain on the subtest of the SAT, which is within the standard error measurement; it’s part of the expected variability for any sitting of the test. I’m not so sure how much it’s going to make a difference. In some of my forthcoming work, what’s emerging is that it might be less the kind of test prep that teaches test-taking strategies that gives one the advantage, rather than the long-term, life-learning experiences, the kind of conversations and practices that privies one to the particular type of language and the tacit knowledge of understanding of the SAT. This is what [research psychologist] Roy Freedle referred to as the cultural familiarity hypothesis. A former researcher from the Educational Testing Service looked at how, for the easier items, what you get are most words that have several to a dozen or so different definitions. For the harder items, what you get are words that have maybe one or two definitions and they’re more textbook kind of words. On average, students of color do better on the harder items than the easier items. His hypothesis is that test takers respond to items based on their culturally familiar understanding of the words; that is, their tacit knowledge, their everyday understanding of the language of the easier items is much more varied than the hegemonic form that’s assumed on the SAT. That kind of tacit knowledge, that kind of cultural familiarity, is not something that can be shifted in just a day of test prep or even a couple weeks of test prep. That’s the kind of very situated understanding and structural durability of language and culture that requires much more to restructure. Some of my work would even suggest that it is multigenerational. I hope I’m wrong but I suspect that [the changes to the SAT are] not going to do much by way of college access and equity, especially for those who come from marginalized positions. There’s another factor too, and that is there are a growing number of institutions that are moving to test-optional admissions. Interestingly, there was a study that came out about a year ago that found that, on average, those who reported their test scores in contrast to those who didn’t had no differences in their college GPA and completion rates of college. Non-submitters of test scores were also more likely to be first-generation, a racial/ethnic minority, female, Pell grant recipient, or a student with learning differences. The assumption would be that those that wouldn’t report would also not perform as well in college. That study that came out in January of 2014 would definitely refute that very assumption.

Q: Can you envision a time when the SAT is no longer used in college admissions?
A: This is a complicated question, but perhaps. One of the major reasons why it is a complicated question is because there was a moment in time when the SAT, as well as the ACT, were actually enabling access for those who  historically had not been gaining access to selective institutions. Unfortunately, as [British sociologist] Michael Young predicted, the history of U.S. meritocracy has merely reconfigured social relations. As I discussed, the recent study on test-optional admissions is not only promising but the number of institutions that are participating is increasing. There are now more than 800. The problem is what does a selective institution, like the University of Pennsylvania, do when they are receiving and evaluating over 30,000 applications per year. Thus, we might have to consider an alternative evaluative mechanism for admissions.

Q: What could be an alternative to using the SAT?
A: While I will remain agnostic on this question, I will speak to a few possibilities. For instance, The College Board’s dvanced Placement program is designed around a curriculum. Not only is there a test, but it’s actually a course that has a national curriculum. Although standardization is an impossibility, there can be a standard curriculum that students across the country are exposed to. The test itself is tied to that curriculum. The SAT is not tied to the average national high school curriculum like the ACT is. In many ways, The College Board has tried to engage in politics where they have been trying to use the SAT to define high school curriculums. I think they’ve found that that has not been too successful. With AP, it is tied to a curriculum and, as such, is very much an achievement measure. I think despite the fact that there is inequitable access to AP courses—it doesn’t have to be AP but I’m using AP as an example—I think there’s a system that we can imagine where AP course-taking or test scores become one of the supplemental measures of an application that eclipses the antiquated measure of the SAT, that makes contextually disconnected, universal assumptions about processes that are understood to be situated in social context and practices. One of the reasons I even point to AP is because if you take AP Art, which was designed by a colleague of mine, Bob Mislevy, and another researcher, it was designed based on situated forms of knowledge and assessment where the actual forms of assessment, the evaluations, emerge out of the teaching and learning transactions of the curriculum. It’s not a one-time assessment; it’s a cumulative portfolio throughout the whole year that culminates into an evaluated score for their AP Art test. That has much more possibility of accounting for the contexts and the affordances that are going on within one’s learning environment as they’re producing products throughout the year. Rather than seeing what you know or are capable of at one time point, we can actually get a sense for, in the AP Art assessment, over that time frame, what you have learned. All the AP courses are not designed with that structure but we can imagine a system that has assessments that are designed like this, that are not just about math and verbal but also include art, physics, performance arts, photography, skills that account for the variability of professions, of interests, and that ultimately encompass where students’ passions are. Lastly, with digital technology and computational analytics, there is a whole new world of assessments that are paradigm-shifting. The old item paradigm of testing and assessment will be eclipsed by the activity paradigm that is enabled by digital environments. The activity paradigm is much less obtrusive and ubiquitous in the design of the activities; more readily able to assess skills in context and with given activities; it is more interactive; and it is able to provide rapid feedback when appropriate. An activity paradigm is also much more flexibly able to assess the multiplicity of skills that our fast-changing and new media technological skills world demands. Although not without its issues, this paradigmatic shift to assessment is what’s more likely to be the next turn for the high stakes of college admissions.

Q: You have previously taken students to Cuba for a month-long summer course called ‘Education, Culture and Social Policy in Cuba.’ What are your thoughts about President Obama’s recent move to open relations with Cuba? Were you surprised?
A: I wouldn’t say surprised, but I would say I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about it when it was announced. I knew that the Obama administration definitely had more progressive interests in relations with Cuba. In fact, I also knew that the Obama administration ultimately would like to end the embargo. This was even before the announcement was made. But of course—I’ll even put it in the terms that a Cuban actually put it to me—Obama is a prisoner to Congress so he’s very much constrained by what he can and cannot get through Congress. With that said, I think the response to it is much greater than it actually is. I think the biggest change is the political rhetoric and framing around opening up toward, even welcoming, political relations with Cuba. That’s the biggest change. Yes, there are and will be changes in regulations and travel and trade, probably some of the biggest that have happened since the embargo was implemented, but, to be clear, there have always been fluctuations and changes in the regulations. The question one always has to ask is, ‘To what extent will it have material effects for most Cubans?’ Without a question, it’s going to increase resources to the island, but where? And, to whom? There are main centers of tourism in Cuba: Old Havana, Varadero, Trinidad, Santiago. There are many famous hotels, museums, and  restaurants. But, Cuba is much more than these sites of tourism and also much more than tourism. We have to ask to what extent will these U.S. political shifts and economic interventions in Cuba result in increasing stratification for Cubans. Will the Cuban Convertible Peso be increasingly inflated, producing greater marginality for those who do not work in tourism? Will the Cuban government be able to retain their teachers, doctors, and engineers in their respective professions? And, given that Cubans can now buy and sell homes and cars, which are an asset in Cuba, as well as have a private business with employees, how will the government regulate the strong potential for social reproduction? These, among manifold additional questions, need to be taken up as we consider the potential effects of these shifts and the future of Cuba.

Q: Have you heard from your friends in Cuba? What have they said about the thawing of relations?
A: When this was announced, I immediately contacted my good friend in Cuba and I asked him, ‘What are Cubans saying? What do they think about this?’ He waited a week—and he’s usually really quick in getting back to me—to respond and he says, ‘They’re not.’ There are various reasons for that. One is, I think Cubans are completely immune to all the political back and forth that goes on, and they’re also not easily persuaded. They maintain a very serious suspicion towards the U.S. For them, they’re like, ‘Yeah, OK. Great. So what?’ Cubans also are suspicious about political leadership, as well. They get told many things that may or may not come to fruition. That continues to maintain this kind of ethos of, as they would put it, ‘No es fácil.’ It’s not easy.

Q: In early December, you and John L. Jackson, Jr., dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, co-published an editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer titled, ‘Lessons from Ferguson.’ You write, ‘It doesn’t look like we are ready to learn much from what’s going on in Ferguson, except how to repeat our past racial blunders even more pathetically.’ What do you think the country has not learned from the events in Ferguson or Staten Island?
A: That piece was interpreted as though we were engaging in an analysis of the case when, in fact, we were talking about the response to the events. I think that there are a number of things that are still a question mark with regard to what we haven’t learned. A major one is regarding the insidious nature of the system of racism and how that has implications to the ways in which we go about engaging and addressing various social problems in the United States, where the very response to the event, if you will, is also situated in this fairly separate, bifurcated kind of national response to the issue. On the one hand, you had those who were engaged in acts of protest, one could even say separately rioting—and understandably so. On the other hand, you had those who were faithful to the legal authorities of the criminal justice system. In both instances, one can make the argument that these are both racially structured ideological responses. Racism becomes a way of legitimating the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ discourse, invariably resulting in social problems becoming constituted as ‘their’ problem. What’s lacking is a necessary ethos of empathy both in public everyday interaction as well as in social policy. Transformative change does not materialize from colonialist acts of the state policing, intervening, or inculcating hegemonically, but rather from empathetic dialogic actions. Unfortunately, we refuse to take seriously the latter.

Ezekiel Dixon-Roman