Scholarship and Practice at the Margins: Envisioning Education that Challenges Silence and Bridges Divides

photo of melinda lemke.

By Jessica SCATES

Published April 13, 2020

In 2002, President George W. Bush enacted the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB), which increased the federal government’s role in holding schools accountable for student outcomes. The aim was to improve American competitiveness and to close an achievement gap between low-income and students of color, and their peers. However, critics suggest that by adding an additional layer of scrutiny, districts, schools, and classrooms around the country began teaching to the test and narrowing their curriculum to focus solely on math and reading.

Dr. Lemke is an interdisciplinary educational policy researcher whose body of work focuses on the politics of education and how educational organizations address equity issues, including gender violence, and the specific needs of underserved youth.
Melinda Lemke
Program Advisor, Education Leadership and Policy for Equity Minor | Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership and Policy

It is during the rollout of NCLB when now assistant professor of educational leadership and policy, Dr. Melinda Lemke, was teaching in public schools in Austin, Texas. A James Madison Memorial Fellow, Dr. Lemke received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction with a Government concentration from The University of Texas at Austin in 2004.  During this time, she was working as a substitute teacher for multiple secondary schools in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) and later was hired as a full-time social studies teacher. Dr. Lemke eventually worked for her district and the state doing curriculum development.

Working in a top-down accountability-driven state, Dr. Lemke quickly realized that testing mandates were in many respects, the sole focus of education. In this environment, lawmakers regularly enacted policies that directly impacted schools and classrooms without consulting or involving educators. In particular, between 2009 and 2011, the state continued to increase testing mandates, overhauled the secondary science and social studies curriculum, and cut $5.4 billion from public education.

Read more about this historical moment and context (2015, 2017a).

Out of concern that educators were not being equipped with training around particular issues affecting students, including poverty and homelessness, bullying, and gender violence, Dr. Lemke began a PhD in Educational Policy and Planning at The University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation examined a new state trafficking policy, House Bill 1272 (HB 1272, 2013). HB 1272 mandated the state’s trafficking task force to create continuing education training on trafficking identification and prevention for medical and social services personnel, as well as optional training for educators.

Disproportionately known to affect women, youth, and communities of color, human trafficking, occurs in every country around the world. Trafficking can include the forcible displacement of individuals within local contexts and across international borders. It also can involve commercial sexual exploitation, as well as forced, coercive, and fraud-driven labor practices (Lemke, 2017b).

Unique to Dr. Lemke’s research was that she utilized multiple qualitative strategies, critical theoretical frames, and multi-disciplinary knowledge to develop a rich understanding of human trafficking and relevant education policy processes.  She found that while the legislation harnessed the potential to have a positive impact on vulnerable youth, there were multiple problems with the bill’s rollout. Chief among these were policy slippage (e.g., disconnects in funding and educator participation) and normative political roadblocks (e.g., policy actor limitations placed on factual knowledge about trafficking) (Lemke, 2019a, 2019b).  

Now, with the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo, Dr. Lemke is an interdisciplinary educational policy researcher whose body of work focuses on the politics of education and how educational organizations address equity issues, including gender violence, and the specific needs of underserved youth. The stories of refugees and hurricane-displaced families living in Western New York and the ways educators are working to create inclusive and trauma-informed environments for all kids have given shape to Dr. Lemke’s scholarship. Her research suggests that even in schools that promote supportive, culturally responsive environments, educators still struggle to address the level of sexual violence that many students have experienced. Among other reasons, leadership and teaching practices have not been able to fully address cultural and language barriers between educators, children, and their families.

Dr. Lemke credits the Community for Global Health Equity (CGHE) with creating an interdisciplinary environment that feels like a home. In addition to supporting her work within the Refugee Health and Wellbeing Big Ideas Team, CGHE has helped forge partnerships with other UB scholars interested in the intersection between gender equity and public health. Most recently, Dr. Lemke (2020) co-authored an article with Dr. Amanda Nickerson, professor of counseling, school, and educational psychology, on culturally responsive and trauma-informed schooling practices for displaced youth, and a book chapter with Dr. Shaanta Murshid, assistant professor of social work, within CGHE’s transdisciplinary textbook Transforming Global Health: Interdisciplinary Challenges, Perspectives, and Strategies, Springer 2020. Dr. Lemke also is working with Dr. Tia Palermo, CGHE affiliate and associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health, on projects related to student food insecurity and adolescent dating violence.

Dr. Lemke indicated that much of the research she currently is doing has brought her work full circle since her days teaching high school. With UB undergraduate and graduate students she aims to bridge divisive discourses to ensure a shared sense of social responsibility and to spur on meaningful collaborations around topics like youth sexual violence – work that is ever more pressing as many students face increased difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Dr. Lemke’s work is concerned with specific kinds of questions – who are the actors involved in educational policy processes, what are their values, and how do they address structural inequalities – to reveal how power dynamics dependent upon time, place, and identity intersect to influence youth worlds. It is in answering these questions that she and UB can help to reveal the transformational connections between research and local communities of practice.


Comments are limited to 125 words and must follow the university’s Comment Guidelines.

The Community of Excellence in Global Health Equity editor moderates comments and reserves the right not to publish those that do not add anything new to the discussion or fail to adhere to the Comment Guidelines.

Please submit your comments in the box below.