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Dr. Rebecca Tarlau

Dr. Rebecca Tarlau
Phone: 8148652246
Office Address:
305C Keller Building
University Park, PA 16802
Campus: University Park


Assistant Professor of Education and Labor & Employment Relations


Learning and Performance Systems


Center on Rural Education and Communities (CREC)


Adult Education
Comparative and International Education

Other Penn State Affiliations

School of Labor and Employment Relations Center for Global Workers' Rights


Rebecca was inspired to pursue a career in education by her experiences with community organizing in Latin America and the United States, where she witnessed the potential education has to advance economic and racial justice in poor communities. She is compelled by the question, what role does education play in facilitating social change, both within formal school systems and in informal contexts? She entered a doctoral program in Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of California, Berkeley, in order to examine how class, race, and gender hierarchies are reproduced through schools, as well as how social movements use education to contest these inequalities.

Rebecca’s research agenda has three broad areas of focus: (1) theories of the state and state-society relations; (2) social movements, critical pedagogy, and learning; (3) Latin American education and development. Her scholarship engages in debates in the fields of political sociology, international and comparative education, social movements, critical pedagogy, global and transnational sociology, and social theory.

Over the past decade, Rebecca has done extensive ethnographic research on the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST). The MST is famous globally for its success in forcing the government to redistribute land to over 300,000 poor rural families; less well known are the MST’s educational initiatives. Over the past three decades, activists have drawn on diverse educational theories to develop a set of pedagogical practices for schools that encourage youth to stay in the countryside, while also fostering activism, small farming, and collective forms of work. This approach is in direct contrast to the Brazilian government’s tendency towards implementing educational policies that emphasize individual meritocracy, managerial efficiency, and preparation for the urban job market. MST activists engage in contentious actions to support their educational ideas, while also facilitating community discussions, organizing teacher trainings, and writing new curriculum together with state actors. Rebecca’s forthcoming book, Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education (Oxford University Press), explores the movement’s attempt to transform public education across the country. Based on 20 months of ethnographic data collection, Rebecca analyzes the micro-politics of grassroots educational reform, that is, the strategies activists use to convince state actors to adopt their initiatives and the political and economic conditions that affect state-society interactions. The case of the MST’s educational struggle illustrates that that schools can become important institutions supporting struggles for larger social transformations, but only when a highly organized movement with a clear vision for education can garner consent among a variety of state and civil society actors.

Rebecca’s current research project compares teachers movements in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, examining the conditions and strategies that enable teachers and their unions to transcend narrow economic interests and participate in broader struggles for social justice. This research focuses on teachers as political actors, and the role they are currently playing challenging the global shift to more conservative and reactionary policies.  


Areas of Expertise

Educational Studies

Comparative Ed
Critical & Feminist Theory
Educational Theory
International Ed

Methodological Research

Qualitative Research

Social Issues

Civic Engagement
Comparative and International Education
Education Policy
Social Issues

Education History

Ph.D. and M.A., University of California, Berkeley B.A., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Representative Publications

Tarlau, R. (2019). Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education. Global and Comparative Ethnography series. Oxford University Press.

Tarlau, R. (2017). State Theory, Grassroots Agency, and Global Policy Transfer: The Life and Death of Colombia’s Escuela Nueva in Brazil. Comparative Education Review

Tarlau, R. (2016). If the Past Devours the Future, Why Study? Piketty, Social Movements, and Future Directions for Education. British Journal of Sociology of Education 37(6): 861-872.

Tarlau, R. (2015). How Do New Critical Pedagogies Develop? Educational Innovation, Social Change, and Landless Workers in Brazil. Teachers College Record 117(11).

Tarlau, R. (2015). Not-So-Public Contention: Movement Strategies, Regimes, and the Transformation of Public Institutions in Brazil. Mobilization 20(1): 101-121.

Tarlau, R. (2015). Education of the Countryside at a Crossroads: Rural Social Movements and National Policy Reform in Brazil. Journal of Peasant Studies 42(6): 1157-1177.

Tarlau, R. (2014). From a Language to a Theory of Resistance: Critical Pedagogy, the Limits of “Framing,” and Social Change. Educational Theory 64(4): 369-392.

Tarlau, R. (2013) Coproducing Rural Public Schools in Brazil: Contestation, Clientelism and the Landless Workers’ Movement. Politics & Society 41(3): 395-424.

Tarlau, R. (2011). Education and Labor in Tension: Contemporary Debates about Education in the US Labor Movement. Labor Studies Journal 36(3): 363-387.

Activities and Honors

208-2019          National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

2015-2017       Postdoctoral Scholar, Stanford University

2015                Comparative International Education Society (CIES) Latin American SIG Outstanding Dissertation Award

2011-2012       National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship           

2011                Fulbright, Institute of International Education (IIE)

2010-2011       Inter-American Foundation (IAF) Grassroots Development Fellowship

2009                Social Science Research Council Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship