Sep 6, 2012
Don Moore’s life had an impact far greater than many more famous and powerful people: more than anyone, he was responsible for creating and defending Chicago’s Local School Councils, while demonstrating their value as the most effective vehicle this city has seen for improving urban education.
He was among the first to push democratic school governance as the solution to Chicago’s schools crisis in the 1980s, and in the following decade, as politicians and CPS administrators sought to recentralize power – and brought the city’s business and philanthropic elites back under their sway – he defended LSCs from legislative attacks and mobilized community involvement in LSC elections.
Meanwhile, in a remarkable body of research, he demonstrated that while central office interventions from probation to turnarounds had little effect, the high-poverty schools that showed steady long-term improvement in Chicago were those with what he termed “school-based democracy.”
“It’s not a stretch to say that had he not been doing this work, Local School Councils would have disappeared from the scene – and we would have lost one of the most important engines of educational improvement in the nation,” said Ray Boyer, who directed public affairs for the MacArthur Foundation until 2004 and collaborated on projects with Moore after that.
In 1977 Moore founded Designs For Change, a multi-faceted organization that housed his rigorous research along with organizing, training, and advocacy efforts. When a decade-long school crisis came to a head with the 1987 teachers strike, Moore seized the opportunity to rally community groups and business leaders to his vision of school-based democratic governance.
Amid a vast and often conflicting array of groups pushing reform, Moore “played a critical role” in creating and pushing legislation that established LSCs in 1988, according to Mary O’Connell’s fascinating account of that struggle. As Catalyst notes, when O’Connell asked participants in that movement who was “most responsible” for school reform, Moore was named most often.
He was “brilliant” in “bringing a theoretical concept into reality,” said Rod Estvan of Access Living, a former Designs board member, and he was commited to the idea that even in a society scarred by poverty and racism, “if people had some democratic control over their schools, they could make them better.”
In the following years – especially as LSCs came under attack from the mayor and CPS administration — Moore amassed what Boyer calls “an amazing body of work,” a series of studies showing that high-poverty schools with sustained academic improvement were overwhelmingly open-enrollment neighborhood schools led by effective LSCs.
His 2005 report, The Big Picture, identified 144 such schools (with 100,000 students) with 15 years of steady improvement, while showing that schools where CPS appointed principals under probation had “no significant improvement.” Those 144 schools’ success should be studied with an eye to replicating it in other schools, he argued. While new top-down reform efforts aimed at creating a network of successful schools that could serve as models for others, he pointed out, “that network already exists,” he wrote.
Those 100,000 students, and all those who’ve followed them, owe much to their parents and teachers – and much also to Don Moore, who helped build and defend the local governance model under which their schools are able to come together and thrive. (Contrary to the media image, most LSCs function well, according to research; they certainly function better than the Board of Education, where no committees meet and decisions are routinely rubber-stamped.)
Moore also identified the key elements contributing to school success, which he termed “the five essential supports”: effective leadership, family-community partnerships, a supportive school environment, teacher development and teamwork, and a focus on the instructional program. The Chicago Consortium for School Research subsequently tested and validated Moore’s framework for school success.
“It was a transformative idea,” said Boyer. “You’re not talking about personnel changes – you’re not saying we need a new principal, or replace all the teachers – you’re talking about changing the structure of the school, how it works.”
“It’s a lot smarter than just looking at test scores from one year to the next,” said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education, another group with roots in the late-’80s reform movement.
Moore’s “user-friendly reports were truly the ‘wind beneath the wings’ of the LSC reform movement,” Woestehoff commented in a PURE blog post.
His research had little impact on CPS policies, however, which have veered from one expensive fad to the next, disrupting schools, communities and students’ schooling without measurably impacting student achievement.
His most recent study identified 33 high-poverty neighborhood schools performing above the city average on reading scores, and compared them to turnaround school, not one of which meets that standard, even after several years and millions of additional dollars. It recommended that “the resources now used for turnaround schools …be shifted to helping these effective [neighborhood] schools become resources for other schools.”
Moore was at the forefront of successful fights against a series of legislative attempts by Mayor Daley, CPS chief Paul Vallas, and others to take away LSCs’ power to hire principals, and he was among those raising awareness of LSC elections every other April and mobilizing community groups to recruit candidates.
Last April he spearheaded a protest when CPS for the first time refused to routinely release candidate information to community groups and neighborhood news sites.
“I wonder what’s going to happen at the next election, when he’s not there to beat the drum,” said Boyer.
As the Sun Times notes, his groundbreaking work on high-school dropouts revealed that Chicago’s drop-out rate was far higher than claimed; his research on CPS’s failure to meet its obligations to special education students led to a major civil rights lawsuit and consent decree.
Last November he raised the concern that CPS was closing schools based on their probationary status, decided by very questionable use of data — while failing to meet its legal obligations to assist schools that were placed on probation. That led to a civil rights lawsuit by LSC members at schools being closed by CPS.
Maria Hernandez was referred to Moore in 2009 after her alderman blew off a meeting at his office with 100 parents and children from Carpenter Elementary School. They’d just learned that CPS was planning to phase out their school.
“He cared,” she said. “He really cared. He listened to us. He came to our school, he met the parents, he talked to the children.”
It was a marked contrast to her alderman or to CPS officials, as she tells her story. Parents testified at the school board, but “they ignored us.” CPS chief Ron Huberman promised to come to a meeting but didn’t show. When they then scheduled a meeting at his office, “he was there three minutes,” she remembers. “He came in and shook our hands and said thank you for coming, pleased to meet you, we’re going to work this out. And now I have another meeting to go to.”
Moore threw himself into the fight by parents to save Carpenter and nearby Andersen Elementary. They were the kinds of schools he’d championed: academically successful, LSC-run schools in low-income communities of color. Carpenter had an effective principal, a strong program in fine and performing arts and a thriving special ed program; its students were to be sent to a school that was on probation. Both schools were being displaced to accommodate new campuses for Gold Coast schools.
“He was with us throughout the entire fight,” Hernandez says. After the school board ignored arguments that CPS’s claim that the schools were underutilized overlooked the needs of special ed students, Moore helped parents file a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.
She remembers him calling late in the evening, still working on the complaint, asking one more question, nailing down one more detail. They didn’t win that battle, but he shared their outrage and helped them speak truth to power.
That fight led to another that Moore threw himself into: State Rep. Cynthia Soto’s legislation to increase transparency and accountability in CPS facility planning. Along with Valencia Rias, his colleague at Designs, he served on the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force created by the bill.
A week before his death he was at a task force hearing with CPS officials, demanding greater clarity on the district’s criteria for closing schools, said Jacqueline Leavy, a consultant with the task force and longtime community activist.
“Don was passionate about the persistent, inequitable pattern of inadequate resources for neighborhood schools,” she said. “He never gave up.”
What amazed me about Don Moore was his sheer tenacity in the face of so many frustrations. His data was so strong, yet it was ignored by politicians and bureaucrats with agendas impervious to on-the-ground realities. He kept cranking it out. The school board voted to close schools despite the most compelling arguments. The attacks on LSCs never ended – but he knew the people who serve on the councils, and he knew what they are capable of accomplishing.
He had a quiet sense of righteous indignation that was anchored by a vast patience and unfailing sense of humor – and a meticulous attention to detail. Wisdom, is what it was.
Moore faced many defeats and never gave up – but looked at historically, considering the 100,000 kids learning every year in thriving neighborhood schools that he helped make possible, recognizing the model of successful urban education that he helped create and keep alive in the face of such odds, his life was one of great success and accomplishment.
More on Don Moore:
Promoting segregation (on changes in magnet school admissions)