Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky

One time I got into an argument with a coworker about something an administrator of ours had said.  I maintained that this person was a good leader, in fact a very good leader. My coworker said, “No, I know what inspiring leadership is.  I worked for Dennis Littky.”

I’d heard the name of course.  In fact, it seemed like whenever anyone in New England had innovative, progressive ideas about how to reform education, they usually brought up the MET School, or Big Picture Learning, or the visionary founder of all of this — Dennis Littky.  But I’d also heard that long before he’d started the MET or Big Picture, he’d had a really tumultuous run as principal of a small high school in New Hampshire. It had gotten really, really ugly, inspired a book and even a made-for-TV movie: A Town Torn Apart.  It wasn’t until the other day, strolling through the shelves of the university library, that I first picked up a copy of this book, Doc:  The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell.  I’ve just finished reading it, and I have to say, even though it was published in 1989, it’s one of the best, most fascinating insights into school reform, local politics, and — yes, visionary leadership — that I’ve ever read.

The first thing to know is that Littky might just have been the best school principal in the United States.  He’s a wunderkind — visionary principal of a new middle school in Long Island while still in his twenties, Littky quickly made this school into something of a national model before suddenly quitting suburban life to live in a secluded cabin in the woods of Winchester, New Hampshire.  In a way, it’s the classic Baby Boomer-back-to-the-land story, but Littky’s not content to sit on the sidelines, repairing his dwelling and learning to drive in the snow, for long.  

Even before he gets the job as the principal of Thayer High School in Winchester, Littky demonstrates a remarkable ability to bring people together for a common cause.  Even while he’s still unemployed and living in the cabin, he starts hanging out at the hardware store, talking to townspeople, and realizing that the community lacks a means of communication.  So he takes it on himself to revive the defunct town newspaper, quickly pulling in all sorts of disparate townspeople with his endless enthusiasm and savvy, all of whom seem to remark that they’ve never felt this sense of purpose before.  Before long, it’s like Littky has revitalized the entire town — the newspaper changes the whole tenor of the community, it gets everyone talking and communicating, and gives everyone a newfound sense of identity and pride.

He doesn’t stop there.  In short order, Littky’s getting elected to the school board, and then to the state legislature to represent Winchester.  In just the space of two years in this new town, he’d already accomplished more than most people do in — dare I say it — a career.

Within another year, he’s taken over as principal of a fading, wayward, unruly town school, Thayer High School, a regional joke with below-mediocre test scores, a sky-high drop-out rate, graffiti-covered walls, daily fights, and rock-bottom teacher morale.  It’s a school that has fallen far but has no bottom in sight. Kids curse at teachers, throw things (big things) out the windows, smoke and even drink in the bathrooms, and summon the town’s one beleaguered police officer to campus time and time again.

The backdrop is a familiar one to me — a small, rural New England town that is isolated enough that it cannot share in the prosperity of the larger towns around it.  It’s agricultural, culturally conservative, and without a lot of ready industry for its graduates to enter into upon graduation. Two of the most powerful men own a sawmill and a strip mall.  It reminds me of a lot of towns in Vermont.

Littky comes in like a tornado — the change is nothing short of transformational.  What’s great about Kammeraad-Campbell’s book is that she shows you exactly what Littky does.  She also doesn’t paint Littky as a superhero. He comes across as a real (albeit truly inspiring) educator.  His influence comes, yes, partly from the force of his personality, which is enthusiastic, fun-loving, and capable of bringing out the best in people — but also from sheer hard work and administrative acumen born through years of real administrative experience in the trenches.  Littky immediately overhauls the school schedule, eliminating study halls, and shortening the student day. He meets individually with every student during the summer to select courses, and he sets out on a listening tour with his teachers to find out what they believe the problems are.  He triages, choosing to go after the most serious problems first, deliberately holding off on fixing small issues until Year Two. 

Littky’s insight is that deep down all students want to be engaged.  You just have to find what will do the trick. In many ways, he’s a classic progressive, John Dewey-inspired reformer, and most of his reforms are right out of the standard progressive playbook (at least they are now).  He establishes an advisory system, pushes teachers to lay down their textbooks and to teach in a more student-centered, engaging fashion, establishes a community-based learning program, designs an interdisciplinary team-taught program from struggling students (called Dovetail), lures failing students back to school with authentic projects (most famously the student who paints a magnificent Pegasus mural on the formerly graffitied cafeteria wall), and has teachers design a two-week Year End Studies program.  All this happens within the first few years.

And he does all this on a shoestring school budget — dramatically refurbishing the physical school building with little more than community help.  Littky is a genius at getting the community to donate time, money, and resources. He wrangles funding from who-knows-where. Meanwhile, he pushes teachers to teach in ways that will interest students, believing that this will go a long way toward cutting down on the discipline problems.  Not surprisingly, it does. He goes after some of the student leaders, and Kammeraad-Campbell beautifully highlights two great examples. There is the unruly junior girl who Littky discovers has a passion for working with children. So he establishes an alternative classroom for difficult middle school boys and puts the girl into a job as a teacher’s aide.  Not surprisingly, she thrives. Then there is the drop-out boy Littky hires — pulling the money from some organization over the phone — to paint the mural in the cafeteria. Littky has heard the boy is a brilliant artist, and LIttky rightly suspects the boy will be more intrigued by an authentic project that treats him like an artist than he will be threats or discipline.

Littky makes all this look easy, but it’s a tough balance to strike.  It’s one thing to say, “Sure, give kids jobs around the school; treat them like adults; give them authentic, real-life projects; get them out into the community.” But it’s another to actually make that work.  They show up late to their community mentor meetings, they slack off and don’t paint the mural (and pocket the money); once they realize the fun, authentic projects take real work, they slip back into their old habits.  You try to dig out what they’re interested in and it turns out it’s playing video games and sleeping in. The bottom line is — just identifying students’ interests and trying to bring out the best in them doesn’t guarantee it will happen.  But somehow Littky does it.

Along the way, Thayer becomes a regional and then a national model, with Littky receiving substantial media attention for the school’s remarkable turnaround.  He forms an alliance with progressive ed luminary Ted Sizer, even inspiring Sizer to finally finish his now-classic book, Horace’s Compromise.  “We’re doing what you’re talking about,” Littky tells Sizer the first time they meet.

I won’t rehash the whole plot, but suffice to say that by 1986 half of the town of Winchester turns against Littky and tries to oust him in the ugliest way possible.  It’s really an example of the dirtiest kind of local politics. What basically happens is that the conservative members of town turn on Littky, who they believe is poisoning the students with his permissive liberal values.  No matter that Littky stresses the academic basics, shrinks the drop-out rate, cleans up the building, and puts an end to the fights and drug use. It’s Littky’s perceived liberal values — and the fact that the media coverage he receives makes the town look backward pre-Littky — that rankle a number of the influential older board members and voters.  A lot of their dismay seems to come back to Littky’s informal appearance — his long beard and casual clothes, in particular. But in some cases, the town responds negatively to specific classroom assignments that ask students to consider questions about homosexuality, movies rated PG, or even journal writing (which several town residents claim encourages children to vent their feelings and thereby turn against their parents).  There are several Littky critics whose children actually succeed under Littky in school — yet the parents are still set staunchly against him.

Kammeraad-Campbell’s book moves quickly; she does not spent much time reflecting on the lessons of Littky’s fight, but what I took from it was a strong reminder that one of the prime tasks Americans ask of their public schools is the job of passing along the community’s values to the next generation.  When a school is perceived — rightly or wrongly — of being out of step with what the town wants, there’s likely going to be conflict. Winchester is a classic small, conservative New England town, and much of this story takes place during a time of increasing conservatism in Ronald Reagan’s American (the right-wing activist Phylis Schlafly crops up several times); Littky is the archetypal baby boomer ex-hippie, living in a cabin with no running water, jogging around town, listening to rock music, wearing a beard, and letting kids call him by his first name.  What’s interesting is that Littky does not come across as a radical. He’s driven less by 1960s-era radical talk (there is no “open schooling” or “deschooling” in Littky’s philosophy) than he is by early-20th Century progressive-ed philosophy. It tells you something that Littky’s favorite book (which he issues to all new teachers) is John Dewey’s 1938 Education and Experience.  That’s not exactly Paolo Friere.  Still, the fact that Littky seems to get in so much trouble because he doesn’t look the part of the principal, and his school doesn’t seem like the kind of place that teaches the basics is a good reminder to me that academic excellence and a positive school climate is not all that we expect from our schools and their leaders.

It’s also a good reminder to me of why the United States will never have the same kind of centralized educational system as many other countries.  Littky is being offered huge sums of money by all kinds of nearby districts who’d immediately validate his work, but meanwhile in Winchester half the town has it in for him in the worst way possible.  We’re such a diverse nation when it comes to what we expect from our schools. Our schools are more than just places of learning: they’re vital cultural institutions in our communities. We expect them to pass along our communities’ values, while at the same time teaching students about the world beyond.

While much of the resistance Littky faced sounds pretty backward to modern ears, more about local politics than about philosophical differences, this all becomes interesting when you consider what happened to Thayer High School after Littky left in 1994 (what I’ve gleaned not from the book, but for stray articles I could find online): it gradually reverted to what it had been before, then closed for good in 2003.  I find that remarkable: Littky, this hurricane gust of a man, this visionary who turned Thayer into a much-emulated, much-visited pedagogical wonder, was not some flash in the pan — he ran the school for 13 years. Even after all that time, once Littky left, things kind of returned to what they’d been in 1981.  

This seems to me a classic example of what Larry Cuban and David Tyack, in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia, call a return to the familiar “grammar of schooling.” Their belief is that American schools are cultural institutions and that most Americans have a clear picture of what a “real school” is — age graded, with discrete subjects taught at the high school level, with education primarily conducted in a classroom, between rings of the bell.  When a school begins to drift away from this model, as Thayer surely did under Littky, unless the school in question is an alternative school or program (like the MET or the Big Picture), the townspeople and even the staff become uneasy, and tend to return to their ingrained idea of what a “real school” is.  

If you believe Cuban and Tyack, which I tend to do, that’s why Littky-style programs — even though they do work — tend to be found only on the periphery of most public schools — as a Community Based Learning or Work Based Learning program, as an advisory program, as a Year-End Studies program — rather than as the meat of the curriculum (unless it’s a school specially designed for this work, like the MET, or the Ted Sizer-inspired Francis Parker charter school in Massachusetts).  These progressive reforms have a real place in our schools, but they don’t change the bedrock framework of what most students experience — the grammar of schooling. Instead, these reforms are incorporated and modified by the schools themselves.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help think about another book about a visionary educator, who, not coincidentally, had a book and a movie created about him in the late 1980s: Jaime Escalante, the famous Los Angeles A.P. math teacher of “Stand and Deliver” fame.  While I liked Jay Mathews’s book about Escalante (on which “Stand and Deliver” was based), I felt it did mythologize Escalante in ways that I didn’t think Doc did.  I remember asking myself as I read Escalante, “How did he teach all day long — classes of 50! — and then teach adult ed all night — and find time to prep and grade?” Years later, I was reading an article by Mathews in which he happened to let it slip that Escalante used to pay a grader $1,000 to do his grading!  Where was this detail in the book, and how did Escalante “get away” with this? (Something I have never heard of a high school teacher doing or being allowed to do.)

I thought Doc did a much better job of really showing the reader how Littky did what he did.  The author doesn’t sugarcoat the resistance he faced, and shows how even Littky can’t turn everything around instantly (he constantly triages through the book, and shows visible strain at different times).  Yes, Littky makes it all look easy, and I am wary of reformers who think the key to fixing education is to simply make every school look just like Thayer High or the MET or the Big Picture. In some sense, Littky is just as much of an outlier as an Escalante — perhaps even more, because he was so good at getting others to follow him.  It’s hard, even just reading about him, not to get swept up in his enthusiasm and good nature. It’s great to know he’s still as active as ever in education today.  

Doc is a great book for any would-be reformer — or just for anyone interested in reading about what a progressive vision for a school looks like in reality.  Or for anyone interested in a good old-fashioned battle for the soul of a town.  

I highly recommend it.