Don Moore 1942-2012: A lion who roared on behalf of public education

 “Don Moore was the most persistent, thoughtful, smart advocate I know,” said Anne Hallett, director of the Grow Your Own teacher preparation program. “He would get his teeth into something and not let go.”

“We have lost a giant. We have lost a lion.”—Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis

It’s easy to stereotype public policy wonks as data driven, numbers crunching, analytical geeks with horn-rimmed glasses and bad haircuts who provide the research for the real organizers who go out into the real world andmobilize for social change. Chicago’s Don Moore, who died last August, defied that misleading stereotype. Besides being Chicago’s premier educational researcher, Moore was a coalition building organizer par excellence, a strategist with a grand vision for educational democracy and one who possessed a deeply held moral vision. It was a vision that still stirs those who knew him even after his life’s journey has ended.

He was a genuine educational reformer, not a fake like the Michelle Rhees of today. Rhee and those like her call themselves “reformers” but use hi-stakes testing and school privatization to generate profits for huge corporations who hope to gain control of Amerircn education.

Don Moore always put children over profits understanding that a child is always more than just a test score.

Designs for Change: combining research and activism

Don Moore was director of Designs for Change, the Chicago educational research and activism group that he founded in 1977. The research reports he directed were used by activists across the city in the battle for quality education and are classics in the field of urban education.

His activist jewel in the crown was Chicago’s Local School Councils (LSC’s), those bodies of local democracy known to every Chicago parent who takes even the slightest interest in their child’s education. LSC’s are local elected councils of parents and community members who help shape policy at individual schools. Moore was the first to conceive of the idea and when the LSC’s first came into being in 1988 as part of the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988they were given broad authority: 

“LSCs were given the authority to hire and fire principals, sign contracts, and approve annual budgets and school improvement plans. Historian Michael Katz has called it the most extensive restructuring of an urban school system in the last 100 years.” —from the Designs for Change website.

 Subsequent legislation placed some limits on the LSC’s but they still continued to function as beacons of educational democracy in a city with an appointed school board mostly made up of corporate heavyweights. 

Local School Councils were a success story

LSC’s had a positive impact on Chicago schools. Designs for Change studied 144 Chicago elementary schools that had shown significant educational progress since being low achieving in 1990. The schools all had strong LSC’s empowered to make real changes.You can read this for yourself in the study cited below:

“The study found major achievement gains in 144 public K-8 inner city grade schools – all of them low-achieving in 1990…These successful schools also have elected parent-majority Local School Councils that select their principals and have unionized staff.” —-from the study The Big Picture(2005).

In the highly political city of Chicago with its vast economic disparities and racialized poverty, LSC’s have varied. Most have ranged from excellent to at least competent. Some have been dysfunctional. A few were even corrupt. Democracy is a messy process and there were battles within LSC’s that easily matched the bitterness of recent national political campaigns. LSC’s are about peoples’ kids and yes, people do get very passionate about that. As for the dysfunctional and corrupt LSC’s, there was always the opportunity to vote out the miscreants and clean the slate.

Don Moore’s answer to the messiness of democracy was intense training in democratic governance so people could serve on an LSC and make it work. Don knew that practicing day to day democracy, as opposed to simply voting, is not a skill most Americans get to practice, so Designs for Change ran workshops all over the city. 

Of course even the best Local School Council could not change the racial segregation and poverty enforced on much of Chicago, both of which are major factors in school performance, but they could still make substantial improvements even with the limited resources doled out by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) bureaucrats.

Designs for Change urged CPS to use these 144 schools as models for improvement across the system. CPS ignored the recommendation.

In Chicago educational politics, local successes are regarded as a threat

The success of schools where LSC’s had a strong presence was viewed as a threat by Chicago’s LaSalle Street financial elite, the top leadership of the CPS and their allies in the Mayor’s Office. Instead of following the lead of Designs for Change and others with success stories to tell, Chicago’s educational rulers were dazzled by such monstrosities as the infamous Renaissance 2010 plan which emphasized high stakes testing and closed neighborhood schools in favor of charter schools, “turnaround” schools and contract schools which are all privatization schemes which leave little room for public accountability. With few exceptions, they substitute testing and scripted top down curriculum for actual learning and student exploration. They are generally non-union which means teachers have few rights and must subsist on lower pay with fewer benefits.

The overall results from programs like Ren2010 have been disappointing compared with the success of the 144 democratically governed schools studied by Don Moore and his associates. Yet the CPS leadership systemically eliminates LSC’s as they privatize and charterize Chicago education, destroying neighborhood schools in predominantly black and latino areas. 

In a city where the vast majority of students were now black and latino, the destruction of successful  LSC’s, along with the attacks on the Chicago Teachers Union and the deliberate reduction in the number of black teachers, can only be seen as coldblooded racist attacks that destabilize already struggling communities.

Today the CPS leadership continues to ignore the research of Designs for Change, the  University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School ResearchDr. Pauline Lipman and more recently, that of the Chicago Teachers Union on what constitutes sound educational policy. That parents and teachers, those closest to the realities of Chicago school children, might have some valuable insights, is an anathema to those at the top.  Local School Councils, so important to quality education, are now an endangered species, like whooping cranes and blue whales.

The 5 supports for public education

Designs for Change under the leadership of Don Moore, identified what have come to be called the 5 essential supports of successful public schools:

1. School Leadership Focused on Success for All Students: For example, effective leadership by the LSC, principal, and teacher leaders; careful teacher selection.

2. Social Supports for Learning (School Culture): For example, a student discipline process that promotes self-discipline; attention to students’ emotional as well as academic growth.

3. Family and Community Partnerships Support Learning: For example, families are systematically encouraged to visit the school, feel welcomed and respected there, and actively participate in school-wide activities (such as student performances); community agencies aid the school’s improvement priorities.

4. Adults Collaborate and Learn: For example, teachers and other staff work in teams; staff development includes assistance in the classroom.

 5.Quality Learning Activities (with a Special Focus on Literacy): For example, teachers teach both “reading for understanding” and phonics.


CPS policies, particularly in poor black and latino neighborhoods often run counter to these principles. It is sometimes said that one is best known by the enemies one makes. Designs for Change made many powerful enemies among the Chicago city elite, who pressured philanthropic groups to stop funding Designs for Change and other public school advocates. Don Moore was forced to rely on his own financial resources to help keep the work going.

Don Moore remembered

Don Moore died on August 31, 2012, but his memorial was not held until November 3. In a way that was fitting. Moore was famous for delaying reports and projects, because mere perfection was never quite good enough for him. Although this could produce considerable frustration and consternation among his associates, it did ensure that their research was air-tight.

At the memorial his sister Susan talked about how he made straight A’s in school, originally planned to be a scientist and was an early convert to social justice. Active in the civil rights movement, one of his proudest moments came when,” Martin Luther King passed by and smiled at Don…King was someone he truly admired.”

 “What is the relationship between public education and justice?” asked Tom Wilson, an early collaborator with Don Moore. Tom Wilson’s partnership with Don Moore lasted 10 years. Their work became a foundation for Chicago’s unique Metro High School which allowed students to explore the world through the lens of Chicago with teachers providing a flexible and innovative social justice curriculum, often in the face of official CPS disapproval. Wilson and Moore eventually split amidst a fierce disagreement, reminding us that school reformers can be just as passionate about children as parents at a emotional LSC meeting.

Called “ a giant in the field of public education” by his former colleague at Designs for Change, Cyrus Driver, Don Moore was often way ahead of the educational curve. When Moore first proposed his idea of a massive decentralization of CPS through democratic Local School Councils, Driver’s first reaction was,”This man is out of his mind.” Soon afterward Designs for Change set about making the “impossible” a reality.

Encarnacion  Teurel, now Director of Visual Arts at the Illinois Arts Council, first met the Harvard educated Moore as a student at Metro High School,” As a first generation 14 year old Mexican-American  kid, he might as well have been from Mars.” It didn’t take Tuerel long to figure out that Moore was quite down-to-earth about his vision of a school that would draw students from across the city and level the playing field for all. 

Anne Sullivan a community organizer, described Metro as a school that “threw out the paradigm of the student-teacher relationship” and a place where “We were all teachers. We were all students.” At Metro she learned to truly love Chicago saying that, “We not only can fight City Hall, we must.” 

Sullivan described how 17 years later she took the training to become an LSC member. When she and an associate attempted end the discrimination against disabled students at her school she was told,”You can’t change school policy. You’re just a couple of moms.” Designs for Change was a strong advocate for  disability rights and helped take CPS to federal court because of multi-million dollar cuts in disability services.

Don Moore campaigning for disability rights

 CTU President Karen Lewis and former interim CPS Superintendent Terry Mazany also spoke. Lewis recalled one of Moore’s favorite phrases,“Wait for the study.” She described how the CPS “turnaround “ studies were fake and how Moore decided to do his own. In her work with Moore, Lewis marveled that,”Don had so much faith in democracy.” She promised to continue his fight for a democratically led public school system. 

Terry Mazany looked at at the assembled crowd and began his remarks by saying,” With all of the people here, with of the educational activists here, we could easily turn this into a revolution, give a little push, and get us marching down to 125 S. LaSalle [the CPS offices].” He recalled the 1980’s as the “Golden Age” of the modern era of school reform” and tore into educational policies that were “corrosive forces of greed and self interest that were hollowing out the American dream of educational opportunity for all.”

 Don and I

I had the honor of closely working with Don back in 2002. Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, was running for governor of Illinois and Don was determined that Vallas would never hold that office. Vallas, the quintessential fake educational reformer, knew how to run a good dog and pony show in Chicago, convincing  the corporate owned media that he was one of the school reform good guys. 

Vallas hated Don and once kicked him out lobby of the CPS building in the middle of a press conference Don and his supporters were conducting. Don, never one to back down, finished the press conference outside in the 10 degree February weather with a windchill below zero.

The Vallas nostrums of hi-stakes testing, forced grade retention based on standardized testing, and diversion of funds to the wealthy whiter schools, while leaving schools in minority neighborhoods in terrible condition, were  educational disasters. The US Department of Education Civil Rights division said that his testing and retention policies “had a negative disparate impact on minority students.” Vallas also took special aim at black administrators and teachers, eliminating many of them while doling out millions to private companies and consultants in giveaway programs. 

Working with CTU activist George Schmidt, veteran West Side educator Grady Jordan and others, Don helped develop a special edition of the Chicago education publication Substance. I did the backend web coding and formatting. It was launched as an political attack website, expertly timed with media coverage in order to torpedo the Vallas campaign for governor. All of the information on the website was carefully researched. Using the web as a weapon in a political campaign was still pretty new, but Don was ahead of the curve once again.

I was later told that the website was a factor in defeating Vallas in the close 2002 Democratic primary. It is still available here. Rod Blagojevich went on to become Governor. A crook defeated a con artist. Well, that’s politics in the Prairie State.

The future of Designs for Change 

In a conversation following the memorial, Designs for Change Board Chair Joanna Howard said that the organization will live on and that the Board is looking into university sponsorship. Designs for Change is also looking for a new director. If you are a lion who roars on behalf of public education, you might want to drop off a resume.

Don Moore 1942-2012


Bob “Bobbo” Simpson is a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign and has 25 years experience as a teacher in public, private and Catholic schools.


Sources Consulted

Don Moore: reform leader, LSC champion by Linda Lenz

Don Moore’s Legacy by Curtis Black

School Reform Chicago Style: How Citizens Organized to Change Public Policy by Mary O’Connell

The Essential Supports by Consortium on Chicago School Research

Chicago’s Democratically-Led Elementary Schools Far Out-Perform Chicago’s “Turnaround Schools by Designs for Change

The Big Picture by Designs for Change

Metro edited by Paula Baron

Making Sense of Renaissance 2010 School Policy in Chicago: Race, Class, and the Cultural Politics of Neoliberal Urban Restructuring by Pauline Lipman

Don Moore, leader of Designs for Change and decades-long voice for parents, dies by George Schmidt

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