Alumni Profile: Dennis Littky

Dennis Littky

Dennis Littky’s profile on the social network Twitter says simply “Radical Educator.” He is no fan of what he calls the factory model of schools, nor of standardized tests. “Who wants a standardized kid?” he asks.

Littky has been a radical educator—a successful one—for four decades, serving as principal in several schools and starting his own schools, including the 2009 founding of College Unbound. He claims that he’s not a left-over hippy, despite his beard, his colorful African hat called a kofia, and regardless of his predilection for dropping the word “man” into conversation.

Indeed, he says “I was pretty straight when I was in Ann Arbor. I didn’t do protests or things like that.” Instead, what he did was to major in psychology as an undergraduate and earn his PhD in the Combined Program in Education and Psychology at the School of Education.

He had grown up in Detroit and, as a child in public school, observed that school was like a game, and some students were better at it than others. “At an early age,” he says, “I understood that every kid is different.” He noticed that school experiences that were successful in teaching some children were ineffective at reaching others.

In the 1960s, the psychology program at the university had several ties to the Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital, located about 25 miles northeast of Ann Arbor. As a junior, Littky visited the hospital as part of a class on the dynamics of mental illness. “The people in that hospital,” he says, “they were just a couple steps over the line from you and me.” Wanting to help, Littky returned as a senior with some other students and tutored and worked with some of the hospital patients. After each visit to the hospital, the university students would return to Ann Arbor and discuss their experiences of helping the patients learn. This pairing of education by individual instruction, together with insights from psychology, became a principle hallmark of Littky’s approach to education.

Due in part to his experiences with the hospital patients, Littky grew increasingly committed to working with disadvantaged populations. To expand both the number of opportunities to help, along with his capacity to help, he decided to pursue a doctorate in education and psychology.

He credits the program, which included instruction in human behavior and learning theory, with teaching him some of what has become fundamental in his philosophy of education: the role of motivation in students’ lives. “You learn when you’re interested in stuff, “ he says. “You learn when you have real work to do, when there’s meaning to it.” In Littky’s view, education flourishes when you help a student articulate his or her interests and then get the student together with a teacher and allow them to work on lessons drawn from real-life. However, because students’ interests are idiosyncratic, this model demands a lot of individual or small-group attention. “It started getting very clear to me that we can’t mass-teach students; they’re too different,” he says.

Littky also ascribes to his University of Michigan education an intellectual flexibility and freedom. While he is critical of the pedagogy of traditional higher education institutions, he says that the university “allowed me to think about using my knowledge to teach others in a very different way, rather than to perpetuate the sometimes wrong way that people have been teaching. Somehow, they [the faculty] gave me the right to be myself, to expand, to be a change agent in education in very different ways.”

After finishing his coursework and his preliminary doctoral exams, Littky was asked to come to Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. Ocean Hill-Brownsville was then the center of a school- and education-centered crisis that, over the course of several months, included teacher strikes, charges of racism and anti-Semitism, and was fundamentally about issues of community influence on schools and the ability to provide effective education in difficult circumstances. He spent a year-and-a-half working as a community organizer in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, organizing parents to work one-on-one with students and training parents and teachers to be more effective in the classroom, and wrote about his experiences for his doctoral dissertation.

In the decades since receiving his doctorate, Littky has run a teacher training program at the Stony Brook University, founded and spent six years as the principal of the Shoreham-Wading River Middle School in New York, spent 14 years as the principal of Thayer Junior/Senior High School in New Hampshire (his work at Thayer was recorded in a book, Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School, by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell, and in a 1992 NBC movie, A Town Torn Apart), worked at the Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for Educational Reform, founded Big Picture Learning and another high school, this time in Providence, Rhode Island, and finally (so far), founding College Unbound.

“My life is committed to helping improve education for students in this country,” he says. “That’s what I do, 80 hours a week, from the day I left Ann Arbor until now. I’m passionate about what needs to be done and about what isn’t being done. And how the poor and underserved in our country get a bad deal.”

Littky’s methods strike some as unconventional. He believes that the traditional school model is not conducive to learning. In his schools, he gets rid of bells because he hates the thought of a suddenly ringing bell interrupting a productive conversation or lesson. He believes that students need to be treated with respect and allowed chances to discover learning opportunities in real life. He understands the import of standard school subjects, but he also believes that “learning is about ‘the three Rs’—relationships, relevance, and rigor.”

And his methods, unorthodox as they are, are impressively effective. At Thayer, the dropout rate dropped from 20 percent to 1 percent during Littky’s tenure. College matriculation jumped from 10 percent to 45 percent. At the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the Met) school in Providence, the graduation rate is consistently above 90 percent, drawing from the same population that is victim of the 66 percent graduation rate in the regular public schools. And 98 percent of the Met’s graduates apply to college, with nearly all being accepted, and most of them are first-generation college students.

This kind of success does not go unnoticed. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided some funding after hearing about Littky’s (and his partner Elliot Washor’s) results with the Met and their model was implemented in about ten schools around the U.S. When those were also successful, other schools expressed interest and the model has been adopted by a total (to date) of 70 schools in the U.S. and about 40 more in Australia and the Netherlands.

Littky is pleased with the success of his students, but he’s not yet ready to rest on his laurels. “I started looking at the data,” he says, “and if you’re a first generation college-going kid, and poor: you made it through high school, so you’re in the 50th percentile. Eighty-nine percent of people like you drop out of college. That’s absurd! That means only 11 percent graduate!” And in today’s economy, Littky understands, it’s not good enough to simply get a high school degree.

So Littky begins a new chapter in his life, turning to higher education and founding College Unbound. In this Providence-based school, the degrees are granted through an agreement with Roger Williams University, and the model is an extension of what has worked with younger students.

Over the next five years, Littky says, he hopes to open people’s minds and redefine what a college education is and redesign how to accomplish that education. “I’m a little driven,” he admits. “My best traits are my enthusiasm and my passion.”

For more information about Dennis Littky, visit Big Picture Learning online at www.bigpicture.org.