In Memoriam: Richard F. Elmore (1953-2021)
Last Wednesday, the field of education lost one of its most energetic champions as well as one of its most insightful and constructive critics. Richard F. Elmore, retired professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, passed away last week, leaving behind a rich and lasting legacy.
Among his many contributions to the field is one that is rather immediate for some of us in Connecticut. Two decades ago, he accepted an invitation from the CT Center for School Change to work with a small group of superintendents passionate about becoming more effective instructional leaders. What began as an informal discussion turned into a structured, fifteen-year partnership that gave birth to the CT Superintendents’ Network and the practice of instructional rounds.
Every month, Richard would drive down from Cambridge and spend a day with the district leaders. Some of those months were spent in the common area of the Graustein Memorial Fund, with Professor Elmore holding court, provoking discussion with powerful questions and biting critique. In the other months, Elmore oversaw visits to classrooms. As he experimented with the early iterations of instructional rounds, he was unrelenting in his charge for superintendents to quiet their assumptions and gather low-inference, low-judgement evidence. What he saw in classrooms astounded us all, and soon he taught us to look beyond our culturally-embedded lenses to see what was happening in the instructional core.
Richard Elmore also kickstarted a long-standing tradition–a spring leadership institute at Harvard, where public school superintendents worked with some of the world’s preeminent scholars studying leadership, change, improvement and culture.
As Executive Director of the CT Center for School Change, I am in his debt. His facilitation of the network and his vast scholarship shaped the cultural DNA of the Center and guided our practice as a capacity-building organization.
Yet it was as his student that his impact on me was most profound. In 1997, I arrived on Harvard’s campus as a young and naïve educator suffering from imposter syndrome (many of us secretly felt we had been admitted by accident). That first semester as a master’s student, I shopped Professor Elmore’s course on politics, policy and political action in education. First-year doctoral students in the program were guaranteed a seat, as it was a requirement for graduation. The rest of us were hopeful we might obtain a seat through his random lottery. I was one of the lucky few.
In the first post-lottery class, I took my seat and participated in an analysis of a video taken from Katherine Casey’s NYC Community District 2 classroom. Later that evening, when my then fiancé asked me about class, I told her, without hesitation or exaggeration, it was the single most effective lesson I had ever experienced as either a student or an educator. It was. It still is.
For the better part of the next decade, I was blessed to spend significant time with Professor Elmore. His letter of recommendation helped me secure a spot in the doctoral program, and he served as my advisor. When he led executive education programs in the summer, I served as a facilitator. When he and Leslie Siskin launched a study to understand the impact of state accountability on high schools, I joined as a research assistant. Ultimately, he invited me to serve as a teaching fellow for his course on large-scale instructional improvement, and it remains one of the great honors of my teaching career.
And as I toiled on my final work as a student–my dissertation–Richard was there as a thought partner, cheerleader, and promoter. On one special occasion, he invited me to present my research on distributed leadership within one of the first Superintendents’ Network visits to Harvard (which was most likely the catalyst that ultimately brought me to Connecticut).
Drafting this post has proven challenging. I intended to write something the evening I first learned of his death. Yet my emotions were too raw. Moreover, I found it intimidating to write something worthy of a human being whose prose were so rich, pointed, and brilliant. It is not an overstatement to say he moved the field every time he picked up a pen.
Richard’s family created an online memorial at forevermissed.com, and I’ve read many of the posts. My story is just one among hundreds of former students and colleagues who have been inspired, provoked, and humbled by Richard’s presence in our lives.
Thank you, Richard, for everything.
Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change