Ron Wolk on Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School

Still Raising Hell: The Story of Dennis Littky Struggling Against the Status Quo

For more than three decades, we Americans have been engaged in a struggle for the minds and hearts of our children.

On one side are the traditionalists who built and support the one-size-fits-all “factory model” public education system with its authoritarian commitment to sorting students on the basis of standardized test scores.

On the other side, are the progressives, channeling John Dewey, who believe that education must be personal for each student who is encouraged to follow her or his interests, learn through hands-on and real world experiences, and demonstrate competence through real work.

No living person has been fighting the battle more diligently and persistently than Dennis Littky, a progressive innovator and disrupter of the status quo. Littky’s fiercest battle was fought in the 1980s in the small, rural town of Winchester, New Hampshire, where, as principal, he transformed the failing Thayer Junior-Senior High School into a place where every student could flourish.

The story of that battle made national headlines, was detailed in the book Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell, and was later made into A Town Torn Apart, an NBC made-for-television movie. Because of his unorthodox methods, a conservative majority of the Winchester school board attacked Littky and eventually fired him. But Littky’s mantra is “never give up when you’re right.” He won the support of most of his students and parents as he successfully fought his adversaries, first in a courtroom and then in an school board election, which Campbell describes in nail-biting detail.

The last sentence of Doc describes the scene when the election results were counted: “In a deafening roar, the people gathered in the Thayer High School gymnasium that night proclaimed to the world that they had won.”

After 20 years as founder and editor of Education Week, Ron Wolk retired to Rhode Island to work on “something easy like health care or global warming.” But Ted Sizer recruited him to the board of Big Picture Learning, where Ron served as chairman next 12 years and an active board member thereafter, working with Big Picture co-founders Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor.

Doc cover



First published in 1989 and reissued in 2005, Susan Kammeraad-Campbell’s account shares Dennis Littky’s tumultuous and eventually victorious experience in Winchester, New Hampshire as the principal of Thayer Junior-Senior High School. Doc relates the full story of Littky’s experience in the town, starting with his arrival at what he thought would be a temporary landing to recharge after several intense years as a school leader in New York. Littky soon connected with town life in a variety of ways before signing on as the principal of the local high school. Kammeraad-Campbell shares Littky’s engagement with Winchester and his approach to taking on the leadership of the high school. Littky’s relationships-first approach and accompanying tendency to upend establish educational conventions produced dramatically better results for Winchester’s young people–and reactionary pushback from some Winchester citizens and school board members. Kammeraad-Campbell, then a local newspaper reporter, writes with engaging specificity about the changes that Littky wrought and the resulting conflict. Littky’s story is also an important part of the Coalition of Essential Schools’ history; Thayer Junior-Senior High School joined the Coalition of Essential Schools as a founding member, receiving national attention and accolades even as its internal friction flared. Doc remains relevant as a powerful portrait of Littky’s vision, faith in teachers, commitment to young people, and fierce dedication.