Opinion: Ron Fitzgerald, A Remembrance

On September 8, the Daily Hampshire Gazette ran an obituary for Ron Fitzgerald. In keeping with his mantra of “only the verifiable facts”, the notice was bare-bones (although it erroneously gave his birth year as 1914 instead of 1934) and gave none of the flavor of his strong personality and compelling leadership.

Ron Fitzgerald was the Amherst superintendent of schools who hired me to be principal of Mark’s Meadow School in 1970. Or rather he was one of two educational leaders who hired me; the other was Dwight Allen, the dean of the School of Education at the university. Fitzgerald and Allen were not natural collaborators; each felt that he was the smartest person in the room, and each was probably right. So they could not be in the same room together and never talked to each other. In the early sixties an agreement between the town and the university set the terms of the relationship between the two for the governance of Mark’s Meadow as both a public school for the town and a “demonstration laboratory school” for the university. I reported to both, admired both, and was usually at loggerheads with both.

But I want to pay tribute here to Ron, and this may surprise some who remember the early seventies, when our disagreements were often public and our mutual admiration rarely evident. Ron was a strong, brilliant, selfless workaholic. He had no interest in self-promotion. He had a clear vision for the Amherst and regional schools and he was tireless in its pursuit.  He tolerated disagreements when ideas were being discussed, but could not abide contradiction once he had made a decision.

And he was a decider. In the early 1970s he decided to commit the Amherst schools to the performance objectives movement, which was in vogue at the time. The idea was to break down learning into taxonomically-related small chunks of skills and knowledge which would allow students to progress independently one chunk at a time. Learning was sequential and inevitable. Successfully mastering one chunk prepared one to engage successfully with the next. Various versions of performance objectives are still in evidence in schools world-wide.

Ron was adamant that the new role of the teacher was as “manager” of this process. He created the Performance Objectives Program (POP) to train teachers to become managers. There may still be some who remember the yellow and green cards we all had to use to re-organize the curriculum into performance objectives.

As with many of Ron’s ideas, his commitment to performance objectives was both progressive and retrograde. It was wonderful to expect students to understand why they were learning and what they were expected to learn. It was regressive (and still is) to believe that there was a common metric to be applied to all learning. (This is still the error that infests the dreadful MCAS tests and other standardized measurements.) 

It was wonderful to understand that much of schooling can be organized into performance objectives. It was awful to imagine that all learning could. Ron took a useful idea and totalized it in a way that spoiled it. He was not alone.

Wildwood and Fort River Schools are standing testaments to Ron’s commitment to ideas and his rigidity in applying them. Those two schools were designed to his specifications. He was intrigued by the idea of the “open classroom” but misunderstood it as an architectural idea rather than a curriculum idea. We are still trying to get out from under that misunderstanding fifty years later.

Ron encouraged his school principals to attend and participate in school committee meetings. That seemed exciting and rare. I wonder whether it is the case anywhere else, or even in Amherst these days? He was always willing to listen to ideas; when he wasn’t with someone, his office door was always open to anyone. And he preferred one of the smaller offices in the administrative suite.

He had a long tenure in Amherst and he ushered in a golden age for the Amherst schools. But the school committee found him increasingly overbearing and ultimately in 1973 he resigned under pressure. Once, before he left, he and I traveled by car to a distant conference of some sort and had a rare chance to talk informally and casually about the schools and about ourselves. In the course of that conversation, he asked me about my dreams of my future when I was young. I said that I had always wanted to be a teacher. And you, I asked? He paused and smiled. I wanted to be a zookeeper, he said.

From Amherst, Ron went on to a long and distinguished career as superintendent at Minuteman Technical High School in Lexington. He remained an influential voice in Massachusetts education for almost half a century. And today, as I remember him and our relationship, I am happy to reflect on the personal and professional qualities I admire — integrity, curiosity, and dedication to the school system he led. We fought about ideas, but I suspect that we both enjoyed the fight — at least a little. Rest In peace, Ron — and thank you.

Michael Greenebaum was Principal of Mark’s Meadow School from 1970 to 1991, and from 1974 taught Organization Studies in the Higher Education Center at the UMass School of Education.  He served in Town Meeting from 1992, was on the first Charter Commission in 1993, and served on several town committees including the Town Commercial Relations Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee.

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1 thought on “Opinion: Ron Fitzgerald, A Remembrance

  1. And, Michael, where did the conversation go after Ron dropped that line — deadpan, one presumes — “I wanted to be a zookeeper”?

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