Thurlow’s Leadership Legacy: Fairness, Wisdom in Education

Thu Dec 12 2019
Martha Thurlow.

To leave a legacy, Benjamin Franklin instructed in Poor Richard’s Almanac, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. After 20 years at the helm of ICI’s National Center on Educational Outcomes, Martha Thurlow has done much of both. 

Thurlow, who stepped down in October as director, secured numerous and longstanding national, state, and other grant awards, and won the Council for Exceptional Children’s J.E. Wallin Wallace Lifetime Achievement Award. She has also published more than 60 books and book chapters and more than 200 research articles on improving instruction and educational assessments for students with disabilities and English learners. She plans to continue writing and contributing to ICI under a retirement appointment.

That leadership stemmed from deep roots along the Mississippi River. 

University of Minnesota President Emeritus Robert Bruininks, a colleague of Thurlow’s for more than 40 years, noted her significant contributions to the founding and external support for the school’s Institute on Community Integration and to Check & Connect, ICI’s nationally recognized school retention and completion intervention program, in addition to being a founding member of NCEO.

“Martha is a uniquely creative and productive scholar, and a great mentor and leader,” said Bruininks, who led ICI before taking the helm at the University. “Through her leadership as Director of NCEO, Martha has worked tirelessly to expand and sustain educational opportunity for children and youth with disabilities within our nation’s educational policies and in our local schools. Her career has achieved lasting impact in the quest to create and expand opportunities for people with disabilities and their families in the United States and internationally.”

Among her proudest achievements, Thurlow said, are “seeing the work of NCEO reflected in federal education laws and the progress states have made to improve the outcomes of students with disabilities.”

“Anything I have accomplished is due to my many mentors and the colleagues I have worked with at ICI and NCEO through the years,” she said.

Like Bruininks, Sheryl Lazarus, who assumed the role of NCEO director October 1, spoke of Thurlow’s national presence.

“Under Martha’s leadership, NCEO has grown in stature and now provides national leadership on the inclusion of students with disabilities in instruction and assessments,” Lazarus said. “She leveraged a deep knowledge of national policies, and the educational challenges faced by students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities, to create sweeping change in educational systems. Her passion and commitment, and her ability to bridge theory to practice, has truly improved outcomes for students.”

Recalling occasions when federal education officials sought out Thurlow’s opinion on special education policy, former ICI director David Johnson, who also worked closely with Thurlow in those early days, said her imprint on inclusive educational standards at both the federal and state levels has been remarkable. 

“When you think about accountability for including all students in standards and assessments, she has probably had more influence on making that happen than anybody else in the country,” Johnson said.

Another longtime colleague, University of Kentucky Emeritus Professor Harold Kleinert, collaborated often with Thurlow and her team on a number of significant projects, most recently NCEO’s TIES Center, the national technical assistance center that works with states, districts, and schools to support the movement of students to more inclusive environments.

“For Martha, it was always about the importance of this work for the students we serve,” said Kleinert. “She leaves a profound impact upon our field, and in doing so, she has continuously modeled an attitude of humility and grace and a determination to improve upon what we have already done.”

Her work has produced the best kind of evidence-based policy, said Sue Swenson, president of Inclusion International and former deputy assistant secretary for special education at the U.S. Department of Education.

“When we were seeking to inform testing rules for students with IEPs, for example, Dr. Thurlow’s clear and concise descriptions of the population of children with the most significant disabilities allowed us to be realistic, while at the same time insisting on inclusion in the general education curriculum and environment for all children. There is still work to be done to help schools figure out how to support all children in learning and testing environments, but at least we now have a clear idea of what the situation really is.”

Numerous education officials have similarly lauded Thurlow’s work, and her closest colleagues speak of her understated, supportive leadership and her example-setting work ethic.

Longtime colleague Terri Vandercook said Thurlow stood out early on in team meetings for her ability to identify opportunities and then follow through with ways to effectively communicate new knowledge in the field.

“She has traveled extensively her whole career,” said ICI Executive Director Amy Hewitt. “There is just a steadfast focus on the research that will make kids’ lives better by changing educational systems.”

Her long association with the University—she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, summa cum laude, in 1968 before adding master’s and doctorate degrees—includes a decade with NCEO prior to becoming director. She also spent time in the College of Education and Human Development’s educational psychology department.

The depth of the work formed a quiet, confident leadership style, Johnson said. 

“She has mentored students and her staff and sets a high bar,” he said. “It takes time to mentor people to that point where [an organization] can put out the kind of information that truly shapes planning and policy. She’s just good people.”

In a word, what Thurlow contributed amid a field of educators was really “wisdom,” said Swenson.

“A lifetime of careful research provides factors that allow her to expertly describe a reality, but science alone is not enough,” Swenson said. “Dr. Thurlow has also built some of the strongest credibility I ever saw in my work in government. She did not make pronouncements based on a desire to puff up her resume or gain more government funding. She told the truth and only the truth and was known for it. The nation benefits from her work.”