The North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation (NDSG) is a diverse collective of progressive educators, artists, activists, historians, authors, scholars and students who come together annually to engage in an ongoing seminar on democratic possibilities in the U.S. and world education, branching out to include the related spheres of racial and social justice, culture, class and community activism. Members meet annually every President’s Day weekend to discuss, debate and develop solidarity. The NDSG has been a kind of informed democratic conscience of U.S. education, constantly reminding the mainstream of alternatives and possibilities, and offering a criticism of educational reform and practice in the light of enduring concerns with democracy and the estate of childhood.

NDSG gathers in 2016


The NDSG began in 1972, when Vito Perrone, then Dean of The Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of North Dakota, brought together educators from many parts of the U.S. to discuss common concerns about accountability of schools and assessment of children. Many in what became the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation were concerned about the narrowness of the visions of accountability and assessment that were becoming popular with policy makers and reformers; they wanted to share what they believed were more useful, fair, and democratic ways to document and assess children’s learning. They also held a closely related vision of what constituted good classroom practice. Since then, the group has amounted to an ongoing seminar on democratic possibilities in U.S. and world education, branching out to include related issues such as racial tensions in schools and classrooms, issues of culture, class and gender, social justice and activism, but always returning to the themes of accountability and assessment. In effect, the NDSG has been a kind of informed democratic conscience of U.S. education, constantly reminding the mainstream of alternatives and possibilities, and offering a criticism of educational reform and practice in the light of its enduring concerns with democracy and the estate of childhood. In some reform periods, the ideas of the group have met with and profoundly influenced the educational mainstream–its progressive, democratic ideas have had what the Chinese call “the mandate of heaven.” In other periods, the group has been a voice for thoughtful criticism of mainstream trends, and a supporter of alternative paths and thinking.

In its way, the NDSG has been a mirror of the changing mind and practice of U.S. education.

For 32 years, Vito Perrone organized the meetings and planned their basic shape which arose out of his choice of who to bring together, He also framed the basic themes in his annual opening talk. In the last several years, the planning has been generated by a planning group that meets during the summer.

The tone is serious, intense–we often address a particular text or question–and yet informal. The network of friendships and professional connections are strong and grow stronger each year for those who attend regularly. Home groups welcome and create a place for newcomers, often, young teachers. The meetings in the early 70’s had about 30 attendees. Now, well over 100 people attend. Not only has the size changed, but the composition of the group has changed too. Classroom teachers were few until the early 80’s, when invited teacher panels became a feature each year. Until the late 80’s, the group was primarily White. The group challenged itself with continued efforts to deepen understanding of race and ethnicity and to solidify the connections with attendees of color. Those who participate currently include new teachers, veteran teachers, university professors, community activists, independent scholar undergraduates, deans, foundations program officers, and principals. Shared rooms and cafeteria style meals add to the experience of an informal and trusting mix.

Vito Perrone often reminded the group to serve “large purposes,” and it has. Over the years, members have provided ideas and materials for researchers, teachers, parents, school administrators, and policy makers (within state education agencies and within the U.S. Office of Education, for example.) Members have linked educational thought to many wider currents of democratic activism. Over the years, the NDSG has encouraged many people to re-examine a range of issues about schools and schooling and childhood and race and ethnicity. Meetings and publications and informal conversations within its networks ranged over issues of children’s thinking, children’s language, curriculum, support systems for teachers, inservice education, teacher education, the school’s relationship to a wider community, and, increasingly, issues relating to the diversity of America’s schoolchildren, immigration, and the problems of racism in U.S. society.

The roster of names linked with the group reads like a Who’s Who of democratic thinkers and activists: Vito Perrone, Lillian Weber, Deborah Meier, Patricia Carini, Eleanor Duckworth, Joseph Featherstone, Bill Ayers, Hubert Dyasi, among others. The written records of the group reflect an extraordinarily thoughtful, passionate, ongoing conversation about the possibilities of democracy in education, and the changing climate of three decades of turbulent educational history. In particular, the group has germinated and published a monograph series; authors from diverse perspectives write about evaluation, observation, equity, reading tests, documentation, and teachers write about their own classrooms.

Those listed above have been to many meetings in the course of 40 years. Over time, the group has also invited speakers to link the agenda to important currents not generated within the group. Among others, Ken Haskins, Lisa Delpit, Gloria Ladson-Billings and Howard Fuller have addressed the group on racial issues. Ron Edmonds introduced his Effective Schools movement, Gregory Anrig, the president of Educational Testing Service, talked about standardized testing. Joseph Suina and his colleagues from the University of New Mexico enlarged the conversation beyond a discussion of Blacks and Whites. These meetings are not just about the past; in many ways the NDSG is livelier now than ever as we attempt to deepen and broaden the national dialogue on education and social justice in our classrooms, schools, and communities.

The NDSG still meets annually every President’s Day weekend. Before it found a home at Wingspread, in the Frank Lloyd Wright meeting space provided by the Johnson Foundation in the 1980’s, the NDSG met at various locations such as the University of North Dakota, the University of Chicago, or Lesley College in Cambridge, MA. When the group became too large for Wingspread, we reluctantly moved the yearly meeting rather than limit the membership. For the past twenty-one years, with the exception of 2003 when we met in Cambridge, MA, the NDSG met each February at the Resurrection Center in Woodstock, Illinois. Resurrection Center closed at the end of August, 2008. From 2009 until 2012, the meetings took place at the conference center of the University of St. Mary on the Lake in Mundelein IL, about 28 miles north of O’Hare airport.

Beginning in 2013, the NDSG combined the traditional focus on progressive educational issues and the current works-in-progress of the membership with place-based action learning. The 2013 and 2014 meetings were held in Detroit, Michigan and geared to take advantage of emerging educational movements and local efforts. The 2015 and 2016 meetings were held in South Texas to explore issues of language and the implications of borders. The 2018 and 2019 meetings were held in Jackson, Mississippi, where members had the opportunity to meet and learn with activists. In response to the pandemic, the 2020 and upcoming meetings are virtual.