Path to Politics

Posted by Terri McCormick On June - 14 - 2013


It’s funny how an idea can turn quickly into a passion.

Throughout most of my professional and volunteer career, I have been hired because I have been considered a “change agent.” I became comfortable with the term in 1996, when Bill O’Brien, the former executive director of an Appleton Catholic school district, suggested that I work with middle-school students.

Path to PoliticsCreative and innovative, Bill O’Brien was looking for outside-the-box ideas in providing a curriculum for his financially strapped school district. More important, he had a class in one of his middle schools that had a reputation for chasing good teachers out of the teaching profession.

O’Brien recruited me, as he said, “because you just spent time getting the charter school law passed, and the teachers union is going to come after you like you cannot believe.”

(Charter schools operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The “charter” establishing each such school is a performance contract that details the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment and ways to measure success.)

I knew O’Brien was right, as he went on, “We need you for these kids, and be honest—you need us right now.”

With Appleton newspaper headlines such as “McCormick to Ruin Public Education with Controversial Charter School Law,” I couldn’t deny a word he was saying. Neither the teachers union, nor reporters with family members inside that union, was pleased with the change in the traditional education. A target was clearly on my back as the founder of public charter schools.

O’Brien went on, “If anyone can reach these kids, you can!” As he appealed to my need to make a difference, I couldn’t say no. I had ideas—it seemed like I could think my way out of most challenges that life dropped on my doorstep.

I would write a leadership curriculum to empower students, rather than simply talk at them. The ideas came one after the other—communications skills, speaking, decision making. I would give to those students a recipe for leadership. Through a series of leadership classes, I would find myself healing through my new career as a teacher and then a student of administration. It would take time to heal from the “charter wars,” as they were called.


In the early 1990s, I was recruited to chair a new Citizens Advisory Council for the Appleton Public School District. My children attended the public primary school down the street, so I believed it was my responsibility to give of my time to the public school district. Education, as luck would have it, became one of the hottest policy issues of the day. It attracted intense emotion and passion in our local community. Parents understood that the stakes were high; their children’s futures were on the line.

At the same time, the business community struggled with finding an adequate workforce—one that was literate. Community growth and livelihood hung in the balance. Through the countless meetings, subcommittee meetings and phone calls, I began to find patterns in what parents, administrators and school board members were saying. That pattern was literacy; specifically, learning differences. Children with dyslexia, scotopic sensitivity (another visual perception issue) and other remedial learning differences were being left behind.

Parents phoned me looking for help: “My child cannot read.” It didn’t matter the age or the IQ, these children were not learning to read and comprehend.

There were plenty of labels floating around to explain the phenomenon of nonliterate educated students. Some of those labels sent chills up my spine: learning disabled, emotionally disordered, troubled family, at risk, low socioeconomic background, divorced parents, trouble at home. It was fascinating to me that the phrase dyslexic or scotopic sensitivity or any other method-specific learning difference was not mentioned.

It was as though my mother’s teacher in that one-room schoolhouse in northern Minnesota was tapping me on the shoulder, saying, “What are you going to do about it?” By 1992 I had been accepted into the education certificate program at Lawrence University. Encouraged by independent and gifted professor Ken Sager, I began what was to lead me to become one of the state’s founders of the charter school movement.

My background and credentials in public policy, international relations and foreign policy were meaningless. I now needed to start over. I would need education credentials if I were to be taken seriously as an educator and education researcher. Soon after finishing my education coursework and obtaining my credentials, I began tutoring children and adults with dyslexia, dysgraphia (deficiency in the ability to write) and scotopic sensitivity.

New patterns emerged through the research I was conducting through Educational Services, Inc., an educational research and developmental foundation. The findings were significant, and they were independently validated by neuropsychologists and specialeducation professionals. Dramatic improvement became measurable and confirmed with independent testing in the education community.

Children and adults began to thrive with methods then not available in public schools. The overarching conclusion was this: the methodology and curriculum changes introduced to the students who had been referred to me meant the difference between success or failure in school.

By 1993, parents and school board members in both public and parochial school systems began to see me as someone in whom they could confide—or maybe someone who could at long last give them hope.

Their stories were similar: “My son (or daughter) is smart, but he (or she) can’t read.” It didn’t matter if the child was seven or seventeen with a high IQ. The notion of learning differences in a one-size-fit sall school system was going against the grain of accepted educational research in the traditional schoolhouse.

The public-school parents I encountered were increasingly concerned with not having a voice in choosing the right teacher and educational fit for their children’s needs. I was asked to sit on educational assessment panels on all levels of K–12 education. One such instance provided a similar theme—a bright young man who tested at the top end of the intelligence quotient, with tremendous talent in music and art, was labeled as “difficult” by his high school teachers. My work with this gifted young man on the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test and phonemic awareness tests showed a cause for his being “difficult”—he was not only highly intelligent, but he was extremely dyslexic as well.

(He was in good company: Albert Einstein, stock broker Charles Schwab, and Thomas Edison were all dyslexic.) The new question became: “Is the traditional school system capable of change?” I was willing to hand over two years of research, study and materials that had been field-tested and pilot-tested to the public school system. For the sake of those children with learning differences who were underserved, I gathered my curriculum and research from Harvard, the Orton Foundation, the Neihaus Foundation, the Scottish Rite Hospital for Children and Learning Labs, and the International Irlen Centers for one purpose: I was determined to give away what I had learned so that children in the public schools could succeed.

I arranged a meeting with the area superintendent of schools, Tom Scullen. This man had retired from a similar position in Illinois but came out of retirement. He was either a man who had not had the ability to fulfill his dreams in his home state of Illinois, or he needed a second retirement plan; my guess was the former.

He was a roundfaced, white-haired fellow with a patient expression. He listened silently to my offer of giving the research and information I’d gathered, free of charge. Dr. Scullen agreed that the multisensory methods used at the Neihaus Education Center in Houston were classic methods from the Orton Foundation and would help tremendously in the remediation of learning differences.

“Terri, there is no doubt that what you have accomplished is accurate,” Dr. Scullen affirmed. “But … but … the methods are too teacher-intensive, and I doubt that I can get them through the teachers union.” He went on to say, “There is nothing I can do with that kind of resistance,” and then, in order to try to placate me, Dr. Scullen added, “When I was in Illinois I tried everything from at-risk programs to talented and gifted programs—you name it. We will not be able to get these methods into the classrooms.”

As I sat in shock and disbelief, I knew there was a way to provide more options for children and families who found themselves held captive by programs and methods that did not work well enough to teach children the fundamental skill of literacy.

To continue reading this chapter, get your copy of “What Sex is a Republican in paperback or Kindle edition on Amazon.

About the Author:

Terri McCormick is an author, policy expert, educator, and former state representative to the Wisconsin State Legislature. Today, she offers her expertise in public and government relations through McCormick Dawson CPG Ltd., a trusted consultancy of independent contractors.

Ms. McCormick serves as president and CEO of the company, drawing from more than two decades of professional experience, a strong educational foundation, a host of industry-related publications, and a multitude of accolades, awards and formal recognitions. Holding a Master of Arts in administrative leadership from Marian University, and a Bachelor of Science in political science and public administration from the University of Wisconsin, Ms. McCormick received both degrees with high honors.

“What Sex is a Republican?” is sold on Amazon in both the paperback edition as well as Kindle editionRead reviews on Amazon here.


Terri McCormick honored for excellence in government relations by Cambridge's Who's Who industry experts