Fred Newmann, longtime UW–Madison professor and giant in assessment, civic education, dies at 86

In his decades-long career as an educator and education researcher, Fred Newmann rose to national prominence as a giant in his field, producing work that transformed how teachers and administrators think about authentic assessment, civic and social studies education, professional development, and school restructuring. 

Newmann passed away on Feb. 10 at the age of 86, surrounded by his family. He leaves behind a legacy of deeply impactful scholarship and enduring lessons for his many students.

Newmann taught in the UW–Madison School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction for three decades. He was a standout teacher and lauded researcher whose honors included a presidential citation and Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award from the American Educational Research Association. His work on authentic assessment is a landmark achievement in modern education research, and his reimagining of social studies education as grounded in critical thinking transformed how history, current events, politics, and government are taught in classrooms around the world. 


Newmann’s doctoral work at Harvard, in partnership with colleagues Donald Oliver and James Shaver, led to the creation of the Public Issues Series, a collection of case studies in U.S. history that empowered students to develop evidence-based arguments on controversial subjects. 

Diana Hess, dean of the UW–Madison School of Education, who has dedicated much of her career to similar work, calls Newmann a “north star” in the field of social studies education.

“Fred made so many contributions — both in civic education and social studies and in the development of a framework for authentic intellectual work that applies to K-12 education across all subjects and disciplines,” Hess says. “He was an imaginative thinker who was deeply grounded in the realities of schooling. His greatest gift was to create new ways of teaching and learning that had face validity for teachers and other school leaders.” 

Michael Apple, John Bascom Professor Emeritus in the School of Education’s Departments of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies, says Newmann’s work was “crucial in creating, defending, and extending one of the most significant and lasting traditions in civic education.”  

“His influence was not only visible in the United States, but in many other nations,” Apple says. “At the same time, his willingness to live out his principles in his own teaching and in his relationships with teachers, students, and with his colleagues here at Wisconsin constantly documented why he was such a valued colleague.”

Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor emerita in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, recalls Newmann as a colleague who showed how leaders in academia can lift each other up.

“I must say, I was pleasantly surprised to learn from Fred that scholars could be critical without being mean-spirited and set on tearing others down,” she recalls. “Fred was a builder. He always looked for ways to build you up, even when he offered a serious critique of your work.”

During his time at UW–Madison, Newmann’s scholarship expanded to include studies of alienation in secondary schools, higher-order thinking in high school curriculum, new approaches to student assessment, the restructuring of public, elementary, middle, and high schools, and professional development to build capacity in low-income schools. 

As a thought leader in these fields, he served as director of the National Center on Effective Secondary Schools and the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools. Both centers were based at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), which is housed in the School of Education. 

Courtney Bell, director of WCER, calls Newmann “a giant — both at the School of Education and WCER.”

“In addition to all the interpersonal and teaching gifts Fred honed, he also was a gifted researcher,” Bell says. “He succeeded on traditional academic metrics such as journal articles and citation but, in my view, the greater marker of his research success is that Fred’s work has withstood the test of scholarly time. I read and used his seminal work on authentic intellectual engagement in my own first study, more than a decade after he published it. And I was recently working with Scandinavian researchers and they had found and were adapting Fred’s work for their context. Fred studied foundational issues in classrooms and he did so in ways that shaped related research for decades. Few scholars achieve that accomplishment.” 

In 2015, Newmann published his game-changing book, “Authentic Intellectual Work: Improving Teaching for Rigorous Learning,” with co-authors Dana L. Carmichael and Bruce King. The book offers three criteria for high-quality and equitable learning: construction of new knowledge through higher-order thinking, disciplined inquiry that builds on prior knowledge, and applying knowledge to “real world” problems. 

Image courtesy Corwin Press

Bruce King, emeritus faculty associate with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and director of the AIW Institute, worked with Newmann for more than 25 years. King says K-12 educators continue to apply the Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) framework in classrooms across the country and around the world. 

“Fred’s research and professional development efforts have energized teachers’ collaborative work, and influenced instruction and assessment so students are engaged in meaningful, challenging work,” King says. 

Newmann’s scholarship has an indisputable legacy — as does the unique impact he had on his students. Newmann taught hundreds of students in the School of Education’s social studies teacher education program over the course of his career, instilling lasting skills in how to create engaging classroom environments and assess meaningful learning.

Eric Grodsky, a professor in the UW–Madison Department of Sociology and an affiliate of the Department of Educational Policy Studies, recalls taking one of Newmann’s courses as a PhD student. 

“I learned more about the craft of teaching, and of assessment, in that class than in any other course I took,” Grodsky recalls. “Fred not only did an excellent job actively teaching; he also created a space where we could learn from each other. I am a more thoughtful, intentional teacher because of Fred.”

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