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In memoriam, Mike Rose, 77, UCLA professor who chronicled the power of learning

By John McDonald
Professor of Education, Mike Rose

Rose pushed colleagues to write about and share their ideas beyond academia

Mike Rose, an esteemed and beloved education research professor at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, died August 15 after falling ill last week. He was 77.

“The contributions that Professor Rose made to our school, to our university and to the larger academic community are immeasurable, his loss immense,” said Christina Christie, Wasserman Dean of the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. “His kindness and intellect not only shaped an academic life that offered meaningful insight into learning, intelligence and the challenges facing education, but made him a wonderful colleague who added so greatly to our community at UCLA and across academia.”

Rose taught for more than 40 years in a wide range of educational settings, from elementary school to adult literacy and job training programs, to graduate level courses, touching the lives of students and educators across the spectrum. He was hired as a professor at UCLA in July of 1994.

“I would not have a Ph.D. today were it not for Mike,” said Na’ilah Suad Nasir, president of the Spencer Foundation and current president of the American Education Research Association Council. “Mike was my mentor and friend. He made the academy a more humane place. This is the same deep ethic of respect he brought to his scholarship. The torch is now passed to all of us.”

The son of Italian immigrants, Rose never forgot his background growing up in a family with little income — first in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and later in South Los Angeles. In his many books and articles, Rose chronicled the educational challenges confronting students from under-resourced neighborhoods, the skills and intelligence of everyday people, and the transformative power of learning. He drew on personal experience, keen observations of classrooms and workplaces, and deep engagement with cognitive psychology.

Rose’s scholarship is inflected with what his former UCLA student and current UC Berkeley professor Janelle Scott describes as “social democratic ideals.” He “believed that everyone, regardless of their background, was capable of learning, had ideas that were worthy, and fundamentally belonged.”

Scott adds that Rose “normalized academic and intellectual struggle as being simply part of the way we learn.”

On his personal blog, Rose described “a deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of  public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.”

This understanding emerged from his own life story. Rose described himself as a “decidedly average student,” in his youth who was tracked into vocational education courses. With the help and encouragement of a teacher he met in his senior year, he found his way to college. He would go on to earn an undergraduate degree from Loyola Marymount University, a master’s degree from the University of Southern California, and a doctorate from UCLA.

Rose was highly thought of by current students he taught at UCLA, including those that took his class this Spring.

“Mike was amazing. I am so grateful to have been in his last class of students this year,” said Brianna Harvey, a doctoral student at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. “He pushed me and my work in a way that no one else has. I cherish the brief time we were able to spend together. I’m heartbroken.”

Rose was also passionate about the importance of writing and public scholarship. He labored over every word of his own writing, and spent a great deal of time encouraging and helping academic researchers and educators to share their research and ideas with the broader community through their own writing. He was the author or co-author of several books that served as a resource to help academic researchers and other educators to improve their writing

A talented and painstaking writer, Rose was the author of 11 books and dozens of articles. His books include “Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared”; “Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America”; “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker”; “Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us”; and “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.”

In what some consider a seminal publication, “The Mind at Work,” Rose highlighted the skills and intelligence of his waitress mother “Rosie” illustrating the diverse range of skills, talent and thinking she used to succeed in a challenging job.  

“The book was lauded by no less than the late Studs Terkel as an “eloquent tribute to our working men and women.” Howard Gardner, author of “Changing Minds,” noted that, “thanks to Mike Rose’s impressive eye, the accomplishments of these workers are now visible.”

Rose was a member of the National Academy of Education and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Grawemeyer Award in Education, and awards from the Spencer Foundation, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Modern Language Association, and the American Educational Research Association.

“Perhaps more than anything, Mike was a highly gifted storyteller, who often weaved his own life experiences into his observations of the struggles and successes of individuals in educational contexts,” Christie said.  “There are very few people who understood the complexities of education with the breadth and depth possessed by Mike, and his personal lens sharpened his analysis of and commentary on the policy and structural issues that impact education. His words illuminated our world and he pushed us all to be better writers and educators. He is going to be greatly missed, but his time with us helped us to learn, made our work better and changed our lives.”

In one of his last pieces for publication, Mike Rose drafted a chapter titled, "Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric," which will be published in 2022 as part of an edited volume on the role of public schools in American democracy.  The closing sentences speak to the promise of public school and are a reminder of the power of his writing.

As you visit one school, then another, then another, you begin to see similarity across difference and eventually interconnectedness and pattern. There is a grand idea in all this — and you sense it — a vast infrastructure of public schooling. Over its history, the idea has been subverted and violated, but revived by teachers and parents and communities across widely varied landscapes and populations, alive in a classroom in Chicago where two young teachers take their students seriously, inviting them to think and talk together, creating for them the deep sense that school is a good place to be.

In honor of Mike Rose, UCLA Ed&IS has begun to compile the outpouring of love and support on this tribute page. If you would like to submit a tribute to appear on the page you may do so using this form. We have also established the Mike Rose Memorial Scholarship Fund to honor Mike’s work, if you would like to make a donation, please click here.

A Celebration of the Life and Work of Professor Mike Rose
Hosted by UCLA School of Education & Information Studies

Sunday, October 10th, 2021, 11:00 am 
UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center
Centennial CD Ballroom
The event was live-streamed and recorded for those who were unable to gather in person.
You may watch a recording of the memorial here.