The Learning Forward family is deeply saddened by the passing of Melvin Hayes Mizell on Sept. 26, 2022. He is a legend in our organization and our field – a visionary leader, a champion of professional learning, and an inspirational guide to countless educators.
Mizell has been widely recognized for his wisdom, incisiveness, and vision, which brought conversations about education, and ultimately the field of professional learning, to new levels. In equal measure, he is remembered as an extraordinarily gentle, kind, and generous colleague and friend.
“Hayes was someone whose influence on our organization can’t be truly measured,” said Frederick Brown, Learning Forward’s president/CEO. This sentiment is shared by many current and former Learning Forward leaders. “In my view, Hayes was the single most influential person at NSDC/Learning Forward in shaping how educators thought about the purposes of professional learning and how they enacted it in schools in North America and beyond,” said Dennis Sparks, emeritus executive director of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward).
“We would not be who we are today had it not been for Hayes Mizell,” said Stephanie Hirsh, emeritus executive director of Learning Forward. Mizell can be credited with a long list of influential ideas, she said, beginning with his challenge to develop Standards for Professional Development (which, in later iterations, became Standards for Professional Learning).
She also credited him with pushing the field to refocus professional learning on student achievement. He advocated for results-based studies that documented the relationship between professional development and results for teachers and students.
“In a complicated world, Hayes made things simple: focus on the results for students and educators,” Hirsh said. He stood behind these ideas even though they were controversial and not always welcomed, and as a result, she said, professional learning was forever changed for the better.
Mizell received the National Staff Development Council’s Contribution to Staff Development Award in 2000, and from 2007 to 2019, he served as the Distinguished Senior Fellow of the National Staff Development Council/ Learning Forward.
Mizell authored one of Learning Forward’s most popular papers, Why Professional Development Matters. This seminal piece, which explains what professional development is and why it is an important school improvement strategy, has been referenced thousands of times and continues to be one of our most popular resources for introducing non-educators to the importance of professional learning.
Mizell also wrote, edited, and delivered scores of reports, columns, articles, and speeches for Learning Forward and other organizations.
“He also had this same impact on other important national and local efforts,” Hirsh said. Between 1987 and 2003, Mizell was director of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s Program for Student Achievement, where he conceived and implemented major initiatives to support middle school reform. He was instrumental in the formation of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. In 1999, he received the National Association of Secondary School Principal’s Distinguished Service Award. He is seen as one of the key individuals responsible for improving middle school education in the United States.
Mizell also provided leadership in organizing and developing two additional national organizations: Grantmakers for Education and the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.
Between 1966 and 1982, Mizell directed the South Carolina office of the American Friends Service Committee, where he advocated and monitored the desegregation of the state’s public schools and worked to improve the education of students from low-income and minority families. In 1979, he was appointed by President Carter as Chairman of the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children, and he served in that capacity until 1982.
He also had a major influence on local education in South Carolina. During 1970-1974 and 1982-1986, Mizell served as an elected school board member of the Richland County School District (Columbia, SC) and Board of Commissioners. In the mid-1980s, he worked with Gov. Richard Riley and others in developing recommendations that became the basis for South Carolina’s historic Education Improvement Act.
Yet this list of accomplishments only captures part of Mizell’s legacy. Former colleagues recall his humility, compassion, and generous spirit, which he displayed in regular messages of inspiration and mentoring conversations with Learning Forward staff. He is remembered as a person of exceptional character, with a strong moral compass. Sparks said, “His moral voice and advocacy for all children remain with those of us who had the good fortune to work closely with him over many years.”
His inclusive and welcoming nature drew all those he met into his ever-widening circle of friends, and his unremitting love of family and devotion to friends was always forefront in his life. Hirsh said, “One of the things I will miss is his annual Christmas letter. It gave us another perspective on Hayes – community volunteer and proud husband, father, and grandfather. It highlighted the other sides of his life, and reminded us that we continued to be an important part of his extended family.”
In conveying her thanks for the outpouring of love and tributes his family has received, Mizell’s wife Kate Swanson said, “Learning Forward was a real passion for Hayes, and his children and I look forward to reading the tributes you have all sent us.”
Hirsh echoed the sentiments of many members of the Learning Forward community in saying, “Hayes will be missed by countless people. But his impact is ongoing, and his legacy will endure for the ages.”