I slightly edited the verbatim recording to correct grammar occasionally and to aid in overall readability while maintaining the interviewee’s voice as well as the substantive content of the interview.
Video Clip 1: In the ’60s at the federal level started to learn that “It’s a long way from a federal office in Washington, DC to a classroom.”
(January 2015: 1:56:00)
I am Mike Kirst. I’m a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s School of Education. And I am the current president of the California State Board of Education. My area of work has been in federal and state education policy. This is my 51st year of doing that and my fourth term as president of the California State Board of Education.
So I began in 1964 in the Johnson administration and then worked for the U.S. Senate. Then I came to California as a professor at Stanford and had my initial run in the State Board of Education with Governor Jerry Brown from 1975 through 1982.
So I’ve reflected a lot on what I’ve learned over this long career in terms of federal and state education policy, and I’m delighted to share it today.
I started with the view that I was going to go to Washington and change the world and improve education. And we did a lot. We created the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The civil rights laws were enforced through education. We spent a lot of money—federal money. And we did have an impact during that period of focusing people on the disadvantaged children and their needs and effective programming.
But I soon learned the limits of federal policy…that it’s a very long way from a federal office in Washington, DC to a classroom. And what really matters in many ways is improving classroom instruction. And if you’re not improving classroom instruction, then even though you can provide free lunches in preschool and all of that, you’re not going to get to the essence of education.
Video Clip 2: First term as California State Board President, learned that “You need to create a constituency at the local level.”
(January 2015: 2:41:00)
I was delighted then to get the state appointment. It’s a state-level in Sacramento as President of the California State Board of Education in 1975. And I thought, “Well, I’m closer to the action, and I’ll do more at the state level.” And we’re a very strong state. California, for example, adopts textbooks in kindergarten through eighth grade, and the districts use those textbooks. We had an aggressive assessment system, even in the ’70s, and we had a large focus on professional development.
We were able to move the system somewhat. But again I learned that the instruments and policies that the state government has been blunt, can move people in general directions, but are not fine-tuned enough to affect classroom instruction and to really improve it.
So we pushed harder on professional development. But professional development, I learned, is of very varied quality—some of it is good, some of it’s terrible. We left a lot of it to school districts, and they tend to use it in too shallow a way—with no follow-up in the classroom…with no collaboration among the teachers.
So I’ve learned from that somewhat how hard it is again to change classroom instruction.
I also learned that to change education from the federal and state level, you need to create a constituency at the local level that will support the change and sustain it. We tried a lot of what are called categorical grants—earmarked funds—in California. Some of them had a temporary impact; some of them lasted because they created a constituency.
Special education is a good example of a powerful constituency that made things last. Vocational education had a strong constituency that weakened; so it tended to go away. And driver’s training, for example, had a weak constituency, and it went away. So my work is also focused on what state and federal reforms last, which ones go away without much of a trace, and which ones come back and cycle back…“ebb-and-flow,” it’s called. Professors David Tyack and Larry Cuban worked on this with me in understanding this.
Video Clip 3: Second term as California State Board President, learned that “For every ratchet-up of accountability, you need to ratchet up equally capacity building at the local level.”
(January 2015: 3:03:00)
After working on a state education policy think tank in California and nationally, I got my second chance at the state office. And what we’re doing now I think is more sophisticated and has a better chance of lasting.
So what are we doing?
We’re thoroughly aimed at the long-run change in the classroom through enhancing state policy instruments that can help that. But the change has to be local. So the state role has to be: yes, some accountability. We need to know which schools are doing well and not doing well. But for every ratchet-up of accountability, you need to ratchet up equally capacity building at the local level. So we come back to professional development, back to principal leadership, and how that will work.
So the first thing we did in California was to “de-categorize” lots of the funds. We had about 40 categories that we funded at the state level; they tended to chop everything up in small pieces. We de-categorized that through a local control funding formula. And then we created much stronger linkages for the locals to figure out how to improve instruction. So they have to do a local control accountability plan aimed at instructional improvement and pupil outcomes. So we pump more money into the system…we’ve created more teacher networks…we’ve refined our views on how professional development can be effective. And I think at that point we were really beginning to move this forward.
Our watchwords—and this would be my overview—are: “patience, persistence, and humility.”
It takes a long time to change schools and improve instruction. So you have to have patience. On the other hand, you have to have a set of initiatives you’re working with—capacity building, professional development, teacher networks, principal networks, school leadership. All of those you need.
You need to persist. We’re looking at Common Core being a five- to ten-year process.
And finally humility: in the 50 years, I’ve learned what I don’t know as well as a few things I do know. But actually improving classroom instruction is complex…has many factors. You need to blend the federal and state policy and instruments you’re using with the local context. You need to adapt to the local context with your state policy, and you need then to learn and to proceed with humility.
So that I think is my main lesson.
*Video clips are from “Michael Kirst – The Political Dynamics of American Education,” January 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMdX5p5ru4M&t=44s .