Making public policy work for education: Reflections on the career of Mike Kirst

Michael W. Kirst

This week, John Fensterwald at  Edsource highlights the career and accomplishments of Mike Kirst, who will retire at the end of his fourth term as President of the State Board of Education in California.  The story includes a link to Mike’s recent talk at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association, where Kirst reflected on his career after receiving AERA’s Distinguished Public Service Award.

 

Mike Kirst has had more impact on public policy in education in the United States than almost any other academic I’ve ever met. Given that in another reflection on his career from 2015, Kirst calls himself an “accidental professor”, I could also say that he’s the state policymaker who has had the most positive impact on researchers and academics.  Mike has developed that impact by moving seamlessly between positions in government and academia.  Throughout, he has both pursued research aimed firmly at addressing meaningful problems of educational policy and developed public policies informed both by what researchers have (and have not) learned. Interestingly, both he, and another enormously influential academic in the US, Howard Gardner, grew up in the coal regions of Eastern Pennsylvania.  (Gardner has also reflected on his life and work in a recent interview, and I have written a bit about Gardner’s powerful influence on me in Mind, work, and life: A Festschrift on the Occasion of Howard Gardner’s 70th Birthday).  In the1960’s, Kirst worked in the Federal office of Budget and Management in Washington, D.C. where he helped to develop the budget for the first Title 1 program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (When Kirst and colleagues produce a memo for then President Johnson proposing a budget of 750 million dollars, Johnson sent it back saying “none of these is good enough, I want a billion dollars.”).  In the 1970’s and early 80’s, Kirst served as an Advisor to the California Governor, Jerry Brown, and as a Member and then President of the California State Board of Education.  In 2011, after Jerry Brown became Governor again, Kirst was appointed for another two terms as President of the State Board of Education.  In between, Kirst was a Professor of Education at Stanford Education, authored several books and numerous articles and reports, and co-founded Policy Analysis for California Education.

As EdSource describes some of Kirst’s most recent accomplishments:

Working in tandem, Kirst and Brown reshaped K-12 education in California during the past eight years. The state introduced and oversaw the implementation of new academic standards and assessments in math and English language arts and adopted new standards in science. Through the Local Control Funding Formula, which Brown shepherded through the Legislature in 2013, the state shifted control over budget decisions from the state to school districts and created an equity-based financing system that directs more money to low-income students, English learners and foster youth.

But for me, the final quotes of the EdSource piece highlight how much we can learn from Mike and his honesty, reflectiveness, and ability.  As Mike described it, when he and his colleagues first joined the California government in the 1970’s: “Our view of the state board was we need to get these old guys out of here in Sacramento and we’ll solve these problems.”  But at 78, as he put it “we all come back (35 years later) and we’re a humble bunch of people, proceeding with great humility, plunging into the unknown.”

If only the rest of us could begin our work by building on what Mike has already learned…

Thomas Hatch

**This post initially appeared on thomashatch.org**

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