17th Installment: Mike Kirst and Jerry Brown: Act II and Beyond (2011-2019)

"Conversations With and About Mike"

Photo from Learning Policy Institute’s cover for this report 1


“Jerry Brown Redux” Era 

Since 2010, Rick Hess, Senior Fellow and Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, has annually ranked more than 200,000 university-based scholars according to their influence the previous year in shaping educational policy and practice. These “Edu-Scholar” lists are published in the widely read Education Week news journal and are touted by universities and faculties nationwide.

As noted below, the 2017 list celebrates Mike Kirst’s effectiveness as a policy influencer in the Government and Policy arena.2

In this installment, we explore Mike’s research, publications, and policy-making activities that illustrate his influence during the years 2011-2019, a time Mike calls his “Jerry Brown Redux” Era as he served again as the President of the California State Board of Education for Governor Jerry Brown.

We begin by hearing from Mike as he is interviewed on video for the 2017 ceremony awarding him the inaugural Education Champion Award from EdSource, California’s primary outlet for education news. Let’s watch and listen in:

“‘Humility’: That’s Been a Watchword”  

Media 1 (Video): Mike Kirst: During these years, I was finally able “to translate policy and talk into action.” These were “the best years of a long career…between the ages of 71 and 79” (chuckling) ….(30 seconds)3

Photo excerpted from EdSource video.

The septuagenarian span of years that Mike refers to as “the best years of a long career” is 2011 to 2019, during which he netted five prestigious national awards:

  • The first Education Champion Award from EdSource, 2017
  • The Distinguished Public Service Award from the American Education Research Association (AERA) in 2017
  • The James A. Kelly Award from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 20174
  • The Educator of the Year from Loyola Marymount University in 20165
  • The Outstanding Public Educator Award from the Horace Mann League in 20116

On a rainy April day in New York City in 2017, Mike addressed his AERA colleagues upon the receipt of that organization’s Distinguished Public Service Award. He called his talk, “Public Policy Impact of Education Research: A 54-Year Career Perspective.”

Among other highlights, he portrays how his and Brown’s mindset had shifted in the three decades between Brown’s stints as governor:

Media 2 (Audio): Mike Kirst: “Proceed with humility. That’s been a watchword.”(29 seconds)7

In this AERA presentation, Mike also noted the fortuitous timing in California of his and Brown’s “redux” era. Let’s watch and listen in:

Media 3 (Video): AERA – Mike Kirst: “When Jerry Brown came back in 2011,” we had the three necessary “vectors” for what [academics] call “the policy window opening.” (1 minute, 41 seconds)8

Photo excerpted from YouTube video.

The “action” to which Mike refers in the opening video clip was the “set of big ideas” he notes in this address: a set of reforms that came to be termed “The California Way” taken from the Learning Policy Institute’s comprehensive set of reports in 2019 after the completion of Brown’s “redux” years as governor.9

The Learning Policy Institute’s  “California Way” reports summarized the reform package as “The Local Control Funding Formula (see Installment 15) [which]….shifted billions of dollars to districts serving high-need students and provided all districts with broad flexibility to develop—in partnership with parents, students, and staff—spending plans aligned to local priorities and needs”10 plus the state’s “implementation of the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, [its] implementation of the Smarter Balanced Assessment System (SBAC), and the development of new educator preparation and licensure standards to support the more rigorous academic goals.”11

In February 2019, Learning Policy Institute and EdSource co-sponsored an event, “Reaching for Equity and Excellence: California’s Educational Progress and the Path Ahead,” to announce the release of the California Way reports. It featured leading researchers, policymakers, advocates, organizers, and practitioners discussing aspects of the reports in order to “highlight education exemplars in California and spur dialogue among stakeholders about progress, challenges, and next steps for California.”12

“Subsidiarity” Meets “Systemic Reform”

Louis Freedberg, then the long-time Executive Director 0f EdSource, helped kicked off the forum by reflecting on a conversation he and his colleague, John Fensterwald, had with Jerry Brown on his last Friday in office as governor about a month earlier. Freedberg begins by noting, “I think it’s fair to say, there has not been a comparable period in California’s history where so many education reforms have been put in place under a single governor.” And he rightfully notes that these “multidimensional reforms…have been put in place by Governor Brown, by the State Board, by the good folks…at CDE (the California Department of Education, then headed by Tom Torlakson).”

This video clip is nearly three minutes long but useful in summarizing the governor’s observations about what Freedberg characterized as a “remarkably coherent policy framework.”13

Media 4 (Video): Louis Freedberg: ” Governor Brown somehow was able to integrate…an ancient theological term, ‘subsidiarity’…and make [it] a central part of the reform process…” (2 minutes, 54 seconds)14

Louis Freedberg, then Executive Director of EdSource. Photo excerpted from YouTube video.

A key revelation for Freedberg–which he shared with the forum’s participants–was that Brown viewed the formula part of the enacted reform package as “just the mechanics.” Rather, Brown wanted his legacy in K-12 public education to be the enactment of “subsidiarity”–that is that “state government should stay out of local matters unless it could handle them better than the local authorities” and that this would support the strength of “the meeting,” between student and teacher, as postulated by the German philosopher Martin Buber.

A lead author of LPI’s “The California Way.” Photo excerpted from YouTube video.

Later in the forum, Freedberg asks Mike to summarize the major accomplishments of the reforms. As Mike often does, he first affirms what the previous speakers had to say–including one of the lead authors of the “California Way” report, Laura Hernández, Senior Researcher, Learning Policy Institute, noting that she had summarized “outcomes” of the reforms to date)quite well, allowing him to focus his remarks, on helping the forum participants step back and recall the core design of the reform package. Let’s listen to how he portrays this “core design” in this video clip:

Media 5 (Video): Mike Kirst: “The design is really important…Our approach is one called ‘systemic’ reform’ [with] all parts of the education system…working with the same synergy, in the same direction.” (38 seconds)15

Photo excerpted from YouTube video.

Mike points in the remarks we just heard in this video clip to a previous presenter’s slide (pictured below) to illustrate the complexities of making  ‘systemic reform’ work. He focuses on the “New Standards” puzzle piece. Mike explains quite matter-of-factly later in his presentation that “we’ve overhauled every one of our major standards now, with [the subject area of] art still pending.” He then elaborates that “we have new math standards, new English standards, next-generation science standards, history/civics standards, [and] for the first time computer science standards; [and] we have passed health framework and standards.”

Learning Policy Institute (LPI) presentation (Click this link for the full set of PowerPoint slides). Photo excerpted from presentation material.

And finally, Mike emphasizes that to make the puzzle fit together into a systemic whole, “you have to adopt new materials, new content, new various instructional aids like textbooks” and “then you have to align [those] to your standards. And we’ve been able to accomplish that. We have a brand new assessment…the Smarter Balanced Assessment. It’s computer-adaptive, students have to go into it to defend their own conclusions. And the standard is set at the level of college- and career-ready. So that’s a very high standard…So, we went through a standard-setting process [to determine] what really is college and career-ready.” Then Mike adds “As the LPI [presenters] indicated in their presentation, we’ve done a great deal of change with our capacity building with our teachers, the crucial people, and principals, that carry on in the school. Nobody mentioned what Linda Darling-Hammond did on the California Teacher Commission. That’s one of the great untold stories: completely revamping our standards for entering the teaching force.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, President of the Learning Policy Institute, of whom Mike speaks above, had the rather difficult task at the forum of 0f summarizing the financial situation for California schools when Governor Brown came into office. In the next three-and-a-half-minute video clip, she draws a compelling, and at the end slightly humorous portrayal of the seismic shift that had occurred in the previous eight years during this most recent tenure with Brown as governor. Let’s listen in:

Media 6 (Video): Linda Darling-Hammond: “I want to recognize the genius of the reforms that are underway” and “want to put a little perspective on it.” (3 minutes, 22 seconds)16

Linda-Darling Hammond, President, Learning Policy Institute. Photo excerpted from  YouTube video.

Darling-Hammond cites the National Public Radio 2004 documentary, “From First to Worst” as justification for her use of the label “genius,” detailing the state’s dire funding and performance straits before the efforts began, summarizing “It was pretty bad.”17

She then contrasts that situation to where things stood in 2019.  She points out that starting in 2011 with the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula, California had developed “one of the most progressive funding systems in the country,” noting that “we’re now in the top 10 states in terms of the progressiveness of [education] funding.”

At the time of this forum (February 2019), Governor Newsom had just been sworn in as the new governor of California and had nominated Darling-Hammond to serve as Mike’s successor as President of the California State Board of Education.  This imminent “passing of the torch” prompted David Rattray, then Executive Vice President for Education Excellence and Talent Development for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, to offer one of the more touching personal reflections of the day.  Let’s listen in:

Media 7 (Video): David Rattray: To have Mike pass this “torch” onto Linda–“it’s just a gift beyond my wildest imagination and hopes for California kids.” (42 seconds)18

David Rattray with other panelists (L to R), Aurea Montes-Rodriguez & Danielle Letts. Photo excerpted from YouTube video.

That Rattray hit an emotional cord was evidenced by the spontaneous applause of the audience as well as the expressions of approval when he characterized this transition as “a gift beyond my wildest imagination and hopes for California kids.”

In preparing this biography, I discovered a largely unknown, but important, set of dynamics among this Kirst-Rattray-Darling-Hammond trio. It’s a “California Way” backstory worth telling and hearing.

A Key, Previously Untold ‘California Way’ Backstory 

Let’s start, by hearing again from David Rattray, in an interview I had with him two weeks after the February 2019 forum in Sacrament0. I began by asking him about the “passing-of-the-torch” comment he had made.

David Rattray, former Executive Vice President for Education Excellence and Talent Development for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

He replied, without hesitation: “I was just trying to articulate what was probably on the minds of a lot of people in the room that are aware of the strength of those two individuals and many other people that were not in the room…  And I had the microphone: so it was my prerogative.”

As a businessman, David respectfully considered Mike as an educational “front stage star,” thinking of himself  as “much more ‘backstage’ or as a ‘backbencher’.” They had worked together intermittently over the years and then more closely in 2010 during Brown’s gubernatorial campaign. David Plank, then President of PACE (Policy Analysis for California; see Installment 15 for details of its founding), convened a small group, intentionally including Rattray as a “voice of the business community,” as well as other colleagues to identify a preferred assessment strategy the state could use around its new standards. According to Rattray, “Mike declared right away that Smarter Balanced was a much better assessment,” and further volunteered that he would try to bring Jerry Brown into the loop as an ally “to steer ourselves [California] into Smarter Balanced.”19

David had expressed an interest and willingness in working with Mike on education reforms after the election. As it turned out, Rattray also knew Linda fairly well based on all the assessment work she had been doing. In his congratulatory call to Tom Torlakson, who had just been elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, he learned that Torlakson had approached Linda to lead his transition team, an offer she had turned down.  David volunteered to try to persuade Linda otherwise, learning she’d do it only if he joined her as co-lead.

David flew up to meet with Mike on the Stanford campus after the election, noting that “Mike made it very easy for me to come to meet with him like he always would.”

David told me, “I walk into that building where I’ve never been. I don’t know how to get around…It’s early in the morning. Mike and I agree to meet super early. So, I kind of bumble my way around. I find the room. I knock on the door. He lets me in. It’s this simple, little, humble office….that could have been the office of a shoemaker (laughing).”

With that setup….let’s listen to David describe the key revelation he had that day in Mike’s office:

Media 8 (Audio): David Rattray: First Meeting with Mike at his Stanford office. (1 minute 3 seconds)20

The clicking you hear in the background of this audio clip is my typing as I tried to capture this nugget at the heart of the “California Way” story.  As David notes, “That’s when the ‘California Way’ was taking shape. Right then.”

That relationship, according to David, continued to be an important source of much of the “third vector” for successful policy-making; that is “the set of big ideas out there to be worked on” Mike noted in his AERA speech, captured earlier in this installment’s third media clip.

Photo after Mike’s last SBE  meeting as its President  (January 2019), with the staff and board members. L to R: Karen Stapf-Walters SBE ED, Germa Q. Cardenas Student Member, Ting Sun, Karen Valdes, Trish Boyd Williams, Ilene Straus, Mike Kirst, Feliza Ortiz-Licon, Sue Burr, Patricia A. Rucker, Bruce Holaday, Niki Sandovol.

This core group of Mike, Linda, and David, with others, built what David called “the shared agenda of the Brown administration–the governor, members and staff of the state board of education, and state superintendent” (and other influential players such as the Hewlett Foundation) determined to avoid “warring agendas” that had characterized previous administrations. This “coalition-building” is an example of the “second vector” Mike noted in his 2018 AERA address, captured earlier as well as in this installment’s third media clip.

The several members and staff (pictured to the right) of the California State Board of Education during this “Brown Redux” period, in my dozens of interviews and conversations with them, echoed often many of Rattray’s observations about the delights of working as a group with Mike’s leadership.21

A ‘Kirstian’ Research Agenda: “Hit’em Where They Ain’t” 

We heard in the previous installment that even before the start of the “Jerry Brown Redux” era (around 2010), Mike had begun to focus his research with Andrea Venezia and others on the connection between open or broad access to post-secondary education–including junior colleges–and K-12 education. Similar to his research and policy actions in the K-12 arena, he sought to learn about and improve access for underserved students.

He noted there was a need for research-informed policymaking in “the seam” between the two sectors but found there was very little scholarship in this area.  This reinforced his interest in delving into that area, following a favorite piece of advice he attributes to Ty Cobb (who won twelve American League hitting titles during his career and was known for his ability to hit to all fields).22 Let’s listen in:

Media 9 (Audio): Mike Kirst: “Not many people were working the seam of higher ed/lower ed… (Dick Jung, January 14, 2022, 21 seconds)23

The “I hit it where they ain’t” saying he enjoys repeating in this clip had two advantages: it led him to unexplored research areas and it helped him avoid perceived or real conflicts of interests with his policy work as President of the California State Board of Education and with Jerry Brown.

In a recent interview, he told me “in front of the (2010) election, I had decided I’m going to focus on higher education in the workforce” because “almost nobody was looking into what we would call ‘workforce learning,”‘ adding “and you’d be writing more about what I was doing there [in post-secondary education]…if there hadn’t been Jerry Brown’s victory” in that most recent set of gubernatorial elections in 2010 and 2014.

Nonetheless, Mike did co-author or co-edit three books on higher education during the “Brown Redux” era (listed in his resume).

In this next short video clip, Mike answers a central question addressed in the book he co-edited with Mitchell Stevens during this “Brown Redux” period on the history and future of higher education: Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education, published in 2014.

Media 10 (Video): Mike Kirst on Remaking College… addressing the question: ‘Why does higher education get such little attention vs. K-12?’ (1 minute, 9 seconds)24

Photo excerpted from YouTube video.

I wonder if you agree with what Mike notes to be the fundamental misunderstandings in this audio clip? Or if you agree with the book’s overall conclusion that US post-secondary education “needs a radical overhaul of its quality, [in] its teaching, and [about] its outcomes” as Mike asserts?

In this next clip, Mike’s co-author, Mitchell Stevens, associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, pursues the quality and affordability issues further. He enlightens us about two related questions: 1. Why remake colleges? and, 2. Why other should other models be considered? Let’s listen in:

Media 11 (Video): Mitchell Stevens: I don’t believe “every instructional experience that happens in college has to happen in the same in a single classroom” (1 minute, 17 seconds)25

Photo excerpted from YouTube video.

Perhaps, you might feel that the post-secondary world Dr. Stevens portrays in our current Covid world is quite different from the college world Dr. Stevens discusses in 2014, but it is hard to deny that one good reason for considering other models is that its still “extraordinarily expensive,” and perhaps needlessly.

In discussing the second book during this period, Higher Education and Silicon Valley: Connected But Conflicted, Mike co-edited with Richard Scott, Mike again returns t0 his baseball-inspired maxim “Hit’em Where They Ain’t” during a recorded seminar sponsored by the University of California’s Center for Studies of Higher Education Series. Let’s listen in:

Media 12 (Video): Mike Kirst: “What’s distinctive about [this study] is that there is not much research on regional post-secondary education… This is really a comparative desert” (1 minute, 19 seconds)26

Photo is the title slide excerpted from the YouTube video.

The book explores the mismatch between higher education and the Bay Area economy. And since the two sectors developed under different conditions, with different pressures, for different purposes, it’s not surprising that they differ substantially in their values, norms, and pace of change, the study found. The book itself and this recorded commentary about it emphasize how little has been done in terms of regionally-focused research on post-secondary education despite that– as Mike points out–most students in this country attend open-access post-secondary institutions in the region in which they and their families live.

In contrast to the considerable coverage of Mike’s influence on policy advances during this “Jerry Brown Redux” period and some attention to his forays into post-secondary and workforce research and writing during these years, far less publicized is Mike’s “international portfolio” of pursuits including his policy and research activities in  Hong Kong, China, Australia, and other countries as well as the often-overlooked problems of using test scores for international comparisons.

So, stay tuned for Installment 18: “Mike on the International Stage.”

Editor’s Note: The Appendix for “Conversations With and About Mike” contains transcripts for the recorded audio and video clips. To view the Audio Transcripts go to this page >

Footnotes
  1. Full citation for this report: Furger, R. C., Hernández, L. E., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). The California Way: The Golden State’s quest to build an equitable and excellent education system. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. This report can be found online at https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/california-way-equitable-excellent-education-system.
  2. Click this link for the basic methodology of this ranking rubric: https://www.aei.org/op-eds/the-2022-rhsu-edu-scholar-public-influence-scoring-rubric/.
  3. Excerpted from 2017 EdSource video https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B64uozyrQPoMVlFKUEhIVlJpWmM/view
  4. The James A. Kelly Award from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards is named after the Founding President and CEO of the National Board and longtime colleague of Mike who helped fund his early research when Kelly was a senior program officer at the Ford Foundation. Kelly had this to say about Mike receiving this award: “This award is intended to go to visionary education leaders who have exhibited commitment, expertise, and dedication to improving education for teachers and students. I am thrilled that the 2017 Kelly award will go to Mike Kirst. His career has been dedicated to improving schools and, in turn, making life better for their students. I am honored to be able to present him with this award in acknowledgment of his many achievements.”
  5. As the Educator of the Year Award from Loyola Marymount University, Mike delivered the Keynote Address to the LMU School of Education on April 24, 2016; Click this YouTube link to hear his address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33jBIep7YiQ.
  6. Click this link to see the recipients of the Outstanding Friend Public Educator Award from the Horace Mann League since 1993: https://hmleague.org/awardees-of-the-horace-mann-league/.
  7. Excerpted from American Education Research Association’s “Distinguished Public Service Award Lecture. Michael W. Kirst, Stanford University,” February 21, 2019. YouTube video published June 27, 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leJVQd2hR_Q.
  8. Excerpted from American Education Research Association’s “Distinguished Public Service Award Lecture. Michael W. Kirst, Stanford University,” April 16, 2018. YouTube video published June 27, 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leJVQd2hR_Q.
  9. Furger, R. C., Hernández, L. E., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). The California Way: The Golden State’s quest to build an equitable and excellent education Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
  10. Furger, R. C., Hernández, L. E., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). The California Way: The Golden State’s quest to build an equitable and excellent education system. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute, p. v.
  11. Furger, R. C., Hernández, L. E., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). The California Way: The Golden State’s quest to build an equitable and excellent education system. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute, p, v.
  12. For details, see https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/event/reaching-equity-and-excellence-californias-educational-progress-and-path-ahead.
  13. For a detailed “Overview” of California’s Local Control Funding Formula”, see: Furger, R. C., Hernández, L. E., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). The California Way: The Golden State’s quest to build an equitable and excellent education system. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute, pp. 18-19.
  14. Excerpted from Learning Policy Institute and EdSource Event “Reaching for Equity and Excellence: California’s Educational Progress and the Path Ahead,” February 21, 2019, YouTube video published March 4 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leJVQd2hR_Q.
  15. Excerpted from Learning Policy Institute and EdSource Event “Reaching for Equity and Excellence: California’s Educational Progress and the Path Ahead,” February 21, 2019, YouTube video published March 4 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leJVQd2hR_Q.
  16. Excerpted from Learning Policy Institute and EdSource Event “Reaching for Equity and Excellence: California’s Educational Progress and the Path Ahead,” February 21, 2019, YouTube video published March 4, 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leJVQd2hR_Q.
  17. Before the public release of the documentary, the Stanford School of Education previewed it and included a discussion with its producer, John Merrow, NPR’s veteran education journalist. Click this link for more details about the previewing of the From First to Worst documentary at Stanford: https://news.stanford.edu/news/2004/january21/schools-121.ht. To watch and listen to Mike in action in this 2004 Merrow Report documentary, click this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5NhiM9ApCw&t=297s.
  18. Excerpted from Learning Policy Institute and EdSource Event “Reaching for Equity and Excellence: California’s Educational Progress and the Path Ahead,” February 21, 2019, YouTube video published March 4, 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leJVQd2hR_Q.
  19. Dick Jung’s interview with David Rattray. February 28, 2019.
  20. Dick Jung’s interview with David Rattray. February 28, 2019.
  21. These include one or more recorded interviews of California State Board of Education board members and staff–Karen Staph-Walters, Janet Weeks, Trish Williams–as well as with Linda Darling-Hammond, and Jerry Brown.
  22. For details, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ty_Cobb. While Mike attributes this quotation to Ty Cobb, baseball’s Hall of Famer, Willie Keeler is more frequently cited as the source of this quotation with his motto being, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ’em where they ain’t.”  For details, see https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/keeler-willie.
  23. Dick Jung’s interview with Mike Kirst. February 2019.
  24. Excerpted from Stanford Graduate School of Education: “Mike Kirst on Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education,” February 2, 2015, YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3cFjiJKACQ&t=0s&index=3&list=PLy9vIkkw8_wm23MAaCgTp9M2sB0OvzwG9.
  25. Excerpted from Stanford Graduate School of Education: “Mitchell Stevens on Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education,” February 2, 2015, YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bDd73Fw8dI&list=PLy9vIkkw8_wm23MAaCgTp9M2sB0OvzwG9&index=1.
  26. Excerpted from University of California’s Center for Studies of Higher Education series. “Higher Education and Silicon Valley”, February 9, 2017. YouTube video published April 3, 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijQIMs9acbU.