20th Installment: Education Reforms That Stick — ‘Kirstian’ Lessons
"Conversations With and About Mike"
Mike Kirst is more than an academic. He is, in his own words, a “systemic reformer.”1
Mike is often recognized for his contributions to education policymaking and the academic field of the politics of education, with California and Stanford University as his home turf.
Let’s listen, for example, to Louis Freedberg, the long-term executive director (2011-2021) of California’s most widely followed educational news organization, EdSource, describing Mike’s influence over forty years in California education.
Louis Freedberg: “Mike’s accomplishments have been legion” (1 minute)2
At this event, EdSource’s November 1, 2017 symposium entitled “Education for All: Serving California’s Vulnerable Children,” the nonprofit cited Mike as its first Education Champion for “his decades of service advancing public education,” paralleling its own four decades covering the California public education system.3
We just heard Freedberg, at the outset of this forum, touch on some of EdSource’s reasons for naming Mike its Champion, concluding: “There almost certainly has never been anyone like him in California’s educational history,” then surmising, “maybe just in California period.”
Freedberg elaborated by noting Mike’s service, leading California’s State Board of Education and teaching “generations” of students–including Louis, himself, more than two decades ago–as well as numerous others who “have been influenced” by Mike on panels and such.
Nevertheless, while recognized in influential academic and policy circles, Mike is generally unknown to those most actively engaged in the trenches of American education: the nation’s teachers, principals, and school district leaders. Filling that void is the primary purpose of this biography project, the currently available nineteen episodes and this, the twentieth. They comprise the multimedia series of “Conversations With and About Mike,” which will soon become available in a more traditional book format entitled Michael Kirst: An Uncommon Academic.
In this final installment, we now attempt to distill the lessons from Mike’s life and his life’s work thus far. We aim to highlight, as the episode title indicates, “Education Reforms That Stick–‘Kirstian’ Lessons.”
Traits that Matter
Andrea Venezia, one of Mike’s frequent collaborators in research, numerous publications, and Stanford initiatives (detailed in Installments 16, 17, and 19), can speak from experience about Mike’s feats and foibles.
Andrea Venezia summarized for me what she advises the Fellows in her program. Venezia is the creator and former director of the Education Policy Fellowship Program at California State University, Sacramento.
Andrea Venezia: “I just hammer it into the Fellows all the time: “Be like Mike!” (9 seconds)4
What does Venezia emphasize, exactly? In an interview, she elaborated for me in rapid-fire:
- “He makes everything accessible.”
- “He has the best soundbites.”
- “He really humanizes issues and conversations.”
- “He has those really quick rejoinders that are funny and meaningful.
- “He’s not too academic.”
She also admires his devotion to students in the Fellows program; in our interview, she noted that he would sometimes spend full days with them in contrast to most other experts who would speak and exit quickly after their presentation or other activity. Venezia, now a senior researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park, California, and Director of its College and Career Pathways Program, also noted for me in that interview, as have others, Mike’s mentorship and long-standing collegiality with those who work for and with him.
We also heard Sue Burr call him the “best boss ever” (Installment 19). Theodore Loban, a leader in several influential nonprofit foundations, including the Stuart Foundation, and others note Mike’s continuing interest and guidance for their careers. I, too, am indebted to Mike for that.
Deep loyalty and effectiveness aside, Mike also brings to our lives continuing and mostly humorous complexities. Venezia speaks of Mike’s distinctive epigraphic style of replying to emails with all sorts of alien punctuation marks and characters mistakenly keyboarded into the middle of words and almost indecipherable subject lines. Co-authors and editors lament an occasional lack of attention to detail; his son, Chip, tells tales of Mike’s ineptitude “on the home improvement front” (from Installment 6). Mike, in his own words (See Installment 10) feels he probably married too young and for questionable reasons. He adds quickly (and others observe this too) that he dearly loves his two children from that marriage. Both his children, Chip and Anne, volunteered that Mike was a loving father.
Some professional colleagues have felt that Mike can be conflict-adverse or ignore some realities that do not fit a more memorable quip. On publication projects, he now relies more heavily on his co-authors and others to ensure that his writing is organized, coherent, and grammatical.
These “on-the-human side” of the man have clearly not diminished his effectiveness in the classroom, policy arena, and research profession, as we hear more below.
Jerry Brown ‘On-the-Record’ About Mike
What traits of Mike made Jerry Brown turn to him as his most frequently relied-upon education advis0r?
As Governor Brown and his aides were packing up his books and other belongings in his Capitol office on his last Friday as Governor in January 2019, he agreed to be interviewed about his long relationship with Mike. (See Installment 16 for details.) He had by then had become the longest-serving Governor of California, a state that educates one of eight school-aged children in America.5
When Governor Brown and Mike had first met, 35 years earlier, they were both 35 years old; and he—as a first-time gubernatorial candidate—had asked Mike to help him write the education plank of his platform. Let’s listen in as Brown describes their relationship since that time.
Governor Jerry Brown: “It’s unusual for an academic and an elected politician to work so amiably and closely together.” (40 seconds)6
Brown reports in this clip that when working with Mike, starting with the creation of the education plank for his campaign platform “we could actually work together on the drafting of ideas and policies.” In the previous installment, we heard Susan Burr, who had served as both an aide to Governor Brown and Executive Director for the State Board of Education, also observe that “nobody was a better intellectual sparring partner [with the governor] than Mike Kirst.”
Louis Freedberg, before introducing Mike, wanted the 2017 EdSource seminar participants to hear some “on-the-record” remarks Jerry Brown had made for CalMatters. Let’s listen in:
Louis Freedberg quoting Governor Jerry Brown: “Mike is very much a person of inquiry. That’s probably why he’s able to create such harmony in a completely unharmonious world called ‘public education.’” (57 seconds)7
Freedberg first earns a good-natured laugh from the audience when he recites Jerry Brown’s observations about Mike: “I like people who know what the hell they’re talking about. And he [Mike] generally knows or knows that he doesn’t.”
Governor Brown saw Mike as “very much a person of inquiry,” we hear in this clip.
Brown elaborated on this important point in my interview with him. Let’s listen in:
Governor Jerry Brown: “You need a very strong measure of inquiry to take into account life and its many complexities. Michael has been a good partner in that endeavor” (21 seconds)8
The longest-serving governor in California’s history, Jerry Brown emphasizes two contrasting types of people in the political world: “those who live in advocacy and those who live in inquiry.” Brown is clear: a key reason he called on Mike to lead the State Board of Education twice and advise him on schools in Oakland when he was its mayor was that he could rely on Mike as a “partner” with “a very strong measure of inquiry.” He told also told me he thought of Mike as a “straight shooter,” making Mike someone he spoke to about education matters “more than just about anyone else.”
Lessons from Mike in His Own Words
Over the years, but particularly since becoming Professor Emeritus at Stanford and wrapping up his tenure with Governor Brown, Mike has been invited to speak in various forums and award ceremonies9 about his experiences and basic beliefs about how to be effective as an educational policymaker.
He frequently reminds listeners about the importance of “patience, persistence, humility, and continuous improvement.” Those writing and talking about Mike in the press and from the podium now often cite these six words as the portrayal of Mike’s personality, style, and set of guiding principles.
As early as 2014, in his invited presentation to the Stanford Emeriti Council, Mike was quite explicit about another fundamental belief—the benefits of moving “in and out of government policymaking.” Let’s listen in:
Mike Kirst: “Being in and out of government policymaking creates unusual insights as to what policymaking is really like.” (37 seconds)10
Here, he turns the table. Rather than focusing on the impact of research on education policy, to this audience of mostly academics, he emphasizes that doing actual policy work, as he had done at the national level in the 1960s and later in various states, “provides stimulation for what researchers call ‘grounded theory.'” He notes the advantage of “this having a foot in both the academic and political worlds” for helping him teach students at Stanford, and other students, “how to be a good politician.” He also taught them how to be more effective in policymaking arenas because they would be able “to get inside the heads of politicians and think the way they think.”
As we heard in Installment 5, Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) asked Mike, and others in 2015, to reflect on the most important conclusions and implications for education policymaking from their research and, in Mike’s case, experience, as well.
Mike identified three “lessons;” namely:
- “It’s a very long way from a federal office in Washington, D.C. to a classroom;”
- so, “You need to create a constituency,” including “at the local level;”
- and “For every ratchet up of accountability, you need to ratchet up equally capacity building at the local level.”
He concluded that these three principles are essential for federal and state policymakers to improve instruction and have “a better chance of lasting.”
When and How Policy Research Is Most Likely to be Impactful
In 2016, the American Education Research Association (AERA) bestowed Mike its Distinguished Public Service Award.11 In his acceptance speech, “Public Policy Impact of Education Research: A 54-Year Career Perspective,” Mike identified a handful of academics who had most influenced his thinking and policymaking, including John W. Kingdon, a specialist in American politics, and Carol Weiss, a pathbreaking scholar focused on education policymaking in particular.
Let’s first listen to Mike elaborate for the audience on how he applied Kingdon’s concept of “the policy window opening,” especially during Governor Brown’s and his second set of terms:
Mike Kirst: “We had what John Kingdon, an eminent professor, calls the ‘policy window opening.’” (1 minute, 33 seconds)12
In this clip, we hear Mike recall Kingdon’s three times “when” research is most likely to help create actual policy reform: (1) when there is money for change or reform, (2) when a united coalition is formed and can be sustained, and (3) when policy research is able to offer some timely “big ideas.” Mike’s story about how he and Brown were able to do “a big trade” with the teacher organizations—not developing state policy to evaluate teachers if the educators would support them in phasing in “Common Core…and everything else”—offers an illustration of Mike’s ability to “think like a politician.”
Later in his presentation, Mike speaks about how Carol Weiss helped form his thinking about how research influences policymaking. Let’s watch and listen:
Mike Kirst: “The person that has most influenced my thinking about research use is the late Carol Weiss.” (1 minute, 14 seconds)13
Mike cites Carol Weiss’ finding that policy research often has an indirect effect and “creeps,” or “percolates” over time, into actual policymaking, sometimes lying “fallow for a time,” consonant Mike’s oft-cited personal approach of “patience, persistence, humility and continuous improvement.”
As we heard in Installment 18, one of Mike’s aims at the start of his “Octogenarian Era” was to reflect on and write about what had been learned over his career that might best advance K-12 education in the United States.
He touched on this topic in his acceptance speech for the 2021 James Bryant Conant Award from the Education of the Commission of the States, (see the previous installment). He noted that he is researching and writing about how to improve American schools based on standards-based reforms, drawing on the experiences in California and several other states.
In the 2022 recorded remarks, Mike commented that his policymaking experience had covered 57 years, starting in 1964 at the federal level before the passage of the Title I, ESEA legislation, and then while a Stanford professor in “many of the states across the country: big states, small states, starting with Florida in 1972 and 1973.” In working across Texas, Oregon, New Jersey, Maryland, and, of course, California, he says he began to understand how different states’ political cultures, history, and contexts are. He reiterated (as we heard earlier in this installment) that it’s critical to understand when and where politically and economically there are “openings” for implementing new education policies.
He concluded with this important reminder: “So, we need to tailor all our policies to the state context.” Mike then posed this rhetorical question: “What have I learned over this period?” Let’s listen to how he answers this rhetorical question:
Mike Kirst: “’Teachers have, in effect, a ‘pocket veto’ in implementing state policies” (1 minute, 2 seconds)14
Compared to just five years earlier at his 2017 AERA acceptance speech, in this Covid 19-era Zoom talk for ECS, a visibly aged, but thoughtful Mike Kirst distinguishes his earlier research emphases on education finance, governance, accountability, state policy coherence, and alignment from his now current stance. “It takes more than high-level policy” to truly move the needle in what happens in the classroom, he humbly recognizes. He adds to Kingdon’s and Weiss’ metaphors of “policy windows” and “knowledge creep” the necessary reality that the teacher in the classroom is the determinant of whether or not education policy reforms are implemented. In fact, he or she has a “pocket veto.”
In the next part of his ECS acceptance speech, he continues this humble concession or recognition. Let’s listen in:
Mike Kirst: In California, even before Covid 19, we “still have great deserts where not much was going on in terms of changing teacher practices” (1 minute, 15 seconds)15
Mike compares where he feels California stands in 2022 to a baseball game’s fourth-inning rain delay, noting the effects of Covid-19-inspired stoppages on standards-based reforms enacted under Governor Brown. He laments “spotty” implementation with great deserts where “not much is going on” in terms of changing teacher practice.
In a mixture of humility and belief in American public schools, Mike calls on state and other policymakers to create or strengthen large-scale ‘capacity-building’ that needs to “built into the districts… to strengthen and expand professional development.”16 As he says in the conclusion of his speech for the Education Commission of the States, “Let’s see where that goes.”
Book Release Coming Soon
In this section of these installments, I typically alert our now 1,200 subscribers about what to expect in the next one. This Installment 20 is the final one in this online series to be included in an upcoming book: Michael Kirst: An Uncommon Academic.
Soon, Daniel McMahon, a book reviewer for noted publications including the Washington Post and EdWeek, will finish his professional review of the book, which we will distribute to all subscribers of the Mike Kirst Biography Project.
So, stay tuned.
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 >
- Bryant Conant Award video: https://vimeo.com/595758707
- Symposium 2017 video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2qZfjfdfGE&index=6&list=PLy9vIkkw8_wm23MAaCgTp9M2sB0OvzwG9
- EdSource 2017 Symposium: http://symposium.edsource.org/special-recognition
- Andrea Venezia interview with the author, September 19, 2018.
- U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Estimates, retrieved August 17, 2012, from https://www.census.gov/popest/data/state/asrh/2011/index.html; and 2010through 2017 Population Estimates, retrieved April 26, 2019, from: https://www.census.gov/data/datasets/time-series/demo/popest/2010s-state-detail.html
- Jerry Brown interview with the author, January 14, 2019.
- EdSource Symposium 2017 video: https://www.youtube.com/watch v=N2qZfjfdfGE&index=6&list=PLy9vIkkw8_wm23MAaCgTp9M2sB0OvzwG9
- Jerry Brown interview with the author, January 14, 2019.
- Listing of awards in Mike Kirst’s resume: James Bryant Conant Award, Education Commission of the States, 2021; Education Champion Award, EdSource, 2017; Distinguished Public Service Award, American Education Research Association, 2017; James A. Kelly Award, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 2017; Educator of the Year, Loyola Marymount University, 2016; Ronald E. Campbell Award for that Bridges the Gap Between Research and Politics, AERA, 1994; California County Superintendents Professional Publication Award, 1999; Horace Mann League: Outstanding Friend of Public Education Award, 2010.
- 10 Mike Kirst’s Autobiographical Reflections, June 9, 2014, presentation for the Stanford Emeriti Council. Republished February 5, 2015, by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/nc116hr7647
- https://www.aera.net/About-AERA/Awards/Distinguished-Public Service-Award
- AERA 2018 Distinguished Public Service Award: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leJVQd2hR_Q
- 13 AERA 2018 Distinguished Public Service Award: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leJVQd2hR_Q
- James Bryant Conant Award video: https://vimeo.com/595758707
- James Bryant Conant Award video: https://vimeo.com/595758707
- Mike Kirst interview with the author, June 2, 2022.