Jim Kelly, founder and past CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and life-long friend of Mike Kirst who set up the first date with his wife Wendy, gave me this advice when starting this biography project: “You’ve gotta write about all [the] serious stuff, but make sure you don’t drift off into ‘do-gooder drivel’ and thus miss the ‘whole guy.’
So that’s the emphasis of this and the next “Let’s Get Personal” installments. This episode puts a spotlight on Mike’s early Dartmouth fraternity years, the start of his family, and his meeting and courting his wife Wendy. I think you’ll enjoy finding out a bit more about Mike, ‘the whole guy.”
In this installment, Mike reflects on his transition to and doctoral studies at Harvard, including receiving some bad advice from his college advisors but also making a key—and, as it turns out, long-term and multifaceted—connection with John W. Gardner, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, known as “one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes figures in education.” We’ll also hear how a very young Mike first met President Lyndon B. Johnson and served, like his mentor Mr. Gardner, as a behind-the-scenes advisor at the inception of still today the largest federal education program—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—as well as helped introduce the President to the woman who wrote Johnson’s best-selling biography.
As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the world, federal, state, and local officials in the U.S. are not only arguing over what to do but also over who has the authority to do it. As of the writing, in the spring of 2020, nearly all public and independent schools are closed in this country due to this global calamity. How and when American schools will reopen, and who will make that decision, are widely debated, prompting us to recall Mike’s most widely read book—Who Controls Our Schools?: American Values in Conflict.
In this installment, we explore how early in his studies, Mike began to formulate this question and eventually answer it in a way that demonstrates its complexities—which will help us to understand better the “Who’s in charge of American schools” question in this pandemic era.
Indeed, internet searches have uncovered leads to aspects of Mike’s early years that have even intrigued him: “I keep finding out new things,” Mike Kirst wrote to me after the publication of the previous installment. This installment also draws on oral history interviews that Mike recorded for “The States’ Impact on Federal Education Policy Oral History Project” compiled in 2013 by the New York Archives.
We hear first-hand in this installment about the earliest influences on Mike Kirst’s personal development and his more than half-century-long contributions to reforming American education. We’ll first hear Mike talking about growing up in Reading, Pennsylvania and important personal insights about his family. We then find out about, often in Mike’s own words, about three important turning points during Mike’s high school and college years — with particular focus on the opportunities afforded by Dartmouth University for a young man who grew up in his own words “in the Anthracite Coal Region of Pennsylvania.”
This installment draws on a 2015 interview with Mike for highlights of “what Mike has…learned.” Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) asked a handful of its top researchers to reflect on the most important conclusions, implications, or lessons from their bodies of work. By the time of the interview, Mike was serving his fourth term with Jerry Brown as President of the California State Board of Education.