By Kurt Chirbas
Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration, begins his term as a member of the California State Board of Education today. Appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown last Wednesday, Kirst returns to a post he held once before, from 1975 to 1982. Before taking the oath of office, he spoke with The Daily by phone to discuss his views on state education policy. An edited excerpt is below.
Stanford Daily (SD): What made you decide to return to the Board of Education?
Michael Kirst (MK): I just felt, when I reflected on my whole career…that the thing I enjoyed the most was actually having a position in government where you could be part of a group that made decisions that really made a difference for children.
It’s one thing to be out there writing about it, doing research and consulting. You are always trying to influence the policymakers. But I found I enjoyed being the policymaker more than just advising them.
SD: You last served on the State Board of Education from 1975 to 1982. How has Board of Education changed since then?
MK: The state board won a lawsuit against a separately elected state superintendent [since the last time I served], so now, it has much greater power to influence how federal funds are spent. It has more authority, and it is quite different in terms of its scope of influence than when I was there before. The board is sort of like a new entity in terms of what it can do.
Moreover, the governor abolished a position in the governor’s office that had existed for years called the secretary of education and said he wanted to make education policy primarily through the State Board of Education. The board will have a much closer relationship to the governor then it has had in the past because there’s no longer an intermediate group between the governor and us.
SD: How about state policy on education in general?
MK: The biggest change is that back in those days we didn’t have outcome-based assessment on students. Our focus was on ensuring that students got services — for example, assisting students with handicaps or who didn’t speak English. But we had no way to assess whether those pupils were actually learning anything from those services. All of a sudden, education is now heavily about pupil outcome, more so than just providing a service. That has led to a big change.
A second change is that we did not understand as much about how to help teachers in the classroom. We settled for just doing policy that affected school districts rather than individual schools and classrooms. The board now has a much greater ability to influence positively the instruction in classroom.
A third would be charter schools. California has over a thousand of them. These are schools that are public schools, and that are chartered by a local school district or a county or a state, but are relieved from regulations that most other traditional public schools have. They have been an alternative school model, and the board has quite a bit of authority in terms of setting regulations and closing down ones that aren’t very effective in terms of assessments.
Another change is that funding has dropped enormously in terms of per pupil expenditures. When I was on the state board, we were about 20th in the country in spending per pupil, and now, we are roughly about 46th. New York and New Jersey spend nearly twice as much per pupil than we do, for example. It’s really a constrained budget period.
We have to figure out how to make schools better in that setting, and it’s a bigger challenge than anything we faced from 1975 to 1982.
SD: How do you think the State Board of Education will continue its past goals of reducing the achievement gap and increasing the number of high school graduates, especially in light of year after year of budget cuts?
MK: I think education really takes place in classrooms — with teachers. What we are going to be doing, or try to do, I should say, is provide our teachers with better curriculum, improved instructional materials and better assessments for them to work with.
It’s really about improving classroom instruction, and one of the things that has happened recently is that 40 states have adopted common core standards in English, language arts and mathematics.
All of a sudden we are going to be getting a lot of help from national movements — not the federal government necessarily, but national movements where 40 states are going to have similar curriculum standards and assessments. We can use some of these national resources to help us in California.
In other words, education is becoming a much more nationwide movement, and you don’t have to do everything on your own and fund it the way we used to.