This Should Lead You to Humility

It's difficult to wrap your mind around just how big California's education system is. It's even harder to imagine crafting meaningful policy that's variable enough and specific enough to make a positive impact in a state with a larger enrollment than the 22 smallest states combined -- over six million students, over 10,000 schools, and a quarter million teachers. 

Last week I listened to Professor Mike Kirst, Chair of the California State Board of Education, give a presentation called "School Reform in California: What is it, How is it Going, and Why?" I'm also incredibly fortunate that Professor Kirst is my academic advisor. Professor Kirst has probably had as large of an impact on California's education system as any other person -- he is nearing the end of an unprecedented 4th term as Chair of the State Board of Education (he served as Chair during Governor Brown's first two terms in addition to the last two). He's also one of the leading thinkers and writers on the politics of education policy.

Here are a few important things I learned from his presentation.

First, the obvious: crafting education policy for any state is complex work, but crafting education policy for a state with the size and diversity of California is even more difficult. California has some unique challenges -- massive geographic diversity, massive variability in language abilities, and, like Oregon, a historical inability (or unwillingness, depending on who you ask) to adequately fund schools (they are below the national average in school spending). 

"This," as Professor Kirst put it, "should lead you to humility."

Humility is so important for people who want to work in education policy reform. Here, Kirst is talking about humility in the face of such an enormous scale, and, perhaps, humility with the knowledge that these policy decisions could impact literally millions of lives. Professor Labaree in The History of School Reform has talked about how humility should accompany the knowledge that many smart, well-intentioned people have tried to reform education throughout American history, and while most have failed, some have even made things worse. Kirst has found a way to make things better. “I am a systemic state policy reformer," Professor Kirst said. I loved hearing this -- sometimes the word "reformer" has negative connotations in the education world, but none of those connotations apply to Kirst.

It was also fascinating to hear Professor Kirst talk about the role of the federal government in education. California actually had serious, substantive arguments with the federal government while Arne Duncan was Secretary of Education. The Obama Administration's education policies were, as Kirst put it, "highly prescriptive," and "they were different from where we wanted to go." 

The way he explained it is that California can implement its own policy agenda, or it can implement Duncan's, but it can't do both simultaneously. California picked its own agenda. They, according to John Festerwald at EdSource, "balked, and California became one of seven states without a[n NCLB] waiver." This was a big, bold move -- but it proved California's commitment to executing its own vision. I would argue that it worked -- California's graduation rate is at an all time high of 83.2%, and they have successfully implemented the Local Control Funding Formula with Local Control Accountability Plans, a smart and innovative reform for California. "We’re not telling them how to spend the money, we’re leading them through a process that we hope will yield more thoughtful and strategic investments,” Kirst said.

One of the most practically useful pieces of wisdom I picked up from his talk was when he discussed "Elmore's Law." This "law" states that as you ratchet up accountability, you must also ratchet up, in equal measure, the capacity of the system. Elmore's Law, he told us, is almost always ignored by policymakers. Policymakers and politicians are more inclined to require and demand that the system (and the people within it) produce more or better or different results without ever granting the means or flexibility to increase capacity. 

My favorite part of Kirst's talk was how he concluded. "The best years of my career will be from age 71 to 79," he said. He laughed as he told us that he hoped it gave us hope. "If you stick at it, you learn some things," he said -- and he has learned some things, alright. As I told my program director, Professor Kirst has forgotten more about education policy than I will probably ever know. California is fortunate that he dedicated his career to it -- and that he hasn't stopped working.