An Educator’s Life: The Backstory
by Bill Honig
Bill Honig has been a practicing educator for more than 45 years. Originally trained as an attorney, he discovered his true passion was in elementary education. Honig has taught in the inner-city schools of San Francisco, served as a local superintendent in Marin County, and was appointed to the State Board of Education by California governor Jerry Brown during his first term. In 1983, Honig was elected California state superintendent of public instruction, a position he held for 10 years. In 1995, he founded the Consortium on Reaching Excellence (CORE), which has worked with teachers and coaches in reading and math nationwide for the past 20 years. Currently, Honig serves as Vice-Chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission, which develops curricular frameworks and reviews educational resources for the State Board of Education. He continues to collaborate with researchers, thought leaders, and practitioners to implement evidence-based approaches that offer an alternative to conventional educational reform.
Building Better Schools is the result of a seventy-year romance with education—first as a student and then in a variety of roles in education: teacher, administrator, policymaker, elected official, professor, and educational entrepreneur. My perspective and beliefs about what we should and should not be doing to improve our schools have been forged from experiences and study during this long career. This is the backstory of my journey as an educator. My hope is that it offers some idea of how my intellectual and emotional education influenced the positions I present on this site.
I hadn’t reflected too much about my history with education until early 2015, when I was invited by Rabbi Lee Bycel to be interviewed during a Saturday forum on educational issues at Temple Beth Shalom in Napa, California. Rabbi Bycel is a fascinating individual. He has served as dean of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, led several local congregations, taught Jewish studies at the University of San Francisco, and acted as a senior moderator at the Aspen Institute. Midway through my interview, he asked a very provocative question (as rabbis are wont to do): “What in your background and experience led you to what you believe?” That question got me thinking.
I loved school from the start. I attended a public elementary school in the 1940s, Pacific Heights in San Francisco, until the fourth grade. I don’t remember much about it except that I liked the experience and will never forget the songs we sang together during those last years of World War II such as America the Beautiful, which never failed to bring tears to my eyes. I also remember collecting aluminum foil for the war effort, rationing, John Wayne in the movie Flying Tigers, and stamps commemorating Norman Rockwell’s paintings Four Freedoms that were inspired by Roosevelt’s State of the Union address—a very patriotic time to be a kid.
Our family atmosphere was warm. My parents had me when they were in their mid-twenties. I was the first child in our extended family and received boundless attention until the arrival of twin sisters when I was three. I was also very close to my uncle, Jack Davis, a no-nonsense mentor who had a large influence on my upbringing. My father was the head of the largest West Coast advertising agency, Honig-Cooper, with clients like Wells Fargo, Levi-Strauss, Clorox, and the Italian Swiss Colony winery. He would come home from work, and in true “Mad Men” style, have two martinis or scotches (wine came later) with my mom. My twin sisters and I would sit with them and then we’d all eat dinner. Dinner conversation was lively.
From my youngest days I became a voracious consumer of culture—starting with low- and medium-brow offerings and gradually shifting to include more intellectually and emotionally demanding works. (I still enjoy detective, police, and spy novels, films and television, and most action films.)
At home, 78 rpm records were always playing in the evenings: Billie Holliday and Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, the Nat King Cole Trio, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Chris Connor, Anita O’Day, June Christy, Peggy Lee, the Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and early Doris Day. It was the era of the Great American Songbook both in pop, swing, and jazz, with hundreds of songs composed by such extraordinary artists as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and Hoagy Carmichael. The music was magnificent and the lyrics clever and unforgettable: In olden days a glimpse of stocking, was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes; Peggy Lee, accompanied by George Shearing’s group, singing Mr. Harris plutocrat, wants to give my face a pat, if a Harris pat means a Paris hat, olé—another Porter lyric from Kiss Me, Kate; or the lyrics of Johnny Mercer’s beautiful song “I Remember You”—When my life is through, and the angels ask me to recall, the thrill of it all, then I will tell them I remember you.
If the music, lyrics, and artists combine in just the right way, the song becomes cherished. When Billie Holliday sings “Summertime,” “The Man I Love,” “This Year’s Kisses,” or “You Go to My Head” (You go to my head and you linger like a haunting refrain and I find you spinning round in my brain, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne) in her inimitable style and phrasing backed up by such incredible musicians as Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Roy Eldridge, you get a rare moment of genius. I still listen to her singing these songs, and they never become stale—a true test of a classic.
In the late 1940s, Latin music became influential and the Andrews Sisters singing “Rum and Coca Cola” was my first memory of getting hooked on a Latin clave beat. We also listened to early Carmen Miranda before Hollywood got hold of her. She was the most popular singer in Brazil, and I still remember when I first heard the infectious samba rhythm of “Mama Eu Quero,” “Tico Tico,” or “South American Way.” (If you are interested, listen to the radio cuts on the Brazilian Bombshell album, not the movie versions.) I had a similar experience watching the Disney movie The Three Caballeros, chock-full of Brazilian and Mexican music. I saw it nine times.
Music has had a major impact on my life. I was enchanted by songs at an early age and enthralled by their power to transport me. My parents told me one of my first words was muki. I had a radio in my room and, when I was no more than five, I recall waking up one Sunday morning very early, turning the radio on, and searching for a station. All of a sudden I found some music I had never heard before that was so overwhelming I thought it was coming straight from heaven. My first encounter with gospel. Years later, when I was trying to gather support for an educational initiative in San Francisco, I told this story to a Hunter’s Point African-American minister. He asked me what time I tuned in to the station. I said four-thirty in the morning in SF. “Oh,” he said, “that program was from Kansas City.” I asked him how he knew. He laughed and said at that time there were gospel radio shows from all over the country and he and his family and the entire black community listened to them constantly. I just got lucky.
Next, my mom bought me an album from the musical Oklahoma! and eventually took me to see the performance. After that, I listened to and attended many of the Broadway shows or waited for the movie versions. This experience of encountering a new type of music, which immediately entranced me, continued throughout my life. Jazz and pop, gospel, show tunes, Latin rhythms, soul, blues, R & B, rock and roll, folk, classical, country, bluegrass, African, fado, and world music all captivated me at various times. Hearing an initial powerful example of a new genre would begin an enthusiastic investigation of the field. I currently have more than 1,500 favorite songs on my iPad split between these categories.
The best of popular culture has always been an important part of my life. As a young child most of my playmates listened to the radio serials and comedy shows—Jack Armstrong, Captain Marvel, The Lone Ranger, Gangbusters, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Fibber McGee and Molly, Burns and Allen, Fred Allen, Amos and Andy, and Red Skelton. We went to the movies every week and would catch a double bill. We read every comic book we could get our hands on—actually comics are linguistically complex and helped my reading tremendously. At eight years old, when we got wind of a move to ban comic books, we started planning to go on strike.
Eventually, along with music I became a lifelong movie, TV, and gaming buff. We played a multitude of board games such as Monopoly and Rich Uncle, checkers and chess, and children’s card games, which perfected our math skills. We built structures with Tinker Toys (the predecessor to Legos and Minecraft), houses with Lincoln Logs, and motorized constructions with Erector sets. We conducted experiments with chemistry sets. Later on in high school, our group learned to play most card games: bridge, gin rummy, poker, blackjack, canasta, hearts, spades, 10-9-8, pinochle, and solitaire. We spent an inordinate amount of time playing cards. Later, I played Go in law school with a friend who was studying physics. Euchre came just recently, courtesy of my wife Catherine’s Canadian family.
I was also keen on brainteasers like the ones Martin Gardner presented for decades in Scientific American. My dad first introduced them to me by posing the classic policemen-and-criminal problem with three nickels and three pennies: How do you get three policemen and three criminals across a river with only one boat that holds only two people and never leave more criminals than policemen on shore or in the boat? Another brainteaser was the puzzle of the traveler who asks two sisters standing at a fork in the road which road goes to the village he is seeking. One sister always lies; the other always tells the truth. The traveler doesn’t know which sister is which and only has one question he can ask. What should that question be? (If you can’t figure these out, here is where you can find the answers and 48 more puzzles.)
Did a lifelong immersion in popular culture help prepare me to be an educator, or was I just indulging in pleasurable entertainment? I don’t know the answer to that question. Of course, during my life I have greatly enjoyed music, radio and television, movies, games, newspapers, magazines, plays, and books and have invested a considerable amount of time and energy on these pursuits. Yet, once I separate the inspiring and interesting from the squalid chaff, I think my cultural engagement educated me. Encountering popular cultures most well-crafted and enriching masterpieces made me feel part of the larger society experiencing shared attitudes about humor and life. Later on, the experiences of the best culture in my early years and the next decades would enlarge my world, teach me a great deal about human values and ideals, and allow me to bring a fuller perspective as a teacher with stories and examples to enhance the subjects taught in school. Added to a broad liberal arts curriculum, this knowledge would help students understand how the world works and what values are important. Most importantly, the best contemporary and classical culture has the potential to encourage children to broaden their horizons, become well-rounded participants in society, and lead richer lives.
Elementary School and High School Years
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, I attended a well-respected private school from fifth to eighth grades, Town School for Boys. It had excellent teachers and a strong curriculum. The school developed my natural curiosity about the world and inspired a love of learning—an enthusiasm that has stayed with me since. I particularly remember one teacher, Mr. Mulholland, who made history come alive and instilled in me a lifelong passion for history.
One of my favorite school events took place just before the Christmas holidays. Every year our headmaster, Mr. Rich, authored a new play, assigned each eighth-grade student a role, and dispensed with classes for two weeks so that students could learn their parts and rehearse. Then they staged the play for parents and other classes. That experience remains a standout memory—unlikely to occur in schools today given the prevailing test-crazed atmosphere.
It was also in the seventh and eighth grades that I became an avid reader. Following Mr. Mulholand’s suggestion, my friends and I started reading every piece of G.A. Henty historical fiction we could get our hands on. These works were perfect for enriching the history we were studying. Henty’s books were out of print so we scoured local used-book stores, and when we found one it was eagerly passed around. I also read novels like Gone with the Wind and Tales of the South Pacific, the classic science fiction writers —Heinlein, van Vogt, and Bradbury—and contemporary novels and non-fiction such as Annapurna, about the ascent of that mountain, and The Rains of Ranchipur, a post-partition adventure set in India.
Next, I went to a public high school, the renowned Lowell, in the early 1950s. Among its many famous graduates is Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. There, I also received a top-notch liberal arts education in math, English and literature, history, science, and the humanities and continued to read at home and during the summer. On a backpacking trip in the Sierras when I was 15, I read James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. The book was about an Irish-Catholic boy growing up in Chicago just before the Depression whose life peaks at the end of grammar school. It was an eye-opening read for an adolescent. My parents were members of the Limited Editions Club, which delivered a beautifully printed and illustrated classic book each month. These books lined our living room and added to the mystique of reading.
One example of the power of a book or movie to influence our lives took place during my high school years. I happened to glance at an old book in the school library that looked interesting and read it. It was Paul de Kruif’s classic Microbe Hunters, written in 1927. It read like a fascinating detective novel with each chapter recounting the story of a particular disease and the efforts made to overcome it. By the time I finished it, I decided I wanted to become a doctor. Later, in talking to some scientist friends I discovered that hundreds of people were motivated to become microbiologists by reading that book.
A similar thing happened to my grandson, Gavin. I am currently vice-chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission, which develops curricular frameworks and recommends educational materials for adoption. I asked the members of our Science Framework Committee to recommend the most engaging science books they had read. They recommended The Disappearing Spoon about the elements and the periodic table; The Alchemy of Air, a fascinating tale about the two Germans who discovered how to obtain nitrogen (an essential ingredient in fertilizer) from the air and thereby double the population Earth could support; Darwin’s Armada, which tells the story of four young naturalists in England: Darwin, Hooker, Huxley, and Wallace—and their travels as young men that led to their ideas about evolution and their subsequent struggles to win over the scientific communities and the public; and Night Comes to the Cretaceous about the controversy over what killed the dinosaurs. One vacation I read all four titles and then handed the books to Gavin, a sophomore in high school. He read and liked them. Now he wants to pursue a career in science or medicine. But for me, in high school, I made the fateful choice not to follow my interest in science but to pursue a path in the humanities.
After high school I spent two undergraduate years at Stanford, which provided a terrific general education course of study including the famous course The History of Western Civilization, which was one of my favorites. As an aside, years later my mother, who never attended college because her parents didn’t think it was important for women to acquire a college education, found the textbook from the course among some of my old things, read it, developed an ardent interest in learning, and became an avid art collector.
I had several close friends at University of California, Berkeley, and I transferred there for my remaining two undergraduate years. I was one of its last general curriculum majors (history, political science, and economics), graduating with a baccalaureate in 1958. The general curriculum major allowed me to choose many courses in different areas of interest and either take or audit courses taught by the best professors at the school. Many of these superstars made a lasting impression on me, directing the course of my life, reinforcing my love of learning, and sparking an enduring interest in history, literature, science, and the humanities.
A standout in my memory was Professor Sontag, who taught a course in the intellectual history of Europe in the nineteenth century and another in the diplomatic history of Europe during the same period. I took both. Sontag was a mesmerizing lecturer and his classes were always jam-packed with many auditors—girls in saddle shoes and boys in khakis and button-down shirts. The students were spellbound during his classes and absolute silence prevailed. I also audited a class on the South by Kenneth Stampp, who had just written The Peculiar Institution, a widely respected book about slavery that helped prepare us for the Civil Rights movement that would arise in the next decade.
We were diligent about doing our course work and studied every weeknight for three hours. I normally did my assignments in Bancroft Library, which was surrounded by walls of interesting book collections. As a senior, I remember fantasizing about spending the next two years just reading books in that library. That didn’t happen.
Although we were called the Silent Generation for our lack of engagement compared to students of the Sixties, we did benefit from a rich educational program and developed intellectual habits and attitudes that helped mold our lives. To put this time frame in perspective, I was viewed as the fraternity “intellectual” because I read Time magazine.
The 1950s witnessed the creation of several serious dramatic presentations on television such as Playhouse 90, a weekly hour-and-a-half show that produced 133 plays like Requiem for a Heavyweight and The Miracle Worker; the Westinghouse Studio One, which produced 12 Angry Men; and the US Steel Hour, which presented Bang the Drum Slowly. All of these were subsequently made into wonderful movies.
The television production of Bang the Drum Slowly featured Paul Newman, and the movie starred Michael Moriarty as the sophisticated baseball pitcher from New York and Robert De Niro, in one of his first roles, as his roommate, the country bumpkin catcher. The film revolves around a quintessential American theme—how unbridled individualism degenerates into cliques and cripples team performance. In the movie, a major-league baseball team is hobbled by factions and strife, which dissolve when the team coalesces around the catcher who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Team members eventually pull together and win the pennant. One of my favorites. The story is a fitting metaphor for the magic moment when a competent teacher turns a group of disparate students into a well-functioning class. The same magic occurs when a talented principal boosts performance by transforming a group of individual teachers into a collaborative, effective team.
It was also during the fifties that I discovered classical music. My dad had always been dismissive of the genre and, reflecting his indifference, I was resistant. In college, I even got into an argument when someone who offered me a ride on a ski trip insisted on playing the classical radio station during the entire journey. But I was a fan without knowing it. I had always liked Christmas carols and was a huge fan of the Disney movie Fantasia. We were studying War and Peace in one of my college courses and the professor played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to deepen our emotional connection to the novel. Another “Aha!” experience. During that year, I saw a movie about Beethoven’s life that played the Moonlight Sonata as the background music. The music so entranced me that I bought a sheet music copy and taught myself to play it on the fraternity piano (badly), note by note, over the course of a year.
At the same time, my close friend, Mel Marx, was taking a music course and played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for me. I went skiing the next day and couldn’t get the piece out of my mind. Berkeley had a terrific music library and I started educating myself on the classics—listening and buying Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler, Vivaldi, Borodin, Dvorák, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Albéniz, Sor, Falla, Rodrigo, Liszt, Chopin, Handel, Debussy, Berlioz, Bartók, and a raft of individual pieces. The power of the original classical versions of popular music adaptations became readily apparent when I was watching a skating production on television and I first heard Borodin’s actual piece from the Polovtsian Dances, the original source of the then currently popular song “Stranger in Paradise” from the musical Kismet. Quite a difference.
This transformation of attitude toward classical music was a good lesson, teaching me to be open to the potential delight of new experiences with profound educational implications. By holding on to their more limited experience, many children and adults don’t realize what they are missing. Appealing to people’s natural curiosity and hunger for new experiences helps. Sometimes a person becomes smitten right away, as I did with gospel or samba; other times people aren’t ready and need more time to build the scaffolding needed to appreciate the genre, which is what happened to me with classical music. Later on when I studied piano, I learned that much of pop and jazz builds on Bach’s progressions, so the eventual appeal of classical music shouldn’t have been that surprising.
My love of Shakespeare is another example of a late-blooming interest. I didn’t connect with his work in high school or college. It wasn’t until I started watching the Bard’s history plays presented on BBC in An Age of Kings that the veil lifted. It was the power and beauty of the language and the skill of the actors that moved me. Shakespeare needs to be heard, not just read. These encounters taught me that an important part of the job of an educator (and parent) is to be a cultural ambassador—to offer youngsters a good sampling of both classic and contemporary experiences to broaden their horizons and enrich their lives.
Just recently, I witnessed the power of that idea. My wife Catherine and I annually attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Several years ago, we watched Tartuffe by the seventeenth century playwright Molière. About a third of the audience was comprised of local high school students. They gave the play a standing ovation and brought tears to my eyes. I thought how amazed Molière would be to witness this enthusiastic reaction to his work, censured in his own time as subversive, by youngsters in a foreign culture 330 years later.
The Law and Politics
After a stint in the Army Medical Service Corps in San Antonio in 1959, working for my father’s advertising firm (the Mad Men atmosphere didn’t take—much to the consternation of my family), and a year selling background music, I enrolled in Boalt Law School at UC Berkeley, earning a Doctor of Jurisprudence in Law in 1963. I enjoyed law school immensely, the political and legal discussions, the way the professors approached legal problems, and especially the case method. The case method was a completely new way of thinking for most of us, which took a while to grasp. Rather than having a rule or principle and judging a new case by that rule, the case method looks at the fact situations in a given case and compares the facts and the rulings in previous similar cases to determine which cases are the most relevant. The principles and the law are then built up from studying important cases. It sounds easy but it isn’t.
During my law school years, I developed a deep interest in the English language. Words fascinated me. In that era, even educated Westerners spoke more colloquially than their Eastern brethren whose language was more erudite. I could understand most advanced vocabulary but found it difficult to produce precise language. I studied the self-help book, Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, and purchased an SAT vocabulary manual with more than 1,000 compelling words. I recognized most of them, but I studied them in a unique way. I would cover up the word, read the definition, and try to produce the right word for the thought. Believe it or not, I looked forward to my daily sessions.
I also read several books on the origins of the English language such as The History of the English Language by Albert Baugh (for a more recent effort see Bill Bryson’s Our Mother Tongue). I eventually bought the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes the etymology for every entry word, and I became entranced by Roget’s Thesaurus.
There are more than 650,000 words in the English language, compared to about 125,000 in French or German. The original Anglo-Saxon tongue became embellished by the language of indigenous Scots known as the Picts and the Welsh; then the Danes invaded and left their mark. Next came the Norman Conquest and the pervasive influence of French (40% of English words are spelled exactly the same as their French counterparts, though they may have different meanings). French is a Latin-based language, but the original Latin was used only by the educated classes. Many everyday words were invented for new purposes using Latin word forms. For example, verdict comes from the Latin words for “speak” and “truth,” which is what a jury should do. Shakespeare created hundreds of new words. Subsequently, as England became a world power, words from across the globe were added to the English lexicon.
The upshot of such a rich vocabulary is that there are many words for the same concept with nuanced differences. Love, cherish, adore, like, delight in, enjoy, and appreciate are related in meaning yet not interchangeable as they convey slightly different meanings and emotional valence. My enthusiasm for the topic was a great boon to my future educational career.
After law school, I clerked for one year for California Supreme Court Justice Mathew Tobriner. He significantly brushed up my writing skills and taught me a great deal about the law. What I most remember about that year was that every day during the morning coffee break, we clerks would engage in intense discussions about law, politics, and every other topic under the sun.
Through Justice Tobriner’s connections with then Governor Pat Brown (Jerry Brown’s father), I worked for two years in state government as a young staff member in the Program and Policy office. Fortuitously, my responsibilities covered education at a time when there was a heated debate about how to help low-income students (which is still occurring), and I was able to read many articles and books about education that were being published. It was a great staff job, since we could propose legislative and administrative initiatives and discuss them with Governor Brown and his staff. As young upstarts we had the power of access and putting issues on the table—much to the dismay of many of the department heads.
I had always displayed a political side stemming from my parents’ liberal, Jewish world-view, gathering around the radio to listen to President Roosevelt, following the 1948 Truman campaign, and taking part in extensive family dinner conversations about issues of the day. I first became aware of my democratic impulses in sixth grade when we studied the Gracchi in Roman history. The brothers sided with the plebeians against the patricians and I found myself rooting for the Gracchi. (I later discovered the story was much more complicated than that.) At the age of eleven, I was the only Truman supporter in my class at Town School.
My father was an early supporter of the new State of Israel and a major investor in Ramparts, a muckraking magazine with a decidedly Leftist bent. He gave a large contribution to Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. It was McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary as an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War that helped convince Lyndon Johnson not to run for a second term. Some years after that, my dad was proud to see his name when The New York Times published President Nixon’s enemies list.
Beginning in my college years, I volunteered to ring doorbells and help bring voters to the polls for several Democratic candidates including John Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. In law school there were always heated political debates, and I joined the school’s Democratic Club. In one of our projects, we sent teams of African-American and white couples to try to rent apartments and discovered widespread housing discrimination. We compiled the results in a report that we sent to local newspapers, which got us into hot water with the school administration.
In 1964 while clerking for Justice Tobriner, I volunteered for Willie Brown’s second attempt to become a California State Assemblyman. Three of us knocked on doors every night for six weeks distributing literature and getting commitments—Willie Brown, Rudy Nothenberg, who became Willie Brown’s chief administrative officer when he was mayor of San Francisco, and me. Brown got elected and eventually went on to become speaker of the California State Assembly and mayor of San Francisco.
From the Cauldron of the Sixties into the Classroom
After working two years in a commercial law firm in the mid 1960s, which again didn’t take, I decided to leave the practice of law and re-enter the policy world. I spent three years in a social policy, consulting firm, the Organization for Social and Technical Innovation, working in the areas of education, housing, and community development. I worked on community education projects in several cities, investigated the politics of public housing development in Miami, conducted elections for the poverty program that provided for democratically elected local boards in Denver, and unsuccessfully wrote proposals for funding. I then decided to become an elementary school teacher (to the further consternation of my family).
Several strands led to that decision. During my law firm years, I had been part of a volunteer program of the Constitutional Rights Foundation. It trained young attorneys to teach junior high school students about the law. When I spoke to the kids, I was mesmerized by the experience. I had always been fascinated by children, but teaching was exhilarating.
What finally sealed my decision to change careers was a major intellectual conversion stemming from an internal clash between the growing counterculture movement of the Sixties and my liberal arts foundations. My friends and I were just turning 30, living conventional lives, and intrigued by the break-the-mold lifestyle that was becoming so pervasive. I initially succumbed to the counterculture movement (it was, after all, 1967 in San Francisco and “The Summer of Love”). The movement had two aspects—the anti-Vietnam war and civil-rights protest movements and the counterculture explosion. I was part of the anti-Vietnam and civil rights efforts and marched with my kids in the SF demonstrations against the war. But I also got involved in the cultural strand. I lived just down the street from the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, and most of the rock bands played there on weekends. We all went. I also joined humanistic and mystical encounter groups, visited Esalen, studied eastern philosophy, and practiced Yoga.
Returning to My Roots
My excitement for the counterculture movement (except for its music) came to a screeching halt several years later. In 1968, I had a major epiphany. I was walking in Golden Gate Park looking at all the hippies and the incredible parade of costumes. That’s when it hit me that we were all acting like children—self-absorbed, abdicating our adult responsibilities, and tearing down a culture that should have been put to use as a powerful force for human betterment. My liberal arts education was re-asserting itself. Driven by this insight, I became extremely interested in issues of culture and morality. I started reading about the historical development of ethics and morals, studying the writings of St. Augustine and Harold Nicolson’s book Good Behavior: Being a Study of Certain Types of Civility.
Next, I went back to school at UC Berkeley to audit some courses on the subject and fortuitously walked by a class where I heard the professor talking about moral development. I snuck in and found that the class was studying Laurence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. The course seemed just what I was looking for, and I audited it through the end of the term. We also studied Jane Loevinger’s work, which added an emotional component to Kohlberg’s purely intellectual approach.
These theoreticians proposed that children and adolescents go through stages of moral development—from impulse control by external power (e.g., the physical presence of a teacher); then by self-interest (reward and punishment; you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours); next by commitment to parental, religious, or community standards out of love and respect; then the adolescent breaking away and committing to a personal choice of ethics or being born-again; then tolerating people who believe differently (a very American value); and finally, seeing the other in yourself. Very few people manage to reach this last level. I wanted to be part of the societal effort to raise the next generation and help them reach these higher levels of moral development.
At the time, the reigning philosophy was that removing cultural restraints was the only way to be free. The authors I was reading thought differently. They revived the message from my liberal arts upbringing that freedom also depended on not being a slave to base impulses. By developing the moral strength and habits to live by higher ideals one could enjoy a richer life. As one of the major civilizing (in the best sense of the word) and acculturating institutions, schools had a major role to play in this lofty mission.
The incredible television series Civilisation by Kenneth Clark was another major influence on my belief in the power of culture to enhance society. It traced the interplay of art, architecture, and philosophy from the Dark Ages to the present. Just as I was not initially interested in classical music, I was not much of an art buff in high school or college. I’m ashamed to say that when my fraternity friends and I were touring Europe after graduating from college, two of us ditched the Van Gogh Museum to play basketball with some locals. Returning to Paris, I did fall under the spell of the Impressionists, especially Monet. Reading Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, a fictionalized biography of Van Gogh, ignited an interest in that master artist, and art and artists in general. Clark’s series completed my conversion.
During the late sixties, I also was involved in the creation of a primary “free school.” I enrolled my daughter Carolyn for their first summer and even wrote a corny poem to commemorate her going to school—Today my daughter’s off to school, to learn about the Golden Rule . . . The organizers were long on enthusiasm and short on management talent. The school folded after one year.
When these various strands coalesced, I was hooked on an intellectual, emotional, and moral level. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to teach. I enjoyed children, was profoundly interested in the subjects taught in elementary school, enjoyed the art of teaching, and thought education was an essential public good vital to the health of our society and our democracy. A natural fit.
Learning to Teach
Luckily, a federal program called Teacher Corps took applicants from all walks of life and trained them to be elementary teachers. I was married and had two children at the time, and the program paid a stipend. Then, after a summer training in 1969, working in a neighborhood recreational department, and an internship in schools accompanied by a year’s worth of further college preparation, I received a Master of Education degree from San Francisco State University in 1971. That same year I was placed in a special-education classroom in the low-income area of Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. I was a full teacher.
The education I received at San Francisco State School of Education was first-rate. We took background courses in linguistics and the history of education as well as “how and what to teach” courses such as phonics, children’s literature, writing, science, history, mechanical arts, physical education, fine arts, and humanities. One of my professors, Joe Moray, taught a superb course that was a forerunner to the current thinking on how best to teach math to elementary students. Portentously, Dan Lortie’s masterful book, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, provided a topic for my Master’s thesis—how teachers are isolated in classrooms and deprived of real collaboration and team effort. I was struck by the difference between what Lortie reported and my own experience in law, government, and a stint I did in a consulting firm where we always talked with each other about our projects—what we were doing, had done, and whether it was working.
One drawback of SF State’s graduate program was the continuing influence of the open education philosophy and the extreme progressive educational beliefs that had taken hold in the previous decade. Books like A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, John Holt’s How Children Fail, George Leonard’s Education and Ecstasy, and Charles Silberman’s Crisis in Black and White proposed an extremely romantic view of schooling that was still influential. We were pumped up to believe we had all the answers and that the schools were too hidebound and repressive. Reality soon disabused us of this arrogance.
One of my supervising teachers, Patricia Bingham, taught sixth grade in an inner-city, all-black school. Her teaching completely changed my mind about the relative merits of progressive versus traditional education. She personified everything we were warned against. She was a no-nonsense, strict teacher who actually taught an organized curriculum. Her students were well-behaved, read at grade level, could write, and enjoyed school. Later, as a teacher in upper-elementary school, I witnessed firsthand the damage done by a decade of the lax, non-focused educational philosophy which had gained wide acceptance in the 1960s. Many of my entering fourth-grade students couldn’t read or do math. Nobody had bothered to teach them. As soon as they were taught an organized program they caught up and did fine.
During that year, one of the fellows I played basketball with (not Arne Duncan) was an elementary school teacher. He and five other teachers received permission to start a teacher-run school on the top floor of Pacific Heights School (which I had attended as a child) called Rooftop. He invited me to visit and I was quite impressed with their dedication and teamwork and thought I would like a similar opportunity.
There was one final element in preparing me to teach—an appreciation and ability to connect with those of differing backgrounds. I grew up in an upper-middle-class family in a somewhat diverse neighborhood. During World War II, African-Americans from the South and immigrants from the Philippines moved into the area to work in the city’s shipyards. Their children attended my elementary school. When I was a little older, I spent a summer at Boy Scout camp with kids from all different walks of life and got along fine (after a few initial physical skirmishes). I had also attended other camps in Northern California during my childhood summers (my parents sent me to the first one when I was only five). The staff and owners were culturally from the rural north of the state, which had originally been populated by pioneers from the Northeast and still displayed characteristics of that culture. They took pride in their work, were down-to-earth, pragmatic, and lacked pretension—good role models for a youth. Later, my work in a warehouse, resort hotel, and three years in the social consulting firm with diverse employees added to my experience, as did my military service and political activities. But the largest contribution resulted from the close friendships I developed in Teacher Corps with my fellow students—first-generation college grads from Hispanic and Asian immigrant families, African-Americans, and working-class whites.
My first year teaching was rough. I took over the class of eight emotionally disabled boys in January. I was the fourth teacher they had had that year. They had scared the other three off. When I first arrived, they fought with each other constantly throughout the day. I wasn’t trained for a special-education class, but it was clear the kids had major problems controlling impulses (a classic sign of the emotionally disabled child). I took them climbing on Mt. Tamalpais—they complained when it got hard. We played football—they had never learned the rules. I took them camping in the Sierras—none had ever been to the mountains. The principal was glad to get them off campus. When we made camp, I told the kids that we would be there for two days and knew they would try to sneak into the food the first night. I warned them that if they did, they would go hungry the next day since we only had enough food for set meals. Sure enough, that’s what happened. I guess they learned a good life lesson.
Around the campfire on the trip, these kids opened up about their likes and dislikes of schools. They were astute observers of teachers. Contrary to the reigning educational assumptions and even though they all had behavioral problems, the teachers they praised were the strict and demanding ones who respected them enough to insist on learning.
There was a fantastic teacher at the school, Lorraine Roberts, and we developed a plan to have each boy spend some time in a regular classroom to see if he could handle it. Our experiment worked, and half the class qualified for regular education the next year. (We now call that practice mainstreaming, highly encouraged by current federal and state policy.)
The following year, I became a fifth-grade teacher at an elementary school in Hunter’s Point. It was sink or swim, but I started to catch on, and the kids did reasonably well by the end of the year. I was elected chair of the school-site Teacher’s Council (I was new and didn’t know any better—no one else wanted the extra work). I was always the activist, and a group of us came up with the idea of a twice-a-week afternoon program where each teacher would offer a specialty class that students could choose based on their interests. It was the reformers versus the diehards. We lost the vote 13 to 12.
At the end of that year, a new school was started by some activist parents. They received permission from the SF Board of Education for a second community school, appropriately called Second Community. The organizers were looking for teachers. I was excited by the prospect because they wanted the teachers to form a strong team like the one I had observed at Rooftop and addressed in my Master’s thesis, so I applied and was accepted.
I taught there for five years and was lead teacher and acting principal for a while. Second Community was a small school with an extremely diverse student body. We had six excellent teachers, and I believe we delivered a highly successful program. I team taught with an extraordinary teacher, Linda Adams, in a combined Grades 4–6 class. We provided a strong language, literature, writing, history, science, arts, music, and physical education program. We had classroom libraries of hundreds of books and a vibrant independent reading program. One of the parents from low-income housing in Hunter’s Point called me to ask what we were doing in the school since she had caught her daughter reading under the covers with a flashlight at two in the morning. I told her she should thank her lucky stars.
The daughter actually was the brightest student I ever taught, and I learned an important lesson from her. She was caught in the classic dilemma that extremely intelligent minority children face as they become aware of the broader world and their potential place in it. This created tension with her African-American peer group. She loved reading books and learning and made fantastic progress during the two years in my class, but as she got older she was reluctant to overtly show much enthusiasm for school. I hope the positive educational experiences bolstered her during adolescence when the conflict between the two worlds became more acute.
In the independent reading program, I provided a twenty-minute reading time each day. I would spend the period conducting individual conferences about the book each student was reading and the student’s overall reading interests. They had to sample each of the major literary genres and read books appropriate to their reading level. Students also made presentations to the class on books they enjoyed, and many student selections stemmed from the excitement caused by these talks.
To my delight, in subsequent years my daughter Carolyn developed a lifelong interest in children’s literature, worked in several bookstores specializing in children’s books, and has reinforced my belief in the importance of the neighborhood book retailer. Our family can always count on Carolyn to select the most engaging books for her nieces and nephews.
There were two particular events at Second Community that helped inform my educational approach. For our history book, we used The Story of Our Country, a narrative history of the US. It had a chapter on the Industrial Revolution in America in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The chapter began with a photo of a 10-year-old worker standing in front of a factory looking miserable. I commented that 100 years ago, instead of being in school, any one of my students could have been that child. The image made quite an impression about how the world had changed—a much more powerful teaching tool than any lecture. In another instance, just before Christmas I read O. Henry’s classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” It is about a husband and wife, very poor but deeply in love. Each one sells the most cherished possession (her hair and his watch) to buy something special (he a circlet for her hair and she a gold chain for his watch) for their beloved mate. Just reading the story, without any analysis or discussion, was enough to convey the powerful message of love and sacrifice. Sometimes, that’s enough.
Because I taught a Grades 4–6 combination class, I was forced to differentiate instruction to some degree. Actually, that proved to be beneficial. We had some whole class activities, and there was some individual work with students. But a good portion of instruction occurred with small groups working on similar areas. Small-group instruction is very efficient. I made weekly assignments that all group members could work on together or individually, as long as they stayed reasonably quiet while I would concentrate on working with one of the groups. In these small groups, I could introduce content, ask questions, explain material, check for understanding, and generally offer strong support for each child’s learning. Some students went from second-grade math to eighth-grade math in the two or three years I had them under this system.
I had recently divorced from my first wife, after eleven years of marriage. (Judy and I are still friends and take our respective families and grandkids to Alisal Ranch every year.) I thought it would be a good idea to enroll our son Steven in my class so he could experience his father at work firsthand. I picked him up each day from his mom’s house. It worked out well for two years even though I had to be super-strict with him to avoid any charges of favoritism. He caught up in reading and math and was engaged in the program. In the two years he was in my class, we only had one disagreement. On the last day of sixth grade, we went early and worked together to clean the classroom. He hadn’t slept well the night before and when the class began our activity for the day was clean-up. Steven felt he had already done his share, but I couldn’t excuse him. He eventually cooled off.
I particularly enjoyed teaching fifth graders. Most of them were intensely curious and passionate about learning, were beginning to understand more abstract ideas, became enthused about any subject presented in a reasonably intriguing way and wanted to know more. To me, they were the true intellectuals of the world. I suspect my fondness for that age youngster also arose from the strong presence of a fifth-grade outlook in my own nature. Invariably, I find similar sentiments about the beauty of that age child from almost every teacher who has taught fifth grade.
Once, I relayed this opinion to a prominent anthropologist. He said there was a plausible explanation for fifth graders’ delight in learning and their ability to absorb so much knowledge. He hypothesized that when humans lived in small bands and tribes, a child who turned ten needed to become a full-fledged member of the group quickly. That meant rapidly mastering large amounts of complex cultural information and techniques. What traits would greatly assist such prodigious and speedy acquisition of knowledge? The ability to think in abstract terms, boundless curiosity, and a hunger for learning. That sounds like almost every fifth grader I’ve ever met, and it explains why those traits were evolutionarily beneficial for that age. Maybe his explanation was a “just so” story, but it resonated with me.
Interestingly, at Second Community, we essentially ignored the annual national tests, did not narrow the curriculum under the mistaken assumption that concentrating on the tested subjects would lead to high scores, and devoted minimal time to test prep. Yet, our students always scored well on these tests and ranked first in the city in both reading and math for the last two years I taught there.
The tests did come in handy in one instance. For a long time, we had no principal and I was the lead teacher responsible for administrative tasks. Eventually, we were assigned a principal who felt she had to establish her authority. One day she came to my class during our independent reading period, called me in, and told me that I must stop the independent reading and “teach something” during that period. (As I’ve described, I was using that time to conference with each child—a very powerful strategy.) I basically told her that the program was working, our test scores were sky-high, and I was willing to open a discussion with her about best teaching practices if it turned out that my students stopped performing well. I never heard another word from her on that subject. That experience made me very alert to the dangers of arbitrary exercise of power by administrators who don’t really understand instruction, but feel they must exercise control.
School Politics and State Policy
At Second Community I was also our school’s union representative and school strike captain during the citywide teacher’s strike in the early 1970s. In the aftermath of the strike, four women and I challenged the existing union president, Jim Ballard, in the election of union officers. Our issue was that the union was neglecting the areas of curriculum and instruction. I used my organizational knowledge from the political campaigns I had worked on, and we called every teacher in the district. Each of us came within six votes of winning.
In 1975, my last year of teaching at Second Community, I was appointed to the State Board of Education by then Governor Jerry Brown. I had met Jerry Brown several years before when we both clerked for California Supreme Court Justice Mathew Tobriner, and we had stayed in touch. I was the first person ever appointed to the State Board who was an active classroom teacher.
On the Board, the new Democratic members joined forces with the more conservative holdovers to focus on re-establishing a strong liberal arts curriculum. We had some success: we were able to convince the UC system to raise course requirements for entry. We also rejected a California history textbook, written by the well-respected Kevin Starr, because the publisher had “dumbed down” Starr’s normally scintillating prose and engaging storytelling to a point where the text was unacceptable.
After the board meeting in which we rejected Starr’s California’s history book, I got a call from a Sacramento reporter asking what all the fuss was about. I had the flu and, unusual for me, didn’t want to talk much. I asked him to just read the recently rejected book and compare the passages to the one previously adopted. Two days later, a front-page article displayed a side-by-side comparison of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in both books. The differences were striking. The earlier book told an engrossing story with lively language and personalities; the more recent book was insipid and uninspiring. For the most part, however, we were met with resistance or indifference from most educational leaders.
Governor Brown’s first appointment to the State Board of Education was Michael Kirst, a Stanford professor in the School of Education. He took me under his wing. Guided by his tutelage, I added the most important educational magazines, research journals, and books to my reading lists.
I left the classroom in the mid 1970s to focus on professional development efforts. I had read and got to know Milbrey McLaughlin from Stanford, who with Paul Berman had written a groundbreaking article on why so many educational reforms were ineffective. To them, the secret was to get teacher buy-in by deeply involving them in implementation efforts and adjusting the reforms to school conditions. I wanted to help in that project and devoted two years to the endeavor through a foundation grant.
During that period I continued my exploration of moral and ethical issues. I read Emile Durkheim, one of the world’s most prominent sociologists. He underscored the important shift that humans make from purely self-centered or narcissistic orientations to becoming members of a community. I also read books like Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins Today, and some books by conservative theorists such as Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community. Especially important were Isaiah Berlin’s writings; Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which contrasted the conflict between the spreading free-spirit attitudes of the culture to the bourgeois values necessary for successful enterprise; and Carl Schorske’s Fin de Siecle Vienna, an exploration of the political and social disintegration of turn-of-the century Vienna that were driven by many of the intellectual currents we suffer from today. It became apparent that the counterculture was an updated manifestation of the romantic rebellion against Enlightenment ideas—a revolt that enshrined individual freedom over social and communal ethical norms.
Berlin said it best. In his 1958 essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, he posited two aspects of freedom—both important. The first he termed negative freedom or freedom from interference, which underscores the need to break away from the stultifying effects of parental, cultural and community expectations, and constraints for the full flowering of each individual’s uniqueness. The second aspect he described as positive freedom, or freedom to choose. It is the freedom of each individual to commit to the standards of a community or a set of ethical or religious principles to develop self-mastery and a better life.
Becoming a District Superintendent and On-the-Job Learning
I decided to apply for an administrative position in education. Michael Kirst, by then president of the State Board, gave me a good piece of advice. I wanted to work in the area of curriculum and instruction and asked him whether I should apply for a curriculum position such as an assistant superintendent in a larger district or a full superintendent in a smaller district. He counseled me to pursue the smaller district’s superintendent’s job because it would introduce me to all aspects of administration.
So I applied to become the superintendent for the Reed School District, a small but well-off community in southern Marin County. There were over fifty applicants (it was a highly-sought-after position). My administrative educational résumé was paper thin—only a short time as acting principal, two years in professional development, and a legal background. Surprisingly, the local board picked me because I was the only candidate who stressed the importance of a broad-based curriculum and the liberal arts.
Reed possessed an exceptional teaching and administrative staff but was drifting and did not offer a district-wide curriculum. More than 1,000 students were on the waiting list of the local private school. The district had suffered through a period of turmoil when it had been a leader in experimental progressive ideas, causing a profound split in the community. The superintendent, who was retiring, was hired to calm the waters. The board was looking for a more active educational leader.
The principals and assistant principals were very strong, and working together with the teachers we re-established a district-wide curriculum, provided resources for professional development, and focused on improving instruction. Reed was small enough so that I could meet with teachers on a continuing basis. Our efforts paid off. Performance improved, our middle-grade math team won third place in the state, and the private school wait list shrank significantly. Three of my administrators eventually became superintendents in prestigious districts
Two particular innovations stand out from that time. Our middle-grade math program needed revision. Two of our best middle-grade math teachers, husband and wife, were going to leave to take more lucrative jobs with the Bank of America. I offered them a summer stipend to revise the seventh- and eighth-grade math program, and then an additional stipend to work with the math department to implement the revisions. This became the model for the popular statewide Mentor Teacher program that was established several years later and that eventually included five percent of all California’s teachers when I became state superintendent.
Another innovation was the way we used the findings of our annual testing program. The testing company could compile a classroom growth score based on each individual student’s previous year’s results. One well-respected third-grade teacher had fallen short for three years in annual math growth. Instead of instituting a formal high-stakes consequence procedure, we sat down with him informally, as professionals, to try to ascertain why the student performance was lagging. He quickly solved the dilemma when he realized that he was leaving out a third of the course. The following year, he did fine.
We also negotiated an evaluation initiative with our teacher’s union. If a teacher received a negative evaluation (not using test scores), any salary increases were put in escrow for one year. A panel of teachers would develop a mutually accepted improvement plan together with the teacher who needed help. If no improvement occurred, the raises were forfeited. This happened with a few teachers. Some improved; others didn’t and were counseled out.
Three years on the job taught me a great deal. The experience solidified my belief in the importance of a strong instructional program based on the liberal arts, the essential competency and dedication of front-line educators, and the value of engaging them in improvement efforts. Two decades later, I attended a reunion for the Reed teaching staff, many of whom were then in their seventies. These were very bright, dedicated people, and true to their nature, after retirement, remained committed to improving the world. One by one they recounted the fascinating efforts they had become involved in —from volunteering to build water delivery systems in Mexico to environmental projects in the US.
As State Board members we tried to convince the then State Superintendent, Wilson Riles, to take up the cause of a strong liberal arts education. After agreeing to push the program, he and his staff demurred. The policy was viewed by too many educators as “elitist” and not what minority students needed, although Riles believed that the first-rate liberal arts education he received at a predominantly African-American high school in St. Louis served him well. I had run Riles’s San Francisco district office during his successful 1970 primary against Max Rafferty, who was the darling of the conservatives. So I felt very disappointed when Riles and his staff didn’t follow through.
Running for Office
In 1981, Wilson Riles decided he would run for US Senate in the 1982 election instead of attempting a fourth term as state superintendent. So I decided to take the plunge and run for his office. The California state superintendent of public instruction is one of the few state superintendents who is elected. The position didn’t have much direct authority over schools or districts, but it did have the power of convening educators, developing consensus, and using the office as a bully pulpit. I didn’t think I had much of a chance, but I wanted to use the campaign to raise the issue of reinstating a strong liberal arts curriculum for all students.
I campaigned for about a year, garnering support for strengthening curriculum and standards from the business community and a broad bipartisan coalition. My wife at the time, Nancy, was an important part of the campaign, organizing many of the fundraising activities. My son Michael (I have four children), who now runs the Honig Winery, was in college at the time. He took leave to run the L.A. office and drive me on Southern California trips. Another son, Jonathan, then only seven but eager to participate, helped at campaign events although he got off to a shaky start. While I was speaking at a shopping center event in Alameda County, Nancy gave him the job of putting bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lot. He misunderstood and plastered them on every car’s windshield, which led to a frantic removal effort after the event.
I delivered one of my first campaign speeches at the Concordia Club in San Francisco. It focused on the role of history and civics in the survival of our democracy. The program officer of the Commonwealth Club, Judy Johnson, was a close friend of Nancy. She arranged a speaking slot for me before that prestigious group. I gave similar talks in Los Angeles.
Riles then decided to give up his senatorial quest and instead run for a fourth term. I thought hard about dropping out, but in the end thought that advocating for a stronger curriculum focus in the campaign would be beneficial even if I had few prospects of winning. I also felt that quitting would be abandoning those supporters who wanted someone to make the argument for higher standards and the liberal arts. In the end, we kept many of my supporters and actually received several key endorsements from the editorial boards of major newspapers who saw me as a change agent and Riles as more status quo.
Reporters and educators were harder to convince. I visited every major newspaper in the state and talked to their education and political reporters as well as their editorial staffs. Editors such as Peter Schrag with the McClatchy newspapers were supportive. But to my frustration, all but two reporters weren’t interested in the educational issues that I was passionate about, including the importance of a demanding liberal arts education for all students. They were just interested in the mechanics of the campaign. The exceptions were a reporter from the Santa Barbara paper who grasped our message that we were expecting too little of our students. That reporter wrote a perceptive article on those issues that treated my positions fairly. Luckily, the other reporter who was sympathetic to the points being raised was David Savage from the L.A. Times. He wrote a series of articles explaining what was at stake.
In that period many educators thought that history, science, humanities, and literature for all students was “elitist.” I disagreed and made the argument that every youngster needed a shot at an enriched life and would benefit and be engaged if instruction based on a liberal arts philosophy was done properly. During the campaign I was speaking to a group of district superintendents about this issue. Their basic response was that these ideas were not part of the current educational thinking but if I won, they would be supportive. And they were.
After more than a year’s worth of campaigning, the Field Poll came out three months before the election showing I had a whopping three percent of the vote. Campaign contributions dried up, and the press wrote me off. Luckily, I met Clint Reilly, an astute political consultant. He interviewed me for three days to see if I was sincere. My previous encounters with consultants were distressing. One fellow counseled me that we take a poll, find out what issues polled well, and run the campaign around those ideas. I demurred, saying I had my own strong educational convictions and was running to make an educational point. I knew what I wanted to say, but needed help in determining how best to say it. Another consultant planned to use a cookie-cutter approach focused on going after the Puerto Rican vote (he hadn’t even modified the New York template). Clint was real, and after listening to me he came up with the slogan: Traditional education works.
Clint counseled that unless I put $400,000 (it would now take ten times that amount) into three weeks of TV spots, I couldn’t stop Riles from getting 50%, which would win the nonpartisan primary. Even if Riles was held to below that mark, without the investment I would not capture second place to get in the runoff. I was broke, having spent everything I had on the past year’s effort. He argued that if I was serious and willing to take the risk, I should take out a second mortgage on our house and pay for the spots, and I would get in the runoff. I didn’t know whether his suggestion was just a ploy for him to receive the fees on the TV expenditures or was his honest appraisal of my chances. You get crazy in a campaign, but I decided to trust Clint. I talked it over with Nancy and we agreed to take the gamble.
In the end, we ran the spots with me at a blackboard teaching children math and showing homework assignments on the board using our slogan. We held Wilson to 41%. I received 26% and went on to win the general election by 800,000 votes, 56% to 44%.
Even while running for office, I didn’t turn away from my interest in cultural issues. In 1981, a year before the election, I organized a study group by paying Martin Jay, a small fee to lead a class for adults. He was one of the best intellectual historians at UC Berkeley. Martin and I compiled a powerful reading list including Carl Schorske’s Fin de Siecle Vienna, Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, and essays by Isaiah Berlin. Twenty of us studied and discussed key books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century intellectual currents and the culture wars. I religiously paused my campaigning to attend the twelve sessions of the course. Two opposing views emerged from the discussions —intellectuals as critics of society and the old Arnoldian view of educators as the purveyors of the “best that has been thought and written” to help the young reach potential. (Fifteen years later Jay wrote an article in Salmagundi, Winter/Spring 1994, entitled “Force Fields—Educating the Educators.” It described the experience of teaching adults who looked at intellectual ideas as spurs to action, not just fodder for analysis. He argued that both the critical and Arnoldian positions were being overwhelmed by philosophies derived from mass entertainment and cynical nihilism. I was so enamored of the salon concept of continuing the intellectual stimulation of college days with adults that for a while I thought about going into the salon business.
In 1980, I felt compelled to put my thoughts down in a 100-page article (as yet unpublished) entitled “The Forgotten Case for Virtue: An Essay for the 1980s.” In it, I argued for the important role that culture and cultural ideas play in educating the young and the importance of liberal arts in transmitting those values and ideas. I also addressed the prevailing objections to that position and pleaded for public support of the mission. The ideas in the piece helped inform my campaign for state superintendent.
Triumph and Travails as State Superintendent
I had the honor of serving as superintendent of public instruction for ten years. Initially, we developed a strong educational coalition around adequate funding for schools, coupled with stronger curricular expectations and capacity-building initiatives. This was not an easy sell. Believing it would harm students of color, many Democratic officials and educators were wary of what they perceived as an “elitist” program to strengthen instruction through the liberal arts. Republicans were divided. Most suburban Republican legislators had been strongly in favor of more funding for schools during the 1970s and liked the idea of increased standards. The more conservative wing of the Republican Party did not want to spend the money and was not overly enthusiastic about public education. The new governor, George Deukmejian, was part of that staunch conservative wing (which now has become so dominant that it is hard to remember that 30 years ago there were large numbers of moderate Republicans). Deukmejian was elected pledging no new taxes and less government. There was an economic downturn, the treasury was bare, and the new governor proposed only a small increase for K–12 education even though California was one of the lowest-spending states in the nation.
Initially, the political pundits gave us little chance of enacting a broad-scale reform initiative that included increased funding. They claimed we could never overcome the myriad obstacles: the governor’s veto power over any increase in school budgets, the Democrats’ and education groups’ disinterest in reforms, and the public’s skepticism of the capacity of schools to improve. (Californians ranked the schools at the bottom of all institutions, while also believing they were crucial to the health of the state.)
My idea was to build a strong coalition for improving schools led by educators and supported by key leaders and the public. The first step was to convince the various education groups that the public would support increased funding if citizens were convinced that we would dedicate ourselves to improving school performance by implementing the reforms I had run on. We agreed to a series of educational improvements such as beefing up graduation requirements, strengthening instruction, investing in professional development for teachers, improving educational leadership, and streamlining personnel procedures—together with a significant increase in expenditures. Given that my campaign was based on these very initiatives, my clear victory in the election helped forge a consensus and secure legislative support.
The new governor had only put an inadequate, smaller-than-inflation $300 million increase in his budget. We estimated that we needed $900 million to get the backing of all the educational groups for the reforms and reverse the spending decline of the schools. As predicted by the pundits, he argued that he was supportive of the reforms but would not raise taxes to provide that amount and resisted our demands.
We organized a statewide campaign to change his mind. We put together a bipartisan coalition of parents, business leaders, political donors, and community leaders in each area of the state. They wrote 500,000 letters of support. Contrary to the predicted harm to their children, minority parents were among the fiercest supporters of higher expectations and building local capacity for continuous improvement. We secured the backing of both Democratic and Republican legislators and garnered widespread editorial and TV endorsements. We held well-attended rallies—in conservative Orange County we filled a football field with more than 9,000 people. Our final coup was convincing a dozen CEOs of California’s most influential corporations to write a public letter saying they supported the reform bill even if additional taxes were required to fund it. Public opinion was running strongly in our favor and was felt by the governor and the legislature.
Deukmejian eventually agreed to provide $850 million, and the bill carried by California State Senator Gary Hart and Assemblywoman Theresa Hughes passed and was signed into law. The reforms, which increased teacher salaries, raised graduation course requirements, and provided funds for building capacity at the school level, were dubbed the “Education Excellence Movement.” Sweeping educational reform was off to a good start.
The next year, the governor’s budget did not provide for the agreed-upon increases, and we mounted another campaign with all the educational groups. PTA members stormed the legislature, and we cranked up the campaign for schools a second time. Willie Brown, who was by then speaker of the assembly, promised to obtain the increases if we could get seven suburban Republican votes—which we did. The year after that the governor and his chief of staff, Steve Merksamer, met with me and said they were tired of the conflict. They said they would ensure that schools received a growing percentage of the state budget each year if I would agree to avoid public disagreements in the political arena with the governor. I thought that was a fair offer since my desire was not to engage in political combat but concentrate on improving education. And we both stuck with the agreement for the remaining two-and-a-half years of Deukmejian’s first term.
At the meeting, I offered to let the governor take public credit for the improvement efforts and attach himself to the reform measures that were already starting to show substantial progress in student achievement and enjoy wide public backing. Unlike California, where the educators were leading the Educational Excellence Movement with support from the legislature, in other states it was the governor who was the prime mover. This was the case with Bill Clinton in Arkansas, Jim Hunt in North Carolina, Terrence Bell in Georgia, Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, and, later on, George W. Bush in Texas. That was a bridge too far for Deukmejian.
During my tenure as superintendent I continued to read the educational journals and important books, and kept current on educational research to inform our efforts. I tried to base all of our strategies on the empirical findings, my school experience, and my educational philosophy. I also read every letter sent to me by members of the public and assigned a staff member to answer each one. Early on, I began the practice of having each deputy in charge of a division produce a weekly summary of major issues and events that occurred with a list of other reports and action documents I needed to read. Every night I would take home six or seven folders filled with these documents.
I also learned about the importance of number sense. At the beginning of my tenure, staff members would often present a project with number projections they had been laboring on for weeks. When it immediately became apparent that their numbers were off by several magnitudes, I would send their proposals back. Department employees learned quickly to always check if their work made sense and not just rely on the meticulous efforts they exerted in developing the details.
I also tried to establish a climate of fairness in the department. Initially, my top deputies and I interviewed all the managers to determine their interests and talents. We tried to make the best fits in assigning positions. We also tried to be fair in management decisions.
Comprehensive School Reform
Starting with the classroom, we identified and developed strategies to improve the performance of individual teachers by defining a common core curriculum, identifying and disseminating best practices, adopting instructional materials based on those documents, providing assessments aligned with the desired curriculum, supporting principal and coach leadership around the implementation of the curriculum and instruction, building parental and community support, and fostering team and capacity building. Additionally, we developed frameworks for each discipline and then galvanized the subject matter and educational organizations to support the use of the frameworks in curriculum, staff development, and the adoption of educational materials.
For example, I did not believe that our existing History-Social Science Framework made a strong enough case for democracy, and I asked Diane Ravitch, a noted historian of education, and Charlotte Crabtree, a distinguished history professor at UCLA, to lead the History-Social Science Framework Committee to ensure that democratic ideas were well covered. They eventually produced an outstanding document, credited with being the best in the country, which is essentially still in effect today.
We invested in professional development and worked with the newly organized university subject matter projects to implement the frameworks. We improved the assessment system to include history and science and incorporate more extended answers and authentic performance-based tasks. The tests were designed to give feedback to schools on strengths and weaknesses of instruction. They were not individual tests but matrix driven, which means that each student would only take a portion of the test and the results would be combined for a school score—much like the current well-respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams. We developed end-of-course voluntary tests in each of the major high school courses, The Golden State Exams, which were popular with students, parents, colleges, and businesses. Finally, we developed guidelines for elementary (It’s Elementary), middle grades (Caught in the Middle), and high schools (Second to None), which served as discussion guides for faculties throughout the state.
We next looked at the school as a major leverage point and looked for ways to influence school performance such as district support and training principals. We established a statewide principal training program, the California State Leadership Academy, which trained more than one thousand principals, and a state Mentor Teacher Program in which our best teachers could qualify, receive additional pay, and help support new and existing teachers or work on curriculum and instructional improvement.
We reviewed how the state could best provide strategic support for these initiatives and built support networks throughout California in reading and literature, writing, math, science, history-social science, physical education, health, and the arts and humanities. I visited most of the teacher training institutions and the universities that housed them, asking them to be part of the statewide effort and also to recruit new teachers. We took along four great teachers on these visits who talked about how much they loved teaching and how rewarding it was (“avoid a midlife crisis, become a teacher”). We would usually have 400 students attending these campus rallies.
Schools and teachers suffer from a deficit in public approval and hunger for approbation. So we initiated a Distinguished School Program using broad criteria for identifying exemplary schools. With local business and foundation support, we scheduled lunches at large hotels around the state to honor the recipients. The winning schools would bring their team: principal, teachers, parents, a district superintendent, and board members, and 50–100 schools would be in attendance. I would hand out the certificate and flag to each team. This was one of our most popular programs, and decades later many schools would still be displaying their awards.
We also endeavored to involve parents, the business community, the universities, and organized groups interested in education. In a few years, public education went from clusters of demoralized institutions with checkered support to a much more unified enterprise with high morale and growing public backing as it became apparent we were serious about improving schools.
To engender widespread educational support for these measures and to secure advice on implementation strategies, I created several advisory groups. I met weekly with representatives of all the major educational organizations—administrators, teachers, board members, parents, the county offices of education, school employees, and so on. We jointly devised political and educational measures. I formed a Superintendent’s cabinet of 15 of the key district leaders in the state, which met monthly. Ramon Cortines, who is still active at present as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, was a member. We collaboratively decided on implementation approaches. I also created a group consisting of the assistant superintendents in charge of curriculum and instruction, which also met on a regular basis, and I met periodically with the various ethnic advisory and curriculum groups.
Increased funding, stronger instruction, and widespread educator participation were working. Our graduation rates, SAT and test scores, course takings, and numbers of advanced placement courses passed all started to climb substantially. Beginning teacher’s salaries increased from $13,500 to $18,000, and teachers and educators felt empowered. The educational community had successfully battled a sitting governor, obtained widespread public support, and could witness palpable improvements in the schools. We were riding high.
In 1985, in the midst of this confident atmosphere, with the stellar journalist William Boly I wrote Last Chance for Our Children: How You Can Help Save Our Schools (admittedly a terrible title, but who can stand up to a publisher’s marketing people?). The book was an attempt to make the case for a rigorous liberal arts education, respond to objections to the idea, give some personal history, chronicle what we were trying to do in California, and enlist public support for the effort. For those who are interested in gaining a perspective of how we were thinking about educator-led comprehensive reform in the 1980s during that more hopeful time, much of which is still relevant, you can pick up a used copy on the internet for a song (it’s out of print).
California was enjoying growing national recognition for our efforts. About that time, I attended a small two-day meeting in Aspen with some of the most respected educators in the country. Prominent conservative commentators were also present. I made the case for a common curriculum and national curricular standards. At first, there was considerable reluctance to endorse such a proposition—from conservatives such as Chester E. “Checker” Finn, who worried about a national takeover of what had always been a local institution, and from some of the educational emeriti who worried about the stultifying effect of such an approach. By the end of the second day, almost everyone came around to the importance of a general common curriculum in an era of deteriorating standards and fragmentation.
In 1986, I was re-elected state superintendent in the primary with 78% of the vote, a historic level of support for a statewide office. There was no hint of criticism of the governor in my campaign. After the election, The New York Times published an article on the educational excellence movement in California (back-to-basics, plus), said some flattering (and unflattering) things about me, quoted my book, and in general got the gist of what we were trying to accomplish. It looked as if we were going to be able to concentrate on continuing the improvement efforts, if not with outspoken gubernatorial support, at least without the governor’s opposition.
Strife and Struggle
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way. In the fall of 1986, Governor Deukmejian was re-elected in a rematch with Tom Bradley, with a very substantial margin of 61% to 38%. He was now super-confident and had learned a thing or two after four years. He had not forgotten the educational battles of his first two years, and he and his staff were displeased with the strength of the educational community and its widespread supportive organizations. Republican Party operatives also viewed me as a potential threat since I had become highly visible and popular having created widespread and powerful community support organizations. They were worried that I planned to run for governor in 1990 (I had no interest in that office and was steadfastly firm in denying any intention of running—repeated in the Times article mentioned above). No matter. They decided to take me (and the educational community and especially the teacher unions) down a peg.
The governor’s staff was politically astute and willing to be harsh. They devised a cunning strategy. If they provoked me into fighting for adequate funds, the governor and his staff would characterize the opposition as political and personal, not educational—driven by my desire to run for higher office by needlessly picking a fight to disparage him. The media would buy the argument because in their view anybody with my level of popularity and visibility must be aiming at higher office. Republicans would rally around the flag, withdraw their support, and split the bipartisan alliance we had created. In addition, many other of my supporters, especially Republicans and the business community, would become alienated if they believed the quarrel was political, not educational. If the administration could spin our objections to the budget that way, it would provide a great opportunity to lay into me personally—an example of the politics of personal destruction that now has become so commonplace with both Republicans and Democrats. If somebody disagrees with you, you destroy his or her reputation. Many journalists tend to translate every dispute into a personal and political conflict, believe all politicians just want to advance, and are highly skeptical of the idea that a person who has accumulated strong political support would be content remaining in a lower position to finish the job. The media can be counted on to reinforce the personal and political spin.
The governor initiated this scheme in his 1987 budget proposal, which essentially froze education spending by reducing it by the exact additional amount he was forced to provide in 1983—cutbacks that would cripple the reform and improvement efforts. We had two choices—submit or fight. Opposing a sitting governor is always risky—governors have vast political resources to employ. Some of my advisors cautioned against taking the bait and feared it might be a trap. I felt we had no choice if the reforms were to survive and our schools were not to fall further behind the nation in educational spending per pupil, and was buoyed by our two previous victories.
We were warned what they were planning. Bill Cunningham was the governor’s education advisor and a good friend of my political advisor, Joe Holsinger. He tipped off Joe to their scheme and told him that the administration didn’t think they could beat us on the issues and decided on the alternative strategy of making it personal and political. Cunningham, to his credit, eventually resigned in disgust at their Machiavellian plans.
I was willing to take the risks but I wasn’t going to lead the charge again unless the educational community would be an integral part of the effort and entered the fray with their eyes wide open. They agreed, and we tried to replicate what we had done in 1983 and 1984 to form a broad bipartisan coalition supporting the schools. This time, however, the governor and his staff had become more adept at using the levers of power, and by making the issues political and personal they effectively cajoled the suburban Republican legislators and key Republican constituents into backing his cuts. They also effectively neutralized my use of the bully pulpit, so important in winning the conflicts in his first term, by also convincing the media that the disagreements were personal and political.
One of the most distressing aspects of the conflict was the realization that many of the Republican legislators I was friendly with, had appeared with in their districts, and knew strongly believed in the educational excellence movement and my emphasis on liberal arts and the importance of the transmission of culture, deserted the cause because of the politics of the situation. Politics trumped belief. One would have thought some of them would see the benefit of having a strong liberal/moderate voice for the essentially conservative idea of educational and cultural standards.
The administration started by cooking the books and then accusing me of lying about their position. Previously it had publicly agreed that a legitimate standard for adequate school funding was 40% of the state budget. In private, the administration had committed to keep raising that percentage. The governor did not want to be accused of violating that standard, but still wished to cut educational funds substantially. His staff devised what should have been a transparent gimmick. They took two billion dollars out of a 100-billion-dollar budget and placed it in what they labeled a “special account,” with no justification for that designation. Then they allocated 40% of the remaining $98 billion dollars to the schools, which effectively cut our budgets by 40% of the $2 billion that was sequestered—an $800 million cut, which was about what he was forced to spend on the reform bill in 1983. Then the governor and his staff claimed they were allocating 40% and questioned my motives in objecting.
As I had discovered in the first two years as superintendent, using the media to convey a message to the general public and opinion leaders was crucial if we had a chance of winning the argument. But the media are fickle. What was so frustrating at the time was that reporters and editors couldn’t grasp or didn’t want to grasp what the governor had done and reported the story as “he said, she said.” We even produced a visual aid to show the math. Only one editorial in the state, from the Redding Record Searchlight, had the courage to say flat out that the administration’s budget was deceitful.
During the controversy, Willie Brown, then the Democratic speaker of the assembly, invited me to speak to the whole body to clarify the issues, which had been so under-reported by the press. The Democrats were supportive, but the Republicans were united in opposition with questionable talking points. That day we definitely won the argument on the merits, but making the better case did not obviate the political nature of the dispute.
Then came the personal attacks. I was described by the administration and its key Republican supporters as opportunistic and looking for political advancement by taking on the governor. They claimed I was lying about the budget. I scrupulously tried to stick to the educational argument, but such a strategy doesn’t work too well when the other side is making personal attacks and the media is provoking the fight. Every public appearance with press in attendance would generate the question, “Are you running for governor?” and any conciliatory statement was ignored. Harmless statements were often blown up into spiteful comments. When additional funds became available several months later during the May revise, instead of allocating it to schools the governor gave it back as tax relief. I responded that the governor would become the “Goat of the Series” by neglecting an easy opportunity to fund education—an obvious baseball reference to a player who makes an error and loses the game. The papers reported that I had called the governor a goat.
Then I did something really stupid. I was convinced by the producer of the most popular talk show in Los Angeles to call in when the governor was being interviewed and ask him why he wouldn’t fund the schools. It was a tacky move, and I should have known better. The blunder set back the campaign. For you golf fans, there are no mulligans in politics. Governor Deukmejian won that year’s round, and we did not get our full funds.
That year’s confrontation started a seven-year battle with the administration and Republican operatives, which I tried to call off several times to no avail. It surely hampered my efforts to concentrate on efforts to improve education that we had begun the last two years of the governor’s first term. But they wouldn’t quit. They appointed hatchet men to the State Board under instructions to clip my wings. They kept the financial pressure on the schools until we banded together to pass Proposition 98, which mandated 40% of the state budget to K–12 or a per-pupil increase of personal income growth, whichever was greatest. Then they never got over the fact that we eliminated their ability to cut school funding.
During my initial term, I enjoyed good relations with impressive members of the State Board of Education (SBE), both Democrats and Republicans, who were extremely supportive of additional funds for education and the reforms. During the first year, the Board supported the reform bill in the legislature with the increased funding. This was much to the chagrin of the governor’s administration. The bipartisan SBE and I had always been able to reach consensus on issues. Then the governor started to appoint people who were instructed to oppose my efforts and the consensus deteriorated. When a majority of these mischief-makers had finally been appointed, the Board took me to court to reduce the superintendent’s administrative prerogatives (and eventually won before a panel of judges Deukmejian had appointed).
Before that case went to court, I sat down with the two main ringleaders on the SBE authorized by the board to negotiate with me, and we reached agreement on every issue they raised. With their permission, I recorded the session. The administration was horrified. They wanted confrontation, not settlement, and the two board members both publically reneged on what they had agreed to.
As I mentioned, I kept getting distracted from using the bully pulpit for educational reform issues because the reporters would not stop asking about my intentions to run for governor. We devised a strategy to correct the situation. When one is driving in snow or ice and starts to skid towards a cliff, the driver needs to turn with the skid, get traction, and then steer back to the road. We tried the same tactic. For a few months, I stopped saying I wasn’t running for governor (which no reporter believed anyway), started organizing some support groups, and hinted that I might run to assure adequate funding for the schools. When Prop. 98 passed, I held a press conference saying that since schools now were guaranteed adequate funding, I didn’t need to run. I now wanted to fulfill our promise to the public that if they passed Prop. 98, we would devote ourselves to improving schools. The office I held was the best place to do that. This time the media believed me.
I cavalierly responded to Dave Dawson that we shouldn’t be worried because our administration had been squeaky-clean and scrupulously played by the rules. For example, I didn’t accept campaign contributions from publishers, and I never accepted meals from them. (I did encourage publishers to contribute to the campaign to pass Prop. 98, arguing that more money for schools meant more money for textbooks.) At the Chief State School Officers meetings I was one of the only chiefs who would pay for my own lunch and dinner, which were being hosted by various education companies. In California, the state superintendent sat on the State Teachers Retirement Fund (STRS), which invested billions of dollars each year. Other elected officials would raise campaign money from large investment and real estate firms giving the appearance (or the reality) of influencing investment decisions positively or negatively. I thought that the practice was shady and would not solicit such contributions or involve myself in the decision-making process. This questionable practice was eventually restricted 20 years later in 2007 by legislation that limited the amount of contributions and limited going to work for investment firms after leaving the board.
Dawson then told me that he heard the FBI was involved. So I called the FBI chief in Sacramento to find out what was going on. He basically told me that he was invited to one of the “get Honig” group’s meetings. At the meeting they asked him to join the effort, but he found the whole effort to be bizarre. They had no evidence of actual wrongdoing but were just brainstorming how to find and pin something on me. He never went back.
The Quality Education Project (QEP)
Unfortunately for me, the group finally found something potentially damaging. When I first heard about their charge, I thought it was so groundless as to be laughable. My wife at the time, Nancy, had been instrumental in my campaigns for office and very interested in the issue of parental involvement in schools. Nancy had created a very lucrative consulting company that set doctors up in practice. After my election in 1982, she decided to close the company and devote herself to promoting parent involvement in education. She raised a goodly sum from such luminaries as David Packard and Ann Getty to create a nonprofit entity, The Quality Education Project (QEP), and took no salary as its president.
QEP became very successful at involving parents in low-income and minority areas, holding rallies, and substantially increasing participation rates for back-to-school nights and other activities. QEP developed a parent pledge to turn off the TV at night, set aside a space for homework, and read to their children. Tens of thousands of parents signed the pledge and became more active in their child’s education at home and school—a very worthwhile endeavor.
Sometime later, David Bowick, from the Oakland Unified School District, called me at home to request some help with generating community and parental support for his efforts to improve schools. Bowick was one of the superintendents I was working with to implement our educational excellence agenda. At the time of his call, Nancy was in the room and I asked her if QEP would be interested. QEP had an excellent community organizer on staff who had worked with farmworkers and seemed just what Bowick needed. Bowick said he would also invest some district funds in the project if QEP would take on the project and assign resources including the community organizer. QEP agreed.
Later on, after the project was organized, Bowick and Nancy came to me and said they needed an additional staff person to work with the local schools. They had someone in mind for the job—Linda Page, an excellent principal. I thought the effort in Oakland was important and was exactly the kind of project the federal programs should support, so I agreed that the state would hire Linda Page to work with the local effort. It was to be a three-way partnership with financial support from the district, QEP, and the state all funding the project. The contract actually said we were hiring Linda Page to “work with” QEP on the Oakland project. QEP did not charge the district—it was a foundation, not a consulting firm. No money went from the district or the state to QEP. Just the opposite, QEP provided funds and resources to the local partnership in Oakland. That is how our work with QEP began.
The Oakland project was so successful it spread to other districts. The state continued to pay for Linda Page, who had done such a good job in Oakland, so that she could work in new districts. Each new district also provided funds, and QEP continued its financial and resource support. In addition, numerous other districts also initiated similar QEP projects, with excellent educators becoming involved. Cardinal Mahoney supported one for the Catholic schools in Los Angeles and became an enthusiastic supporter.
The final contract by the state with QEP was to assist Sweetwater High School District in creating a QEP parent involvement program in a high school district. Superintendent Tony Trujillo asked QEP to start a project there. QEP was reluctant because it was fully committed to other projects and had no high school expertise. Tony called me to see if the state could help and argued that we needed to explore how to involve parents in high-need high schools. So together we created another tripartite project—the district assigned some staff and resources, QEP did the same, and the state contracted for a local person to head the local project.
The project was a huge success. Through community organizing, hundreds of mothers and fathers in the Hispanic-American community attended rallies and back-to-school events—a complete turnaround from previous experience. Fathers pledged to get involved in their children’s education and support proper discipline in the school.
When I asked a meeting of my top staff what they thought about helping to fund local efforts in partnership with the districts and QEP, the only objection came from one of my deputies, Jim Smith. He counseled that any project involving my wife would open me to political potshots. I asked them directly: “Are there any legal problems?” They had checked with our legal staff, and their opinion was that since no money was going to QEP from the state or the districts since QEP was not charging the district and spending its own funds to help the local project, there were no possible legal issues. I then asked if the program would help kids. They said yes. I asked if our expenditure was authorized and consistent with the purposes of the federal program providing the funds. They said it was, so I decided to risk the political hit because of the great potential of the partnership. If I ever had any inkling that there was a potential legal issue, I wouldn’t have green-lighted the project. At the time, my legal training actually hurt me because I believed that the fact that money was flowing from QEP, not to it, meant there was no conflict of interest. Unfortunately, a significant number of people only looked at the surface, saw “wife” and “state money,” and concluded there must be wrongdoing. This became the political issue my foes were searching for.
After several years, Nancy decided that she had contributed enough non-salaried free time to QEP and was planning to revive her medical consulting firm. The QEP board, which had some influential and astute members, argued that QEP was too important and effective to abandon. It felt her leadership was essential and proposed that she receive a salary and stay the course. Nancy accepted the offer even though the salary was significantly below what she had been earning in her consulting firm.
Most observers then and subsequently could not understand how I failed to grasp the danger in continuing to work with QEP and how that connection could be so easily misconstrued and exploited. They attributed it to arrogance, to my being out of touch, or to my refusal to listen to those who tried to advise me about the political dangers. Maybe the observers were right. But in my defense, during my service as state superintendent of public instruction I made about 10,000 decisions. Once I had given careful thought and consideration to an issue, as I initially did when deciding whether to work with QEP and its district partners, I tended to treat the matter as settled. All my advisors saw no legal problem, and all but one predicted little political fallout. If there was arrogance on my part, it was more a case of my believing that we were doing something good for children and my customary willingness to fight for what I thought was right. My attitude was Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! That stance and my assessment of the legal aspects cost me dearly.
The Union, a conservative newspaper in Sacramento, started running editorials and stories about the egregious sweetheart deal I arranged for my wife. Other political forces chimed in, calling for an investigation. Nobody paid much attention. My political advisors Joe Holsinger and Richie Ross dismissed the assaults, saying, “If they attack you for helping parents and kids, they will look foolish and mean-spirited and it won’t go anywhere.” Heedless to that sentiment, the attacks continued.
Dan Walters was one of the most prominent Sacramento political reporters, with a nose for scandal. He asked for an interview and I explained what the projects were and how they were funded. Walters wrote a column saying he couldn’t see that what we were doing was wrong and the case against me was contrived. That still didn’t stop the cabal.
Spurred on by the articles in The Union, the State Board of Education called for hearings on QEP and the state contracts of support. By that time the board was made up entirely of Deukmejian appointees. Hundreds of parents attended the hearings to testify about how effective the program had been. Supporters included scores of nuns from the L.A. diocese, which had adopted the program. One of my chief antagonists on the Board was Joe Carrabino, a Catholic. Faced with the sisters’ enthusiastic praise, Carrabino did not say a word.
More hostilities emerged. If you fight for a cause for a period of time and especially if you win some important battles, you inevitably step on more and more toes. Out of the blue came another powerful adversary. Here is the backstory. The federal government sponsors a migrant education program for children of migrant workers. When I took office, the office of inspector general attached to the US Department of Education was in the process of levying a huge fine on the state because the paperwork that established the parents’ status as migrant workers was sloppy. The fine would come directly out of the next year’s allocation for the migrant students. We decided that course of action was unacceptable and went back to obtain affidavits showing that the students actually were from migrant families. We did so for almost all the enrollees. The fed’s response was that it didn’t care if the students really were qualified. The issue was that we didn’t fill out the paperwork properly, and we must deduct the funds. (The inspector general gets credit for collecting funds so there was an incentive not to resolve the issue.) We appealed, to no avail. The appeals court was like a star chamber with few basic due process protections. The next year, we lobbied Congress to establish fair rules for inspector general hearings and were successful in passing reforms. The inspector general never forgot that we had clipped his wings.
When the invented conflict over QEP erupted, the inspector general attached to the US Department of Education sent his top investigator to investigate. That gentleman testified before the State Board that the QEP program was the “most egregious case of fraud he had ever seen.” Right. Much worse than the fly-by-night for-profit sham training schools which were stealing millions of dollars from unsuspecting students every year, which were supposedly regulated by the US Department of Education.
At any rate, the continuing drumbeat from The Union, criticism from conservative spokesmen, and the Board’s hearing were not gaining traction. Most people had the same reaction as Dan Walters—there is nothing there, and the program should be praised, not vilified. Regardless, the Board sent the issue to the state Attorney General John Van de Camp, who was a Democrat. He referred it to the civil division to determine if there was merit to the complaints. For the moment, the cabal’s efforts had stalled.
Then came the election of 1990. Good news and bad news. The Duke was termed out as governor and Senator Pete Wilson was in. Wilson was at that time a moderate Republican but ran as a conservative. He and I had always had a good working relationship. During the transition, he invited me to meet with him and said he did not want personal conflict. He knew I was also being hurt by the continued controversies, and proposed that we agree to be civil even if we were on different sides of an issue. That sounded good to me. During his first year as governor, he veered to the right and decided to ask the legislature to suspend the Prop. 98 protections. The educational coalition decided to fight him on the issue, took out devastating ads, and won. True to my word, I stayed in the background during the campaign’s push for full funding.
Ominously, the 1990 election also produced a new attorney general, the very conservative Dan Lungren, who beat the San Francisco D.A. only when they counted the final absentee ballots. Many of Lungren’s supporters were the same people who were zealously going after me. They demanded he do something about the issue. At first, he didn’t think there was anything to pursue.
Then, I got seriously unlucky. Will Hearst, who published the San Francisco Examiner and Sunday Chronicle, cared about improving schools and had always been a strong supporter of mine. But the Examiner was losing money and threatening to go under. As a desperate measure, Hearst hired a muckraking reporter, Phil Bronstein, to be editor and reinvigorate the paper. As a way to sell papers, Bronstein began to publish a series of sensationalized attacks on officials.
Before Bronstein arrived, I had approached the Examiner during the controversy over QEP to ask them to do a story on what the QEP actually did and what it had accomplished—something no one had covered in depth. A few papers had mentioned the QEP in passing. For example, in October 1991 there was this short piece in the Los Angeles Times:
“There’s really nothing that new about Nancy Honig’s Quality Education Project (QEP),” Michael Klentschy, associate superintendent of schools in Pasadena, said Thursday, “but it is a real fine collection of some of the best materials anybody has ever put together on how to get parents involved in the schools. Pasadena is in its third year of using QEP in kindergarten through eighth grade,” Klentschy said, “and has found the program very effective.”
But the overall story was getting lost in the scandal rhetoric. The Examiner agreed to an in-depth look at the QEP. Then Bronstein arrived, saw an opportunity for a sensationalized exposé, and assigned his most aggressive reporter to dig up dirt. Unbeknownst to me, the article about the QEP’s accomplishments was now recast to be a “hit piece” on me. The reporter approached Nancy and me with smiles and good will saying she wanted to know the real facts. Apparently, she was looking for something much more sinister.
One Saturday afternoon, I was out for a walk and headed downtown. Much to my consternation, I happened to notice the sprawling headline on the next day’s Sunday paper. I can’t remember it exactly, but it was something like Honig Commits Fraud. The paper had done a nasty piece of work. The article misreported the facts, minimized the QEP’s accomplishments, sensationalized the story, repeated the unfounded attacks made by my detractors, and never gave us a chance to comment or respond. On the plus side, it probably did help them sell some papers.
The cabal now had the pretext it needed to ramp up its campaign against me, using the piece in the San Francisco Examiner as proof that there was a legitimate legal issue. The article also provided Lungren an excuse to move forward. He transferred the case to the criminal division, where it was assigned to one of the most aggressive prosecutors.
When we found out that they were considering criminal action, I hired Jerome Falk, a prominent attorney, to present our case that there was nothing illegal about my actions. He wrote a very persuasive brief, with cogent legal and factual arguments which were ignored. You can’t rebut a primarily political case with legal ammunition.
Lungren still couldn’t bring himself to authorize an indictment against me since the case was so weak, but he was now receiving tremendous pressure from his supporters in the cabal to move forward. Jim Smith, my deputy, whose office was next to the State Board office, heard Joe Carrabino shouting at the top of his lungs on the phone, according to Smith, to either Dan Lungren or one of his chief operatives, “You’ve got to indict him. You’ve got to indict him.”
On March 26, 1992, he did. The zealous prosecutor who was assigned the case presented the proposed indictment to the grand jury. She claimed that right after I was elected, Nancy and I planned to promote the QEP so that Nancy could eventually receive a salary from state assistance. Thus, according to this fiction, we had a long-standing plan to knowingly defraud the state and divert funds for our personal benefit. None of this was true. There were no facts to support the prosecutor’s assertions, and the narrative didn’t make much sense since Nancy was already making a good salary with her consulting firm. The way our grand jury system works (needed changes are currently being debated), the potential defendant doesn’t get to present rebuttals. You depend on the prosecutor to be fair. Enough said.
The attorney general’s staff also leaked this made-up account to the press, and the papers quickly published the prosecutor’s fabricated account, with all its juicy details. Later during the trial, the case was reassigned and the new prosecutor adopted a different approach, saying that I was not a bad person, that I didn’t intend to break the law, but that conflict of interest statutes are designed to protect the public and need to be strictly enforced.
The major transgression the original prosecutor made before the grand jury was to ignore my argument made in a formal taped statement to the attorney general that no money ever went to the QEP from either the districts or the state. After the indictment, I had requested an interview with the AG. (I know now it is never recommended that a defendant do so because the prosecution can misconstrue what you say to its advantage, but at the time I thought I had nothing to hide.) I made the argument about following the money and asked how there could be a conflict if the QEP didn’t receive any funds from the state and Nancy’s salary was entirely paid out of foundation contributions she had raised.
The prosecutor played the tape before the grand jury, and several jurors asked her to respond to my assertions, which if true would invalidate the prosecution’s entire case. She promised to present evidence on the issue, which she never did. At the end of the proceedings, the jurors reminded the prosecutor that she said she would rebut my contention. She merely shrugged it off, describing it as a minor accounting matter. Prosecutors have great discretion in grand jury proceedings, but by law the one thing they can’t do is refuse to provide an answer to a juror’s question. Such refusal destroys the legal validity of the entire process. Later when we raised that issue just before trial, the presiding judge wouldn’t grant us our warranted relief, saying that the information requested was not important to the case. That reasoning was patently absurd since those facts were the essence of my defense. When we appealed the case arguing that the indictment should have been quashed, the appellate court said we didn’t raise the issue in a timely manner.
As a neutral observer (just kidding), this was the pattern that permeated the entire legal process. Everything that could go wrong did—a perfect storm. And at each juncture, those overseeing or involved in the case abdicated their responsibilities and failed to follow reasonable practice or even the law. Most had an obvious political or personal axe to grind, or they did not have the courage to do what was right. The case should never have been a criminal prosecution. At most, it was a technical civil violation, if that. It should never have come to trial, should not have been handled at trial the way it was, and should have been reversed on appeal.
The Trial and Tribulations
The trial was held in January of 1993, based on three contracts with the original principal hired for the Oakland project and one contract with the person hired for the Sweetwater project. These four contracts were signed after Nancy had started receiving a salary from the QEP. An article in the Los Angeles Times written during the trial pretty well sums up the proceedings and how most people viewed them. (Again, it includes some flattering and unflattering things about me.) Most people agreed I didn’t intend to break the law and was trying to do something for children, but the judge did not allow us to put on most of our defense including motive, background, the success of the QEP, and the political nature of the case.
The prosecution’s theory of the case was that the state contracts hiring a person to work locally benefited the QEP and made it easier for the foundation to pay Nancy’s salary. Nobody seemed to grasp the point that no money or benefit actually went to the QEP. The prosecution was faced with the problem that not one dime was actually paid to the QEP. The prosecution could have tried to contend that the benefit wasn’t monetary but an indirect benefit such as the enhancement of the QEP’s reputation. However, it didn’t prove that either and, in any event, reputational benefit is highly speculative and hard to prove, and there exists no legal justification for such a principle. Such a finding could result in the ridiculous situation in which a wife who works for Apple and donates some tablets to a state school run by the husband could put him at risk of violating the law for accepting the gift and spending funds to service the machines and get them ready for use locally, because in some small measure it could make Apple look good and redound to her benefit. A completely tenuous argument.
There was also a contention or assumption that Linda Page, the principal whom we hired and then assigned to the local projects in the first three contracts, and the local staff person in Sweetwater were actually working for the QEP organization, not with the local projects (which was also confusingly called a QEP project). In that case, the state would be giving the QEP a resource or benefit. However, the clear weight of the facts showed that both individuals spent their time locally with the district parent-involvement projects; their contracts stated that they were hired to “work with” the QEP, and that is what I thought the state had contracted for. Linda Page did do some administrative tasks for the QEP, but it paid her additional funds for that work.
Finally, there was an argument that by hiring a staff person to work in the local projects, the state saved the QEP from having to hire a person, and that was the benefit. Again, there was no proof of that conjecture. In Sweetwater, the QEP was not going to fund the project and was convinced to proceed because of the state participation.
The prosecution must prove the elements of the crime, and finding a benefit to the QEP was one of those elements. There was only a highly questionable possibility of a speculative, indirect benefit to the QEP, which the prosecution never proved. Crimes must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and that requirement applies to the elements of the crime. Further, if there are two plausible explanations of an event, the jury must apply the one favorable to the defendant. None of this was followed in the trial, and the jury received no instructions along these lines.
Another major point is that the attorney general argued and the judge instructed the jury that the case was akin to strict liability. I didn’t have to know I was doing anything wrong as long as I signed the contract. Criminal law in this country developed out of English Common Law, which over centuries retreated from strict criminal liability for unintentional acts and established the concept of mens rea. It means that a conviction requires some intent to do harm. Unfortunately, during the past decades, more and more acts are criminalized and many laws are now holding people liable without knowledge on their part, such as owning property where drugs were sold. I was not allowed to argue that I thought the people we contracted were hired to work with the local project, not the QEP, and that position was supported by the specific language of the contracts. The judge said that my understanding and intent were irrelevant.
Judge Long may have had his own issues with conflict of interest. He wanted to be an appellate judge and Attorney General Lungren, who was prosecuting the case, was one member of the three-person panel that recommends approval of advancement. Judge Long’s sister worked for the attorney general as an attorney, and the attorneys for the prosecution would meet each day in the judge’s office before trial. We tried to recuse the judge due to this conflict, but the statute only applied to wives, offspring, and parents, not siblings. It was obvious to anyone in the courtroom, and especially to the jury, which way his sympathies lay. He was so hard on our witnesses he made some of them cry, invariably ruled for the prosecution, was hostile and dismissive of our attorneys, and refused to give our key proffered instructions to the jury.
Even so, my attorneys were extremely confident that despite the judge’s rulings, the prosecution did not make their case. After the jury went out, my attorneys wrote a long victory statement. The jury had other ideas and came back with a verdict of guilty.
The judge suspended sentence while we appealed his rulings and the legal basis of the case. The statute I was convicted under was called a “wobbler.” It provided that the conviction could either be deemed a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the judge’s discretion. He said he would rule after the appeal was concluded. He fined me a substantial amount, required no jail time, but required 1,000 hours of community service. By law I had to vacate the superintendent’s office immediately.
Although I could have waited for the appeal decision, I decided to perform my community service immediately. I volunteered as a classroom aide in my local public elementary school and did other voluntary work for education. This was something I actually enjoyed and probably would have done anyway. If I lost the appeal, I wanted to be able to get on with my life.
Two years later, the appellate court refused to overturn the conviction but did reduce the fine. It dismissed in a footnote our main argument that no benefit went to the QEP or was proved in the trial and actually rewrote the facts of the case to mask the facts that supported the point (a practice that many appellate attorneys say is all too common). The court didn’t entertain our strict liability and lack of mens rea argument, the violation of the prosecutor who didn’t answer the grand jurors’ question on money flow, and a few other points. I decided enough was enough. We didn’t appeal to the California Supreme Court, even though both my appellate attorney and I were convinced the appellate court had erred.
Then for the first time in this whole sordid affair, I caught a break. After the appeal was rejected, it was time for the formal sentencing, which had been suspended pending the appeal. We expected the worst—felony convictions. My attorney at the time was a good friend of mine, Art Shartsis. When Art approached Judge Long, to get a feel for the upcoming sentencing proceeding, he was pleasantly surprised that the judge was open to making the convictions misdemeanors, accepting the community service, and ending the case. We soon found out why in open court. My late sister, Ann, had written a moving letter about how our parents had brought up her brother to be a good citizen and she pleaded for leniency. Judge Long was very close to his sister, and this letter made a huge impression. He also was moved by the fact that I had volunteered to do the community service immediately in an inner-city school without waiting for the appeal. He made the convictions misdemeanors, and the legal case was over. Later, the misdemeanors were expunged by the superior court.
Nancy paid a much heavier price. She had always been plagued by the demons of depression and was at her happiest during my campaigns for superintendent and creating the QEP and all its success. The unfairness of the trial and conviction hit her hard—both the shame and the unjust destruction of the QEP. She fled to Mexico soon after the trial, successfully replicated the QEP blueprint in that country, and returned to the US in 1998. She never could get past what had happened and eventually succumbed to the torments of depression and committed suicide in 1999.
Life after Leaving Office: The Reading Wars and the Founding of CORE
After the conviction in the trial, Henrietta Schwartz, who was dean of education at San Francisco State, took the courageous step of offering me a teaching position in the School of Education. I taught a curriculum and instruction course for two years and headed a Hewlett Foundation–funded project to involve university and school people in joint efforts at improving instruction by reaching agreement on what constituted good instruction and coverage. The project was named USSER, University/School Support for Educational Reform.
We first tackled reading, established a joint committee of professors and practitioners, and issued a well-received report. Then we addressed math. This was a time of intense conflict between traditionalists and reformers. Initially, I went to the California Math Council, but their leadership didn’t believe there was any agreed-upon content.
The next year, we tried again and put together a small group of reformers and traditionalists under the theory that there actually were large areas of consensus in K-8 math. The group included traditionalists such as Gunnar Carlsson, chair of the math department at Stanford University, and reformers such as Carne Barnett from WestEd, and Debra Coggins who did most of the writing of our eventual report. We addressed key concepts underlying arithmetic, teaching tips, and what to do about the common pitfalls students encounter in twelve major areas—from adding and subtracting through beginning algebra. What was so interesting given the raging controversies taking place was that during the discussion, you couldn’t tell who was a reformer and who was a traditionalist. Gunnar Carlsson said he never understood how complex the mathematics of arithmetic was and eventually designed a Stanford course for prospective teachers on the subject.
The final product of our efforts was A Mathematics Source Book for Elementary and Middle School Teachers, published in 1999. It was a best-seller for a decade and showed that we could resolve the math wars satisfactorily. That consensus was displayed in the Common Core State Standards issued a decade later, which married conceptual understanding with procedural fluency and applications, and also stressed math content and practices.
When Dean Schwartz retired, I decided to leave the university. I made good friends with a few people I respected in the department of education, but, on the whole, found the atmosphere stultifying, highly political, and hostile to intellectual pursuit and discussion.
I did some consulting work for a national project led by Lauren Resnick and Marc Tucker to develop standards and assessments for a group of participating states—a forerunner to the Common Core State Standards adopted 15 years later. During my last years as superintendent, I had been one of the founding members of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, served on a National Commission on Children headed by Senator Jay Rockefeller, and was a member of a national commission to develop history standards. Such opportunities had mostly vanished.
However, I was invited to comment on the proceedings of a conference held by Diane Ravitch and Chester E. “Checker” Finn. The conference findings argued that standards and assessment with consequences would force schools to change. I disagreed, asserting that without attention to building the capacity and supportive infrastructure for schools, standards and assessment wouldn’t be effective. Their position evolved into the current Test-and-Punish approach (although Diane has recanted with a vengeance), and my position became the underpinning of the Build-and-Support strategy currently followed by California and top-performing districts and nations around the world.
Early in the 1990s, I obtained a foundation grant to develop a consulting group to help districts improve instruction in reading, math, history-social science, and science. It was originally housed at WestEd, one of the major federally funded research and development centers. I tried to convince WestEd to add developing on-site capacity into their federal application for refunding, but they were hesitant because reorienting their primarily research staff to work with local schools and districts seemed too uncertain. I then got interested in the reading controversies of the time, which changed the course of my career. For the full story of the history of our struggle for good first reading teaching, see the article How the California Reading Wars Got Resolved: A Personal Story.
At the same time in 1995, I joined forces with Linda Diamond, one of the most knowledgeable people in the country on reading and one of the best trainers in the nation, and top researchers Ann Cunningham and Ruth Nathan to form the Consortium on Reading Excellence (CORE). Cunningham subsequently became a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Education, and Nathan went on to become the director of the Reading Research Lab at UC Berkeley. I had met them all while becoming schooled in reading research. We created CORE to spread the word on this balanced approach—teaching foundation skills, vocabulary, and strategies, and providing a rich literacy program.
Whole language was very strongly entrenched in our schools, and we met with quite a lot of resistance, but eventually the power of the overwhelming research findings and the obvious deleterious effects of whole language carried the day. CORE is currently finishing its twentieth year now, led by Linda Diamond. The group has worked with nearly 150,000 teachers in improving reading instruction. CORE has been renamed the Consortium on Reaching Excellence since we now also provide math assistance.
We originally emphasized the reading research and its implications for instruction but soon became primarily a reading implementation group working with school site staffs in improving literacy instruction. CORE’s publications include the popular Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures, Vocabulary Handbook, and the recent Word Intelligence, a supplementary vocabulary enhancement program for middle schools.
From 1995 until 2005, I was actively involved in CORE as president as we grew steadily. In the mid-2000s I took a more indirect role. Linda Diamond became CEO, and she and the staff have done a wonderful job communicating the best research on reading and math and working with on-site educators to improve instruction.
My Latest Exploits
In 2005, I drafted a paper on income inequality, which has a direct effect on educational performance. I extrapolated data from government reports since the federal documents didn’t report directly on the subject. I found that a huge amount of the income growth during the previous decade went to the top one percent, leaving little available to raise the incomes of everyone else. This analysis has now become widely known, but at the time most people were skeptical. I showed the draft to Rahm Emanuel when he was leading the charge for electing Democratic representatives, but he wasn’t much interested.
In 2009, I became dismayed at the educational policies that the Obama administration was beginning to pursue. Instead of appointing Linda Darling-Hammond, who chaired his education transition team as US Secretary of Education, the president named Arne Duncan. Darling-Hammond possesses one of the best instincts on how to improve schools in the country. Duncan had limited educational experience and a miserable track record in Chicago. As many of us predicted, he initiated the misconceived policies of Test-and-Punish, with the result that educational performance in this country has essentially stalled.
In 2010, I watched White House staffer Melody Barnes speak to Charlie Rose about how important education was to the country and how the administration’s ideas would make a huge difference. In my opinion, they were traveling down the wrong road, and I wrote the following respectful letter to plead for a course correction.
To: Melody Barnes
From: Bill Honig
Subj: Education Reform
Date: October 1, 2010
My name is Bill Honig. I am a lifelong, devoted Democrat who was a strong supporter of Democratic Congressional candidates and the President in 2008. I believe that President Obama is doing a great job for the country. I saw you on Charlie Rose and was very impressed with your obvious dedication and commitment to bettering the education of our children.
I can easily relate to your passion, because I started out as an attorney and then shifted careers and dedicated myself to education. I became an elementary teacher in the 1970s in inner-city San Francisco schools, was appointed to the California State Board of Education, and was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction in the 1980s. We were one of the first states to develop a comprehensive approach to education reform. For the past fifteen years, I have been president of the Consortium on Reading Excellence, a company specializing in on-site implementation work in reading and math with teachers, schools, districts, and states in urban and rural areas. We have worked with districts such as Atlanta, Miami, Buffalo, Anchorage, San Bernardino, Pasadena, Yakima, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and many states. We have aided many of our schools and districts to substantially improve.
I agree with the President’s and your distress over other countries having significantly higher college and high school graduation rates and higher math, reading, and science scores, your belief that the system needs fixing, and your conviction that teachers (and teaching and learning) are central to that effort. But I’m afraid that the specifics you and the administration are emphasizing are too narrowly conceived and not comprehensive enough to get the job done. Without a course correction, I fear that several years from now you will look back to a missed opportunity to actually change American education, especially given the unprecedented level of federal funding being devoted to the effort.
I hope you take the following critique in the spirit of wanting you all to succeed. The countries that have surpassed the US have followed a different path, as have states such as Massachusetts, whose students perform on a par with world-class systems. These countries and states have also put teachers at the center of reform, but have undertaken significantly different strategies to accomplish their goals. They have emphasized teaching and learning, and the support structures to foster teamwork and continuous improvement, and have built comprehensive long-term measures to attract, train, mentor, team build, and support teachers. These crucial strategies are currently missing from the administration’s approach.
The administration has rightly emphasized the Common Core State Standards. The new language and math standards are very good, and the new assessments based on the standards are much improved (although the tendency to narrow the curriculum by just testing math and reading needs to be addressed). But your other initiatives are flawed. You have stressed and provided massive funding for expanding charter schools (about three percent of our students attend charters). Research has shown that only a quarter of charter schools do better than the regular public schools while a quarter do worse, but they do drain money from public schools and often cause significant community damage when they replace a local school.
You have mandated high-stakes evaluations of teachers for waivers based on reading and math test scores, but these tests were not designed for personnel decisions and are highly inaccurate for that purpose. Additionally, test-based evaluations result in considerable collateral damage such as narrowing the curriculum, inordinate test preparation at the expense of deeper learning, and outright gaming the system. Incompetent teachers need to be dismissed if done fairly, but this only affects five percent of teachers, and making that policy the cornerstone of your reform efforts detracts from working with the rest. Rewarding the best teachers suffers from the same inaccuracy problems and has not worked well. Creating career ladders is more effective and less disruptive, and research has not shown that monetary incentives for individual teachers has been successful.
You also emphasize turning around the lowest-performing schools. You mentioned 5,000 schools or about five percent of schools, but actually a much smaller percent qualified—around 100 in California, or just above one percent of the state’s schools. Again, the research on your turnaround strategies is problematical—many of the schools designated were making more progress than their district counterparts and most replacements have not done any better. Even if these initiatives work (a big if), they only affect a small number of students. Missing from this approach is the harder work of building the broader capacity for improvement for the vast number of schools and teachers.
Some of the more positive, comprehensive ideas that our best districts employ exist in your Blueprint for Education, but they were not given much weight in the review process for Race to the Top and are virtually neglected at the local and state levels. For example, just think of the difference it would make if you started to reward: changing entry requirements for becoming a teacher to the top third of college graduates as the Rhode Island superintendent has done on her own initiative (in the next decade more than a million teachers will enter the system) and improving their training; initiating a mentoring system for new and existing teachers; developing career ladders for the best teachers; organizing sophisticated instructional support for schools; and creating research-based principal academies to help principals lead instructional improvement.
I have had this discussion with some of the most perceptive educators in the country, including Pat Graham, former dean of the Harvard School of Education; Susan Fuhrman, dean of Teachers College; David Cohen, who has written a fascinating book on federal policy since President Johnson, showing that standards and assessment without developing the infrastructure of support has not worked; and Tony Bryk, executive of the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning, who, among other works, has studied reforms in the Chicago schools. They agree that a shift to a more comprehensive strategy emphasizing teaching and learning is crucial if the administration is to succeed.
I have attached a short paper outlining these arguments and hope you will read it. I’d like to discuss this with you. [I provided contact information] Hope this helps.
Respectfully, Bill Honig
I never even received an acknowledgement that they had received the letter.
A Ray of Sunshine: California Takes a Different Path
At that point I was extremely frustrated that the media, pundits, and almost every political leader had uncritically accepted the administration’s narrative that the best way to improve schools was by increasing pressure through high-stakes testing, competition, and market-based reforms. Fortunately, there were two politicians who didn’t—Jerry Brown and Tom Torlakson. Brown was California’s attorney general and had written Arne Duncan to object to the heavy emphasis on testing and shoddy evaluations. When he decided to run for governor of California he put Mike Kirst in charge of developing educational ideas (though the governor always had strong views on education). I knew Mike well from the time I served on the State Board of Education and as state superintendent of public instruction. I offered to help, and together we drafted an educational plan for the state (with considerable tweaking by candidate Brown). The plan was posted on Brown’s campaign website, used in his campaign speeches, and eventually became the basis for the policies enacted after he won.
Tom Torlakson ran on similar ideas, and when both he and Brown won and we had preliminary staff meetings, it was obvious that we were all on the same page. Soon after being elected, Torlakson put together a blue-ribbon task force chaired by Linda Darling-Hammond and Chris Steinhauser, superintendent of the high-performing Long Beach Unified Schools District. The task force produced Greatness by Design, which is one of the founding documents of the Build-and-Support approach, in stark contrast to the Test-and-Punish strategy.
Right after his election, Governor Brown appointed Mike Kirst to the State Board of Education as well as several other experienced educators who held views consistent with the Build-and-Support strategy. (I was also appointed but couldn’t serve due to an obscure section in the statute that I had violated. The section prevented me from ever holding a state office, which included being a member of the State Board, even though the violations were misdemeanors.) The governor abolished the secretary of education position in his office (he is always the frugal one) and subsequently relied on the State Board and its executive secretary, Sue Burr, for educational advice.
As the state educational policy unfolded, I kept working with Mike informally, and then in 2011 the State Board appointed me to the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), which I chaired for two years and am currently vice-chair. We produced several frameworks in Math, English Language Arts and ELD, Science, and History-Social Science—critical in helping districts and schools make the transition from standards to curriculum. I co-wrote a piece on EdSource on this topic with Pam Seki, who shepherds Long Beach’s Common Core implementation efforts. The IQC also reviewed and recommended math and reading instructional materials for the state.
At the suggestion of several respected leaders in Common Core implementation such as Mike Kirst, Dave Gordon (head of the Sacramento County Office of Education) and his deputy Sue Stickel, Marshall Smith, Jennifer O’Day, Glen Thomas, Chris Steinhauser and his deputy Pam Seki, Nancy Brownell (from the CA Department of Education), and Glen Harvey and Catherine Walcott (from WestEd), we formed an informal network—the Consortium for the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards. We have been meeting once a week by telephone for the past three years. Other stalwart educators joined the group such as Linda Darling-Hammond and Milbrey McLaughlin from Stanford, Harold Levine from UC Davis, Ted Lempert from Children Now, Carrie Roberts from the CDE, Julie White from the SBE staff, Glen Price from the Glen Price Group, now chief deputy superintendent of public instruction for the state, Ilene Strauss from the State Board, and Shelly Masur from the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation. We also involved representatives from all the major educational and government entities—districts, county education offices, teacher groups, the research community, higher education, and advocacy groups. We call this broader group together every three to four months.
We obtained some foundation funding for the network and have helped on such key issues as implementation planning, bringing support providers together, communication, technology, understanding the state mathematics and ELA/ELD frameworks, accountability, and new teacher policies. This group’s first publication was the Leadership Planning Guide California, written to assist districts and schools in addressing the implementation of Common Core.
Finally, I have tried to advocate nationally for “The California Way,” as Superintendent Torlakson has dubbed California’s approach—strong instruction envisioned by Common Core but divorced from high-stakes testing and evaluation. See for example “Bill Honig: Why California Likes the Common Core Standards,” an interview in Salon and a follow-up article, “An Alternative to Failed Education ‘Reform,’ If We Want One.”
A Collection of Quant Riddles with Answers. http://puzzles.nigelcoldwell.co.uk/
Smith, M., & O’Day, J. (1991). Putting the Pieces Together: Systemic School Reform. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED343215
Lindsey, R. (1986, Aug 3). California’s Back-to-Basics Reformer. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/08/03/education/california-s-back-to-basics-reformer.html?pagewanted=1
King, P. H. (1993, Jan 13) Bill Honig Waits to Tell His Story. Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-01-13/news/mn-1368_1_bill-honig
CORE Publications. http://www.corelearn.com/Products/Publications/
California Department of Education. (2012, Sep 17). Greatness by Design: Supporting Outstanding Teaching to Sustain a Golden State. http://www.cde.ca.gov/eo/in/ee.asp
Honig, B. (2014, Jan 29). Coherent and Sequenced Curriculum Key to Implementing Common Core Standards. http://edsource.org/2014/coherent-and-sequenced-curriculum-key-to-implementing-common-core-standards/56704#.VVPXKE3bLX4
California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. Leadership Planning Guide: Common Core State Standards and Assessments Implementation. http://www.scoe.net/castandards/Pages/default.aspx
Ravitch, D. (2014, Jan 7). Bill Honig: Why California Likes the Common Core Standards. https://dianeravitch.net/2014/01/07/bill-honig-why-california-likes-the-common-core-standards/
Bryant, J. (2015, Apr 14). Common Core Consequences: “What Currently Passes for Reform Has Caused Considerable Collateral Damage to Schools and Teachers.” http://www.salon.com/2015/04/14/common_core_consequences_what_currently_passes_for_reform_has_caused_considerable_collateral_damage_to_schools_and_teachers/
Bryant, J. (2015, Apr 23). An Alternative to Failed Education Reform, If We Want One. http://educationopportunitynetwork.org/an-alternative-to-failed-education-reform-if-we-want-one/