Cross-Boundary Leader: Dr. Michael Kirst
Friday, September 11, 2015
Posted by: Shaina Cook
Dr. Kirst spoke with IEL before his AERA/IEL Educational Policy Forum on July 14 and shared his experiences throughout his career, leadership lessons learned, and his thoughts on the changing landscape of California policy.
Dr. Michael Kirst is the president of the California State Board of Education and professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University. He first served as president of the California State Board from 1977 to 1981 and was a member of the board from 1975 to 1977. Prior to joining the Stanford University faculty in 1969, Dr. Kirst served in several positions in the federal government, including staff director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment, and Poverty; director of program planning and evaluation for the Bureau of Elementary and Secondary Education in the U.S. Office of Education (now the U.S. Department of Education); and associate director of the White House Fellows. He began his career in 1964 as a budget examiner for the Title I program in the U.S. Bureau of the Budget in the U.S. Office of Education.
Dr. Kirst has authored several books, including The Political Dynamics of American Education and From High School to College. He has served as vice president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and commissioner of the Education Commission of the States (ECS), and co-founded Policy Analysis for California Education.
Leading Across Boundaries
My experience in the federal government early in my career gave me a wonderful lesson in leading across boundaries. I was a liaison for the U.S. Office of Education, which is now the U.S. Department of Education, and worked on President Johnson’s War on Poverty, so I was able to see the unfolding of programs across agencies related to that effort. Part of what I did in that role was screen policies and try to fit education into them, which involved working across different agencies and groups. A large part of my career has also been focused on better connecting K-12 and higher education. Since they are two separate agencies and cultures and worlds, but they depend on each other and their programs fit together, it involves a lot of cross-boundary work.
For much of my career, I was an analyst and advised people or analyzed policy. An important thing I learned from that is that staff is extremely important for policymakers, and having a strong staff is essential. As a policymaker, I pull from that experience and focus on respecting my staff and asking them for advice and their perspective on issues. It’s so important to build up a good staff rather than try to do and learn everything yourself. It’s also key to see life from your staff’s perspective and understand how you look as a leader from their point of view.
Coalitions are an important part of leading across boundaries. Throughout my career, I’ve studied and built political coalitions. It’s important for policymakers to know how to build a coalition that will last and be effective and successful. You should also never rule anybody out, because you never know when you might need to call on them to join your coalition. Building a good coalition is a great art, and you have to have a good sense of the leaders around you to be able to do so.
Leadership does have some challenging aspects, and one big one is that momentum and results can often depend on particular people. It’s great when a program gets going and we see results, but when leaders leave, the agency or organization often reverts back to how it was before, and the momentum and results can slow down. It’s important to change organizational culture so that interaction among agencies and groups is normal and will remain constant even as leaders come and go. This is one of the things that makes the Common Core so attractive: it builds better bridges between K-12 and postsecondary and makes it a consistent part of implementation.
Leadership Lessons Learned
My biggest leadership lesson has been to lead with patience, persistence, and humility. It takes a long time to make an impact, but if you proceed with those ideas, then you will be successful in the long run.
Another lesson is that education improvement is largely about improving classroom instruction. If you’re not improving instruction, then you’re often creating more and bigger problems. It’s important to approach challenges like this strategically and consider how a piece of education policy is going to improve instruction. In addition, I’ve learned that as you build up accountability, you have to build up capacity at an equal speed. If accountability gets beyond capacity, you’ll get negative results and unhappy people working in education.
I’ve also learned that it’s important to not do too many things at once. President Johnson’s Great Society was policy overload; there was too much going on all across the board. I think having a specific agenda is important for quality and focus. Right now, we’re focused on improving standards, such as the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards; local control funding and more flexible local funding; and rethinking accountability measures away from test scores. Because there’s not a lot of noise, we’re on course and not being deflected.
Changes in California’s Education Policy
This is my 52nd year in education policy, and my role on the California State Board allows me to draw on all kinds of content and experiential knowledge I’ve developed throughout my career. Everything I’ve learned has had relevance to this job, from conversations with students and policymakers to working on regulation and legislation for the federal government to working on school finance in California. I didn’t always understand how local schools operate and the complexities of classroom instruction, which is important for my current role, but I learned that through my work with the Consortium on Policy Research and Education. I hope to get education leaders and policymakers in a position where all aspects of education policy and politics can be applied to the issues at hand because the state board’s agenda has such a wide range, from nutrition to special education to school finance. But through my experiences in state and federal government and in higher education, I’ve learned that patience, persistence, and humility are important qualities that run through all of this work.
When I first served as president of the California State Board in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were coming out of the categorical programming experience of federal government. By that I mean that there were centralized and categorized programs designed to impact specific groups of students across the state. In some cases, like special education and bilingual education, this method was successful, but it’s difficult to implement one best instructional system across a state, particularly one as diverse as California.
My current term as president began in 2011, and it has involved reversing some of those policies with a more bottom-up approach to building local capacity. Rather than having schools and districts be passive and compliance-oriented, we are trying to create more local expertise and participation among local educators and administrators. However, it’s still a challenge to find that right balance between a top-down and bottom-up approach.
California is a large state, has the largest state population in the country, and is very culturally and geographically diverse. One way of tackling this challenge is building capacity for improving education from the bottom up. However, it’s also important to balance that with top-down methods of change, and the complexity comes because you don’t really know what is going on in a particular school, district, or city when you’re not a part of it. There are so many local contexts and policy needs to be crafted with that in mind so it can be effectively applied to different situations.
I think there’s a favorable context for reform in California today. We have a rapidly increasing economy that is generating a substantial increase in state revenue, a progressive income tax that moves forward when the economy is booming, an overwhelming dominance by a single political party, long-term leadership stability, a united coalition of educators behind ideas, and not a lot of grassroots pushback on what we’re trying to do. We’re in a good position because we’re very much on the offense of big reform. Part of that position also comes from the state’s previous record of low student achievement on both national and international scales. With a view that there’s no sense in continuing with what we were doing if it’s not working, we can take a big risk because there isn’t much of a downside, and this has really allowed us to push forward.