19th Installment: The Uncommon Academic as an Octogenarian

"Conversations With and About Mike"

 A Time of Recognitions, Reflections, and Advancements 

For example, in May 2022, Stanford’s Graduate School of Education recognized Mike in a featured article highlighting his 1969 creation of the joint MA/MBA program, which he then led for 30 years. (See Installment 13 for details)

Stanford Graduate School of Education

Photo and caption from GSE News. May 16, 2022.

The Octogenarian Era Commences

In June 2014, Mike was asked by the Stanford Emeriti/ae Council to reflect on his time at Stanford thus far.  Let’s listen to his quip, over some laughter, to what he–in his seventies at that point–says about his next decade.

Audio Clip 1: Mike Kirst: ‘”For me, this 2010-2014 period was the rise of the septuagenarians…”‘ (15 seconds)1

As you just heard, Mike tells us, “I’m looking forward to the rise of the octogenarians in education policy. So, we’ll see where that goes.”

Earlier we heard Mike describing his seventies (See Installment 15). He said, chuckling, “Not many people can say the best years of their lives are in their seventies…when I’m quite old.” Well, in this installment, he’s even older. Nonetheless, these are still good, productive years for Mike, in many regards, and certainly reflective ones.

In a recent conversation about these past several years Mike mused, “I’ve wanted to reflect on what I’ve done over my career, what are the lessons that could be learned, on what had been accomplished in California, what still needs to be done, and with what implications, in the state and elsewhere.”2

In January 2019, Mike finished his tenure as California’s education policy chief with Governor Brown. The year 2019 is also when Mike turned 80.

This installment covers only the first three years of Mike’s self-declared “Octogenarian Era” before the book version of this biography goes to press later in 2022.

Monitors showing Mike as he chairs his final meeting as President of the California State Board of Education.

Photo after Mike’s last SBE meeting with staff and board members. January 2019. Picture from the SBE.3

On January 19, 2019, Mike chaired his final meeting of the California State Board of Education in Sacramento. Immediately following the meeting, Andrea Venezia, then Executive Director of the Education Insights Center (often referred to as EdInsights) at California State University, and Amy Gerstein, Executive Director of the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford, arranged a gathering of Mike’s colleagues to honor his decades of service as “an uncommon academic” at a nearby downtown venue.


Sue Burr, offering remarks at Mike's retirement event, January 19, 2019.

Sue Burr, offering remarks at Mike’s retirement event, January 19, 2019. Photo by Dick Jung.

At about mid-way through this celebration, Venezia and several prominent education policymakers gathered at the microphone.  Sue Burr was one of the first to speak. She had served as the Executive Director of the California SBE during Mike’s first two tenures as its President (1977-1981) and then as Governor Brown’s education policy adviser (2011-2019). So, she had a particularly important set of perches from which to reflect on what distinguished Mike during those years. Let’s listen in (over a bit of background noise) to her reflections:

Audio Clip 2: Sue Burr:  I’ve “had the opportunity to witness Mike with the governor on many different occasions… Nobody was a better intellectual sparring partner than Mike Kirst.” (1 minute, 1 second)4

Andrea Venezia. Photo from Sacramento State Website.

You can hear knowing chuckles when Burr identifies Mike as a uniquely talented “intellectual sparring partner” foe Jerry Brown. She then adds, with emotion, that Mike is “one of the best bosses I’ve ever had” and “an incredible mentor and colleague,” before she handed him a copy of Miriam Pawel’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography The Browns of California with a handwritten inscription by the governor.

After hearing several other speakers, including Bill Honig, former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Andrea Venezia, serving as the organizer and M.C. for the event, asks Mike to reflect on his past policy work and to comment on his coming years. What Mike says speaks volumes about who he is, what he values, and how he operates. His short remarks on what might lie ahead in his octogenarian years is probably more prophetic than he could have known at the time. Let’s listen in:

Audio Clip 3: Mike Kirst: “I owe a lot to a lot of people” (2 minutes, 08 seconds)5

Karen Stapf Walters, Executive Director, California State Board of Education (2013-2020). Photo from January 19, 2019, board meeting’s video monitor.

As the applause subsides, Mike, in signature fashion, thanks all for coming to the event. “I’m humbled by the turnout. What a great venue. I mean, a bar with all the beer that I can handle (laughter). For a guy like me, that’s a really good idea (more laughter).

He reveals so much more about himself when talking about others.

After mentioning a personal phone call from Governor Brown, the night before, Mike begins by emphasizing that “you can’t do” what we have “without good staff.” And I’ve had a wonderful staff.” After thanking Sue Burr from whom we’ve just heard, he compliments, Karen Stapf Walters, the Board’s current Executive Director–as well as other Board staff–all of whom had worked side-by-side with him in advancing the Local Control Funding Formula and other reforms. He also thanked the California Department of Education staff, making note of the harmony among the department, the board, and the legislature that had developed over this period. Mike makes special mention of these staff as having been “really a part of this in a way that they didn’t get the credit in the media that they deserved.”

Mike then highlights the workings of the eleven-member board, very much appreciating the respect they had for each other, the way they worked together, and their efforts around certain specialties, such as charter school issues, accountability, and standards-setting.

After expressing his personal delight that his daughter and granddaughter are at the event, he notes about his future years, “As to me… on the K-12 [front], I’m going to take some months and see what happens,” noting, “It’s a changing landscape. It’s uncertain.”

Mike was speaking at the time with the then newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom and other state education leaders in California. He did not, of course, know how prophetic his, “It’s uncertain,” characterization was to be, when almost one year to the date, on January 15, 2020, the first person in the United States was diagnosed with a confirmed case of the 2019 novel coronavirus (Covid-19).

We’ll later learn more about the effects of this pandemic on Mike’s early octogenarian years, but before that, we hear from another speaker at the retirement event who notes, perhaps inadvertently, what has been a more central dilemma for Mike–as well as other academics who work closely with politicians.

An “Uncommon Academic” Conundrum

David Plank was a later speaker at the retirement celebration. He had served for 11 years as the Executive Director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) the multi-university, non-partisan research center Mike co-founded in 1983 and in which he had actively participated through 2005.

In this excerpt below, Plank begins by heralding that what Mike “was able to do in the last eight years is to bring a lifetime of research on education policy” as well as “a serious engagement over decades in how research affects policy,”especially through his role on the state board of education.” Let’s listen in:

Audio Clip 4: David Plank: “Governor Brown actually gave him [Mike] real power to effect change…'” (1 minute, 16 seconds)6

David Plank.,Executive Director, PACE (2007-2018). Photo from the Lemann Center, Stanford University.

Plank emphasizes that “Governor Brown actually gave him the power to effect change” not offered to many other academics followed by almost inaudibly noting, “This is not something I would offer to many professors, [as] a good idea.”

This is not the first time I had heard about the complexities and even perhaps perils of having a foot in both the academic and political worlds. In Stanford’s Education Administration and Policy Analysis graduate program in the 1970s and 1980s other students and I heard rumblings from especially one Stanford professor–mostly, but not always, in masked innuendo about Mike’s work. Jim Kelly, Mike’s long-time close colleague before, during, and after his Stanford years, cautiously noted in my interviews with him for this project that there was some tension and perhaps danger for Mike’s academic career given his active work in the political world.

Screenshot from Hoover Institution’s, October 21, 2021, the online seminar, “Has School Accountability Outlived Its Shelf Life?”

Chester (more commonly known as Checker) Finn (pictured here in the upper right corner of the photo on the right) not known for saying much in hushed tones, spoke to me more directly and forcefully about those, especially Mike, who have a foot in both the academic and political worlds. Checker in this clip, begins bluntly, “When you work closely with a politician, you are bound to come in for some criticism from academics. You’ve sold your soul. You’re doing things you don’t believe in… You’ve lost your objectivity… It’s what your academic colleagues end up saying about you.” Let’s listen in to more of Finn’s outspoken views on this topic:

Audio Clip 5: Chester Finn on academics working with politicians: “You have to defend the position that your political boss ends up taking…” (1 minute, 41 seconds)7

While admitting, that “there’s always some justification” for these common views of an “uncommon academic,” Finn asserts that some of this criticism from the academics derives from their “envy because they can’t get close to politicians and they can’t their name into the newspapers, and they don’t make important decisions. They just kibitz and scribble.”

Finn concludes on the challenges and conundrum of being in this “two-footed territory” that “you always have to defend the position that your political boss ends up taking, but if you want to be influential and feel your influence is of value to the world in the long run and worth maintaining, then you do go out and defend the decision that was made, even if it’s not the one you thought should have been made.”

Mike affirmed the relevance of this observation as he spoke to me of his accomplishments and challenges in this early portion of his octogenarian years.

An Initial Disappointment and Some Yet-to-Be-Finished Business 

In my most recent conversation with Mike on June 2, 2022, I ask him, “How would you summarize your last three years?” Here’s his short, one-minute recapitulation:

Audio Clip 6: Mike Kirst “I think the main thing is that I’ve wanted to reflect and look at what we had in the past years on the board…and to fill in a hole which I had left…which was the financing of education for children with disabilities…” (1 minute, 02 seconds)8

In essence, Mike says he has had two areas of primary focus during these years since 2019 when he turned 80:

  • To reflect on and write about what he has learned over his career, and
  • To “fill a hole” that had not been part of the sweeping Local Control Funding Formula reforms implemented in California during the previous eight years. (See Installment 17 for details).

“Filling a Hole” and a Disappointment

The “hole” about which Mike speaks was the need to overhaul “the financing of education for children with disabilities.” Mike explains that “we passed on that in the Brown era (2011-2019)” and earlier because “it’s just so complex” and because it just wasn’t a priority for the Governor. He stated simply, that at the time we “did not want to take on special ed.”9

Now, in this octogenarian era and independent of any political role, Mike confided to me that “that was something I thought I needed to try and work on, stimulating some action” to create needed finance and governance reform of special education in California, accounting for 15 to 20 percent of the budgets for the state’s largest school districts.

As an education policymaker, Mike had worked with the California Department of Education special education director to establish a task force on special education, but they did not address the badly needed state reforms in the financing of special education.

So, during these octogenarian years, as an academic and not associated with politicians, Mike immediately tried to “stimulate action” in this area by writing a memo to some insiders active in special education, including Linda Darling-Hammond, who succeed him as President of the State Board of Education (as we heard in Installment 17). He also contacted some potential funders, including the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation for support for research to reform California’s special education funding.

Cover of the 2021 WestEd special education funding reform report.10

WestEd was selected to conduct this study, completely supported by non-government funding.  Mike served as a technical adviser.  Governor Newsom’s staff, California’s departments of finance and education, and the state board of education advised this project as well.  This group met about every two weeks by phone, with Mike playing what he called “a classic behind-the-scenes” role “of getting things going.” 

Mike confided during our interview, “I was hopeful that [Governor] Newsom would adopt” the special education finance reforms recommended in the report.  Mike believed that “the timing was right” because Newsom “had expressed a lot of interest in it,” and at least partially because Newsom had a personal interest in special education services.

Mike then noted, with disappointment and reality, that “so far he [Newsom] hasn’t moved on it’, surmising, “I think he has not been ready to take it on politically.” Mike concluded with a bit of frustration in his voice, “I’m still not sure why he hasn’t.”11

Gone, during Mike’s octogenarian years, was the opportunity for Mike to be an “intellectual sparring partner” with a sitting governor, and accordingly, so was his voice and influence, as predicted, in general, by Checker.

Unfinished Standards-Based Reform Work and Writing

As we heard earlier in this installment, one of Mike’s aims at the start of this “Octogenarian Era” was to reflect on and write about what had been learned over his career that might best advance K-12 education in the United States.

In the previous installment, we heard Mike, when receiving the 2021 James Bryant Conant Award from the Education of the Commission of the States, speak enthusiastically, but vaguely, about some important unfinished business–researching and writing a new book on how to improve American schools based on standards-based reforms put in place in recent decades in California and several other states.

I inquired recently about that in-process publication. Mike responded that he believes the way to improve America’s public schools as we move out of this pandemic era, or at least into a new phase of it, centers on what he calls large-scale “capacity-building” that is “built into the districts… to strengthen and expand professional development.”12

Mike added that he’s looking mostly beyond the United States–for example in Western Australia, Ontario Canada, and Singapore–primarily because there are so few states or other areas in the U.S. undertaking the sort of massive teacher professional development that incorporates teachers-teaching-teachers how to improve their instruction–which is guided by the standards-based reforms now in California and an increasing number of other states and which are different in each state.

Accordingly, Mike believes that each state will have to develop its own strategies for building and maintaining all that is needed for “a dramatic upgrade in a local instructional capacity.”13

Advising San Francisco Leaders to Improve the Operation of the City’s Schools

Mayor London Breed speaks about who she will replace as members of the San Francisco Board of Education. Photo by Jim Wilson/The New York Times.

Mike has also extended his efforts beyond state-level policymaking during these past three years. In 2021, he and a few other education policy experts were asked by important and well-connected community leaders for advice about how to address what they and San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed saw as serious problems with the leadership of the city’s public schools. They cited, for example, some of the Board of Education’s recent policies, such as renaming schools while the classroom doors “remain[ed] shuttered far longer than other U.S. cities”.14

One such leader was Phil Halperin, Co-Founder and Executive Director of California Education Partners, a leader in the Bay Area’s philanthropic community, and an active civic leader who has co-chaired several “successful ballot campaigns that…. raised collectively over $7.0 billion for public schools and children of San Francisco”.15

Responding to the request from the community leaders, Mike and the other experts met with these reformers in person and remotely to define a strategy for strengthening the city’s schools and its board.  They recommended operational and governance reforms, including a revised charter.16 Later, board membership was changed through a ballot measure recalling three Board members. Both local and national press covered this successful, historic recall event (See for example this February 2022 New York Times article, In Landslide, San Francisco Forces Out 3 Board of Education Members) which Mike and this group of education policymakers were called upon to publicly endorse.

In a recent interview, Mike noted 17 with additional documentation18 that many of the operational and governance recommendations from the expert panel “had been codified” in the mayor’s formal proposals to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and other entities responsible for the city’s public schooling.

Mike reports having become increasingly convinced that the most important improvements to classroom instruction occur at the district and school levels.

Persistence of an ‘Uncommon Academic’ in His ‘Octogenarian Era’

While curtailed somewhat by the pandemic and other challenges, Mike continues to be invited and serve as a speaker in distinguished forums as diverse as:

  • The Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. for its Education Group in October 2020, via Zoom, presenting on “Trends and Concepts in Education Reform” and
  • Hoover Institution‘s “Education Success Initiative” series at Stanford in October 2020 again via Zoom as a panelist on the topic “Has School Accountability Outlived Its Shelf Life” with fellow panelists, Checker Finn (President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute); Secretary James Peyser (senior adviser for Massachusetts’s Governor Charlie Baker); and moderator, Melanie Barton (senior adviser to South Carolina’s Governor McMaster). To watch this panel discussion, click this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HptwwXBiBls (with Mike’s opening remarks beginning at the 8:40 minute mark)

Even before the pandemic hit, however, Mike had begun to think about and work on putting together a symposium on California’s recent education reform efforts and successes for the March 202o meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA), which had its meeting scheduled that year for San Francisco. He and Andrea Venezia, a longtime friend, and professional colleague (See Installment 16 for details) created a panel and commissioned a series of papers reflecting on what had been done in California’s seminal reforms during the previous eight years and where they felt those reforms should now head. They assigned Mike the topic of the politics of financial education reforms.

Mike has had extensive involvement over the years in AERA. In 1972, he led the effort to establish a Politics in Education special interest group, serving as its first chairperson for three years and then for a second three-year term from 1986 to 1988. Later in the 1970s Mike was voted in as the Association’s Vice President and serving as well as the President of one of the Association’s major divisions, Division G-Social Context for Education. From 1978 to 1982, he was responsible for manuscript reviews as the Associate Editor for one of the Association’s major publications the Journal of Evaluation and Policy and from 1988 to 1992 served as the Co-Editor of another of its publications, the Educational Researcher.

AERA accepted the proposed symposium mentioned above, but Covid-19 forced the cancellation of the entire AERA annual meeting that year.

Unsurprisingly, with the symposium canceled but with his symposium paper near completion, Mike turned to Venezia suggesting, “Let’s publish the paper.” Both Venezia and Mike realized the draft needed some work to be in publishable form, so they engaged Thad Nodine, an in-house freelance writer living in Santa Cruz for final revisions.

The piece was published as a policy brief when Mike was 81, by the Education Insights Center, regardless of Covid-19, and with the assistance of a couple of long-term, trusted colleagues.19

We will hear more about the contents and lessons offered up in this piece in the next and final installment of this series, Installment 20, “Education Reforms That Stick: ‘Kirstian’ Lessons,” soon to be published. So, stay tuned.

Editor’s Note: The Appendix for “Conversations With and About Mike” contains transcripts for the recorded audio and video clips. To view the Audio Transcripts go to this page >

  1. June 9, 2014, recording. Michael W. Kirst, Professor Emeritus, “Autobiographical Reflections” presentation for the Stanford Emeriti Council. Republished February 5, 2015, by Stanford’s Center for
    Education Policy Analysis. https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/nc116hr7647
  2. Mike Kirst interview with author, June 2, 2022.
  3. Photo after Mike’s last SBE meeting as its President (January 2019), with the staff and board members. L to R: Karen Stapf Walters SBE ED, Gema Q. Cardenas Student Member, Ting Sun, Karen Valdes, Trish Boyd Williams, Ilene Straus, Mike Kirst, Feliza Ortiz-Licon, Sue Burr, Patricia A. Rucker, Bruce Holaday, Nikki Sandoval.
  4. Susan Burr at Mike Kirst’s retirement as President of the California State Board of Education event recorded by author, January 19, 2021.
  5. Mike at his retirement as President of the California State Board of Education event recorded by author, January 19, 2021.
  6. Plank at Mike Kirst’s retirement as President of the California State Board of Education event recorded by author, January 19, 2021.
  7. Checker Finn interview with author, October 25, 2018.
  8. Mike Kirst interview with author, June 2, 2022.
  9. The “2008 paper to which Mike refers in this clip is the seminal paper he co-authored with Alan Bersin, and Goodwin Liu brief that laid out the basics of LCFF. Bersin, A., Kirst, M. W., & Liu, G. (2008). Getting Beyond the Facts: Reforming California School Finance. Berkeley, CA: The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity. https://www.law.  berkeley.edu/files/GBTFissuebriefFINAL.pdf. See Chapter Fifteen for details.
  10. Link to WestEd special education funding study report: https://www.wested.org/resources/ca-state-special-education-funding-system-study-part-2-findings-implications-and-considerations-for-improving-special-education-funding-in-california/
  11. Various quotations from Mike about disappointing special educationreform efforts: Dick Jung interview with Mike Kirst, June 2, 2022.
  12. Mike Kirst interview with author, June 2, 2022
  13. Mike Kirst interview with author, June 2, 2022.
  14. See: https://www.politico.com/news/2022/02/20/san-franciscomayor-school-board-recall-00010392
  15. See: https://www.caedpartners.org/person/phil-halperin/
  16. Mike Kirst interview with author, June 2, 2022.
  17. Mike Kirst interview with author, June 2, 2022.
  18. 18 Email correspondence among Phil Halperin, David Phillips, Jason,Weeby, and Michael Kirst, December 3, 4, 7, 8, 14, and 17.
  19. Kirst, M.W. & Nodine, T. (2021) The Strategy and Politics of California’s
    Major School Finance Reform. Sacramento, CA: Education Insights
    Center. https://edinsightscenter.org/the-strategy-and-politics-of-californias-major-school-finance-reform/