Marion Joseph

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<i> Richard Lee Colvin covers education for The Times</i>

Marion Joseph, a grandmother from Menlo Park with no formal background in education, may be the most influential person in America today on the subject of teaching children how to read.

That’s not at all what she had in mind a decade ago when she set out to know why her grandson was not learning how to read. In pursuit of answers, she encountered the extensive research done over the past several decades showing that the most effective reading programs explicitly taught children how to decode words using the sounds of letters.

That advice ran counter to the prevailing philosophy, which held that children would pick up all the knowledge of letter sounds they needed informally and indirectly in the course of making their way through stories. While that may sound like a technical distinction, Joseph tried to make as many powerful decision-makers as possible aware of it. In doing so, she drew on her extensive network of contacts in education and California politics, the legacy of 12 years as chief aide to former state Supt. of Public Instruction Wilson C. Riles, who left office in 1982 and died last year.


Today, a policy shift largely attributable to Joseph’s pushing has occurred. Textbooks, teacher training and standards for English and language arts in California now stress the importance of phonics knowledge as an essential part of a comprehensive approach to reading. As a measure of her impact, publishers seeking approval to sell their reading programs in California always make a pilgrimage to Joseph’s door to win her endorsement. Those same books are sold to schools across the country.

A lifelong Democrat, she was appointed to the state Board of Education in 1997 by former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican. From that perch, her influence has spread beyond reading to math instruction, testing and the state’s standards for what students ought to know at every grade in mathematics, science and history as well as English-language arts.

Her major focus now is on building a system of testing and accountability that supports the state’s academic standards.

Joseph has three adult children and three grandchildren, whom she accompanies on various adventures, including rock concerts and a recent trip to New York to visit museums, restaurants and laser-tag emporiums.

She has a passion for gardening, and all visitors to her house are given a tour of her rose garden. She was interviewed in the living room of her Menlo Park home.

Question: In the past five years, we’ve seen the development of standards, the creation of a statewide testing program, the rewriting of textbooks and revamping of teacher-training programs. Are California schools any better?


Answer: California schools in many places are better, and in many more places they are on the road to getting better. If you were to go out this June, as opposed to last June, you would find a higher degree of knowledge of the standards and an eagerness on the part of many teachers to get whatever information they could get about the standards, because they want their children to do well on the [Stanford 9] test... I don’t think any place is worse.

Q: The ACLU and other public-interest lawyers recently filed a suit charging that minority students in California are being served in ways that are unconstitutionally inadequate. They’re saying that many minority kids are not being given an equal chance to meet the state’s expectations. What should the state do?

A: I have to look at this from a state perspective, and from [that] perspective, the fact that the standards are for all children is of No. 1 importance. The state has put out a tremendous amount of money for textbooks, more than ever, ever before, $1 billion over four years. That’s in addition to its regular fund for instructional materials. The state is absolutely requiring that every district must have a public hearing to discuss the textbook issue to make clear where the books are.

In terms of buildings, there’s a lot of bond money. It’s difficult in some urban areas, where land is a problem, but there’s money.

Now, let’s talk about teachers. If teachers are certified, it’s easier for them to get a job with middle-class children, [but] I don’t think [that’s] necessarily the cause of better education going on in that school. I’m not sure that certification or training is what the issue is with teachers. There’s a lot of training out there that doesn’t get us anywhere and doesn’t get teachers what they need.

Q: Is it fair to hold students who are taught by badly trained teachers, or teachers not trained to teach the standards, to those standards?


A: What has to happen for us to get where we need to be is that there has to be some external pressure. You can only do that by saying we’re going to hold children to the standards, and we’re going to put it in the newspapers when they don’t make it, and that will cause better action on the part of school systems. I’m convinced of that. I feel badly for children who are held to standards when they haven’t been taught. But I don’t know any other way to get there.

Q: Is testing squeezing out teaching and learning in our schools?

A: If you look at testing time across the country, California is not spending an excessive amount of time testing. That’s especially true considering how many minutes kids are in school and the money we spend on the enterprise. We got into serious trouble because California eliminated its tests in 1994; without any way of judging where we’re going, we’re flying blind. Testing every child, every grade, every year is an absolute necessity for keeping on this road. No question.

Q: But at this point we’re still relying on the Stanford 9, which is not aligned with our standards.

A: First of all, that test is a test of basic skills. It is very important to test those basic skills and to see where we are in relation to New Jersey, New York and New Orleans. We also have been testing the standards [using tests that are being customized for that purpose but are not yet reliable enough]. Those tests will hopefully become part of the Academic Performance Index [the state’s new way of measuring school quality] by 2002. But it was only fair that people first be given a chance to get some materials, to get some training before it counted. The standards testing is where we want to go.

One of the most important things that has happened is that the governor, the secretary of education, the state Board of Education and most organizations have all come to a solid agreement on a testing system where we test basic skills on a national basis and also test California standards. I think that’s very positive.


Q: Are you ready to declare victory on reading?

A: I’m pleased that so much has happened. This is going to be a good summer because 8,000 teachers and principals in Los Angeles and 1,000 in Oakland are going to be trained in the complete approach to reading, which includes systematic decoding and word-attack skills. That’s not sufficient. You have to have a comprehensive program. Children need to be taught the whole system--writing, spelling, comprehension skills -- in a very direct, very systematic way, with lots of practice until they learn it. And they’ll have the materials, they’ll have the coaching support. ... But, to declare victory? I’ll tell you what is sad is that there are many children in the pipeline, in the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th grades, who can’t read but who can be taught still. We have wonderful programs that will absolutely work for middle-school and early high school kids who can’t read. And now that districts are going to have a lot of money, it’s essential that we give these children what they need.

Q: Despite all the research, many teachers and university educators oppose the state’s direction on reading. Is there anything the state can do to further make its case?

A: Much of that happens because these teachers are well-intentioned, they care about kids and they haven’t seen this approach in action. I’m convinced that if teachers are given this kind of training, given the materials and given the support to use it, they will see it. I’m not worried about this. We’re on our way.

Q: What’s been the greatest step forward in California education in recent years?

A: In my time, we have been able to adopt these first-rate standards [in English-language arts, math, science and history, spelling out, for example, that children should learn to factor small numbers by grade four and to read “fluently and accurately” by grade three] and these remarkable frameworks for how to teach the standards, and we have been able to have this money and the ability to get these kind of books in the pipeline. We have a testing system and have gone from one governor to another, and that transition has gone really well. We have an almost complete Gray Davis board, and this board is maintaining the focus on reading and math and maintaining the testing system. ... I’ve been around for 30 years in this education-policy world, and I think this is the most coherent direction that we’ve had. The fact that we’ve had these two governors and two different boards and we’ve been able to maintain this focus and direction, that, to me, is very important, very important.


Q: Yet, a report from Policy Analysis for California Education, the university group, says the whole system is incoherent and pieced together.

A: I don’t understand that. We built the standards. The frameworks are absolutely based on those. With the textbooks that are now in the pipeline--if districts buy them and teachers teach them--students will meet those standards. We’re right in the middle of this. The standards tests absolutely test the standards. Does every child have one of those textbooks yet? No. So, to say at this moment, there is this disjuncture, doesn’t really say anything. You can’t do it in one year.

Q: But beyond that, the incentives, financial and otherwise, and the accountability system that rewards success and is supposed to punish failure--do they adequately support the standards and the instructional goals you’re talking about?

A: The governor has put out a huge amount of money to train 70,000 teachers [in how to teach reading], and the commitment to the standards and the frameworks in that training is absolutely there. A lot of that training, incidentally, is part of the governor’s initiative and is being used to train teachers in the standards-based material they bought with state money. I mean, how coherent can you get? Yeah, I wish it was all complete, but I think we’ve come a long way. The governor has upped the ante [by attaching financial incentives for teachers and schools to test scores]. That will cause more people to work harder. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve never seen it so connected.