The Conscience of a School Reformer

Richard Lee Colvin, former education writer for The Times, is deputy director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The first time I encountered Marion Joseph, she was perched on the edge of a folding chair at a meeting of the California Board of Education, her feet barely touching the floor. Her appointment to the board was still a few years away, but this small, fearlessly blunt woman was already busy behind the scenes pushing it to do the right thing. One could tell by her transparent reactions what she thought of board members' comments or votes, groaning to show her disapproval or forcefully whispering, "Way to go," and punching the air to signal her endorsement.

In the years since, Marion, as she's known from Sacramento to Washington by allies and foes alike, hasn't ever hid her opinions.

Right is right, wrong is wrong, and she worked the telephone tirelessly to make sure that what's right, in her view, is what got done. Orthodoxy, rigorously enforced in education circles, holds no charm for her. Parents of California public school students should be grateful for that.

After almost six years on the board, the 76-year-old Joseph is leaving. During that time, she has done more than any other person to transform how the state's public schools teach kids to read and do math.

Before she came along, L.A. teachers sat through training sessions with professors from New Zealand who told them that children should "sound out" an unfamiliar word only as a last resort. Today, tens of thousands of California teachers have learned how lessons in phonics are a crucial, but hardly sufficient, element of a comprehensive reading program.

Joseph has been an advocate for students with learning disabilities and those still learning to speak English, making sure they were not left out as the state raised its academic standards. She's worked countless hours crafting both the state's testing program and its specifications for textbooks so that they reinforced those standards.

In short, this retired grandmother who had no formal training in education became the most influential education figure in the state and, arguably, the nation. Because of her, elementary school children across America are getting better reading instruction than they would have otherwise. Also because of her, the Bush administration's $5-billion program to improve reading lessons looks a lot like an effort that's been underway for several years in California, to good effect.

What lessons can be drawn from her rise to prominence?

One lesson is heartening. Her story shows that an individual citizen who discovers that state policy is headed dangerously off track can do a lot to steer things back onto a more reasonable course. Joseph discovered the state had endorsed a dubious approach to reading instruction while checking up on her very bright grandson who was struggling. But unlike most parents who confront such a situation, she was not at the mercy of the school for answers.

Joseph spent many years as the top aide to Wilson Riles, a former state superintendent of schools, helping him get elected three times and making sure his programs got through the Legislature. She built a vast network of contacts from those days and acquired an intimate knowledge of the education bureaucracy, and she leveraged both. A brilliantly intuitive political organizer, she found allies and insisted they serve in key positions up and down the state.

But in another way, Joseph's saga is worrisome. It suggests that it took someone with almost mythic toughness, energy and political savvy -- the kind of individual who is rare in general but even more rare in education circles -- to rectify what seems in retrospect like an obvious miscalculation. And she met resistance at every step of the way.

No one is standing in the wings to replace the woman whom her colleagues considered the "conscience of the board." "It's fair to say flat out that many of the reforms in place in California would not be in place without Marion Joseph," said Suzanne Tacheny, a fellow board member. "We have this notion that no person is irreplaceable but, at a certain time in California's history, Marion Joseph was irreplaceable."

Not everyone will be sad to see her leave the front lines. State-level education officials protective of their turf, Latino political activists wanting to maintain their own influence by, in essence, demanding a parallel education system for students not fluent in English, and tenure-protected university professors who hated the temerity with which she questioned their judgment are among those who will be relieved.

Such opponents tried hard to discredit Joseph. A lifelong liberal Democrat instrumental in helping Riles become the first African American to win statewide office, she was attacked as a right-winger and a racist. A cultured woman who loves literature and art and the opera, she was portrayed as a know-nothing reactionary out to dumb down the school house. She also was accused, scurrilously, of being too cozy with textbook publishers. In fact, the state board with her as a member made greater demands on the industry than ever before.

None of the accusations stuck. But that's not to say there isn't reason for some skepticism. Good teaching doesn't automatically result from good policies or guidance from Sacramento. Recent history warns of the high potential for the misapplication of state policies when they are translated to the classroom. Those fears are magnified because the federal government is demanding unceasing improvements in test scores, which could pressure stressed-out teachers to drill kids on fundamentals and neglect explorations of art and literature, geography and history.

In truth, good teaching can thrive only in clean, safe schools blessed with strong leadership that results in a shared sense of focus and purpose.

Cuts in education spending loom large. Many school districts are considering increasing class sizes or putting off textbook purchases. High-quality teacher training programs, crucial for improving instruction in school districts such as Los Angeles that hire many people from other fields, could shrink. The collective momentum that resulted from the small daily victories of individual students learning to read and do math and that have led to rising test scores statewide could easily dissipate unless someone keeps up the pressure.

What won't disappear, however, is Joseph's most important lesson, one she learned from her politically active parents: Someone who knows about social problems, and who has the capacity to fix them, has a moral obligation to try to do so.

That is a valuable tutorial Joseph gave all Americans.

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