Educators Lament Verdict Will Remove Influential Leader From National Scene
Educators around the nation last week expressed sorrow at the conviction of Bill Honig on conflict-of-interest charges, lamenting that the verdict would remove one of the pre-eminent national educational leaders from the scene.
But they also said that the California superintendent of public instruction has been so successful at pressing his views over the past decade that his influence will be felt around the country even in his absence.
"Ideas that were quite original with him have so permeated educational discourse,'' said Diane S. Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, who testified as a character witness for Mr. Honig. "A lot of people don't know they are following the model he originated.''
Long before the term "systemic reform'' was coined, Ms. Ravitch and others said, Mr. Honig emphasized a coherent set of policies aimed at improving student learning. The policies included high standards for student performance, reforms in curriculum and materials, and alternative assessments, all of which are now the focus of reform efforts nationwide.
With his forceful personality and his record of achievement, observers said, Mr. Honig used his bully pulpit as the chief school officer in the largest state to persuade educators in other states to accept his ideas.
Mr. Honig's conviction stopped him from leading a national systemic school-reform initiative. As a result of his suspension from office, Mr. Honig had to step down as the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which had named systemic reform its top priority for the year.
But because of Mr. Honig's work, the organization will be able to continue its efforts without him, said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the C.C.S.S.O.
"We will miss his personal contributions on [the issue],'' Mr. Ambach said. "But the concepts he advocated have now been thoroughly accepted by many of the chiefs and the work of the council. I think we will be prepared to carry on his agenda.''
Putting It Together
First elected in 1982, shortly before the influential report A Nation at Risk was released, Mr. Honig quickly put together a sweeping school-reform proposal, as many state officials did at the time.
But unlike many other state plans, Mr. Honig's was a coherent package, rather than a set of unrelated reforms, according to Frank Newman, the president of the Education Commission of the States.
"He was one of the few people, especially when he started, who had any clear idea of how the pieces fit together,'' Mr. Newman said. "And he attempted to address all of them, instead of pieces.''
Moreover, said Ms. Ravitch, his proposals were unusual in that they focused on student outcomes.
"He said, 'You begin reform by saying what you want children to learn, and work backwards from there,''' Ms. Ravitch said. "Now, everybody is saying that.''
Specifically, Mr. Honig developed a set of "curriculum frameworks'' for each major subject area that outlined standards for instruction at each grade level, and then set out to link other pieces of the system--such as textbook adoption and tests--to the frameworks.
Mr. Honig brought the curriculum, textbook, and assessment offices under the same umbrella in the state education department.
He also attempted to develop teacher-training programs tied to the frameworks as well, but was thwarted by a lack of funds.
A Long Line of Adversaries
Still, Mr. Honig's efforts also earned him a long line of adversaries within California.
His use of his bully pulpit often angered critics, who charged that he was overeager in calling for myriad reforms, would never be satisfied with state spending, and pushed a liberal agenda on schools.
Mr. Honig waged a bitter running battle, for example, with Joseph Carrabino, then the chairman of the state board of education, over control of school policy. He also engaged repeatedly in high-profile public disputes with the state's Republican Governors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, over budget policy.
Some observers also argued that Mr. Honig's legacy must be assessed in light of the precarious situation of California education. While the state chief cannot be held accountable for everything that goes on in a five-million-student school system, the fact remains that since he took office California schools have slipped far below the national average in per-pupil funding, and test scores and dropout rates have shown little improvement.
Moreover, one of Mr. Honig's most prominent achievements--passage by the voters in 1988 of a constitutional funding guarantee for the schools--is now widely seen in the state as in tatters under the impact of the state's unrelenting recession.
While noting that the budget crunch has threatened Mr. Honig's initiatives, Mr. Newman of the E.C.S. said, "I would argue that he was quite successful.''
In addition to their effects on California schools, Mr. Newman added, Mr. Honig's reforms have had a strong influence nationally.
Perhaps the best known of these efforts was the superintendent's attempt to reform textbooks.
Using his state's vast purchasing power as leverage, Mr. Honig demanded that publishers submit for adoption only textbooks that reflect the state's curriculum frameworks, which were in many ways sharply different from traditional instructional practice. In several cases, most notably with science and mathematics textbooks, Mr. Honig refused to adopt books that failed to match the standards and ordered publishers to rewrite them.
Roger Rogalin, the vice president of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, said the campaigns succeeded in getting publishers to rewrite the books they sold to California and elsewhere.
"I don't agree with his methods, but I do think they were effective in causing changes in curricula,'' Mr. Rogalin said.
In addition to the textbook reforms, the curriculum frameworks themselves had a national impact, both by demonstrating a way to set standards in school subjects and by offering a guide for what the content of such standards might be.
"He made an extremely important contribution to the [national] curriculum debate,'' said Chester E. Finn Jr., currently a member of the core team for Whittle Communications' Edison Project.
'The Bees Struck Back'
Mr. Finn said the fact that Mr. Honig was able to show the effects of reforms in the largest state helped influence the rest of the nation.
"California's scale was certainly an asset for Bill,'' Mr. Finn said. "The superintendent in Delaware happens to be a terrific guy. But Delaware is not California.''
Mr. Honig's personal qualities, particularly his energy and his intellect, also made him influential, noted Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
"There isn't anybody like him on the national scene,'' Mr. Shanker said.
At the same time, however, the forceful personality and zest for battle that made him a figure on the national stage may also have set the scene for his downfall, some observers suggested.
After years of battling with Republicans in the Statehouse, Ms. Ravitch said, the Republicans seized upon his "mistake in judgment.''
"He knocked over a lot of bees' nests,'' she said. "The bees struck back.''
"He had courage and vision,'' Ms. Ravitch said. "Those qualities are
in short supply among school leaders.''
Vol. 12, Issue 20