Phonics Champion Marion Joseph Quits Calif. State Board

By Joetta L. Sack — January 29, 2003 2 min read
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California state school board member Marion Joseph has resigned after a five-year stint that made her one of the panel’s most influential—and controversial—members in recent memory.

Ms. Joseph, 76, is well-known for her fervent advocacy of phonics-based reading instruction and her demands for higher standards for all students, regardless of race or background. In the mid-1990s, she was a key architect of the landmark California Reading Initiative, which stressed the importance of basic skills in reading instruction and textbooks.

Her work in California’s education system spans more than four decades. After overseeing the state’s compensatory education programs in the mid-1960s, she served from 1970 to 1982 as a top aide to Wilson Riles, then the state superintendent of public instruction.

Although she is a Democrat, she was first appointed to the board by a Republican, then-Gov. Pete Wilson, in 1997. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, had reappointed her in January 2002 to another four-year term on the 11-member board. But she faced a difficult confirmation process in the California Senate.

She intends to remain involved with the board, however, possibly as a consultant, she said. “I’m not going away,” Ms. Joseph said last week.

She said she resigned, effective Jan. 15, mainly because she felt the board had accomplished much of the work needed on the state’s accountability system.

But some observers said Ms. Joseph was pressured to step down after repeated battles over a variety of issues, most recently bilingual education.

Ms. Joseph was beloved by some and detested by others. Observers agree, however, that she made an impact.

Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, said Ms. Joseph zeroed in on curriculum and instruction issues, and then “bulldogged them through.”

“She has been the most influential state board member in the past 35 years or so,” said Mr. Kirst, who was the board’s president from 1977 to 1981.

Tensions With Staff

Ms. Joseph’s unrelenting advocacy for causes important to her spawned tensions between her and officials in the state education department. Some officials there felt that Ms. Joseph pushed her way too far into the policy-implementation process.

“She worked very hard, and she was a real force in California,” said Delaine Eastin, who left office this month after eight years as the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction. However, Ms. Eastin added, “I thought she pushed too hard for phonics, sometimes to the exclusion of a comprehensive approach.”

One of Ms. Joseph’s many supporters, veteran Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag, sees her departure as likely to fuel efforts to weaken state standards.

“It will be an enormous loss because no board member does the work she does or has such a deep knowledge of the links between the academic content and teacher-training issues that are the core of effective schools,” he wrote in a Jan. 8 column.

Ms. Joseph, though, predicted that state leaders will “stay the course,” despite severe financial strains. “California has weathered the storm before,” she said.

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