In the days ahead, friends will convene to honor the life and deeds of Marshall Smith. Popularly known as “Mike,” he was a master in the area of education policy, leaving a lasting imprint on American school reform.

Few people in the country have had a career as broad or as influential as Mike’s. He was a university professor and education school dean who helped generations of students to become better teachers and researchers than they would have been without his guidance.

Mike was also a prominent researcher who worked to integrate the results coming from research into the daily instruction of teachers. In partnership with Jennifer O’Day, another bright and thoughtful scholar, they focused attention on the need to better coordinate and improve the uniquely localized American system of education. State academic standards and measurements of students to see if they had mastered the content of those standards evolved from that thinking.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, Mike moved easily between academia and the federal government. He served four presidents during that period, by holding various positions in the U.S. Department of Education. The apex of this service was working as Undersecretary to Richard Riley, the best Secretary of Education the country has had.

Before working for Secretary Riley, Mike and his friend, Bob Schwartz, had organized in the early 1990s the Pew Forum on School Reform. This group included influential policy-makers, researchers, practitioners, and advocates.

The attraction to me and other members was the unique opportunity to see up–close the significant school reforms being tried in the country and then to discuss them with thoughtful and experienced people from different social and political spheres. Given Mike’s and Bob’s acuity, it was not surprising that Pew members were in strategic places to encourage the passage of the Goals 2000 Act of 1994.  

That ground-breaking law, proposed by President Bill Clinton, was shaped by the research conducted earlier by Jennifer O’Day and Mike Smith. The legislation, guided through Congress by Secretary Riley, laid the groundwork for nation-wide adoption of standards-based systemic reform. When laws are put into effect, however, there are frequently unexpected outcomes.

One such development occurred with the Goals 2000 Act.  As it was being implemented, its purpose was hi-jacked by supporters of the idea that students would learn more if their teachers faced punishment for the lack of increased student test scores. This became the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

As that forceful federal law was about to be implemented, Mike Smith and Bob Schwartz wrote an article urging caution in that task. They feared the standards-based movement going off course with NCLB. But, by then the politics had gelled in support of punitive means to encourage reform. I am sure that Mike was saddened as he saw the narrowing effects of NCLB in schools and districts.

The early success of standards-based reform and its later problems cannot be understood without consideration of the role of the Pew Forum. Sadly, I have not seen any attention paid to these experiences by researchers and others writing about school reform.

Mike’s deep knowledge of education research and his activism to create good policies earned him respect even from those with different political and ideological leanings. Checker Finn, an active Pew Forum participant, was one of those.

Checker, who has had more influence over school policy than most others can only dream about having, said after Mike’s death that although he got along fine with him:

“Mike worried more about ‘opportunity to learn’ standards, while I was (and mostly still am) fixated on results-based accountability. I fussed more about choice, while he focused mostly on ‘the system.'”

Checker concluded: “Mike did more than most senators, added more than most educators, and leaves a great legacy. Many will miss him, myself included.”

In many policy areas, there is a longing for one change or one powerful person who can set things right. That is a misplaced hope. Real change that is long-lasting comes from the grind of persistent work. Thomas Edison noted that genius is 99% perspiration and only 1% inspiration.

Mike was a hard-working professor, researcher, advocate, and policy-maker. He inspired many to seek a good education for all students.

What more than that can be expected of anyone? Thank you, Mike. You will be remembered.

Written by Jack JenningsĀ 

July 8, 2023