Bill Honig: A Man Between Two Worlds
An interview from the Summer 1984 issue of The College Board Review unexpectedly bookends an Elective interview from 2022
We resurface articles and interviews published by The College Board Review on The Elective, in part, because it's geeky fun to go archivediving. But there's a practical reason, too. Reaching back into the past helps contextualize our present—especially around persistent issues coursing through education. And with that fuller picture, we can develop stronger frameworks for pushing things forward. The connections between topics and conversations the Review had decades ago with the debates we're having today are bracing and eye-opening.
And then, sometimes, you flip through an old issue of the magazine and you find your archive nerd-out and intellectual curiosity have overlapped in an unexpected way. Which is what happened when we opened the Summer 1984 issue and saw Review editor Paul Barry's interview with Bill Honig—the same Bill Honig who recently spoke with The Elective's Stefanie Sanford.
Barry's conversation with Honig is primarily focused on his work as California state superintendent of public instruction. Honig was in his second year in office and leading an unexpectedly successful push to increase California's education budget in a bid to usher in long-overdue reforms for the state's schools and students. "In a state budget characterized by fiscal austerity and in the face of opposition from the governor," Barry writes, Honig "managed a coup by winning a significant increase in the education funding"—to the tune of $800 million.
"When I came into office, I thought it would be two years to get the educational community to say, 'We agree.' But it all fell into place in two to three months," Honig said. "We studiously kept it bipartisan. If you're Democratic you're for more money, but you're not going to tackle tenure, seniority, and some of these other issues. If you're Republican you're for standards, but you're not going to put any money behind it. So we put together a coalition that was bipartisan."
That insistence on working across political divides is present in Honig's Elective interview, as well. He spoke with Sanford about his work with civics education and the democratic need to improve America's students’ civic engagement. It's something he raised in his interview with Barry, too, in the context of the wider education reform movement.
"It's important to understand is that we are in the business of helping kids develop a sense of citizenship and of helping them understand what's important in a democracy," Honig said in 1984. "What's important in this country is that we've got a tremendous amount of freedom, which is our hallmark—liberty, self-development, pluralism. To conserve that freedom, you've got to develop an underlying sense of shared purpose, whether it's about the rules of the game, or it's about the willingness of individuals to discipline themselves or make ethical choices." He later adds students need better civics textbooks: "People fought a revolution and several wars over these ideas. We should be able to make them come alive for students."
Civics and citizenship are one part of a long conversation that can be a bit wonky while providing a solid overview of Honig's career, from practicing law to teaching students to working in education administration. It also serves as an excellent bookend to his more recent chat with The Elective. Neither he nor Barry could have anticipated that—and until a few hours ago we didn't know this interview was published by the Review. But that's the joy of archive-diving, especially when you make like Robert Caro and turn every page.
On the Stump: Bill Honig at the conference "Excellence in Our Schools: Making it Happen" in San Francisco in 1984.
If culture is confidence, as the poet Charles Olson said, then Bill Honig has both in spades. The California state superintendent of public instruction, now in his second year in office, possesses a clear vision of our American democratic traditions and of the pivotal role that public education plays in their conservation. With this firmly in mind, he has been fighting skirmishes on the reform front since well before education's resurgence as a popular and political issue in 1983.
Mr. Honig swept into office in November 1982 on a platform emphasizing higher standards, tougher graduation requirements, and tighter discipline, beating a well-known and entrenched predecessor, Wilson Riles. He wasted no time once he attained office. His "agenda for excellence" was immediately embodied in what became known as the Hughes-Hart Educational Reform Act of 1983, the most comprehensive educational reform legislation ever enacted in California. Over the opposition of Governor George Deukmejian, he succeeded in winning popular and legislative support for an $800 million increase in the state's education budget. By accomplishing this, Mr. Honig demonstrated astute political acumen, a capacity to organize and motivate diverse constituencies, and an almost clairvoyant ability to read the mood of the people.
Mr. Honig has what seems to be the ideal resume for his job. He is a lawyer-turned-teacher-turned-administrator who was educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley's Boalt School of Law, and San Francisco State University, where he received his master's degree in education in 1972. After a 10-year law career that included clerking on the State Supreme Court and working for a San Francisco law firm that represented corporate and individual clients, he caught the thrill of teaching while participating in a project that sought to teach young students about the law. Looking back, he calls those children, students of elementary school age, the "true intellectuals." It is no surprise, then, that soon after, he joined the Teacher Corps, earned his MA in education, and began teaching elementary grades in a disadvantaged area of San Francisco. Later, he was involved with teacher training and curriculum design, areas of special interest to him. Most recently he was superintendent of the Reed Union Elementary School District in Marin County and a member of the state board of education.
At 47, Mr. Honig looks as if he would be at home playing center on the basketball court. His demeanor is gentle, his concentration tenacious, just as you would imagine a middle-aged scholar-athlete. He is as comfortable talking about the abstractions of political philosophy as he is arguing the need for increasing the number of "instructional minutes" in an average school day. This is because he sees the connection between the two. He is, as it were, a man caught between two worlds. On the one hand are the commissions and the critics with their theories about how to improve education. On the other are the classrooms, teachers, and students. It is the task of Mr. Honig and others like him to transform the rhetoric into action.
It is accepted wisdom that cultural trends often happen first in California, then wend their way eastward, which has led to a tradition of "California-Watching." Surely many states will be watching what Bill Honig and the California schools will be doing in the coming months and years, for what happens in California may well be a sign of what's in store for the rest of the nation's schools.
Our conversations, which have been edited and condensed, took place in March and April.
When you were elected superintendent in California you defeated a well-regarded and well-known predecessor. What do you think that signified in the California electorate?
People were not happy with the schools, and they wanted a change. Wilson Riles was identified with the old way of doing things, and the people were looking for a fresh approach. I was speaking out for higher standards, more courses, and so forth, for some time. We fought for that position when I was on the state board of education. In 1977 the Wirtz report came out [On Further Examination: Report of the Advisory Panel on the Scholastic Aptitude Test Score Decline, New York, College Entrance Examination Board, 1977) and we said that we've got to start doing something about the problems in the schools. Riles wasn't interested. We held a series of hearings for a year and gathered statistics showing that California students were taking a lot fewer courses—for example, in science and mathematics—than the collegebound kids in other states. We went to Riles and said we have to make some changes, and he said he was going to take the leadership on it. But he never did. I even wrote him a speech. He never delivered it.
How would you rank the California public schools nationally?
They ranked pretty low in relationship to the rest of the country. On several kinds of indicators—enrollments, test data, the amount of homework that's done, whatever way you are going to define quality or excellence—we've had major problems. We have probably fallen faster than any other state, coming from a pinnacle in American education down to the bottom. We've probably lost more public support here than in any other state. We are certainly investing less in our schools than anybody else. Two years ago we were down to a zero percent increase. That dropped us to about $275 less per student than the rest of the country. That's a lot for an industrial, technological state. By whatever way you measure it, we've gotten into trouble.
For a variety of reasons. Everybody stopped paying attention. The educators probably had the wrong philosophy. It was probably more extreme here in California than in any other place. We didn't have any educational leadership. Nobody would stand up and say "This is wrong and we've got to do something about it." From the perspective of the traditionalist vs. the progressive point of view, the progressive movement went farther in California than in any other place. They dismantled the system. A million less kids took history and social studies in grades 7–12 in 1976 than they did in 1970. It was a wholesale flight from the curriculum.
So then it was not just a matter of Proposition 13?
The rot started way before that, probably around 1972-73. Stanford recently conducted a study that looked at the general education of an average student in California. It's very distressing. There's no curricular definition, no common standards. Nobody pays attention to that here, so education got watered down.
Part of it was that the whole equity movement got corrupted into accommodation, not inclusion. They thought the only way you can keep kids in school is by being nice and making things relative, that you have to have a different curriculum, that it has to be relevant.
But obviously money is important, as witnessed in the budget battle here last year. In a state budget characterized by fiscal austerity and in the face of opposition from the governor, you managed a coup by winning a significant increase in the education funding. Could you tell us how you accomplished that?
First, I was an outsider. I was elected from outside the establishment. I had one or two superintendents in the whole state supporting me. We won the election because we raised money from the business community, and selective individuals put out our message and said, "We're for higher standards. Let's go to bat for him."
When I came into office, I thought it would be two years to get the educational community to say, "We agree." But it all fell into place in two to three months. We got the educational community to back the call for excellence. This was before all the national reports.
Did the reports create the right climate for you?
The report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education helped us because it confirmed what we'd been saying. It put the cap to it. I think we were a kind of test market for the whole thing.
But how did you manage to win the budget battle?
Number one, we stood up for something as a profession. We got the profession to buy in. And we neutralized the teachers. We proposed a mentor, or master teacher program so we didn't get overt opposition. Teachers had received a zero percent salary increase last year in a tight financial year, and there was no chance of getting additional money unless we had reforms. So at least we didn't have the teachers actively fighting the bill. We talked a lot with the teacher groups.
We had the superintendents behind us. The superintendents were key. I met right away with the top superintendents in the state and asked if we were in this together. And they said "Yes." And the school boards came along, too. So we had good educational support.
We also had ethnic support. I went to the Black community right after the election. Now, the Black community in California speaks more like those in the Eastern cities. "We want our kids to learn. We want our kids to have the same standards as everybody else." And I received support from Hispanics getting into the election. We also had the support of the business community.
Number two, we studiously kept it bipartisan. If you're Democratic you're for more money, but you're not going to tackle tenure, seniority, and some of these other issues. If you're Republican you're for standards, but you're not going to put any money behind it. So we put together a coalition that was bipartisan.
Number three, my wife and I went around making the pitch to every community, saying here's our chance to support our society and economy. I received 800,000 votes in the election, which is a huge mandate. So I think that organizing every community in California was the real secret of success.
The governor resisted, however. At first he thought it was just going to go away. "Education? Forget it. There's no clout." But the strength of our support was too much to resist. We got 45 of the top corporate executives in the state to write a letter to the governor, and we had 500,000-600,000 other letters that were sent to him. We had a major rally.
But now you've won your budget battle for the first year, and it's paying for a package of reforms.
It bailed out the system.
It was very extreme here. The funding cutback occurred very quickly. We were $15 to $25 above the national average expenditure per pupil four years ago. Suddenly, it just went downhill. And these districts were using their reserves. They were even cutting out the sixth period. They were letting teachers go. It was a disaster in about one-third of the districts in the state. If they didn't get that $800 million they would be dead. And that message got across to the legislature and to the business community. They were willing to pay the price if we would agree to the reforms.
I spoke to a school board member from Southern California who described you as being "out on a limb." He said that it's going to be tough to get through some of the reforms, that you were having a hard time with the master teacher program, for example.
We're going to have schools that represent 90 percent of the students in California adopting it.
Aren't you having problems with teacher unions, though?
I think the fact that we're going to have schools representing 90 percent of the students participating is a tribute to the strength of commitment on the part of the local school boards and to the cooperative nature of a lot of the unions. Now a lot of unions did resist. They don't like it. They think the program is merit pay in disguise. But it didn't matter. It does involve some personal salesmanship, however. I went to the California Teachers Association (CTA) and said that we're having problems with 15 districts that would not participate in the program. I told them that there's a direct link between implementing this program and getting more money for the system. This program is symbolic for delivering. So the CTA is helping us out.
It's interesting. You see I'm not out on a limb. That school board member and the rest are out on a limb.
Bill Honig, in his role as superintendent of California schools, speaking with students from the Los Angeles Unified School District, in 1984.
A Focus on the Classroom
The picture that John Goodlad and Theodore Sizer paint of the average American classroom depicts a fundamentally boring place. Do you agree with their assessment?
Yes. Generally speaking, the point that there's not enough excitement in the classroom, whether it's the excitement of ideas, about our cultural heritage, about science or the writing of the Constitution—that enthusiasm does not come through in many classrooms.
How do you think your reforms will address that problem?
Let's define the word reform. What we're talking about is setting a higher expectation of students, being more demanding, having a better core curriculum, better books. We are talking about teachers who are giving more essays, more writing assignments. So to the extent that those reforms work, then you will get more interesting classrooms.
The real issue, I think, is how do you break through student apathy. You do it with a curriculum aimed at central questions, and you teach them in the right way.
Some of the critics of education reforms are missing the point on this. Of course it's not the total answer to have longer school days, longer school years, or stiffer graduation requirements. But at least that will provide the overall structure and define what we're teaching. The second stage is to make sure that that is infusing the day-to-day activities in the schools.
Some people feel that teachers aren't paid enough and the profession doesn't attract the most able students? Do you agree?
If we're going to attract better teachers, then first we've got to pay better starting salaries and have a better pay structure, so that it's comparable to other professions.
And you are addressing that in California?
We're addressing that. That's one of the reforms. As more money is put into the system, teachers will get their share. But we've also got to change the conditions in the classroom. Good teachers do not want to subject themselves to sniping or resistance; they don't want to be babysitters. They want to teach. They want the thrill of reaction and participation in the spirit of the classroom. And they want to have an administration and a public that backs them up.
Also, we need a whole series of strategies to get better people—recruitment strategies, making sure you get out your message, getting the best teachers on college campuses, having better internships, recruitment pools, career ladders—these are very important issues.
Are you doing anything in particular in that regard?
Yes. We're ready to launch a commission on this issue. Next year's set of reforms are all going to be teacher preparation reforms, recruitment reforms. We've received a grant from the business community—Hewlett-Packard—to fund the commission.
Gov. George Deukmejian and his wife Gloria, at left, met with area media representatives at a $500-a-plate fundraiser in Nipomo on July 31, 1986.
Polarizing the Issues
At one point you said that testing drives instruction. The issue of standardized testing has been controversial in recent years. What are your thoughts on the issue?
Standardized tests provide some information about how some students are performing. The public demands it. You are never going to eliminate it. It's easy to stand up and say it's terrible to have testing and that teachers teach to the test. But the schools go on being driven by those narrow, basic tests. If you are going to be honest about it and realistic, then you are going to change the tests so that they are broader. We are doing that here. We want more science, history, mathematics, literature, writing, problem solving. This changes the curricular message of the test.
And the second part is that you understand that tests are only part of the process. They'll give you some information but not the whole picture. You try to get broader indicators of quality. And three, you push hard on upgrading the curriculum and teacher training and have good collaboration in the schools. There is a tendency for everyone to try to polarize the issue.
Is this a general tendency?
A lot of critics of the reform movement exhibit this tendency. For example, Theodore Sizer's book, Horace's Compromise, is good. I agree with 95 percent of it, but he opens himself up to criticism when he says that in California if you add three or five more minutes of instruction, then this shows that nobody cares about the quality of instruction. That's just nonsense. The two are not necessarily antithetical.
But with so much disagreement, how do you begin to improve the schools?
It starts with a general professional agreement on what school's all about. What are we trying to accomplish? It has to start from a philosophy. The philosophy has to be about skills—reading, writing, communicating, speaking, higher-order thinking.
The second point it's important to understand is that we are in the business of helping kids develop a sense of citizenship and of helping them understand what's important in a democracy. What's important in this country is that we've got a tremendous amount of freedom, which is our hallmark—liberty, self-development, pluralism. To conserve that freedom, you've got to develop an underlying sense of shared purpose, whether it's about the rules of the game, or it's about the willingness of individuals to discipline themselves or make ethical choices. Democracy depends on that. So you've got to show what ethics are and what morals are, through literature and through history. There can't be an incoherent, watered-down curriculum. There's got to be some central purpose to it. And everything stems from that. If you want to attract kids, you've got to talk about central issues.
You think students are better engaged by what you term "central issues"?
Absolutely. Ernest Boyer has this great story about a teacher in New Haven. All the students are clustered around him like flies on honey, and he's teaching them Oliver Twist. These are kids from the New Haven ghetto and they directly understand what Dickens is talking about. Even though the novel is set in 19th-century England, and the language is difficult, the students understand that those are central issues. That's why classics are classics. They say something important that doesn't ever go away. This is one way to make the classroom interesting. You marry the idea of a central, strong, engaging curriculum with good teaching. I agree with Boyer's point that the teacher has to know the subject matter; he has to have a contagious enthusiasm for it; and he never takes "No" for an answer. These teachers believe kids can do it, and they relate to the kids, they make that human connection. To me, Boyer has the most balanced presentation of all of the education critics.
The Criteria for Success
You're a strong proponent of accountability. What measures will you use to determine the degree of your success or failure as superintendent?
We've just announced that here in California. You take a look at test scores, SATs. You have to do that because the public demands it, and it tells you something about the system. I hope the situation with test scores will turn around in California. We also have the California tests and we have our own, which we've strengthened, but we would like to see some progress toward improvement on these measures. We've set targets for the state.
We have, for example, about a hundred thousand students who take the SAT each year, but only about 15 percent get above 450. That's a pool of 15,000 kids in the state from which to draw for some of the professions. And 450 is not that high. We want to broaden that pool to 30,000 or 40,000 by getting more kids to take the test and by getting more above the 450 level.
We want enrollments to go up. If you look at criteria like the number of students who take chemistry, or three years of foreign language, or requirements comparable to those of the National Commission's, only 3 percent of the students in California are in that category. I'd like to see that percentage go up.
We want the enrollments in AP (Advanced Placement) classes to go up. Right now we have 14 percent of our students in AP classes. We'd like that to go up to 20 percent. We want homework levels to go up. We'd like to get a hundred percent of our students writing once a week. Right now it's about 22 percent. These goals, by the way, are to be achieved by 1990, in increments of two years.
A scene from the 1982 film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," which is set in a California public high school.
What is your drop-out rate?
It's 16 percent. We'd like it to go down to 12 percent. That's going to be difficult.
How about public funding?
We want to catch up with the rest of the country in terms of expenditures per pupil. Right now we're spending $170 less per pupil than the average for the rest of the country.
For a state the size of California, that seems like a lot.
Two years ago we were $50 above the national average. We'd like to build back public confidence in the educational system. Right now, almost 50 percent of the people in California have reported that they have no confidence in the schools.
The School-College Connection
Where do the colleges and universities fit into the reform movement?
What we've really been missing are the colleges and universities. They have not been giving us the intellectual leadership. They have abdicated this role for a variety of reasons. They're the ones who should be thinking this problem through.
Why do you think they've abdicated this role?
The rewards are not there for paying attention to these issues. "It's been done before, so who wants to do it again." They are writing for their 2,000 peers in their specialized fields.
Educators are the cultural emissaries to our children. We're the ones who put them in touch with the culture. Unfortunately, the intellectual community for the most part has been adversarial for a long time.
From just a pragmatic point of view, however, what colleges can do in terms of course requirements can have a direct effect on the academic expectations of students. True?
Colleges and universities can help us if they begin to tighten up requirements. That's helpful. However, until colleges and universities have a general education program for all undergraduate students, the problem won't be solved.
And that's absent now?
Look around, where is it? Harvard tried it and blew it. They don't say that every student that graduates from Harvard has read Tocqueville or The Federalist Papers and therefore has some understanding of what this country is all about. Until the colleges are willing to take a stand on that, it will be very difficult for us to take a similar stand with high school students. Somebody must say that this is the core of knowledge that every citizen has to know and package it, and teach it so that it comes alive.
Two: The colleges train the new generation of teachers. If we can't get elementary school teachers in the classrooms who have a good feel for history, science, literature, music, fine arts, and physical education; if they don't have a good sense of what's important; and the methodology to teach it, then we're not getting what we need from the colleges and universities.
Do you have a good line of communication with higher education in California?
Yes, I'm a Regent and I'm a trustee of the state university. We've received a good deal of support for these ideas from the Regents, and from John Gardner, who's the president, and also from the faculty of California State University. But they say, "Look, Bill, we'd love to help you out but the incentive structures within our own institutions not only are neutral, they also penalize you if you get involved with teachers or curriculum or with looking at textbooks."
It's ridiculous that we don't have a civics textbook right now that comes alive. People fought a revolution and several wars over these ideas. We should be able to make them come alive for students.
But I'm having a little problem with some of the university communities. They keep seeing the reform movement as so narrow. They won't listen to the broader parts of it. You'd think they'd want to cooperate in the broader part. There is a certain mind frame. To say, "Let's all go out and do it" is not the way you think at a university. It's "How do I distinguish myself by showing I'm a little bit better than everybody else."
Do you think it's the ivory tower syndrome?
I don't know what it is. It's hard to get these guys on board. What we are really trying to do is to get people in the universities to feel that they are part of an overall movement of improvement. But they're all in the “I’m the one you should look at" mind frame. The idea of a cooperative effort to get the problem solved is alien to them. That's why it is so difficult to get the universities to work with you.
Getting the Message Out: Bill Honig addressing participants at an awards banquet in California.
You are a lawyer, but you left the law to become a teacher some years back. Why?
I was a part of a Bar Association program, Constitutional Rights Foundation, in which I had to go out and teach junior high and high school kids about law. I just fell in love with teaching. I got the thrill of it and decided that that was what I was going to do.
What grades did you teach?
Fourth, fifth, and sixth. I taught for six years.
Why then did you move from teaching to administration?
I was burned out after six years of teaching. I really was tired. I had a chance to get involved with a teacher training project for two years, and worked with teachers and principals on curriculum, and the areas that I was excited about. Then I was appointed to the state board of education.
Do you think this experience makes you more sensitive to the role of the teacher in the schools?
I'm only six and a half years out of the classroom, so in a sense it's still fresh. For me it was a combination of the thrill of teaching and the fact that I liked teaching kids of that age. They are true intellectuals and really want to know about the world. Also, I liked the subject matter: literature, history, English, and languages. I liked them when I was in school, and I liked them as an adult.
Did you feel the economic pinch when you went from being a lawyer to being a teacher?
Oh sure, we had to cut back our expenses. I had a fight with my wife about it. She said, "You're going to give it up, I know." But I didn't. I said, "If you want to earn more money, you're going to have to go out and earn it yourself." And she did. She started her own consulting company and became really well off.
The irony of it is that now she's sold her business and she's out talking to groups about the importance of public education.
Any thoughts on what's in the future for Bill Honig?
I think this is a long-term job here in California. This is going to be an eight-year proposition, at least. I think we've done it right, so far. We've got public support, public direction. We have a good reform movement going. Now it's a question of the professional work: defining curriculum and standards. This relates to what the College Board has been talking about recently.
If we're going to teach students history, then what are the central ideological points of view that we want to get across? Which people? What events? And most importantly, how do you infuse the basic principles that are central to what we do.
What will it take to accomplish this?
There is a tremendous amount of professional work that needs to be done in each of these areas and that's going to take some time. It's going to take discussion, agreement, planning, and, finally, the hard work.