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Marshall S. Smith, former dean at Stanford GSE, dies at 85

Photo of Mike Smith
Marshall "Mike" S. Smith

Marshall S. Smith, former dean at Stanford GSE, dies at 85

An influential figure in education who served in four administrations, Smith was a strong advocate for educational equity and standards-based reform.

Marshall “Mike” S. Smith, a former dean at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) who held influential roles in education policy during four presidential administrations, died on May 1 of cancer at his home in Palo Alto. He was 85.

Smith, who moved back and forth between high-level posts in government and academia throughout his six-decade career, is credited with developing the concept of standards-based education reform, which ties K-12 curriculum, assessment, and teacher preparation to standards set at the state level.

As dean of the GSE from 1986 to 1993, he championed efforts to increase faculty diversity and to connect research more closely with practice and policy.

“Mike was such a renaissance man,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor, Emerita, at Stanford, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, and president of the California State Board of Education. “He was a policy scholar and a policy maker, and he moved between the worlds of research and government and practice in ways that were highly impactful in all of those domains.”

Smith’s scholarship and leadership launched a fundamental change in federal education policy to address the deep disparities in U.S. students’ school experiences and outcomes.

He was “a key architect in envisioning education reform as a system shift, rather than piecemeal change,” said Kenji Hakuta, the Lee J. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Stanford, who joined the faculty during Smith’s tenure as dean. “He fervently believed in the view that working toward high standards for all students was the path to equity in education.”

From academia to government

Smith was born Sept. 16, 1937, in East Orange, New Jersey, He earned three degrees from Harvard University, including his bachelor’s in 1960 and a doctorate in measurement and statistics from Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1970.

He met his wife, Nicki (Claiborn) Smith, in graduate school while both were pursuing their master’s degrees; the couple wed in 1964 and had four children. Nicki, a longtime educator and GSE alum who earned her second master’s in educational administration in 1993, went on to serve as principal at several Bay Area schools until her retirement in 2017.

In the mid-1970s, Smith, who had been an associate professor at Harvard, joined the Ford administration as director of policy and budget for the National Institute of Education. Under the Carter administration, he served as assistant commissioner for policy studies at the U.S. Department of Education (then known as the Office of Education), then worked as chief of staff for the first secretary of education.

In 1980, he left Washington and returned to academia, joining the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he also directed the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. He came to Stanford in 1986 as a professor and dean at the GSE, a post he held until 1993.

As dean, he was “a visionary leader who ushered in a wave of faculty appointments representing diversity,” Hakuta said. Smith also kept the GSE going at a time when its future was in question: In the early 1990s, the University of Chicago moved to close its Department of Education, stirring other prominent universities nationwide – including Stanford – to consider doing the same.

Martin Carnoy, the Lemann Foundation Professor at the GSE and a member of the faculty since 1969, attributes the GSE’s survival during that period to Smith’s strong and skillful leadership. “We would not have a school of education today if there had been a weaker person in the job.”

A new agenda for K-12 education

While at Stanford, Smith developed his work on standards-based reform, collaborating closely with scholar Jennifer O’Day, PhD ’95, on pivotal convenings and research. He and O’Day, who later founded the California Collaborative on District Reform and is now a fellow at the American Institutes for Research, published extensively on standards-based reform. “It was probably the most influential view of how to change the educational system in a comprehensive way,” said Carnoy.

Smith left the GSE in 1993 to join the Clinton Administration, where he led the transition team for education policy and served as under secretary and, later, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Education. There he helped usher in a new agenda for K-12 education with the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which provided states with funding to develop math and reading standards, and the Improving American’s Schools Act, which incorporated provisions to hold schools accountable for those standards.

In 2001, he left Washington again and took on a new role in philanthropy as director of education programs at the Hewlett Foundation, where he continued to focus on public school reform and improving the effectiveness of community colleges. In 2009, he returned to the federal government, serving in the Obama Administration as a senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and as director of international affairs at the Department of Education.

“I think he saw each role as a chance to make a difference,” said Milbrey McLaughlin, the David Jacks Professor of Education and Public Policy, Emeritus, at Stanford and founding director of the GSE’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities. “That was always what motivated him, whether it was through government or academia or philanthropy.”

In 2019, Smith and O’Day published the book Opportunity for All: A Framework for Quality and Equality in Education, drawing on more than 30 years of research, policy, and practice to advance both equity and outcomes.

“Mike understood that if you can bring evidence and research and disciplined thinking into government work, you can leverage the tools of policy to see greater impact from that research,” said Darling-Hammond. “And if you can bring an understanding of policy and government and how it operates back to the academy, you can produce research that is more helpful for this bigger project.”

A ‘deeply personal’ leadership style

For all of his high-level appointments and accomplishments, Smith was known for his warm and informal presence. Colleagues recall him walking around the halls of the Department of Education in sneakers, sandals, or often just his stocking feet.

His leadership style was “deeply personal,” said Hakuta, and he was widely known as a generous mentor and listener. “He was always interested in what you were doing and thinking, and he always made time to talk,” McLaughlin said. “He always made people feel like there was nobody else he would rather be talking to.”

Former students and colleagues also remember him as a “connector” who frequently identified and introduced potential collaborators.

Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, deputy director and senior research associate at the Gardner Center, worked under Smith at the Hewlett Foundation and described him as “a constant source of inspiration.” On a walk about a year ago, he and Smith talked about current challenges in public education, including the growing distrust in government institutions and the intrusion of the culture wars in schools. “But he remained optimistic,” Ruiz de Velasco said. “Not so much because he had faith that public education would ‘perfect our democracy’ – but because he believed in the evidence that public education is the principal means by which we constantly reinvent our democracy and rediscover shared purpose.”

Smith is survived by his wife of 59 years, Nicki; their children, Adam, Jennifer, Matthew, and Megan; six grandchildren, Emma, Mira, Zoey, Isadora, Elena, and Lucas; one great-grandchild, River; and his sister, Connie Moskowitz.

In lieu of flowers, his family requests that donations in his memory be made to education or environmental groups of the donor’s choice. A memorial service will be held Sept. 16 at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Palo Alto (further details forthcoming).

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