“Go and do good things”

PACE was started in 1982. Stanford University education professor Mike Kirst had recently completed what would be his first stretch as president of California’s State Board of Education (Jerry Brown appointed Kirst to the position when he first became governor in 1975, and again 36 years later during his third and fourth terms). Kirst wanted to continue working to inform state policy and, through Theodore Lobman, found support from the Hewlett Foundation, which was focused on funding research by school­–university partnerships to improve public education. Lobman brought together Kirst and UC Berkeley professor James Guthrie, whose work was also situated at the intersection of policy and education. In what Kirst described as “a triumvirate of brainstorming,” they created PACE (then known as Policy Alternatives for California Education), with Hewlett providing general operating funds to start the organization. They basically told us “just go and do good things,” said Kirst, now a Stanford professor emeritus.

From the start, PACE’s mission has been to provide a “nonpartisan, objective analysis of California education policy ... to fill a gap between the legislature and good policy analysis.” There was an “overwhelming sense that the state government needed more high-quality research for making state policy,” said Kirst. Guthrie was Nevada’s state superintendent of schools and both men worked for the U.S. Department of Education; this government work gave them access to policymakers in Sacramento, where they made the rounds every autumn to specify education priorities for the coming year and agreed to provide research and analysis on some of the issues. The visits were important because, in order for PACE to be effective, it had to be nimble enough to work on emerging issues in real time across political lines.

To view PACE leadership over the years, slide along the timeline below.

Policy not politics

Early on, PACE established itself as a vital source of information with publication of the 1983 report The Conditions of Education in California—essentially a handy reference for statistics and data trends. “When you went to a policymaker’s office in Sacramento, they had that right on their desk,” Kirst remembered. Several years later came another landmark publication, The Conditions of Children in California, which analyzed nearly every aspect of children’s lives, including the increasing number of English learners in schools, foster care, poverty, teacher certification programs, and special education. These reports were the precursor to Getting Down to Facts in 2007 and Getting Down to Facts II in 2018, a series of reports by noted researchers examining all facets of the state of education in California.

Stanford University and UC Berkeley were the original partners in PACE. The University of Southern California joined soon afterwards, providing an important southern California presence. UC Davis followed, and then UCLA. In 2007, when David Plank of Michigan State took the role of executive director, he invited representatives of all research universities in California to collaborate with PACE to get their work into the hands of state policy makers. “People go into education because they want to make education better, not just because they want to run equations and write papers. PACE gave them a vehicle that allowed them to do that,” said Plank, who views it as a key strategic decision that made PACE the “public face of education research in California.”

Between 2007 and 2018, when Plank retired, PACE worked on major policy issues. When the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) shifted a large portion of the policy landscape from the state government to local districts and county offices of education, PACE redirected its efforts towards the local level with research on the impact of the LCFF on underserved students and how districts were implementing continuous improvement practices.

Building better data systems

In order to remain relevant in this new environment Plank formed a data partnership with the CORE Districts, a collaborative of eight of the state’s largest districts that share tools, techniques, and information to improve teaching and learning—especially in struggling schools. In October 2015, the two organizations formed the CORE-PACE Research Partnership to produce research that informs continuous improvement in the eight CORE districts as well as in state policy.

“I’ve become a big believer in the power of research,” said Rick Miller, executive director of the CORE Districts. When he worked at the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration, there was no connection between research, policy, and practice. “Researchers did research for themselves; they talked with themselves and engaged with themselves,” said Miller, who later worked for the California Department of Education. “When I came from the fed to the state and PACE existed it was revolutionary to me.”

Through the partnership, PACE works with the CORE Districts to study, interview, observe, and document their improvement processes—lessons learned about what’s working well and what’s not—and to share results widely through publications, webinars, and meetings. Miller said that “it’s one of the most meaningful parts of what’s made CORE effective”; he hopes the partnership will be a model for helping inform decision making for policy makers and educators across the country: “I want to see it continue in perpetuity.”

To help ensure that happens, Plank brought in Heather Hough—a researcher and analyst who had previously worked at SRI International, the Public Policy Institute of California, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching—to lead PACE, knowing that when he retired in 2018, she would succeed him as executive director. “The most important thing I did was hire Heather,” he said. “PACE has grown into something bigger and better than I think either [Mike Kirst] or I ever imagined.” Kirst concurred: “It’s a continuing resource that is unique and rare”—and valuable to informing better state policy not only during periods of stability but also at times of rapid, unexpected change.