In Memoriam: National Education Giant Marshall S. (Mike) Smith Led WCER from 1980–1986

Smith, 85, died May 1 of cancer in Palo Alto, California

May 16, 2023

As director, Smith helped broaden WCER's programmatic scope and funding strategy.

As director, Smith helped broaden WCER's programmatic scope and funding strategy.

Marshall S. (Mike) Smith, a giant in American education and social policy for over six decades who led the Wisconsin Center for Education (WCER) from 1980 to 1986, died May 1 at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 85.

Smith served in key education positions under the administrations of four U.S. presidents—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—and he held academic positions at Harvard University, UW–Madison, and Stanford University. In all his university-based roles, he actively championed efforts to increase diversity in university faculty, to connect research more closely with practice and policy, and to improve the quality of education research overall.

He was an elected member of the National Academy of Education and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, past chairman of the Board of the American Institutes of Research, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. From 1995 to 2005, Smith was named by Education Week as one of the top ten most influential figures in American education.

“He was a mentor, teacher, leader, and friend in every sense of the word as he moved back and forth between roles in government, academia, and philanthropy,” his family obituary said. “His leadership style was deeply personal as well as informal, believing that ideas, particularly actionable ones, were more important than appearances. … He worked relentlessly to increase educational opportunities and outcomes for historically underserved students by means of policies and practices that focused on systemic reform, equality, and useful data.”

Smith came to UW–Madison’s School of Education (SoE), which houses WCER, in 1980 after working in Washington, D.C., in education leadership roles in the Ford and Carter administrations. Beginning in 1973, he served as a visiting scholar and later the associate director of the National Institute of Education; as an assistant commissioner for policy studies in the U.S. Office of Education; and as chief of staff to the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

Writing in the 1990 publication, “The Wisconsin Center for Education Research: Twenty-Five Years of Knowledge Generation and Educational Improvement,” Smith recounted how he decided to leave government work in Washington upon learning of the WCER director opening. In addition to leading WCER, Smith also was a tenured professor in SoE’s Departments of Educational Policy Studies and Educational Psychology.

Those appointments, plus the fact that “UW−Madison is a world-class university, and Madison is a great place for kids, made our decision to come to UW very easy,” Smith wrote.

Over his 6 years as director, Smith saw his main fiscal task as reducing center reliance on a single federal grant.

“This coincided with my interest in broadening the programmatic scope of the center to address a wide range of issues in education, from research on teaching and learning to state and federal policy issues,” he wrote in the 1990 book.

Smith continued, writing: “The strategy was to create a research home for people interested in educational research drawn from a wide variety of social and behavioral science departments and schools throughout the university. My personal commitment was to help create a center that tackled the broad range of educational issues, but with a particular focus on the needs of the most disadvantaged in society. Because of the availability of research space and the support services of the center, this proved to be a feasible strategy both to put the center on a solid financial basis and to create a lively intellectual research environment.”

Smith also focused on reducing central administrative costs, especially in the director’s office, computing, and publications. During his tenure, the center moved from an “old and costly mainframe” computer to the use of microcomputers for all administrative computing, he wrote. WCER also started expanding its funding sources to agencies such as the National Science Foundation during Smith’s time, though he noted he was frustrated he didn’t have more success attracting foundation support—echoing a continuing imperative today at WCER.

Smith left WCER in 1986 to serve as dean of Stanford University’s School of Education, a position he held until 1993. Smith then served from 1993 to 2000 as Undersecretary of Education and acting Deputy Secretary of Education in the Clinton Administration, where he helped author Goals 2000; the Improving America’s Schools Act; and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. Smith also worked as a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the Obama administration, starting in 2009.

From 2001 to 2009, Smith served as the Hewlett Foundation’s head of education programs and, among other things, developed with his team the Open Education Initiative, which provides worldwide access to high quality learning. From 2010 through 2022, Smith worked as a self-employed consultant based in Palo Alto in social policy, education, writing, technology, and innovation.

Throughout his career, Smith’s areas of expertise include standards and assessments, educational research and evaluation, use of technology in education, and early childhood education. Smith co-authored books on computer content analysis and on inequality in the U.S., and he published research papers on the importance of Head Start and school integration.

“Mike wanted more than anything to make the world a better place than he found it,” his family obituary noted. “He never stopped believing in the power of education to change lives and in the power of research to make education better.”

His published research made the case for aligning K−12 education teaching, tests, and textbooks with state standards, and his focus on school system reform influenced the movement on school accountability measures and performance standards. He also was an advocate for career-long teacher professional development.

Smith earned a master’s degree in 1963 and a doctorate in 1970, both in measurement and statistics from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His bachelor’s degree from Harvard College was in psychology. Smith worked as an associate professor at Harvard University and taught in the Human Development and Educational Policy program. He was a consultant to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Smith is survived by Nicki, his wife of 59 years; their four children, Adam (Elizabeth), Jennifer (Kevin), Matthew (Carolina) and Megan (Matthew); and six grandchildren, one great grandchild, and a sister. He coached each of his children’s soccer teams, his family said, and he was remembered as a willing sounding board on life’s challenges for family and friends.

Smith’s family requests that donations in his honor be made to education or environmental groups of the donor’s choice.

—WCER/School of Education News