The trends in secondary education preceding Wilson Riles' establishment of the Reform of Intermediate and Secondary Education (RISE) Commission in 1974, were characterized by a complicated mix of increasingly great expectations regarding the performance of secondary schools, and a heightened awareness of California's shortcomings in the preparation of all of her adolescents for adulthood.
The RISE Commission Report acknowledged that public schools have always mirrored the prevailing culture and times, which then reflected a troubled society and a troubled youth. The Report found that schools were serving a markedly different kind of young person in the early 1970s than they were a decade or two before. They were serving adolescents who had been shaped by upheaval in the home, community and broader society, which had a profound effect upon their attitudes and performance in and out of school. The Report cited statistical documentation of problems resulting from higher ratio of divorce, alcoholism, suicide, drug abuse, child abuse, venereal diseases (before AIDS), school vandalism, student dropouts, and student test score decline.
In the mid 1970s, these observations were particularly disappointing against the backdrop of the highly publicized federal "War on Poverty" programs that were initiated during the mid 1960's and which were already being criticized as costly and ineffective by skeptics and other opponents of government programs to address such needs.
To launch the work of the RISE Commission, Superintendent Wilson Riles asked the RISE Commission to:
The titles of half dozen of the fifty or so books and periodicals published in the early 1970's and reviewed by the RISE Commission prior to publication of their own report in 1975 suggests that the challenge posed to them by Wilson Riles in California was recognized by various other experts and agencies as a national challenge as well. The national studies: Youth: Transition to Adulthood, Report of the Panel on Youth of the President's Science Advisory Committee (1974); Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education, (1970); The Reform of Secondary Education: A Report of the National Commission on the Reform of Secondary Education (1973); The Report of the National Panel on High Schools and Adolescent Education (1974);and some California publications such as Should the Compulsory School Age Be Lowered? THRUST (May 1974); and A Report on Conflict and Violence in California High Schools (1974) all signaled problematic conditions surrounding the education of secondary school students in California and the nation.
It came as no surprise that Wilson would select as a point of focus for his second term an issue of major importance for the State and the nation. After all he had successfully implemented in his first term as State Superintendent, a nationally respected reform of elementary schools beginning with Early Child Education. But, beyond the insightful selection of a critical leadership issue, Superintendent Riles was equally adept and emphatic about his continuing commitment to the principle of broad-based involvement in development of the RISE Commission's recommendations, the meat of the reform message. Upon reflection regarding the broad-based composition of the 37 member RISE Commission, Wilson's appointed chairman Dr. Leland Newcomer wrote: "If your objective was to appoint a strong, powerful commission representative of the many diverse segments and interests of the total population of the state, you were most successful.
The Riles strategy of inclusion in the development of the reform message went further. The RISE Commission invited the public to speak in 21 public forums held in San Diego, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Fresno, Riverside, Sacramento, and Redding. A total of 315 speakers representing either themselves or organizations, presented oral and written testimony at these forums.
Not surprisingly, the 26 major recommendations and 121 supporting recommendations are comprehensive and contain a wealth of ideas concerning: adolescent learners themselves, the nature of learning situations, the charcteristics of the learners' curriculum as well as desired traits of teachers and other staff or volunteers to facilitate their learning. The RISE Commission's report also calls for a host of enabling recommendations which address staff development, staff evaluations, financing, community and business partnerships, participative governance, public information, and collaboration with higher education. Nor is it surprising that the reformists of the 1990s have proposed as "new visions" recommendations which highly resemble those of the RISE Commission Report (1975).
The events leading up to and including the work of the RISE Commission marked only the beginning of the Wilson Riles legacy with respect to secondary education reform. Riles' strategy included the very laborious process of developing legislation to implement the Commission's recommendations and moving that bill to Governor Jerry Brown's desk. The Governor vetoed the bill as written, but quickly had a bill introduced labeled "School Improvement Program", which was almost a literal combination of the RISE legislative language and the existing Early Childhood Education statutes that Riles had sponsored a few years earlier. Someone once said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. While the Governor Brown veto hardly seemed flattering at the time, everyone "in the know" knew the real origin of the School Improvement Program.
A major point to be made of this bit of history is that the School ImprovementProgram was launched in the mid-1970's under the Riles' administration. It has remained in the state budget for over 15 years. The program funding is proposed at approximately $340,000,000 in 1992-93 to serve most of California's five million children in grades K-12, with many of the initial program provisions invented by Wilson Riles still in tack.
It would be a gross understatement of the Wilson Riles' second term accomplishments to simply focus upon the RISE and School Improvement Program history. There were countless other programs, large and small, that were initiated or substantially revised with direction from Wilson Riles. For example, expanding Vocational Education to include Career Education for all students, reorganizing the delivery of Special Education for handicapped and other children with particular needs, establishing financing and programmatic approaches to help districts teach children whose primary language was other than English, implementing the laws regarding high school graduation based upon demonstrated minimum proficiency standards, and helping to provide university and college opportunities to under-represented minority groups were among them.
Perhaps the most profound memories of State Superintendent Wilson Riles had little to do with his programs but much to do with the character of the man. His professional ethics were above reproach. He led by example and insisted that his staff follow a strict sense of public service that was not confused with even a hint of inappropriate private benefit. Wilson would often say, "I would rather err on the side of honesty".
Wilson was a peacemaker. People, including leaders of major statewide organizations, who entered meetings in his office as adversaries frequently exited the meeting on the same side of the issue because Wilson had helped them see the issue from new, non-adversarial perspectives. In this regard, Wilson become a role model for other leaders at times when he was not even aware of it. Some of us have adopted leadership techniques from him and have, indeed, passed them on to other emerging leaders. In my own case, I have often given credit to his role as a mentor for me, even though I was not always in frequent contact with Wilson.
There is one aspect of Wilson Riles that puzzled me for a long time. It seemed ironic to me that Wilson exhibited such strong advocacy for parent involvement in the governance structure of schools, and in other aspects of their children's educationa. As I remember the biography of his early years, Wilson was himself an orphan at a youthful age and worked his way through school, beginning in junior high school. Although I never asked him about this point, I have concluded in later years that one of Wilson's true measures of greatness is his determination to provide for others the opportunities and privileges that he himself could never have.
It was my privilege to serve as Associate Superintendent of Public Instruction under Wilson Riles for over a decade. I have also been inspired for nearly another decade of association with him as President of Riles & Associates. I am thrilled that this project will be completed so that Wilson himself can enjoy reading it. I certainly want copies of the document for school libraries in my school district and for my home. This Wilson Riles story is long overdue!
DR. REX C. FORTUNE is presently Superintendent of the Center Unified School District. Past experience is as follows:
1983-88 Superintendent Inglewood Unified School District
1980-83 Associate Superintendent of Public Instruction, California State Department of Education - Accountability of a $7 million operating budget and a $500 million local assistance budget for state and federal categorical funds
1972-79 Associate Superintendent of Public Instruction, California State Department of Education - Responsible for providing statewide leadership for secondary education and administration of state and federal programs that provided supplementary educational services to junior and senior high school students, services for educationally disadvantaged youth, bilingual education, and traffic safety education. Responsible also for the Office of Curriculum Services, which included subject matter specialists, pupils personnel service, textbook adoption, and Instructional Television and Educational Technology.