In the last column that he wrote for EdSource, in January, Glen Thomas listed the 10 elements that would be in his Marshall Plan for underperforming schools that he was proposing.
Thomas, who died on Friday at age 72 after a lengthy struggle with cancer, acknowledged that nothing on the list should be surprising, given 50 years of research in education: Clear expectations. Aligned curriculum. Teacher support. Assessment data. Quality preschool.
Sue Burr, a friend and associate of Thomas for many years, said the list includes areas in which Thomas himself made big contributions and serves as a testimony to his five decades as a leader in education in California.
Thomas rose to the job of assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, his area of expertise, at the California Department of Education, where he also served for a decade as executive secretary of the State Curriculum Commission. From 1998 to 2007, he was executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, the organization that serves the state’s county superintendents. In 2009, he became Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last secretary of education, a largely advisory position that Gov. Jerry Brown discontinued after he took office.
Thomas’ influence extended beyond job titles to two generations of colleagues he advised and mentored over the years, say his many admirers.
“There was subtlety about his leadership — getting people to change their own expectations and to ask more of themselves to work in greater capacity than before,” said Tom Adams, who followed Thomas in supervising curriculum frameworks and retired this year as deputy state superintendent.
“You could call on him for good advice. He was wise, patient and understanding of how the system worked,” said Sacramento County Superintendent Dave Gordon, a longtime friend who worked with Thomas at the Department of Education. “Glen was very effective in overcoming political gridlock. He could get the job done in a way that was consistently gracious.”
“He was influential because he was highly respected,” Burr said.
A psychology graduate of Biola University, an evangelical Christian university in La Mirada, California, Thomas got his master’s degree in special education from Washington State University and his doctorate in education curriculum policy from the University of Southern California. After working with migrant children in Stanislaus County, Thomas joined the Department of Education. His expertise was in curriculum development when, under State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, California was becoming a national leader in the academic standards movement.
Adams credited Thomas with reaching out to researchers at the University of California and national experts with different perspectives, such as history professor Diane Ravitch, for the first history and social science framework. He brought in teachers to serve on advisory committees and established an open process in adopting standards and curriculum frameworks. “He set a tone that no matter who was on committees, he was there to serve them,” Adams said.
As head of the county superintendents organization, he encouraged county offices to take a larger role in training teachers in new academic standards and in teaching using state-adopted textbooks.
“County offices were viewed as dinosaurs. He brought them to the fore as we moved toward a devolution of state oversight before the Local Control Funding Formula,” said Gary Hart, a former state senator and education secretary for Gov. Gray Davis.
Thomas became secretary of education in the last years of the Schwarzenegger administration, during the recession that brought deep cuts to education funding. One of his biggest challenges was to negotiate the adoption of the Common Core standards by a highly charged advisory committee under a tight deadline in the summer of 2010. Committee members included skeptics Schwarzenegger appointed and proponents named by the Legislature.
“It was a great example of how Glen transcended the political culture,” Gordon said.
“He was apolitical in valuing diverse points of view,” said Burr, who worked closely with Thomas before succeeding him as director at the superintendents’ association. “I didn’t know he was a Republican until he went to work for Schwarzenegger.”
Thomas lived in Sacramento, where he and his wife, Connie, a 1st-grade teacher, raised two daughters. A memorial service for him will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 4 at Fremont Presbyterian Church, 5770 Carlson Drive in Sacramento.