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Her Best Subject : When it comes to making schools better, Marion Joseph works overtime. Reading is her latest target.


MENLO PARK — Marion Joseph insists she would like to stop being a nag.

After all, she's 69, she retired 13 years ago from her powerful behind-the-scenes post as a state Department of Education strategist, and she'd like to spend more time gardening, lunching with friends and playing with her grandchildren.

But she can't help herself.

There's too much to be done. Too many kids aren't learning to read. She knows how to fix it and who can make it right. And she's more than willing to pick up the phone and tell them to get busy.

"Would I like to stop?" she asks rhetorically, sitting next to the rarely used pool behind her comfortable ranch house. "Yes. Can I stop? No. Never. Knowing what I know gives me added responsibility."

That credo, that sense of obligation to participate in a democracy according to one's talents, pushed her to volunteer in school board elections nearly 40 years ago. It made her set up neighborhood tutoring programs in the 1960s for poor children.

It got her behind the campaign of Wilson Riles, who, largely because of a strategy she devised, won a long-shot victory in 1970 to become the first African American to hold a statewide elective office in California. And it guided her during 12 years as his top adviser as they worked to improve schooling for the disabled, the poor and the very young.

"She knocked herself out to get the job done, she understood the Legislature, she knew the players there and she knew how to work with them," says Riles, who now works as an educational consultant in Sacramento.

As with all her endeavors, working in the Riles Administration wasn't a job or a career move. And Joseph, a woman so tiny she must sit on the edge of her chair for her feet to touch the floor, says she gave little thought to her stature as a powerful woman in a largely male world. She simply had a mission. "I had to go into the department because I had promised the people of California 'God knows what' if they would elect Wilson Riles, and it was very important that there be delivery on that promise."

Now, having reached an age at which society expects people to begin handing off their duties to the next generation, Joseph is in the thick of a fight once again--and this time, it's personal.

In all her years in education, Joseph had never focused on reading instruction. Then, in 1989, her beloved grandson Isaac, a Bay Area first-grader, began having trouble sounding out words. But, in keeping with the state's official "whole language" teaching method, his teacher did not offer phonics exercises involving letter sounds. Instead, she gave Isaac a book of stories in hopes that he would acquire reading skills and develop an appreciation of literature. Yet he could not read it.

Joseph and her daughter, Linda, set out to see what they could do. Testing showed that Isaac, though extremely bright, had a problem that crops up in roughly one in five children: the inability to discern the letter sounds, or phonemes, that are the building blocks of words.

Joseph hired a specially trained tutor for Isaac, now a Central Valley seventh-grader who tests at or above grade level in all subjects.

"Instead of continuing to get further and further behind, he got further and further ahead, thanks to my mother," says Linda Joseph, a school psychologist.

But Marion Joseph didn't stop there. "She basically fixed that . . . and then went on to making things better for all kids," Linda says.

Since then, Marion Joseph has become the most influential voice arguing that the state's 1987 plunge into a progressive theory of how children learn to read went too far and is not working.

She doesn't work in public. Rather, like an unpaid lobbyist, she works the levers of power behind the scenes. She calls journalists who have written stories she believes are favorable and urges them to write more. She coaches legislative and Education Department staff members on how to maneuver around bureaucratic roadblocks. She arranges for researchers to present their findings to key policy-makers. And she relies on "moles," as she calls them, to tip her off to proposed policies so she can press for language that suits her purpose.

Most of this happens from an unimposing command post in a spare bedroom at home, where a fax machine hums constantly with news from the front, which she then sends right back out to her troops--a growing battalion of parents, researchers and teachers.

"It was so nice to hear her say there were teachers up and down the state who felt like I did," says Patty Abarca, a pro-phonics first-grade teacher in Maywood who contacted Joseph after seeing her name in a newspaper article. "I just had the classroom experience, but she had the research to back it up."

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