Remembering Carl Kaestle

Jan 17, 2023

We were deeply saddened to learn of the loss of former NAEd President Carl Kaestle. We are honored to share the following tribute to his life and career, written by NAEd member and former president Michael Feuer. Members may share their individual remembrances of Carl by submitting a comment at the bottom of this website page. The NAEd will then share these notes with the family. 

Carl Kaestle, 1940-2023

I met Carl Kaestle first in print. His “Pillars of the Republic” had become a pillar in my otherwise shaky appreciation for the complexity of American education, and had convinced me that any analysis of schools and schooling that didn’t have a serious historian involved would likely result in pretty wobbly policy recommendations. When the National Academy of Sciences decided to establish a board on testing, with me as the director, I knew we would get into a jumble of issues that went well beyond the subtleties of psychometrics and statistics: contemporary and recurring problems of assessment were rooted in two-plus centuries of America’s republican experiment with democratic education. Who better than Carl, then, to keep our eyes wide open to the bigger picture?

And so, the second time we met was on the phone, when I called to see if he would join the new board. He didn’t know me, and when he wondered if I was actually looking for the Carl Kassell of National Public Radio, I knew we would become fast friends. Which is what happened, to my great good fortune. Carl was elected President of the National Academy of Education around that time, circa 1993, so we had plenty to talk about in addition to the work of BOTA, which he found sufficiently interesting to stick with and become its Vice Chair a few years later.

Just about everything I worked on in these past 30 years has benefited, in some way or another, from Carl’s generosity of mind and selfless devotion to the improvement of education. If “Pillars” set the broad historical stage, then his priceless ER essay about “the awful reputation” of education research was, for me and so many others, an indispensable source on the promise and pitfalls of our profession especially in pursuit of practical relevance. Ditto for his subtle depiction of the periodic swings in American education philosophy, between its political and economic moorings, and how those shifts affected (and were reflected in) evolving policy debates.

I could go on, but I imagine that historians and other scholars will look back on their work and acknowledge the deep and lasting Kaestle footprint. I’ll just add that I have lost a dear friend, who taught me much about schooling in America while also modeling the essence of academic collegiality, humor, and humility; tutoring me on the finer points of jazz; and, yes, introducing me to the wonders of the VO-Manhattan (on the rocks). His last years were grueling: he lost his beloved Liz, caught COVID and lyme disease, was diagnosed with a mean and aggressive cancer along with cognitive decline, and lost his dear daughter Christine. As his wonderful daughter Rika noted, though, as recently as November of 2022 Carl was still enjoying his piano. I am glad he is at peace. May the memory be a blessing.

Written by Michael Feuer, January 2023

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