His small-town charm is considerable, his manner usually low-key, but in eight months as Virginia's state superintendent of public instruction, S. John Davis has pushed firmly for major innovations in the state's public schools.
Since taking office in August, Davis, who headed the Fairfax county school system for almost a decade, has:
Urged giving large state-financed pay boosts to the most "outstanding" 10 to 15 percent of Virginia's 64,000 teachers:
Moved to establish detailed statewide standards of what students should achieve in each grade;
Strongly promoted joint programs among local school systems that in the past have guarded their autonomy.
Taken together Davis' proposals amount to a substantial increase in state control over Virginia's 141 local school districts, systems that range from well-to-do suburbs such as Fairfax and arlington to poor, sparsely settled areas such as Highland County in the Allegheny Mountains.
They also would vastly change the career expectations of teachers.
Perhaps aware of how Virginians have disliked sudden, dramatic changes in their goverment, Davis has presented his ideas as sensible, practical responses to particular problems, not as sweeping reforms. He has made great efforts to have the groups most involved -- teachers, administrators, and local school boards -- shape their details.
As a result, even though they have encountered some opposition, Davis' plans have provoked little public attention. And Davis himself has won warm praise from groups that often are at odds.
"We're comfortable with Jack Davis," said Suzanne Kelly, president of the state's main teacher organizatiion, the 45,000-member Virginia Education Association.
"He's been a teacher. He's been an administrator. He's been a local superintendent," she added. "And most important, he remembers what it's like to be a teacher and he understands teacher' concerns."
The Virginia School Boards Association also praises Davis, and J. Wade Giley, the state secretary of education, remarked:
"Jack Davis doesn't work with a lot of fanfare. But I think if you'll draw a line in 1979, when he came and another in, let's say, 1985, you will see a remarkable change. It will all be done with the local school divisions, the teachers, and the General Assembly putting things together . . . . It's part of his style to have a lot of people help him get where he wants to go."
At the center of this praise, Davis, 15, is a balding, burly figure who grew up in small towns in the Pennsylvania coal country, wears bright sports jackets, and smokes a briar pipe. His style is folksy and informal.
"It's like a breath of fresh air around here," remarked one state education department official. "I saw more of Jack Davis in the first month he was here, than I did of (his predecessor W.E.) Campbell in two years. He just pops in sometimes and asks a question. That never used to happen around here."
"Jack is going to go out and win the public and win the VEA (Virginia Education Association)," another official remarked. "He's very much more adept at public relations than Campbell was in both the good and bad sense of the word."
Davis himself explained: "I don't feel very comfortable developing something in the basement at 2 o'clock in the morning and then springing it on everyone. I would much prefer having an idea developed by the groups that are interested in it."
Davis used this style of involving others in decision-making while he was in Fairfax, and he is following it again in Richmond.
He said hes proposal for giving higher pay to better teachers came from discussions he had with a college education professor and is "a culmination of ideas about the need to recognize outstanding teachers and give them some incentive to keep teaching."
Under the plan, Davis said, better teachers would be certified by the State Education Department with a "career teacher certificate." They would be paid the same as school principals -- about $25,000 to $35,000 a year, which is about $10,000 more than the current salary range for experienced teachers.
The teachers who get this extra pay and recognition, Davis said, would be selected by special review panels, including parents, teachers, administrators and college professors. The panels would have to follow uniform guidelines established by the state department.
"We want to take it out of the arena where subjectivity is prevalent," Davis said.
"We want to eliminate the negative aspects of the merit programs."
Davis said he still hasn't put a price-tag on the proposal or figured out all its details. He said he expects an advisory committee including teacher, parents, administrators, and local school members, to begin refining the plan soon.
The state teachers group, however, has already denounced the idea as "an old monster in a new costume." VEA president Kelly argued that instead of seeking premium pay for the top 10 to 15 percent of teachers, Davis ought to work for much higher pay for all teachers.
"I think the great majority of teachers are doing an excellent job," Kelly declared. "It's unfair to distinguish (among them)."
But Kelly added that she believed Davis' motivation in proposing the plan was "very good" and said she would continue to participate in the advisory committee meetings about it.
Davis' plan for statewide minimum major role in shaping the proposal and also in nominating teachers for the selection panels. Even though he has talked about the proposal often since last fall, Davis said he won't present if for official endorsement by the state school board until the advisory panel considers it.
Davis's plan for statewide minimum achievement objectives in each grade has moved farther along.
The state board approved planning for the program in December. Last week Davis announced that a workshop to draw up specific objectives would be held in late June with several hundred teachers taking part.
"I'm convinced that there's a core of knowledge should be common to all students whether they live in Fairfax County. Lee County, or Virginia Beach." Davis said. "I'm convinced that local school divisions will go beyond that, but there should be a floor."
He said the program would include special statewide tests for students in each grade. Teachers would have to consider the results in deciding whether a student should be promoted, he said, but they would not be bound by the test scores.
When he was named state superintendent last spring by Gov. John N. special statewide tests for students in each grade. Teachers would have to consider the results in deciding whether a student should be promoted, he said, but they would not be bound by the test scores.
When he was named state superintendent last spring by Gov. John N. Dalton, Davis said he was cool to the minimum competency tests in reading and mathematics which the General Assembly has required all high school graduates to pass, starting in 1981.
"I still think we can improve on those (competency) tests," Davis said last week. But before he asks the legislature to drop them, he added, "i have to have something in their place."
Last winter Davis asked the General Assembly for $500,000 to develop the grade-by-grade "learner objectives." He was turned down, partly because of criticism, which Davis rejects, that the plan amounted to a statewide curriculum.
Davis said he has scraped together about $70,000 from regular department funds to start the program, and will develop it gradually.
His push for regional cooperation among local school boards, Davis said, comes from the need to save money while improving programs. He has asked that state financial aid formulas be changed to provide incentives for regional ventures or handicapped children and the gifted and also in school maintenance and personnel operations.
To win support and get ideas Davis has traveled widely around Virginia, speaking to education and citizen groups and also visiting local schools. "I feel very isolated," he explained, "if I don't have the opportunity to see and hear what's taking place out there with the students."
Unlike his predecessors as superintendent, Davis also spent long hours attending state legislature committee meetings on the school budget Even though he got far less than he asked for, legislators seemed impressed with him.
Davis also has hosted a series of dinners, paid for by the State Education Department, at "Le Chef," a softly-lit French restaurant in downtown Richmond, a subtle form of lobbying unusual here for a state official.
The dinners are held on the night before the state board's monthly meeting, and have included leaders of the state Chamber of Commerce, the PTA, the school board association, VEA, and several school administrators groups. Davis said he also has invited a representative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who wasn't able to attend.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to hear from statewide groups," Davis said, "for people to sit down comfortably and talk things over with each other."
"Jack Davis is a wonderful host," said one woman who has attended the dinners. "I really think he listens to you. But sometimes I think we have to say, 'Hey, where are we going with him?"