Jan. 19, 1950-April 29, 2023
Palo Alto, California
Submitted by Ilan Wurman
Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer and influential participant in educational content standards debates, died on Saturday, April 29, 2023, from complications of lymphoma. He was 73.
Ze’ev (Polish name Wlodzimierz) was born in 1950 in Warsaw, Poland. His father, Leon Wurman (born in 1911 in Kurów), had been a house painter before World War II and then a self-taught engineer. His mother, Irena Wurman (née Perel, 1914 in Warsaw), was a government official in Poland who also completed a law degree. The family fled Poland in 1939 for Russia, and returned to Poland in 1946. In 1957, Ze’ev, his older brother, and their parents left Poland for Israel.
Ze’ev thrived in school. One friend who grew up with Ze’ev in Israel said that “in many eyes he was a genius.” In 1968, he graduated from Hahashmonaim high school in Bat Yam. That year he won the annual award of the Israeli Chemical Society. He then enrolled in the Israeli Institute of Technology (“Technion”), where he graduated with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1972.
In 1972, Ze’ev reconnected with his childhood friend from Poland, Grazyna, in Vienna. She tells the story of how they “went to the amusement park where we came across that shooting range,” where “Wlodeczek”—the term of endearment for Wlodzimierz—“decided to show his skills.” Grazyna reports the outcome: “The vendor had to close up for the day after he got done. I had a bunch of bears, and he was smiling and said, ‘This is why we won the war.’ He meant in 1967.”
After the Technion, Ze’ev served in the Israel Defense Forces during the Yom Kippur War. After the war, he led a three-person team to develop technology that improved Israel’s defense capabilities, for which he was awarded the Israel Defense Award in 1977. In 1978, Ze’ev married Hadassah (Dassi) Haya Sohar (Sonnenreich), whose own parents fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s for what was then British Palestine. And in 1980, he completed his graduate degree in electrical engineering, also at the Technion.
In 1985, Ze’ev immigrated to the United States and settled with Hadassah and their first two children, Gilead and Oded, in Palo Alto, California. For the next twenty-five years, he worked for various technology companies in the semiconductor industry as a software engineer.
In the mid-1990s, Ze’ev, now a father of four (his twin sons Ilan and Eytan were born in 1987), began a second career as an advocate for rigorous educational content standards in K-12 education. He along with other parents in the Palo Alto Unified School District noticed that the district was deploying what was called “discovery learning” math; students were being increasingly encouraged to use calculators rather than pencil and paper; and the school district proposed eliminating laning, which would have limited the opportunities for advanced students to take advanced classes.
In response to these trends, Ze’ev and some two dozen parents formed the group “Honest Open Logical Debate” (HOLD) in February 1995. Ze’ev was on the steering committee. HOLD initiated the 1990s “math wars” in California: Its efforts brought hundreds of parents to packed school board meetings. In 1996, Ze’ev was appointed to the California state math curriculum framework committee, and subsequently to the item-writing panel for California’s math achievement test. As a result of Ze’ev contributions to these efforts, two-thirds of students were taking Algebra I in eighth grade in these by 2010.
In 2007, Ze’ev served with Assistant Secretary Bill Evers, his close friend, in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. Consistent with his independent, and some say stubborn and contrarian, thinking, Ze’ev refused to register with a political party, so he was made a senior adviser rather than a political appointee.
After his service in the Bush Administration, Ze’ev served on the California Academic Content Standards Commission. He was also briefly a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and in 2021 he joined the Independent Institute in Oakland, where he continued writing about education and content standards.
After initially beating lymphoma in 2020, Ze’ev fell ill again in 2023. All his sons were able to see him before he died. His last words were about whether the world was a “continuity” or whether it was “atomism.” He concluded that it was continuity.
Ze’ev is survived by his wife of over 44 years, Hadassah; his four sons: Gilead, Oded, Ilan, and Eytan; his six grandchildren: Ari, Ronen, Noa, Michal, Daniel, and Selah; and his older brother, Israel.
Ze’ev Wurman, January 19, 1950 – April 29, 2023.