Who’s the most influential educator in America?


As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

A month or so ago, I speculated about the most influential person in American education — then two weeks ago I expanded upon those musings in a feature for the New York Daily News. In both columns I put forth four nominees — Wendy Kopp, Big Bird, Arne Duncan and Joel Klein — and chose Joel for his remarkable network of eleven protégés now influencing what happens in schools and classrooms around the nation.

I was attacked for my choice by people who feel that his influence has been negative, or even destructive. Few seemed to notice that I neither praised nor condemned the former Chancellor’s policies. No one challenged that he changed New York City schools in dramatic ways — nor could they. Remember that before mayoral control, New York City had 32 separate districts, quite a few of them known as jobs programs for cronies with little regard for student outcomes. There was little sense of urgency about actually educating large numbers of children, and the central office at 110 Livingston Street was a nightmare. Joel changed all that.

But there were other reactions, including a few “How could you leave off….?” letters.

So, without asking Joel, I am reopening the discussion and adding several nominees. The new names are:

  • Diane Ravitch, the former Bush education official who has become NCLB’s fiercest critic
  • Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences fame, whose writings have influenced thousands of teachers
  • E. D. Hirsch, Jr., the inspiration behind Core Knowledge, whose elementary school curriculum is — for me anyway — a bright shining light.

From the original list, ‘Big Bird’ is, of course, a stand-in for Sesame Street , Joan Ganz Cooney, the Muppets and The Electric Company. Add two men we have lost — Fred Rogers and Jim Henson — as you consider your vote. Just think how many American children have been positively influenced by this team!

Would you vote for Arne Duncan as Most Influential Educator in America?

Arne Duncan might deserve more votes if he continues to press Congress on NCLB, which he now threatens to do by granting waivers.

When you consider Wendy Kopp, realize she’s a serious contender — and not just for the 9,000 Teach for America corps members who will be teaching in some of our toughest schools this fall. I invite you to review some of the names of people who have come through TFA in its 20 years on the scene and remain influential:

That list doesn’t mention a large handful of Teachers of the Year, and about 15% of the principals in Oakland. What’s more, she and TFA are a case study at the Harvard Business School, an honor that has so far escaped Joel, Arne and Big Bird.

Before you cast your vote, let me add a wild card, which I am calling the “Roberto/Robert team. ” They are two mostly invisible hands within the Obama Administration — hands that may not wash each other. Roberto J. Rodríguez serves in the White House Domestic Policy Council as Special Assistant to President Obama for Education. Previously, he was Chief Education Counsel to United States Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). In this capacity, he managed the Committee’s Democratic education strategy for legislation addressing early childhood education, elementary and secondary education, higher education, and adult education. As for Robert Gordon at OMB, the Washington Post described him thusly: “Gordon will tackle the task of finding wasted cash in the financials of the nation. Education and labor are his specialties; he has written extensively on the impact of the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) bill, and has worked in the New York City Department of Education … Gordon has been an advocate for changing teacher-tenure rules in public schools, modifying NCLB and increasing efforts to fight crime.”

This raises the possibility that Roberto proposes from the White House and Robert vetoes from his desk at OMB, saying, ‘We can’t afford that.” Does that make them a force for stasis, for gridlock? Does that disqualify them? Your call.

So there are the new nominees for “Most Influential Educator in America.”

Vote here, vote early and vote often.

90 thoughts on “Who’s the most influential educator in America?

  1. Educators? Mmm, really? Wendy Kopp is a businessperson, Diane Ravitch is a historian, Joel Klein is a lawyer, and Arne Duncan is a basketball player. And Merrow is a journalist. Who is relevant here? It appears to be yet another prominent example of the blind are leading the blind here. Wake up. Authentic reports are easy to find online. Find actual educators’ blogs & Twitter feeds and follow them (Chris Lehman, for instance; also see the #edchat group) if you want to learn accurate information about education in the US today.


  2. The most influential educator is the person willing to actually teach the children for a very modest salary and difficult working conditions. I vote for the American Schoolteacher.

    With the partnership of parents and other citizens, the Schoolteacher will have the most effect on the quality of schooling in our country. Look for big changes in the coming year.

    Thank you, John Merrow, for keeping an open mind.


  3. John,
    All these folks do have varying measures of important influence on education and its direction. It’s apparent that many are frustrated with politics, especially Washington’s brand, and this makes people wary of policy makers and even educational administrators who seem to flow with bureaucracy.

    But policy makers and administrators are critical re policy development, budget priorities, and funding allocations at all levels. We all have to co-exist, so we all need to learn to collaborate more effectively regarding many matters, and especially concerning educational reform, which sadly will take another two decades to sufficiently implement. But as someone wise once said, “The two best times to plant a tree are fifty years ago….and today!”.

    Briefly, my votes for the two most important “educators” go to parents and teachers.

    PARENTS who by their very foundational relationship with their children, ARE the first teachers who can mold their very core beliefs, values and behavior and TEACHERS who, because of their choice to be in their profession (assuming they love teaching and are excited to assist students discover their potential), spend more concentrated time with K12 students than most parents.

    The more we encourage parents to believe THEY DO HAVE GREAT POWER TO EFFECT CHANGE IN THEIR CHILDREN’S SCHOOLS, the more quickly and effectively education reform will occur.

    Please join our NEW Tweet Chat #schools2life Thursdays 8-9pmEDT (USA) and our LinkedIn support site for longer discussions at http://lnkd.in/R6ww9Y

    Thanks John, for keeping the conversation/debate going! EdC


  4. Mr. Merrow,

    As you well know, there is a lot of disagreement about American education today, but there is one aspect about which there is huge agreement. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you, Joel Klein, Barack Obama, Diane Ravitch, Arne Duncan, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Almost Everybody would agree with the following:

    The health and well-being of the child during the pre-natal, post-natal and first five years of life have a huge effect on his education. The people most responsible for guarding this health and well-being are the parents of the child. For many of us, this is just common sense and we take it for granted and just assume that everyone knows this. However, every teacher will tell you that many parents do not know it, or choose to ignore it. To be fair, some are not capable of caring for their child.

    There is a movement right now to convince parents that “the school” can do an adequate or even superior job in regard to the education of the child even when the parents are grossly negligent, but of course this is not true. There are exceptions to be sure, but in general the child whose basic needs are not met does poorly in school and in life. I am talking about severe abuse and neglect, the kind that results in disabilities.

    So although I stand by my nomination of The American Schoolteacher as the most influential person in the SCHOOLING of the child, I want to nominate The American Parent as the most influential person in the EDUCATION of the child. Please help to make this critical distinction. Thank you for supporting equal opportunities for all children.


    • Linda,

      Thank you for your important additions of the educators most directly influential in a child’s life, the American Teacher and the American Parent. I would furthermore like to add the voice that we most often leave out of education discussions: the American Student! They should be the ones with the utmost influence, yet they find their needs largely unmet, as evidenced by the behaviors we teachers in high needs schools encounter every day in our classrooms. Gross negligence by parents during the critical stages of early childhood is a huge component, and if we as a nation were truly listening to the needs of the children who come into our classrooms hungry, abused, and neglected, our schools would have the critical wrap-around services necessary to address those needs, such as more counselors, more social workers, and more nurses.

      I also feel that we teachers can do a better job of listening to our students and their needs and developing more culturally responsive and therapeutic learning environments. Student surveys are also great feedback to take into consideration on our own performance as teachers.


  5. If there were any justice and if anyone at the top were listening, Diane Ravitch would be having the most influence. Sadly, I think a group of wrong-headed billionaires has the most sway at the moment.


  6. I am a humble rural schoolmaster who has been a trailblazer in AP courses. The most influential teachers in my life, intellectually have been
    Gilbert Highet
    E.D. Hirsch
    Diane Ravitch
    C.S. Lewis
    Allan Bloom
    Morimer Adler
    Haim Ginott
    Jacques Barzun.
    Isaac Kandel

    In particular I find myself re-reading Ginott, Ravitch, Hirsch and Highet regularly (at least once a year) Of course I read many other books and get some things from them. But only these authors and teachers have a cogent educational philosophy that I can respect and I feel is enduring. All of them are great lovers of literature, high culture and history. All of the believe in the importance of civic virtue and enduring values.


    • Richard,
      Thank you for trying to be a great teacher – that is a great gift to America.
      Thanks, too, for sharing a list of teachers who helped you. CSLewis is the only one I know (and love) but I’ll look the others up some quiet morning.
      In Peace,


  7. By the way Stephen Krashen (“The Great”) says the whole idea of an influential educator is “shameful” (direct quote) and merely “gossip”. I don’t think so. I am happy to list my favorite authors and educators.

    I suppose the only thing he values is a report from a Phd in Linguistics.

    In truth I suppose he is hurt he is not even listed in the top 100. But every dog has his day and he can mix his drinks and recall that once he was known as the “Malibu Maven”.


  8. There is no greater positive influence on our children than the teachers they encounter. Ask any student post graduation and most likely they will provide the name of one teacher that stood above the rest.

    The greatest negative influence on our children’s education…many of the names listed above qualify.


    • Be specific and give examples. For example, Stephen Krashen, in my opinion, was one of the more harmful educators of the 20th century as he encourage the immense growth of NENLI (non-English Native Langauge instruction) which coincided with the greatest collapse in reading and academic scores in the history of California. Since Prop 227 passed in 1998 and more emphasis has been placed on English as opposed to Phoney Bilingual Education (usually only Spanish only) students are , on average doing better, especially English learners Teachers CAN have a very positive influence on students but the real proof is what the students do and how they carry education on in their private lives and professions BEYOND SCHOOL. This is one of the great lessons taught by Gilbert Highet who was one of the most influential educators of the 1940’s 1950’s and 1960’s. His books are stiil classics and have great literary and academic worth. READ Man’s Unconqerable Mind or his translation of PAIDEIA by Werner Jaeger or our CLASSICAL HERITAGE. These are all permanent books and will be worth reading 100 or 500 years from now.


  9. Rebut and refute! Richard Munro, I call you out for inaccurate statements. California reading and academic scores have not collapsed; they’ve been gradually rising. And it’s unclear on the concept and misleading in any case to blame academic challenges on the growth of non-English Native Language instruction. Non-English Native Language instruction correlates with — d’oh! — an influx of non-English-speaking students, which tends to correlate with academic challenges. Don’t insult people by trying to mislead them!

    Looking at some of John Merrow’s names –has Whitney Tilson ever been in a public school classroom even once in his life except on a dog-and-pony-show tour?


  10. My vote is for Howard Gardner-the Hobbs Professor of Cognition at Harvard University, who deserves each and every one of the 24 Honorary Doctorates he’s received from colleges and universities around the world, and who, after 30 years of co-directing, researching, collaborating, teaching, and mentoring at Harvard’s Project Zero, and writing, advising consulting and speaking all over the world, is now reaching out to anyone and everyone who is sincerely interested in what constitutes Good Work through Facebook, Twitter, email and blogging.  This is a man who cares deeply enough about humanity to want to make authentic connections even to people far removed from the thousands of well-educated, like-minded teachers, school administrators, and learning specialists that he consistently attracts every year from all over the world to Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, and The Institute for Learning and the Brain.  Though Howard Gardner is best known for his “Theory of Multiple Intelligences”, and somewhat less so for his “Five Minds for the Future” and The Good Work Project he currently directs at Project Zero, he deserves the be considered the most influential educator of our time simply because he’s got the most to bring to the table, knows it, and is working on spreading that word himself instead of sitting around waiting for you to notice him-but there’s no doubt in mind that in certain parts of the USA he and his cause could probably benefit the extra attention you could bring to him!  Several years ago, Gardner reached a point in his long career when he could have easily decided to take it easy and rest on his laurels, but, instead, decided to dedicate the remainder of his life to sharing with as many people as possible “what works” in Education-according to his own thoroughly documented and empirically proven research and that of his esteemed colleagues-40 years worth of accumulated wisdom from the very best minds at Harvard, all of which has been continuously updated and revised to take into consideration recent additional research from several interdisciplinary fields-including the  latest findings in Neuroscience that demonstrate an impact on learning and brain development.  At Harvard’s Project Zero, Howard Gardner continues to serve as a Senior Director, currently conducting research as a Lead Investigator of The Good Work Project.  The dynamic GW research team that works under Garner’s benevolent direction pursues their own interests in investigating different aspects of what constitutes the excellent, ethical and engaging work of individuals, schools, businesses and non-profit organizations, how to recognize when things are working and when they’re not, and why, and what to do about it to encourage more Good Work.   A genuinely thoughtful, sincerely visionary Thought Leader, who is also a dedicated husband, father, and grandfather, Howard Gardner grew up as a studious, musically-inclined child of refugees from the Holocaust, which has no doubt influenced his interest in the arts and his concern for what is happening to our society’s respect for Truth, Beauty and Goodness in the digital age.  More than any other influential educator, he’s sought to create reflective dialogues across generations and between disparate peoples so that we can more easily understand and respect each other’s point of view, and find ways to work harmoniously together for the Greater Good- even when we don’t agree with one another.  His efforts in this regard make him an exemplary role model for children and adults.  Howard Gardner himself continues to set the standard for work that is entirely professional, truthful, ethical, engaging, reflective, collaborative, multi-cultural, inclusive, thoroughly and sensitively conducted, documented and presented according to Best Practices in the 21st Century-and to me and countless others-he is, and always will be, completely awe-inspiring.


  11. I think this is more like a list of the most famous U.S. people semi-affiliated with education. While Gardner’s work is no doubt influential, I am not sure there is data that has affirmed a positive impact on education for the learning styles movement.


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