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. Diane Ravitch. Hands down.

    The “reformers” who are now having an influence are on the wrong side of history. In a democracy, the free exchange of ideas will trump social engineering.


    • Wendy Kopp has not only inspired with her vision, but with her action, mobilizing thousands of young idealists and activists to give their all to the most underserved kids in the country; they’re not in think tanks, they’re in the trenches changing their students’ lives and their own not just for education, but also for future leadership.


      • Wendy Kopp is certainly NOT the model for improving learning outcomes for children. Her business is cashing in on a concept that teaching is not a profession but a stepping stone to another, better paying career. She throws untrained, wealthy, white, ivy leagers into the most difficult, inner city classrooms in the country. The implicit racism of white missionaries entering all black communities to “save them” is but one objection to her business model. The others are de-professionalization of the teaching profession and cheapening wages for more experienced, competent teachers who come from the communities they serve.

        Further, public schools who hire TfA’s white missionaries, charges every school system $4000.00 per hiree whether they remain in the classroom or quit prior to their 2 year commitment. Kopp is getting rich off of the backs of public schools and poor kids. Her business model is amoral and anyone who cares about improving learning for all children should reject it.


      • Edit prior response:
        Further, when public schools hire TfA’s white missionaries, TfA charges every school system $4000.00 per hiree whether they remain in the classroom or quit prior to their 2 year commitment.

        One more thing: Diane Ravitch or Steven Krashen at http://www.schoolsmatter.info/ for the most influential educators. Both have been educators and researchers for many years.


      • Thank you Joan. I have never liked the way Kopp does business, mainly because if these people wanted to be educators they would have gone through an education program to get their degree in education. But they didn’t.


      • In the trenches for 2 years to build their resumes before they go on to their “real” careers.


    • Diane Ravitch is without a doubt the most coherent voice of reason and understanding of the complexities of education without leaving children out of the equation. She is bold, brave, and articulate. I wish I could take a class from her!!
      Another name, who has since passed away, is Gerald Bracey. What a great voice and critic – positive and negative – of our education systems……….His voice is missed.


  2. My write in vote for the most influential person in American education:

    The American Parent

    Learners are least impacted by every single nominee you set forth. If I were to ask my kids who influences their learning most– they would say their parents, teachers, and coaches. If I were to ask parents, teachers, and coaches in my community this same question about the most influential person in American education– they would name parents and teachers in the community.

    As an educational professional, I still think that the folks nominated above are, indeed influencers and disruptors. Alas, who among them can make a nation-wide impact? I’m not sure any of them can or will.


    • Yes, I second this. In my own post I voted for the American Schoolteacher because I assumed we were talking about schooling. However, the most important person in education in the United States is definitely, by far, The American Parent.

      John Merrow and other journalists can contribute much to the quality of education by distinguishing between “education” and “schooling”, as they are not the same. Many people have had many years of schooling, but a poor education (e.g. many of our poorest children) while other people have had little schooling but an excellent education (e.g. A. Lincoln). Perhaps the person who convinces the American parent of his critical importance in the education of his child will be the one who influences education the most.


  3. These competitions are always more about having some fun arguments than truly illuminating and insightful, but if by ‘influence’ we mean ‘make a difference in the real world of schooling’ as opposed to ‘make a lot of noise in the policy world’ then almost all of the nominees have had minor influence. If you go into schools today and compare them to 30 years ago (Nation at Risk), then the people who have had the most influence are people like Bob Marzano, Heidi Jacobs, and Carol Tomlinson – in other words, people who have had a wide influence on what actually happens day to day in schools.


    • I second Grant Wiggin’s nominations — and add Dr. Wiggins to the list. I’m not an educator, but a school board member; and all of the foregoing have been instrumental in facilitating a dramatic culture shift in my school community through their work with our teachers and administrators to refashion a school district that suffered from a legacy of low expectations — to one that is now detracked and striving to best serve all students at all ability levels.


  4. Still missing the person I find most influential: Sir Ken Robinson. People not familiar with him should watch his TED Talks and follow him on Twitter and consider reading his books.

    Diane Ravich, currently in my personal opinion, is simply a negative finger pointer – unable or unwilling to acknowledge education can get better. Her insistence that teachers must be a huge part of the solution is dead-on however.


  5. John – I guess you can put with Grant Wiggins, or others who feel this is not really a great horse race to win. Those with the most influence nowadays are mainly policy wonks who never taught in a classroom in their lives, or have ridiculously little experience in doing so. And to make matters worse, they believe such experience is inconsequential!

    It’s kinda like asking – who was the most influential politician during the McCarthy era? Or, who was the most influential politician in Stalinist Russia, or in Germany during the 1930s?….nobody we could come up with would be a very positive influence. (Pardon my extreme comparisons, but I spend my time down in the trenches of education, and it looks pretty dam bleak down here – the generals do not seem to care about the troops or have any clue of what they are doing, the new recruits are pretty week intellectually and most of the veteran soldiers are just hoping to get out alive.)


  6. The absence on Merrow’s list of teachers who actually work with children is striking! My nominee is Bob Peterson, long-time 5th grade teacher in Milwaukee Wisconsin, founder of the nationally read newspaper Rethinking Schools, and currently president of the Milwaukee Teacher’s Association. He is also co-founder of Fratney Elementary School/La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, which is a bilingual school started through a grassroots coalition of parents and teachers. His vision of education is grounded in participatory democracy in a diverse society, equity, and justice — a vision that guides his teaching and has consistently guided his work. Also, unlike Merrow’s nominees, he strongly views education as a public good, and pushes back attempts to privatize it, and to short-shrift teacher education (TFA being a prime example of fast-track teacher education).


  7. Grant Wiggins is exactly correct. Those who influence what actually happens in individual classrooms are not household names–even in teachers’ households. It is interesting to note therefore that only one person on the above list interacts directly with children: Big Bird. My friend and colleague E.D. Hirsch is the closest on Mr. Merrow’s list in terms of having a discernible influence on actual classroom practice. And his influence is still regrettably small in the big scheme of American education.

    The way we talk about education and education reform in this country too often rests on the assumption that who wins a House race somewhere in Georgia is more important to student outcomes than what happens in actual classrooms. This is, of course, nonsense. Whoso would be a reformer must be an instructionist (as Emerson did not say). If you’re not shaping the curriculum and instruction received by real kids in real classrooms, you’re not having an impact. Or at least not as much as you might.


  8. Larry Rosenstock and the students of High Tech High in San Diego. Watch this to see why: http://www.vimeo.com/12668335 The idea that learning is a collaboration between teachers and students is not implemented widely enough. Everyone talks about making education and learning relevant to students, but it’s not done better than at HTH where students (the largest untapped educational resource) use their heads (to design projects), their hands (to make them) and their hearts (to find a place for them in the community). Hard to do, I know, but light years ahead of what happening in most classrooms.


  9. I think John is really on the right track asking questions like this because they reveal the strenghts and limitations of those who want to influence education and flush out the features that establish influence. I have come to appreciate how asking appropriate questions can be more illuminating than expressing an opinion. One amusing and astute element of John’s question is the ambiguous nature of the word “influence” which can be negative or positive. My response, based on ample research, is culture.


  10. I really like the discussion you started because of all the smart things that are being said.
    I, too, like the Grant WIggins’ distinction (and would add Grant Wiggins to the list). Lucy Calkins is right up there with a delivery system for making writing a constructivist activity. I am so glad someone said: “Diane Ravich, currently in my personal opinion, is simply a negative finger pointer” thank you, John). I love the point that, yes, it is great teachers that are making the difference wherever they are–How to clone them, that’s the challenge.
    Thank you Liz, Christine, Robert, Steve.

    And most of all I thank Cevin for saying that it’s all about creating a culture of learning. Like all cultures, that, actually can be cloned. A learning community has a DNA that is replicatable.(apparently that is not a word–but it should be.)

    So I would like to add a young woman I met Friday, Sarah Elizabeth Ippel who founded (at the age of 23) the Academcy for Global Citizenship,(http://bit.ly/mdGiz4) a charter school in Chicago. It is a thriving learning community of 200 k-3rd graders, mostly latino, 80% below the poverty line, on its way to becoming a k-8. Five minutes tells you it is a thriving learning community and all 200 are all getting a great education. In an hour you can justify that intuition.

    So, John, get out to Chicago and see this place and what these people have done all in 4 years.


  11. Diane Ravitch. Agree or disagree with her, Diane has changed the conversation about U.S. education reform this past year.

    There are those who consider her a turncoat, a newly misguided defender of the status quo. Others admire her for pressing rhetorical brakes on a national reform effort barreling ahead full steam, fueled by a singular policy paradigm. The blogging commentators reacting to the recent Ravitch profile in the Washington City Paper are instructive: one finds there very little expression of middle ground.

    Yet, out of the discordant debate may come constructive conversation about new models, expanded alternatives, and more effective ways to improve learning while respecting teachers and better involving entire communities in reform.

    The City Paper called Diane the Anti-Rhee. Taking Note suggests she is the nation’s leading anti-NCLB critic. It seems to me that she is less the anti-anything than a refreshing voice for reexamination of assumptions that, in recent years, appeared to have become national consensus.


    • Diane Ravitch challenges the conversation to move from uni-dimensional to one that must widen to be truly meaningful. While other voices go ignored, her efforts are grounded in basic principles of democracy. Her influence is unquestionable and important in these times.


  12. I cast my vote for Diane Ravitch without reservation as she provided a voice for students, teachers, and public schools when it was not being considered or desired. Her notoriety , voice, and change of heart were and continue to be a great asset to those who find children to be treasures, far more than test scores ,and the goal of an education hurt by flawed accountability systems. She provides a magnifying glass to those who need help to see the harm of current reform efforts,


  13. Love them or hate them, most of the influential people here named aspire to be change agents for a public education system that needs significant attention. But if you really mean influential, I nominate Robert Yerkes, unfortunately; he’s the American psychologist best know for developing standardized tests. But then, he went on to champion eugenics …


  14. Diane Ravitch. She’s tirelessly working to speak for the teachers instead of to the teachers. Therefore her influence is multiplied.


  15. Diane Ravitch. Her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” resonated with educators and parents all across the country. For many, it gave voice to what they had felt, but had been unable to get heard. It has given momentum to real reform from classroom educators and parents, now seeking to have our voices heard in the shaping of educational policy in this nation. It was one reason we were honored to have Dr. Ravitch commit early to the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action at the end of July – go to http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org to find out more


  16. Hands down, Diane Ravitch. She helped build No Child Left Behind and now she sees it needs to be dismantled. She is a breath of fresh air in this stale, smoggy atmosphere of testing and false evaluations tied to political manipulation.


  17. My nominee is Mr. Robert Fritz of Cocoa Beach, Florida, who had the school flag at the elementary school where he was Principal placed on board the first manned space flight, Freedom 7 with Alan Shepard in 1961. The children watched the flight take off, the flag then hung in the school, before going to the Smithsonian and then Space Shuttle Atlantis on the 100th manned flight, STS 71 in June, 1995. It is on display now at the Astronaut’s museum. This, among other events, inspired many across a lifetime – those kids, now adults remember and pass the great lessons forward. Mr. Fritz has not stopped inspiring, encouraging, and thinking.


  18. Ms. Ravitch is the essential piece in the discussion of public education in America. NO reforms should be undertaken without her input….


  19. I have seen it here a few times, and am glad to have seeings as I am going to be an educator in the next year, but Diane Ravitch has been highly influential in response to the hugely negative campaigns against our public education system for the last few years and is most worthy of this recognition.


  20. Diane Ravitch…hands down. She is one of the few people who are are actually supporting public education against the corporate privatizers.


  21. Diane Ravitch is the person with the most positive influence on the education debate, hands down. But clearly the most influential person in terms of his impact on our schools is Bill Gates. No educator he, but through his immense personal fortune, he has been able to control education policymaking in this nation, at every level of government, enabling him to conduct one large scale experiment after another on our kids, with no research backing and without parental consent. Which is why I also consider him the most dangerous man in America.


  22. Diane Ravitch is the at this time the most influential, however, no matter how much you dislike this fact, Bill Gates has the money and the lobbying action action that is causing horrendous changes to field of education.


  23. Dr. Diane Ravitch- a true advocate for children with no ulterior motive or agenda other than for this country to do the right thing for all students!!! She not only has an opinion but has an inordinate amount of knowledge and experience to substantiate her views. If politicians REALLY cared about education in this country they would LISTEN to her and ACT on her recommendations.


  24. Not just because I worked for him, but I nominate Ron Wolk. His creation 30 years ago, Education Week, changed the field enormously and made possible a national conversation. It continues to dominate education news. And although it’s not as big as the TFA network, Education Week has an impressive list of alumni who are continuing to make their influence known in education.


    • I read Education Week fairly often these days. Without it, much would be unknown to the general public. Education issues simply are under reported or ignored by mainstream media and while a very important resource, I don’t think it’s known to many non-educators.


  25. I cast my vote for Wendy Kopp. One of the reasons that Diane Ravitch’s (current) message resonates with so many teachers is that it is one of respect for their profession – a sentiment that the national conversation on teaching is all too frequently lacking. In my opinion, however, influence should be a measure of changing conditions rather than recognizing conditions. Changing the culture around the teaching profession and increasing respect for teachers is a monumental challenge that is not easily tackled.

    While few college students know who Diane Ravitch is, many college students know that working for Teach for America is elite. It is a fantastic jump-start, a resume builder, a great job to put on a grad school application. There is a non-monetary incentive to teach in low-performing, high-poverty schools across the country. And while the occasional applicant may want to work for TFA for those reasons rather than a deep commitment to education, recent articles and other publications on and from TFA reveal that they do a pretty solid job of weeding out those applicants who are unlikely to be committed and persistent.

    For the first time in my recollection – and perhaps ever in the United States – there is an organization that makes teaching prestigious. Without question, TFA has increased the value of the teaching profession for younger generations. Wendy Kopp and TFA have the potential to be a catalyst for a fundamental paradigm shift around the value of teaching.


    • And those if us in the teaching PROFESSION do not want individuals who want to occupy space in a classroom for two years just to put it on their grad school application. It’s not a job, it’s a career, and those who so not want it as a career should honestly stay out it.
      If they value education, as you say they do, then they should stay in it for the long haul.


      • …those OF us in the teaching PROFESSION. Sorry. My error was due to a desire to respond quickly to this comment.


      • One error…those OF us in the teaching PROFESSION. Sorry. My error was due to a desire to respond quickly to this comment.


  26. Diane Ravitch, the only one with a loud voice and a national audience who knows what she is talking about.


  27. Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier have been teaching and influencing teachers throughout the U.S. for many years by their actual teaching (public schools, universities) as well as by their public writings and speeches. Their civil/civic conversations with each other have been a beacon for many of us in the best tradition of the Socratic dialogue.

    Luis O. Reyes


  28. Diane Ravitch. Ms. Ravitch doe snot argue that schools are perfect and can not be dismissed as a disgruntled union worker.

    She speaks from direct knowledge and research to point out that the current national reform movement is based on ideas and practices which have been shown to succeed only at making money for test companies and intentionally labeling good schools as failure. She also points out based on solid research the deep and disturbing questions which accompany the proposals now being made based on those profoundly flawed “results.”
    Diane Ravitch is the most important voice in American Education in 2011.


  29. Diane Ravitch is the most influential educator in America her abiltiy to stand up and say I was wrong about #NCLB and expressing the urgency in which America needs ot turn around our education system not only hits home with the teachers and educators who are dedicated and committed to make it better but it also hits home with parents like me want every child to receive an education that they can fall back on when they have nothing else. Diane Ravitch sounds the alarm on the failure of #NCLB and she sounds the alarm on #RTTT that will for sure be the most harmful to our education system if fully implemented. Diane Ravitch has allowed a conversation to happen and for voices to be heard that have been silent. She has stood up for teachers and children to try to make it better before we ruin the entire education system. She is a hero among cowards who are unable or unwilling to admit error and correct it.


  30. I agree with what people have said about Diane Ravitch and vote for her. Howard Gardner comes in 2nd, but I would also add a couple names for your future list. How about Carol Ann Tomlinson who is helping teachers understand differentiated instruction and how to meet the needs of all learners, and Judy Willis, a teacher and former brain surgeon who helps educators understand how the brain learns and has been able to prove both through medical science and through her teaching that learning has been deflated by pressure to teach to the test.


  31. “Who’s the most influential educator in America?”
    — Diane Ravitch.

    Now, if the question were rephrased to “Who has the most impact (positive or negative) on education in America?,” then the answer would be Bill Gate$, who is no “educator.” With all of the strings attached to Gate$-money, he is NOT a philanthropist; rather, he is more like the sovereign of a rival nation trying to take over aspects of our country through the weapon of the almighty dollar.


  32. Diane Ravitch has insight, perspective and an understanding that is unmatched. She is not taken in by the allure of well-dressed dilettantism nor by the pseudo-gravitas of profit-driven people who went to private schools and made a lot of money doing something else. Research, factuality and egalitarianism are her calling cards. She speaks for me; I’m a teacher.


  33. Diane Ravitch. Among the many areas in which she has exposed the emperor’s nakedness, she has called out the fact that the current education reform fads don’t just ignore but scorn and disdain actual educators. Ravitch speaks for teachers.

    Wendy Kopp gets the badge of dishonor for attempting to turn teaching into a non-professional temp gig for resume-polishers.

    Rap on Teach for America from Treme, David “The Wire” Simon’s New Orleans series.

    Four years at Radcliffe, that’s all you know

    A desire to do good and a four point oh

    You’re here to save us from our plight

    You got the answer ’cause you’re rich and white

    On a two-year sojourn here to stay

    Teach for America all the way

    Got no idea what you’re facin’

    No clue just who you’re displacin’

    Old lady taught fathers, old lady taught sons

    Old lady bought books for the little ones

    Old lady put in 30 years

    Sweat and toil, time and tears

    Was that really your sad intention?

    Help the state of Louisiana deny her pension


  34. I disagree with your statement below. Sure some of the 32 community school districts in NYC had problems. But to say their was little sense of urgency under the administrations of former Chancellors like Frank Macchiarola, Joseph Fernandez and Rudy Crew is just not true. Joel Klein and many of his high priced consultants repeated that statement throughout their tenure. I believe you read their press releases and did not attempt to do serious research.

    “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.”


  35. Diane Ravitch is the most influential at the point where we are now. She has emerged to lead the way in what will become the “post ed r(d)eform” era. The corporate and plutocrat-connected, ed reformers listed above are on their way out. More and more people are realizing that their efforts have not only failed to live up to their hype, but have opened the floodgates for cheating, crooked business scheming, re-segregation, self-glorification, and privatization.

    I also nominate Richard Rothstein as the most-needs-to-be-paid-attention-to person in education. John Thompson is a very close second.


  36. I like Gardner and Hirsch but dang it Ravitch help construct and cause the mess government schools are in today. Do not understand her and cannot support her…is she trying to make up for past sins without owning them?


  37. Most influential education book of the decade.
    Most requested speaker on education reform.
    Most courageous on her position on education.
    Most fearless, tireless champion of public education.
    Most watched educator–in one calendar year alone she spoke to over 100,000 people who flocked to hear her speak. Combine that with millions of viewers on The Daily Show.

    Bar none Most Influential Educator is Dr. Diane Ravitch, Professor & Education Historian!


  38. Larry Lezotte and Ron Edmonds.

    The 30 plus years of effective school research has shown to be extremely innovative. They were way before their time. The “7 correlates of effective schools” is a model and a mission. Improving schools is a never ending process. Until everyone believes ALL student can learn and show up to school motivated to do so, we will be selling public education short.

    Drink this kool aid!!


  39. Diane Ravitch is having an impact on what really matters: students and how they are taught. She is trying to redirect the focus of education to actual education, not merely test-taking. She realizes that assessment is necessary–both for students and for teachers–and suggests ways to do that without going to extremes.

    She is also inspiring teachers to stand up for themselves and speak up about these issues. She recognizes the professionalism of teachers and is wary of those outside the profession who think they know better than those who do the job every day.

    She may not be funded with billions of dollars as the corporate men are, but she is speaking truth to power and that’s not a small thing.


  40. Diane Ravitch, without a doubt. Her book is brilliant. Her conversation is NOT just negative finger-pointing but a dismantling of misinformation that is floating around and being believed. She works tirelessly to get the message out. AND she answers emails! Her willingness to change and stay in touch with the true feelings of teachers puts her leagues ahead of the rest.


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