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.

A Paradox? Or a Genuine Contradiction?


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

Can something really be good and bad at the same time? How about that delicious but fattening dinner you had last week? It was great, until you added up the calories, right?   Now what about a school? Can it be both good and bad at the same time?  Is educational quality — like beauty — in the eye of the beholder or do test scores say it all?
Good/ Bad blog

More precisely, can a school with only 18% of its 4th graders at grade level in reading be considered a good school? Before you say, “Of course not,” please read on.  Because we discovered that the FIRST graders at that school were reading confidently and competently. That’s right: the first graders were readers, but the fourth graders weren’t according to the results of the state test.

Is this a paradox, or a full-blown contradiction?

I’m asking these questions of you because we are asking them of ourselves, in our reporting for the NewsHour. It actually began with a different question: “Are the Reading Wars (phonics versus whole language) over, or do they rage on, but under the radar?”

As a starting point, producer Cat McGrath and I decided to see if we could get into some schools with terrible reading scores.  While a couple of principals turned us down, the principal of PS 1 in the South Bronx in New York City, said, “Come on up. We are a great school.”

“Yeah, right,” we thought. After all,  we had the scores in front of us: not even 18% of the school’s 4th graders were competent readers.

We went up to that high poverty neighborhood, where crime scene tapes proliferate and unemployed men linger on street corners. PS 1 fits right in. It is grim looking from the outside, a fortress-like building with few windows.  Inside is different, however. The classrooms and corridors of PS 1 are bright and full of energy, with student work displayed everywhere.   Jorge Perdomo, who’s led the school for  five years, took us to his first grade classes.  “Our first graders are reading,” he claimed, “and writing too,” pointing to their papers on classroom walls.

Our skepticism did not seem to bother him or diminish his enthusiasm.  “Come on back anytime — with your cameras — and see for yourself.”

We did.  We saw veteran and rookie teachers giving their first graders a strong (and essential) foundation in phonics.  First graders were learning that letters make sounds, that combinations of letters make different sounds, and that, when letters are strung together, they can make words.  They were decoding.

That’s only part of the battle, of course.  Comprehension, actually understanding what the words mean, is a tougher challenge.  To test that skill, I asked the first graders to close their eyes while I wrote a nonsense story on the board: “The blue pancake went swimming in the lake and ate a frog.”

They read it eagerly and confidently.  When I asked what they thought of the story, they said without much enthusiasm, “It’s OK,” but that was because they were just being polite to the white-haired stranger.  When I asked, “Is there anything wrong with that story?” (a question that gave them permission to be critical), they were impossible to contain.  Pancakes aren’t blue, pancakes can’t swim, pancakes don’t have a mouth, and pancakes can’t eat a frog.  The words tumbled out of their mouths.

The principal was right about his first graders, but what about the fourth graders and their 18% competency?

Adults offered several possible explanations.  By the time they’re fourth graders, one teacher said, they are no longer naive. They know that their Dad is in prison, or their Mom has a drinking problem, or maybe they now have to be responsible for their younger siblings. Life has caught up with them, and reading no longer matters.

The test is much harder, several offered.  Now they have to reach conclusions and draw inferences, and that’s much tougher.

We looked over past tests, and, sure enough, the passages were about subjects that poor kids in the south Bronx may not be familiar with (cicadas or dragonflies were two of the subjects, for example). Answering the questions did require inferential leaps, just as we had been told.

So we asked to talk with a couple of fourth graders who were reading below grade level, and here’s where it got complicated.  As you will see in the NewsHour piece (embedded below), both children, one age 9 and the other 11, handled the passages and answered all the questions. Maybe the personal attention helped, but they read easily and drew inferences correctly. We only ‘tested’ a couple of kids, but both were below grade-level, their teacher assured us.

Where does that leave us? Maybe the kids are terrible test takers? Maybe there’s too much stress (there’s a couple of weeks of test-prep build into the schedule)?  Perhaps there’s a fundamental contradiction between testing reading and reading itself?

I have a theory, but I would love to know what others make of this.

You can view the completed piece from PBS NewsHour (it aired on June 6, 2011) here:


WNET’s Celebration of Teaching and Learning needed more embrace of conflict

The two-day event run by New York City’s public television station (WNET) isn’t called “A Celebration of Teaching and Learning” for nothing.

I spent most of last Friday and Saturday sampling the smorgasbord of education offerings and came away impressed by the event’s focus on that operative word: celebration.  More than 2,000 people — most of them teachers — came to the Hilton to be buoyed up by dozens of speakers.  The stated goal was to “share insights and perspectives on what it takes to provide the absolute best in educational opportunities for our students.”

Among those sharing insights were Dr. Mehmet Oz, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Oliver Sacks, NBC’s Brian Williams, and ABC’s Cynthia McFadden.

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In education, a lack of response to basic demand

I started writing this blog entry on a flight to California from New York; I’m headed there for another book party and a meeting of the Learning Matters board.

For the last 30 minutes or so, I have been listening to a father talk about his two young children, ages 7 and 10.  He’s an older Dad with at least one adult child, and he radiates child-like enthusiasm about what amounts to a second go-round of childrearing. He’s been telling me about their endless curiosity; they always are asking “why?” and “how does this work?” and so on.

As I listened, a dark cloud flickered across my eyes and I wondered: what would their schools do to their spark?

Nurture it, tolerate it, or extinguish it?

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Another year without Fred Rogers, and more reminders of why we miss him

With some members of Congress intent on eliminating federal funding for public radio and television, a friend sent me this remarkable video.  It reminds us of what we lost when the remarkable Fred Rogers died eight years ago this Sunday, but it has a second powerful message about the value of public television and radio, then, now and tomorrow:

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The hypocrisy of Scott Walker … and whether teachers are becoming the enemy

EDITOR’S NOTE: In concurrence with the launch of John Merrow’s book, The Influence of Teachers, he’ll be using this space as a place to discuss some central ideas explored in the book. All proceeds from the book, available on Amazon for $14.95, are being donated to Learning Matters, a 501(c)(3) organization committed to independent coverage of education. We invite you to join in the conversation by commenting on these posts or reviewing the book online!

Is the direct attack on collective bargaining for teachers in Wisconsin likely to spread around the US the way the demand for democracy is spreading across the Middle East? I think it just might.

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On Michelle Rhee, Cyber Bullies and Teacher Pay: Excerpts from John Merrow’s The Influence of Teachers

Dear Friends,

This is a big week for us at Learning Matters, because of the unofficial release of The Influence of Teachers. It has received some wonderful advance praise, but I thought perhaps you’d like a sneak peek at what’s inside the book.

Below are excerpts from a few of the 17 chapters.

The book is available exclusively on Amazon, right here; I hope you consider going and getting your own copy.  I am donating 100 percent of the royalties to Learning Matters.



From Chapter Ten, “Following Leaders”

“I’m going to fire somebody in a little while,” the young superintendent said. “Do you want to see that?”

In our world, see means videotape. Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was actually inviting us to film her as she fired one of her employees.

My colleagues Jane Renaud and Cat McGrath had spent the morning in Chancellor Rhee’s office, filming her meeting with parents, community groups and principals. A dynamo, Rhee moved easily from meeting to meeting, seemingly unaware of the presence of our camera.

Jane and Cat were stunned by her invitation, but not so much that they didn’t accept on the spot. As Jane recalls, “She told us to come back at a specific time, and so we got a sandwich, returned to her office, set up the equipment and shot the meeting.”

That event, shown on national television on the NewsHour, helped create the media persona of Michelle Rhee: the fearless and determined reformer who puts the interests of children first.

From Chapter Six, “Paying Teachers”

Picture the typical salary schedule for teachers.  It’s probably just a page of small boxes. One axis notes years of service; the other denotes academic credits beyond the basic Bachelor’s degree; as you go up in years and out in credits, you make more money.   In the upper right hand corner, in the last box, is the maximum you will earn.

It’s like having a crystal ball, because on your very first day on the job you can look well into the future and see just how much (or how little) you will be earning 25, 30 or 35 years from that moment; it won’t matter whether you’re the best teacher or the hardest working teacher — or the converse, the worst and laziest.  Your salary is set.

From Chapter Nine, “Leadership’s Revolving Door”

Just as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball seem to play musical chairs with their coaches/managers, search firms recycle superintendents. No matter how long and hard these companies search, they inevitably seem to turn up the usual suspects: career educators, most of them white men.

In the fall of 2004, for example, only 16 of the superintendents in the 63 largest districts were women. Five years later, in the 2009-2010 school year, the needle had barely moved: Women were leading just 18 of the nation’s 66 largest big-city school districts. According to Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, “This percentage is actually way above national averages. While women are still a minority among urban superintendents, they are even more underrepresented in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas.”

From Chapter Thirteen, “Making Schools Safe”

Cyber-bullying can be stopped. Adults have to set the right tone in a school; they have to intervene instead of standing on the sidelines. They have to empower children rather than simply shutting down computers, for example. Above all, they must pay attention. And in order to know what to watch for, parents must understand that in many ways the face of bullying is changing.

Schools are supposed to be safe havens: physically, intellectually and emotionally. We don’t need anti-bullying laws (although about 40 states now have them) because of laws already in force that require school leaders to act.  Bernice Sandler, one of the forces behind Title IX (1972) holds that view. Title IX prohibits sexual harassment, and most bullying falls into that category, she explains.

“Most cyberbullying and other forms of bullying, as well, include sexual references. Girls are called ‘sluts’ and ‘hos,’ boys are called ‘fags’ and other sexual names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent.”

Dr. Sandler says Title IX requires schools to act, no matter where the cyberbullying occurs.

REQUIRED READING: 6 Titles Not To Be Missed

February is a great month for books about education, with very readable releases from John Seely Brown, Richard Whitmire, Ron Dietel, Alexander Russo, Gene Maeroff and one of Peg and Gris Merrow’s sons. It’s a short month, so you might not have time to read them all before March 1, but I hope you will give at least some of them a try. Below are my somewhat biased reviews of some notable titles.

For those who are looking forward to what schooling might become, “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Flux” is essential reading. While I don’t know co-author Douglas Thomas, I assure you that John Seely Brown is a deep thinker whose interests encompass just about everything. He’s one of the smartest people I know. To give you a taste of their thinking, here are a couple of quotes from the book. “We propose reversing the order of things. What if, for example, questions were more important than answers? What if the key to learning were not the application of techniques but their invention? What if students were asking questions about things that really mattered to them?” And “The ability to play may be the single most important skill to develop for the twenty-first century.” Amen to that, I say.

“A New Culture of Learning” turns school on its head, which the authors say is essential because the world our kids live in is already upside down. In short, play is the new work, and questions are the new answers. The book, which is short and punchy, is only available on Amazon. (Full disclosure: I blurbed this book.)

Richard Whitmire is an engaging writer and a fine story teller. Marry those talents with a charismatic subject, which Whitmire has done, and the result is a terrific read. “The Bee Eater” is a semi-authorized biography of Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of the Washington, DC schools. As some readers may know, we followed Rhee for 3 years  on PBS NewsHour (the 12 resulting episodes are viewable online). Whitmire, a friend and colleague over many years, essentially shadowed Michelle Rhee for months, and the result is an insightful portrait of a bold, courageous but flawed leader.“The Bee Eater” is published by Wiley.

Ready for a break, for a romp? Pick up Ronald Dietel’s biting spoof, “The Perfect Test.” It’s a dystopian vision of a world gone crazy, a science fiction portrait of the future that often comes wickedly close to where we are now. “The Perfect Test” will make you laugh, but it will also make you mad and make you think. (Full disclosure: Ron has generously signed over the royalties to the Education Writers Association and Learning Matters, my non-profit company.)

With all these books, I worry that Alexander Russo’s  will get lost in the shuffle, and I hope that does not happen. “Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors” is the gritty story of an unlikely attempt to fix a broken Los Angeles high school, Locke High School in South Central L.A. Alexander, also a friend and colleague, seems to have had complete access to the process, and the result is an engaging story with several complex characters, including Green Dot founder Steve Barr. (Full disclosure: I also blurbed this book.)“Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors” is published by Jossey-Bass.

“School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy” is the latest book from the tireless Gene Maeroff, the veteran New York Times reporter turned scholar. This is a dense but rewarding book, enlivened by stories of Gene’s own experience as a member of the school board in his home town of Edison, New Jersey. It’s not ‘tales out of school’ but a serious examination of the past and future of school boards. Given all the bad stuff that’s being written about school boards lately, this book is a necessary balance.“School Boards in America”, which is Gene’s 14th book, is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

And finally, I come to “The Influence of Teachers,” a book that comes out in a few days on Amazon. Neither Peg nor Gris Merrow, the author’s parents, are here to tell you to buy the book, but others are speaking up. Here’s a sample:

“Terrific” – Jim Lehrer

“Invaluable” – Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund

“Important and enjoyable, warm and thoughtful” Former US Secretary of Education Richard C. Riley

“Passionate, persuasive, and eminently readable” Chris Cerf, co-creator of ‘Between the Lions’ and recipient of the 2010 McGraw Prize in Education

“A book that will move you to tears and to action” Tony Marx, incoming President of the New York Public Library and current President of Amherst College

“If only there were more John Merrows!” E.D. Hirsch, Jr., founder of Core Knowledge and author of Cultural Literacy

By now you have figured out that I wrote “The Influence of Teachers,” which LM Books published on Amazon. It’s available on February 15th, although you can put in your order right now, by clicking this link. (All of the proceeds go directly to Learning Matters.)

Happy reading…

On Teachers: Let’s Stop Bashing and Get Proactive

Last week in this space I wondered why the President had singled out for high praise a school in Denver where the teachers had taken on their own union to get work rules relaxed. Was he, I asked, sending a not-very-subtle message to teacher unions, “Put kids’ interests first. Stop with the trade union behavior”?

I asked Peter Cunningham, the Department’s uber-capable Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, how that particular school was selected. He responded in an email that he had had nothing to do with it.

So if it wasn’t the Department of Education, then who? The likely suspects are on the President’s White House staff or in the Office of Management and Budget. Perhaps someone is off the reservation.

Or perhaps a speechwriter didn’t perform due diligence. That happens.

Or maybe eager staffers who work for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (former Denver Superintendent of Schools) did their job—promoted their boss—effectively. (We saw the Senator and others from Colorado give their own standing ovation at that point in the speech.)

I wish the President had singled out a successful school that also models what many of us would like to see everywhere: teachers and their unions working with management to give kids maximum opportunities to learn. That would have been a great lesson for his audience, and it would have helped tamp down the teacher-bashing and teacher-union bashing. Instead, he added fuel to their fire, which is already hot and getting hotter, as more governors go after tenure and seniority.

But what matters more right now is what the Department and others are actually doing. Lots, it turns out. For instance, later this month the Department will host 150 school districts (in Denver!) for two days about ‘labor management collaboration.’ In the press release, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is quoted as saying, “Union leaders and administrators across the country are finding new ways to work together to focus on student success. The leaders from these 150 districts are committed to bold reforms and are showing the country what is possible when adults come together, particularly in tough times, to do the right thing for kids.”

This event is sponsored by the two teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators and the Council of the Great City Schools. That is, just about everyone.
The Ford Foundation is picking up this tab, according to the press release. Elsewhere, the Gates Foundation is putting serious dollars behind collaborative efforts in Hillsborough, Florida and other districts.

The skeptic in me wonders about two phrases the Secretary uses: ‘bold reforms’ and ‘student success.’ If by the latter he means higher test scores, this meeting won’t amount to much. If by ‘bold reforms,’ he means ‘turnaround specialists’ and other half-hearted changes, the meeting will probably be a waste of time.

I hope he (and Peter Cunningham) insist that everyone prepare for the meeting by reading or re-reading the two most recent surveys of teachers done by Met Life and Scholastic/Gates Foundation. Use those documents as the foundation, and something great could come out of these two days in February.

Stopping teacher bashing is not enough. Nor is “better communication” between labor and management. What’s needed is a proactive effort to make teaching a better job.

NB: “Better Job” does NOT mean shorter hours or higher pay, if you trust what the teachers themselves say. What they want, according to MetLife and Scholastic/Gates, are opportunities to collaborate, involvement in curriculum, trust and respect.

The State of The (Teachers) Union

2011 SOTU address (photo NY Times)

Was the President sending a strong message to teacher unions last night? Sure looks that way in the light of day.

What most of us saw and heard was high praise for education. He put it #2, behind ‘innovation’ on his list. Five of his 23 guests were students, and a 6th—Jill Biden—is a community college teacher. That’s all good. Mr. Obama praised “Race to the Top” and called for rewriting No Child Left Behind, and that’s all good too.

He went out of his way to praise teachers and remind us all that parents must do their job—turn off the TV, and engage with their children. That provided a welcome relief from all the teacher- bashing going on now.

And—icing on the cake–he made an eloquent plea to young people: become teachers!

Friends of public education had to be smiling and may still be today. The National School Boards Association and others have issued press releases full of praise, for example.

You may remember that he singled out one public school for high praise.

Here’s what he said:

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said ‘Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it.’ [The reference is to principal Kristin Waters.]

I confess that the significance of the President’s choice went right over my head, but Andy Rotherham didn’t miss it. He provided context on the NY Times blog. Here’s what Andy wrote:

The president singled-out a Denver school that was turned around only after its teachers took on their own union to get out from under the standard collective bargaining agreement. Needless to say that’s a strategy the two national teachers’ unions don’t want to see replicated around the country. I wrote about that episode on The Times’s Op-Ed page a few years ago. Michael Bennet, now a senator from Colorado, was the superintendent in Denver at the time and the move was controversial then and the idea remains contentious today. Of all the schools the president could have chosen to highlight, it’s a fascinating choice.

Andy’s op-ed (March 10, 2008) provides more background:

When teachers at two Denver public schools demanded more control over their work days, they ran into opposition from a seemingly odd place: their union. The teachers wanted to be able to make decisions about how time was used, hiring and even pay. But this ran afoul of the teachers’ contract. After a fight, last month the union backed down — but not before the episode put a spotlight on the biggest challenge and opportunity facing teachers’ unions today.

This morning’s Denver Post explained further:

The high-poverty school was the first to petition for and be granted innovation status — an agreement by union teachers to waive certain district and union rules. The idea was to give teachers more time, money and other resources to work with struggling students. The school has been climbing in achievement over the years.
In its transformation, Bruce Randolph changed from being a straight middle school into a school serving grades 6-12. Its first class graduated last spring into the open arms of a tearful Waters.

Bruce Randolph had been on the list of schools to be closed. Today it’s not the slam-dunk success that the President implied. It’s still on the ‘watch list’ and ranks 66th out of about 150 schools in Denver, but it clearly has improved dramatically.

But the story is not how much the school has improved; it’s how. Union rules were in the way, and so teachers took on their union. With the support of the superintendent, they forced union leadership to back off.

It seems pretty clear that last night the President was firing another shot across the union bow, much as he did last year when he sided with a Rhode Island school board that fired its high school teachers when they wouldn’t go along with a reasonable ‘restructuring’ plan.

“Stop with the trade union stuff,” the President was saying. “Start putting the interests of students first.”

Unions don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, given the outpouring of anti-union and anti-teacher rhetoric and actions in New Jersey, Alabama, Wyoming and just about any state you can name. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two unions, seems to get it, but she has to persuade her mostly urban locals to move. The far larger National Education Association hasn’t shown any signs that I have seen that it recognizes that the ground has shifted, dramatically and probably permanently.

[Click here for the full text of President Obama’s address]