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.

The Influence of TFA

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! Learn more about the book at www.theinfluenceofteachers.com.

By all reports, Teach for America’s 20th Anniversary Celebration in Washington last weekend was a star-studded event–as well it should have been given TFA’s growing importance. What began as a Princeton student’s senior thesis has become the proverbial 900-pound gorilla in education, a leader and a lightning rod. I’ve been part of what I believe has been balanced coverage of Teach for America, on the NewsHour, in a web-based series, and in my new book; that is, I’m not in either of the two large camps—those who love TFA and those who detest/fear/suspect it. The middle can be lonely, by the way.

Quick story here:  We followed seven Teach for America corps members in New Orleans for an entire year, part of our NewsHour coverage. We were being opportunistic: that is, we knew that only two or three of the teachers would make a NewsHour piece but we imagined that we could also get a pretty darn good documentary out of it.  By year’s end, we had some terrific material, and at that point I began looking for money.  I went to a number of foundations and individuals who have an interest in teacher education generally or in TFA specifically and made my pitch: 7 profiles, lots of good video of the nitty-gritty of the life of a first- or second-year teacher.

Fund-raising is tough sledding under normal circumstances, but this was downright depressing.  In every instance, I was asked a bottom line question, essentially “Is it all positive?” or “Is it all negative?”

Well, duh, of course it wasn’t.  We had captured reality, and reality is full of small victories and defeats.  A couple of the TFA teachers were splendid, seemingly born to teach.  Two were flops.  One got a raw deal from his principal and never hit his stride.  It was life, but no potential funders were interested in that story.
We ended up creating seven profiles and putting them on our web site, where you can see them for yourself and make your own judgments.
But it’s a shame that the world of teacher training has become so political. There’s no question that Wendy Kopp and Teach for America have changed the landscape and made a significant contribution.  But let’s not pretend that it’s all good or all bad.

As I write in my book, “It may well be that Teach For America’s greatest contribution to education will not be the kids who are helped or the talented young men and women who develop a connection with and affection for public education, but its relentless self-examination – a process that quite simply puts the rest of teacher education to shame. If Teach For America can work hard to figure out why some of its trainees become better teachers than others, why can’t regular schools of education?”

What’s Ahead in 2010

If you don’t mind, I feel like patting my colleagues on the back this week–in public.  Here are three reasons:

#1.  Last week the PBS NewsHour aired our piece about what the federal government is calling the Race to the Top, the $4.35 billion competition for education dollars.  It aired the night 40 states and the District of Columbia filed their applications.

#2.  We’re rolling out a bonus web video and two podcasts that feature a lot more information about the Race. This bonus video with Race director Joanne Weiss (below) will give you a better sense of the woman Arne Duncan hired to run the huge grant program.  In one podcast, you hear Colorado’s Lieutenant Governor Barbara O’Brien try to persuade teachers and other locals that more state and federal involvement is a good thing.  Finally, representatives from Maryland and Delaware and Weiss herself talk about one of the elephants in the room, the Gates Foundation and its $250K grants to some—but not all—states competing for Race to the Top dollars.


#3.  And we are also releasing parts five and six of our 7-part series about Teach for America.
These are short video profiles of rookie teachers in New Orleans, vivid pictures of the highs and lows of what it’s like to be on the front lines in urban education—with barely two months of preparation.  (There’s also an 8th part, an interview with TFA founder Wendy Kopp.)


That’s 12 (TWELVE) separate productions in the space of a few weeks.  Sounds like the work of a small army, doesn’t it?
But there are only nine of us at Learning Matters

Watch the credit roll for a news program or a documentary sometime.  If you can, count the names as they scroll by.  Quite a few, aren’t there?

Our work continues.  We’re planning another segment about the Race to the Top, looking at the judging process and digging into the skepticism coming from right and left.  I’m in New Orleans now with two colleagues, working on the next installment of our series about this city’s attempt to rebuild its schools, under the leadership of Paul Vallas.

These are remarkable times in American public education. The federal government’s role grows ever larger, economic pressures on schools seem to increase weekly, and foreign competition is a growing threat.  In these circumstances, schools can be forgiven for battening down the hatches in hopes of surviving the storm.  It’s perfectly understandable—but it’s probably bad strategy.

Holding onto the old ways almost never works. It hasn’t worked for newspapers, it isn’t working in journalism, and it probably won’t in public education either.

But what will emerge?  Is Race to the Top just the breath of new energy that’s required in public education, or is it a last gasp, akin to breeding better, faster horses for the Pony Express?

We’ll do our best to report these stories for you.

Teaching for America or Learning on the Job?

To what extent is classroom teaching a skill?  How long does it take to learn those skills, and is there a best way to learn them?

Teaching for AmericaThese are important questions at any time, but I submit they are of particular importance today, with Teach for America (and other alternative routes into the classroom) growing in popularity.

No doubt about Teach for America’s ascendancy.  During the presidential campaign both candidates spoke favorably about the program, and President Obama often speaks highly of it.  Continue reading