Who influences education in America? Can anyone?

July 6, 2011

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

John Merrow, the respected reporter and producer of education pieces for the PBS NewsHour and other documentaries, recently “speculated [as he put it] about the most influential person in American education.”

At the top of his original list of influentials: Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America; Education Secretary Arne Duncan; former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the last at the very top “for his remarkable network of eleven protégés now influencing what happens in schools and classrooms around the nation;” and Big Bird.

Subsequently, in response to readers, he put Diane Ravitch at the top of his list as an outgunned “Five Star General in the ongoing education wars.”

Forget the quibble that one of the original four was not a person, and that three have never worked in a K-12 classroom.

Forget that Klein, who made his name as the head of the antitrust division of the Justice Department and the lead prosecutor in United States v. Microsoft, now heads the new education division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates, and makes eight times what he was paid as chancellor of the New York City schools.

Forget that many of the claims of educational success that Klein made as chancellor, or were made on his behalf, were attacked (by Ravitch among others) as having been as inflated as his salary and bonuses from Murdoch.

Yet even without those quibbles, the redoubtable Merrow has volunteered for a thankless assignment. On the list of possible influences, how about Bill and Melinda Gates or Eli Broad and the foundations they created with their billions? What about former Washington superintendent Michelle Rhee, who was at least as determined to beat up on teacher unions as Klein? In his follow-up, he lists some of them as Ravitch’s adversaries.

Merrow acknowledged that he got heat about his original choices. Ravitch came up in response to his invitation to readers of his website to suggest other names.

But I’d bet dinner at the fanciest eatery in the lower 48 that a decade from now, maybe less, the Merrow candidates – all but maybe Big Bird –  won’t even makeit into a trivia contest in American Teacher magazine.

How many of us can name, much less agree on, the most influential people in education in 2001 or 1991? George W. Bush, anyone? Rod Paige, Bill Bennett, Checker Finn? Lamar Alexander? Richard Riley? Linda Darling-Hammond? Arthur Levine? Paul Vallas?

Or, for that matter, name anyone in all of U.S. history, other than maybe Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, or John Dewey, who was a great national influenceon education. Parson Weems? Milton Friedman maybe? Ellwood Cubberley? Robert Hutchins? Mark Hopkins?

The question is impossible to answer because American education policy and practice are ever-mutable, and because Americans are hopelessly ambivalent and often totally confused about what they want from their schools. Do we want a meritocracy with tough, unforgiving standards, or a democracy with endless second chances?

Do we want schools to prepare students to be effective economic competitors and reliable workers for employers, or to socialize kids and make them happy, well-adjusted individuals? Should they all be academically prepared for college? How many Americans want their kids to be intellectually engaged rather than popular with their peers?

What about daily prayers and Bible reading? In a democracy, when a majority of local voters want creation science to be taught, should their will prevail? What about the teaching of contraception in sex-ed classes? Should community wishes or professional judgment prevail in the choice – and exclusion – of library books?

Unlike most of the other places that we purport to envy for their academically successful education systems – currently Finland, Shanghai, and Korea – we don’t have, or apparently even want, a single system, not a unified national system anyway.

Even the object of our envy changes. A half century ago it was the Soviet Union; in the early 1980s it was Germany and Japan.  In a culture like ours how could any individual voice or set of ideas or practices remain dominant or widely influential for any length of time?

The hottest thing of a decade ago, No Child Left Behind, set goals from day one that a lot of people knew were impossible to achieve. Now we are only trying to figure out how we can gracefully abandon them. It’s a little like Afghanistan.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

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