Who influences education in America? Can anyone?


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 make it 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 influence on 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.


  1. “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?”
    This isn’t an either/or question. To be effective economic competitors, we must support well-adjusted, balanced lifestyles for students.  Instead, we’re extinguishing creativity and the love of learning–far higher predictors of achievement than current practices.

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  2. Right On Heidy !
    It is sad that our policy makers are so shortsighted that they don’t see the critical importance of intrinsic motivation and creative expression as the true drivers of productivity and innovation.
    Competent, compliant workers do not create new economic avenues or advantages; these endeavors require too much time and effort for the uninspired to contribute significantly.  Only people who are motivated by their own inner drive will invest (and risk) their lives and livelihoods in new ventures which, often, have uncertain outcomes.
    Unfortunately, the current mood in education is for external drivers to push students towards minimal proficiencies that can be measured by test scores.  In the process, we are pursuing the wrong goals for the wrong reasons.  And, worse, we are killing the intrinsic motivation to learn in most students who come through our educational system.
    We should not be surprised when we see American innovation and creativity decline in the 21st century.  Our educational priorities are so off track that we are actually “killing-the-golden-goose” that made our nation great – the personal drive to invent and/or optimize.
    It’s time for educational policy makers to learn the basics of educational psychology.  The current rash of educationally unsound decision making clearly indicates a profound ignorance of the psychology of human motivation and learning.

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  3. First of all, I really miss Peter Schrag, who here debunks the lasting impact of  any “influentials” list, let alone any of their “ideas.”  Gosh, I hardly remember Arne Duncan right now.
    Second, thank you for mentioning the huge (often undocumented) impact of Daddy Warbuckses Eli Broad and Bill Gates and their legions of mini-me business-model entrepreneurs who are paying to shape the conversation about education in the media at places like the Hechinger Institute and in HBO Back-to-School Specials and in films like “Waiting for Superman.” Plus they finance private training institutes for principals, support anti-union scams like Teach for America, and fund charter schools left and right. And they  contribute big-time to the election of Presidents and school board members alike.
    Where is the voice of humanist Howard Gardiner who observed that children have “multiple intelligences?”  Ariel Paisley is right: it IS intrinsic motivation and creative expression that drive innovation and productivity.  It is true  that “the current rash of educationally unsound decision-making clearly indicates profound ignorance of the psychology of human motivation and learning.”
    We need “influentials” who will stand for these truths  and will fund public education based upon them, instead of caving to a narrow dead-end business-model of  “distance-learning,” big class size, more testing, more “accountability” and the inevitable corollary, more cheating.

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  4. “Who is most influential in American education?” is an absurd question.  And not because our system is “ever-mutable”.  Quite the contrary.  Our system of large monopoly school districts, nominally “governed” by school boards whose primary interest is in placating the narrow interests (unions, vendors, consultants and others in the old boy/girl networks) whose goodwill is required for the next election, has evolved to be quite resistant to almost any kind of external influence.  Large pots of money (e.g. NCLB, RTT) can temporarily alter the ship’s course.  A few administrators may make modest changes around the edges, and those changes may last for a time.  But how many of the people listed above have produced any notable, lasting changes in the daily lives of a significant slice of the students and teachers in this country?  Those people aren’t “influencers”, they are celebrities of a modest sort.  And like all celebrities, their primary function is to give us personalities and fantasies to talk about.  But getting talked about or dreamed about is not the same as having a measurable impact.

    Peter, you are tilling more fertile ground when you address the lack of agreement about what constitutes learning and a good education.  That is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  We have people who support:  back-to-basics, creative problem solving, project-based learning, the lecture method, learning the dead-white-men classics, ignoring the classics, learning foreign languages, not bothering to learn one’s native language, value-added evaluations, portfolio evaluations, standardized assessments, no standardized assessments, uniforms, no uniforms, restorative justice, conventional discipline – the list goes on, and on, and on.  Some of these things can exist with others, but believe me, they can’t all co-exist.  And yet many traditionalists insist on shoe-horning every student into a single monopoly district whose fiefdom happens to cover the address where he or she lives.  Our world is becoming more diverse in almost every dimension one can cite, and choices are multiplying everywhere.  But our educational system refuses to accommodate this new world by letting go of its most distinguishing characteristic — the geographically defined, one-size-fits-all monopoly.  Parents and students are demanding more and more choice in the education that taxpayers provide, and unless educators address — no, embrace — that immutable fact, I don’t expect any of the individuals mentioned above to have any lasting “influence”on how our children learn.

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  5. Hi all!
    B4 you get Edelman _ed Or Rhee_ed Look how they took down the unions in Illinois. search for the hot
    Aspen video of Stand for Children co founder.
    here is a link:
    A chilling effect upon corporate education reformers?

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