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Home » Chalk Talk – Who Are the Real Action Heroes of Education?

January, 2007

Education Week‘s recent story about a “popularity contest” of influencers in education policy seemed to originate, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. We are always fascinated by any conjecture as to who has the most influence when it comes to education. So we read with interest results of the study commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and produced by a research arm of Ed Week‘s parent company, The Editorial Projects in Education. Bill Gates topped the list of influential individuals (when does the world’s richest man not come out in the top ten?). Interestingly, two names that are rarely heard in the reform circles in which we travel were tied for seventh place, former governors James B. Hunt, Jr. of North Carolina and Richard W. Riley of South Carolina. This made us want to look deeper into exactly who is being influenced by whom.

It turns out that the Fordham Foundation-funded study started with 888 emails to unnamed “influence leaders,” asking for nominations in the four categories of Influential Studies, Influential People, Influential Organizations, and Influential Information Sources. Only 108 responded (12 percent), and their nominations included some obscure and now defunct groups like the Education Leaders Council and the National Education Goals Panel. While we’d concur (had we been asked) that these groups were once influential, we’d argue that it was their individual members (mostly state education leaders) who actually had, and in some cases still have, influence. Also getting nods were other groups that only insiders and policy geeks would recognize, as well as a number of the usual suspects such as ex-presidents and government officials. From these 108 responses, the mystery “influence ‘deciders'” were asked to rank the top ten vote-getters in each category – in the end, a little bit self-congratulatory, a little bit inside baseball, and ultimately focused more on sizzle than substance. After all, influence is not the same thing as improvement.

Not that we don’t think an influence survey is a good idea (can we stipulate positive influence?), but we’d like to tweak the approach. Time magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year offers a useful model. Although their focus was on the world wide web’s role in “bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter,” we see a parallel in the world of education reform. The real movers and shakers, changing things one law, one school, one textbook at a time, are YOU. Time‘s description of the web could just as easily have described the best influences on the last ten years of education: “a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before…. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.” (4,000 charter schools, anyone?)

We thought about all the thousands of people beyond the Beltway who have written laws on the back of a napkin, worked tirelessly to persuade lawmakers to pass those laws, created path-breaking schools, written standards, and in general challenged the conventional wisdom and dared to do more than give away money or posture on the speaking circuit. Those influencers might be a different lot than the list reported in Ed Week. They might be more like the 39 folks saluted by CER back in October for their daring performance on the front lines of American education – Action Heroes, if you will.

So we’d like to hear from individuals who have worked on legislation at the state level, or those who have persevered to open a school, or even parents trying to find a good school for their children, and find out who out there has been a significant influence – a contributor – in helping achieve education improvements at the local level, where the real battles rage – not in the ivory tower think tanks and academe. Send us their names and their stories.