EduScholar Rankings: Where Education Policy Should Be Going, Versus Where It Is

Every year, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute produces EduScholar rankings--a list of the 200 most influential scholars in the education policy field--for Education Week. The rankings combine six distinct metrics to assess each expert's influence in the academic, book, and media realms. While there are, of course, many ways to interpret the rankings and, as Hess himself acknowledges, legitimate criticisms of them, a key trend in the 2014 EduScholar list is hard to miss.

It is noteworthy that two original signatories of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA)--which advocates for policies that acknowledge and address poverty-related impediments to student and school success--vied for the number one spot. Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error spurred dozens of speaking engagements and copious media mentions to just beat Linda Darling-Hammond, whose scholarship advancing supports-based (rather than test-based) teacher accountability systems has helped shift the focus of the national dialogue on teacher evaluations. In their books, speeches, and commentaries, both women emphasize the importance of addressing the unique needs of students living in poverty if public education is to achieve its lofty goals.

Scholars whose work has focused on the myriad links between poverty and education--and strategies to weaken them--round out much of the top of the list. David Berliner, whose rigorous studies explain the various connections between poverty and school achievement, ranks seventh. Henry Levin, whose cost-benefit analysis work documents the societal returns to such BBA priorities as high-quality prekindergarten programs, is 21st. Robert Pianta (22nd), dean at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, whose research focuses on improving early childhood education, has called child poverty a "toxin." Richard Murnane of Harvard University, who collaborated with Greg Duncan to produce perhaps the definitive modern tome on the subject, Whither Opportunity, joins them at 23rd. And Stanford University's Martin Carnoy, who has worked with Richard Rothstein (65th) to clarify the role that poverty plays in PISA scores across participating nations, ranks 24th.

David Kirp of UC Berkeley (57th) has recently authored three prominent books on specific strategies to mitigate poverty's impacts on education. In his 2009 The Sandbox Investment, Kirp makes a passionate and evidence-based case for the kinds of public investments in pre-kindergarten that are increasingly high priorities at the federal, state, and district levels. In his 2011 Kids First, he proposed a five-part agenda for "transforming children's lives and America's future." The first three items on his list--strong support for new parents, high quality early education, and linking schools and communities to improve what both offer children--are right out of the BBA playbook. And in Improbable Scholars (2013), Kirp documents the advantages of New Jersey's Broader, Bolder Approach over popular but narrow, test-based reforms that he, like BBA, asserts do not work because they overlook the root causes of opportunity gaps--poverty and associated social ills--and thus not only fail to fix them, but can do real damage.

Other key BBA supporters also secured top spots. BBA co-chair Pedro Noguera, a leading voice for equity and justice in education, was ranked 11th. Fellow co-chair Helen Ladd has devoted much of her career at Duke University, including her 2012 presidential address at the Association for Public Policy and Management, to analyzing the impacts of poverty and strategies to alleviate them. And BBA co-founder Richard Rothstein's classic book, Class and Schools (2004), has become a bible for those who seek to understand the many interactions between race, poverty, and education and life outcomes.

Yet the overwhelming body of evidence developed by these and dozens of other BBA supporters on the list is scarcely reflected in the most prominent federal and state policies. The value-added scores that Berliner, Sean Reardon (62nd), Rothstein (65th), and Eva Baker (98th) caution should not be used for high-stakes decisions about individual teachers are increasingly used just so, due in large part to federal Department of Education mandates under Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers.

School Improvement Grants--the Department's tool for turning around "low-performing schools"--only recently added a whole-community/BBA-type approach to the punitive, test-heavy set of strategies that it instructs those districts to employ.

Promise Neighborhoods, modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone's comprehensive approach to education, receive tiny sums of money as pilots, rather than having incentives to develop them built into core education policies.

Bottom line? There is a gap--no, a chasm--between what scholars find to be at the root of achievement gaps and what we must do to narrow them, and the agendas that many policymakers continue to push. (This is particularly noteworthy given the conservative leanings of the EduScholar rankings' producer.)

Goal for 2015? EduScholar rankings that add a metric for policymaker attention to these experts' work. Even better? A ranking of top education policymakers based on how closely their choices hew to serious scholarship, rather than to politics and fads.