Monday, July 07, 2008

An Anonymous Education Blogger Becomes Thorn in City's Side

By ELIZABETH GREEN, Staff Reporter of the Sun

July 7, 2008
Told that her child could not enroll at the local public school, a concerned mother this spring sent a frantic e-mail message to a person she hoped could help. Days later, her child had a spot and the problem was solved.
Her hero was not the Department of Education, the school principal, or an elected official: It was Eduwonkette, an anonymous academic researcher who for the past year has been writing a Web log about education news and research. She identifies herself only with an image of a masked lady superhero.
It was perhaps a sign of the blog's rising prominence that the mother said all she needed to solve her enrollment crisis was to threaten the principal and a city school official with a leak to Eduwonkette.
"It seems the prospect of you writing about this was a less than welcome one," the mother wrote in an e-mail to Eduwonkette. "Thanks again masked cyber guy."
Beginning first as an independent blog and then quickly migrating to the Web site of America's education paper of record, Education Week, Eduwonkette in the past year has become a stubborn thorn in the Bloomberg administration's side.
She sometimes stands with the city Department of Education on its policies; for instance, she supports the moves to make teacher hiring more like an open-market system, and she stood with Mayor Bloomberg and against the union in opposing a new law that bans teachers from using test scores as a factor in determining tenure.
She has also not been afraid to point out when she disagrees, and to do so with gusto.
She depicted Chancellor Joel Klein as "Darth Klein" in a Halloween-themed post, using Photoshop to mix his image with the Star Wars villain Darth Vader. She has excoriated Mr. Klein's signature small-schools initiative, under which large, failing high schools are split into smaller new schools, as a "bulldozer" that has displaced students with special needs.
A department spokesman, David Cantor, disputed that claim. He said 8% of students at small schools have disabilities, the same as the citywide average.
Eduwonkette has also tackled the prized policy that now bans middle-schoolers who have not passed certain courses from being promoted to high school. Criticizing this policy as contradicting academic research, Eduwonkette concocted a rap: "Shameful practice?/ DOE, you're just like a cactus/ Soaking up data but ya head is all dry."
Guessing her identity when the site first started was a popular parlor game not just among fellow academics but also Department of Education staffers.
Some have speculated that she works for the city teachers union, but Eduwonkette and the union's president, Randi Weingarten, disputed that. Ms. Weingarten even grilled newspaper reporters about the blogger's identity, asking if they were Eduwonkette.
In a recent telephone interview with The New York Sun, Eduwonkette insisted on preserving her anonymity.
"Universities expect us to devote our time exclusively to research, and blogging is a hard sell in that environment," she said. "It's still a new enough activity that universities don't quite know how to appraise its value."
She said she started a blog in order to summarize research on schools for a wider audience. "There's this large body of research that never sees the light of day," she said. The idea of the blog was to reverse that situation. Hypothesizing that policymakers were not taking research into account in their work, and doing so not on purpose but because they just did not have the time to comb through it all, she set out to provide them an entertaining crib sheet.
Yet as it has gone on, a running theme of the blog has become the failure of policymakers to take research findings into account and steer their practice accordingly.
"Call me old fashioned and curmudgeonly, but I can't stand it when the wonks break out in a 'research shows' chorus with no references," Eduwonkette wrote in one post. "If research so valiantly and definitively shows it, you should be able to tell us whose research shows it."
Then she quoted a top city administrator, Garth Harries, as speaking at an event about research showing that teacher quality has a greater effect on student learning than class-size reduction and yet, upon questioning, not being able to cite any studies to demonstrate it.
The blog has gotten a mix of reviews.
Mr. Cantor said: "She comes on like she's keeping it real, but time after time — on small schools, excessive testing, the budget — she uses evidence selectively or outright gets it wrong, always to the detriment of the DOE. Basically, she's a con artist, like lots of anonymous people on the Web."
A co-director of the Education Sector think tank, Andrew Rotherham, suggested on his blog Eduwonk that Eduwonkette might be unfairly pretending to be unbiased because she has "skin in the game."
A research and policy manager at Education Sector, Kevin Carey, criticized her on his blog as unreliable, saying she is "not exactly a disinterested observer."
Mr. Rotherham in an interview said he does not know who Eduwonkette is. He said her blog is good, but challenged her decision to write it anonymously.
"I don't think this is going to be remembered as Ed Week's finest hour," he said. "It's this issue of you got all this information to readers, without a vital piece of information for them to put it in context."
Others said they are not concerned with the anonymity issue.
The education historian Diane Ravitch described Eduwonkette's analysis as "brilliant."
Ms. Weingarten used the same word.
She said Eduwonkette is a rare voice in the chorus of those who have raised complaints with the Department of Education because of the way Bloomberg administration officials have responded to her.
"They have not yet figured out how to marginalize her," Ms. Weingarten said. "She knows her stuff, and she's very dispassionate about it."
Political science and education professor Jeffrey Henig, who coordinates a program on education policy at Columbia Teachers College and has written a guest-blog for Eduwonkette, said of her, "I don't follow the education blogs on a regular basis, but when I do I have admired how she wrestles with the complexities of education research in a way that makes them understandable but still does them justice."
Other people who have guest-blogged include the researcher Michael Klonsky; the founder of the left-wing activist group the Weather Underground, William Ayers, who is now a professor of education at the University of Illinois, and the Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern, who posted a rebuttal to Mr. Ayers's writing.

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