Ed Person of The Year #4: Eduwonkette–An Inconvenient Truth Teller

by Robert Pondiscio
December 29th, 2008

Once upon a time there was an unassuming guy from Kansas named Bill James. Big baseball fan. Great with statistics. Uncanny knack for seeing things in the stats others didn’t. Scary smart. Through pure statistical analysis, James was able to show what factors led to teams scoring runs and winning games, and how the efforts of individual players contributed to wins. He was often able to show with hard, empirical data, why many time-honored “truths” about the game were simply not borne out by statistics—why RBIs matter less than on-base percentage, for example. Or why stolen base attempts tend to hurt a team’s offense. He didn’t have a lot of luck getting his observations about baseball published, so he ended up self-publishing an annual book called The Bill James Baseball Abstract. It started out as a cult item with a certain kind of geeky, fanboy appeal. But 25 years later, what James discovered about baseball ended up transforming the way we look at the game and even how some major league clubs put their teams together. It’s probably no coincidence that two years after hiring Bill James in 2002, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since the end of the war.  World War, that is.  The first one. 

Before Bill James, baseball was all batting averages, bromides and intangibles-more than a century of baseball men who knew what they knew based on experience and instinct. They didn’t need numbers. They knew the game. Then teams like the Oakland A’s, as chronicled in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, started putting Bill James-style statistical analysis to work and found they were frequently able to compete effectively with large-market, big-budget teams like the Yankees. In effect, they used data to close the baseball equivalent of the achievement gap.

Education may have found its Bill James. Her name is Jennifer Jennings, but she’s better known as Eduwonkette. She made a name for herself in 2008 by demystifying the process of using statistical evidence to make rational decisions in education. More to the point, she used her extraordinary, Jamesian grasp of data to call out those who claimed they were using statistical evidence to make rational decisions. Sol Stern puts it bluntly, calling Jennings “the best bullshit detector on the web.” Diane Ravitch, another fan, put Eduwonkette at the top of her ballot naming this year’s most influential people in education. At her best, Jennings implicitly challenges education policymakers to be objective, to pay attention to what the data is telling us about education rather than what they want to believe-or want us to believe. And much like James, she makes the potentially dry world of statistical analysis not merely digestible, but fun. She wields a livelier pen than most professional education journalists, and on data she’s simply without peer.

“The amazing thing about Eduwonkette is the fact that pretty much everyone in the EdBlog world either loves her or deeply respects her work, or both,” says teacher-blogger Nancy Flanagan. “Her commenters are free to argue with her-and she will acknowledge her arguments’ shortcomings with grace and smarts. She makes statistics sing. Her occasional snarkiness is buttressed by scholarship and a finely-tuned sense of humor.”

Launched in late 2007 as an anonymous blog featuring a masked superheroine icon, Eduwonkette quickly won plenty of attention in the edusphere for what seemed like a nonstop stream of posts questioning the gains claimed by New York City’s Department of Education. The blog was accurately described by the New York Sun as “a stubborn thorn in the Bloomberg administration’s side.” But Jennings is no one-trick pony, having spilled varnish remover on Teach for America, Washington think-tanks, proponents of pay-for-grades schemes and dozens of others who seek to use data to promote their programs or points of view. Recently she offered one of the first analyses of incoming Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s record running the Chicago school system. “Have gaps separating white/black and white/Hispanic students in Chicago shrunk in the last 5-6 years?” she asked rhetorically. “Nah.” Note to Mr. Duncan’s future press secretary: You’ve been warned.

“Rather than merely toiling away in the vineyards of the American Educational Research Association, writing papers for fellow academics, [Eduwonkette] recently overtook Eduwonk as the top education policy blogger,” Mike Petrilli wrote in the most recent issue of Education Next, “even though her competitor is a former Clinton White House aide and cofounder of a major Washington education think tank. It’s clichéd to say that the Internet evens the playing field and makes the traditional trappings of power and influence obsolete, but so it is.”

What makes Eduwonkette particularly effective is Jennings’ relative lack of ego or apparent agenda. Guessing Eduwonkette’s identity became a favorite parlor game and gave early buzz to the blog. Her voluntary unmasking (done out of concern that incorrect suspects were being fingered with consequences for their academic work) was even covered by New York Magazine. But coming out has arguably given Jennings even more clout. Where critics were once able to speculate that she had “skin in the game” those whose ox she gores now have to grapple with what she writes, rather than attempt to discredit her with speculations about her affiliations and motivation.

Describing his role with the Red Sox, Bill James told the Wall Street Journal, “I see it as being my job to ensure as much as I can that we act on the basis of actual evidence.” That’s also a pretty fair description of Jennifer Jennings’ job in education. Indeed, if I were a savvy charter school operator, or even an urban schools chancellor, I might be tempted to ring up the talented Ms. Jennings and offer her a job. If Bill James could help the Red Sox break the Curse of the Bambino, who knows what Jennings might accomplish as an insider.   It took over 20 years for Bill James to leave his mark on the game of baseball. It wasn’t until Michael Lewis’ book came out that “Moneyball” became a household word. Today, some education wonks are fond of invoking Moneyball as a paradigm for public education. “Bill was an outsider, self-publishing invisible truths about baseball while the Establishment ignored him,” Red Sox owner John Henry said in a piece about Bill James in Time Magazine. “Now 25 years later, his ideas have become part of the foundation of baseball strategy.”

A prediction:  In the above quote, change ”baseball” to “education,” and “Bill” to “Jennifer.” Fast forward 25 years.

You heard it here first.