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.

Who’s Bigger?

by Robert Pondiscio
November 20th, 2008

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli is showing us no love. 

Mike has a piece about edublogs in the new Education Next.  It’s good; you should read it.  But in a table of the top education policy blogs, the Core Knowledge blog is conspicuously absent.  And it’s not like we wouldn’t have made the Top Ten, based on Mike’s methodology, Technorati’s “authority ranking” — the number of blogs linking to a particular blog in the past 180 days. 

Here’s how the edublogs in my bookmark list stack up based on Technorati’s authority rankings:

Joanne Jacobs  217
Eduwonkette  167
Eduwonk  146
Campaign K-12  125
The Education Wonks  119
Flypaper  95
Jay P. Greene  93
The Quick and the Ed  87
Matthew K. Tabor  85
Core Knowledge 84
This Week in Education  79
Edwize  74
Intercepts  69
Schools Matter  68
Bridging Differences 66
D-Ed Reckoning 56
Edspresso  46
NCLB Act II  40
Sherman Dorn 39
Eduflack 29
Swift and Change Able 27
Thoughts on Education Policy 25

Note, this list excludes pure teacher blogs, even though some of them do veer off (how could they not?) into policy from time to time.  Petrilli’s piece, meanwhile, heaps well-earned praise on Eduwonkette, who came out of nowhere in the past year to (by Mike’s Top Ten list) become the Top Wonk.

The story of Eduwonkette is particularly illuminating; she was recently revealed to be Jennifer Jennings, a graduate student in sociology at Columbia University. Rather than merely toiling away in the vineyards of the American Educational Research Association, writing papers for fellow academics, she recently overtook Eduwonk as the top education policy blogger, 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.

Mike is also dead-on in noting the absence of an authoritative parenting blog.  “There’s no significant parent voice in the national online conversation,” he writes, “just as there’s no national parent advocacy group in Washington. That’s a real shame; someone should blog about it.”

Hello, Jennifer

by Robert Pondiscio
August 24th, 2008

The secret’s out.  Eduwonkette, the masked heroine who rights wrongs armed only with data and panache, has revealed her true identlty.  And she’s not who you think she is, not matter who you thought she was.  She’s Jennifer Jennings, Columbia doctoral student in sociology.  Tonight, she’s outing herself and ending one of the edusphere’s most entertaining guessing games.  Ms. Jennings says she began the blog last year because she was “bad at crocheting and tired of watching the Yankees lose.”  She clearly had no idea it would attract so much attention.

Why am I dropping the mask now? Over the past few months, two things happened. First, people started to wrongly finger other educational researchers as eduwonkette. Given the New York City Department of Education’s affection for my data analysis, some researchers rightfully worried that a case of mistaken identity could have negative implications for their relationships with the DOE. Second, others have started to figure out my true identity. It was a matter of time until someone else made my identity known, and I ultimately decided to introduce myself on my own terms.

Eduwonkette’s coming out party includes a nice little feature in New York Magazine.  So now those that have taken issue with the Eduwonkette because of perceived bias, will have to deal wth all those stubborn facts she throws around.  I’ll miss the mask, but I’ll continue reading Jennifer’s brilliant blog.

Who Is Eduwonkette?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 7th, 2008

NYC’s best education reporter, Elizabeth Green of the NY Sun, has a big piece this morning about anonymous blogger Eduwonkette, whose blog has become “a thorn in the side” of the New York City Department of Education.

DOE communications chief David Cantor and Eduwonk Andy Rotherham are among those who take shots at EW, alleging that her anonymity keeps readers from evaluating her bias. Having spent decades in the news business before becoming a teacher, I should be predisposed to agree. So why doesn’t her anonymity bug me? Perhaps it’s the nature of her blog. By focusing on research, EW on her best days functions as a first-rate BS detector, saying in essence “here’s the data. You decide.” The fact that she’s got deep pocketed institutions and major players in the edusphere taking shots at her is a testament to her impact. Indeed, you can probably divide edubloggers into two camps: those who admit they are envious of EW’s impact…and liars.

But that’s her second most significant accomplishment. Her first is that she makes education research entertaining. Her anonymity may be frustrating to her critics, but her blog is indispensible.