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Top 25 Education Activists in the U.S. Today

by Staff Writers

Education has become a hot-button topic in recent years, with politicians, teachers, and parents battling it out over unions, teacher benefits, student loans, state standards, and even school lunches. In some cases, the vitriol over education has meant protests, strikes, and marches and has left many in education divided over the best policies for reforming American education. While it’s important to know the major issues that are involved in these debates, it’s also key to know the major players. Here, we highlight some of the most outspoken voices, biggest players, and influential parties shaping education at all levels today.

  1. John Hunter:

    John Hunter has dedicated his life to working with children, as a musician, teacher, filmmaker, and most famously a game designer. He is perhaps best known for creating the World Peace Game in 1978, which has taught thousands of children how to collaborate, use critical thinking, and solve problems in a peaceful manner. Hunter knew early on what many educators are just starting to embrace today: that games can be the vehicle that gets students excited about and engaged with learning. Hunter shares his personal explorations into peace and philosophy with students, and his game is the subject of a recent film, World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements.

  2. Michael Bennet:

    This Colorado Democrat served as Denver’s superintendent of schools before being appointed to one of the state’s empty Senate seats in 2009. His connection with education hasn’t weakened since moving to DC, however, and he’s been a powerful advocate for education policies with legislators on both sides of the aisle. Bennet cosponsored the DREAM Act, which amended the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 by giving residency to aliens enrolled in higher education programs or serving in the military. While it has been a controversial piece of legislation, Bennet is pushing for further reforms that will help both domestically born and foreign-born students achieve their educational goals. His is a name to watch in education policy especially as the election draws nearer.

  3. Catherine Bellinger and Alexis Morin:

    Bellinger and Morin share a place on this list because most of their work with education activism has been done jointly. The duo started Students for Education Reform (SFER) while they were still undergraduates at Princeton in 2009, hoping to rally students behind a number of educational issues at both the college and K-12 levels. The group has taken off since it began and now boasts 71 chapters in 28 states, with an additional 70 applications from schools looking to form chapters on their own campuses. Bellinger and Morin have recently put their own educations on hold to focus on the group full-time and are looking to push support for the group the hardest in four key states they think will shape educational policy over the next few years: New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Connecticut.

  4. Steven Brill:

    Anyone who thinks journalism is dead doesn’t know the work of this hard-hitting writer. His 2009 article in the New Yorker about New York’s so-called "rubber rooms," places where teachers accused of misconduct simply hang out for up to eight hours a day as their cases wind their way through the system, exposed a previously overlooked area of wasteful educational practices that shocked many New Yorkers. His success hasn’t slowed his drive for investigative reporting, and he is currently working on a book about education reform that may just change how many view the process.

  5. Matt Damon:

    Actor Matt Damon is using his high profile and celebrity status to help his mother, who teaches early-childhood education at Boston’s Lesley University, protest many of today’s education reform initiatives. Damon and his mother have spoken out against No Child Left Behind and even refused to accept an award from the National Education Association because its president coauthored an article with Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, another organization the Damon family has railed against. Damon has also publicly criticized President Obama for his education policies. Yet not all are on board with Damon’s opinions, and many feel he is working against issues that teachers support, having little experience in the field himself to guide his activism. Right or wrong, there’s no doubt that his voice is a passionate and high-profile one in the education debate in the U.S.

  6. John Danner:

    Silicon Valley entrepreneur John Danner is using his high-tech skills to help students in some of America’s toughest school districts. Danner moved to Nashville when his wife took a job as a professor at Vanderbilt University, a move that would change his career drastically. It was there that Danner would become a middle-school teacher and develop a passion for education reform activism. When the couple moved back to California, Danner founded Rocketship Learning, a network of public charter schools that use technology to engage students in basic skills and practice, saving teacher interaction for support and higher-order discussions. It might not sound revolutionary, but it’s been a godsend to cash-strapped California schools that have been able to save roughly $500,000 a year at each of the Rocketship schools. In 2010, Danner’s project won the John P. McNulty Prize and the organization just received a grant from the Broad Foundation to expand.

  7. Arne Duncan:

    Not everyone is a fan of this controversial Secretary of Education, but no matter where you stand there’s no doubt that Duncan is a powerful voice in education reform. He’s part of a growing movement in the United States that’s pushing hard for teacher pay based on results. Duncan is advocating for stringent teacher evaluations, with 50% of a teacher’s evaluation related to student achievement data, 35% on student growth, and the other 15% based on other measures of student achievement. Many teachers say this isn’t a fair way to evaluate them and penalizes those in districts with few resources and poorly performing students, further driving away the educators they desperately need. Whether these kinds of hard-nosed reforms will help or hurt education in America is yet to be seen, but either way Duncan is likely to remain a major player for years to come.

  8. Bill Gates:

    Microsoft magnate Bill Gates has pledged billions to education through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has been a very outspoken voice in education reform over the past decade. Gates is opposed to cutting funding to education as a way to close budget deficits and has publicly chastised states for this short-sighted view of education. In order to improve education, Gates has said that schools need to help teachers develop and grow, then reward excellence in the field. Some of his views have been controversial with teachers, as he disagrees with raises based on experience and education and doesn’t think small class sizes are the best for students, stating that the best teachers should be paid to take on more students. Gates may be right or he may be wrong, but he has the money and the influence to make major changes in American education.

  9. Mark Emmert:

    Mark Emmert runs one of the most controversial education-related organizations in the U.S.: the NCAA. In the wake of recent scandals many have questioned whether sports should play such a big role in education or if they should be allowed at all, as they can detract from academia and cost schools money that could be spent elsewhere. Most recently, Emmert was behind the ruling at Penn State that has sidelined the school’s football team for the next four years, a punishment that itself has been highly controversial. As head of the NCAA, Emmert will have to play a major role in the coming years in reigning in college athletics, some of which have more power than university presidents and other school officials.

  10. Aimee Guidera:

    Data mining is no passing fad in education, and Aimee Guidera is at the forefront of the movement that’s looking for new ways to collect and analyze information that schools, districts, and teachers can use to make better decisions for their students. Guidera serves as Director of the Data Quality Campaign, a group that’s responsible for much of the data-based educational initiatives over the past decade. As head of this organization, Guidera will undoubtedly play a major role in much of the education policy and curriculum developing in the coming years, helping schools bridge the gap between standards and student performance.

  11. Kaya Henderson:

    Her old boss may have had a higher profile (see Michelle Rhee, also on this list), but this new DC Chancellor of public schools has just as ambitious of plans for the public schools. Henderson has created a five-year action plan to transform the district’s troubled public education system. Among the goals she has in her sights are increasing enrollment, improving struggling schools, increasing the graduation rate, and raising test scores in math and reading. Henderson has to do all of these while dealing with a strange teacher evaluation system, a cheating scandal, and competition from charter schools. It’s a tall order, but this education heavy-hitter plans to power through, avoiding some of the major mistakes of her predecessor along the way.

  12. Ariela Rozman:

    Ariela Rozman is the CEO of The New Teacher Project, an education nonprofit that believes that effective teachers have a greater impact on student achievement than any other single factor. In recent years, TNTP has exposed poor teacher evaluations and HR inefficiencies in urban schools through a series of reports, having a major impact on educational policy nationwide. While the investigative research TNTP does is valuable, it performs a service that’s even more important: offering teacher training programs at the local and state level. These two functions of the organization have made big leaps in helping to improve the education in poor and predominantly minority districts, and have helped numerous teachers gain valuable skills and improve their performance.

  13. Ron Tomalis:

    This Pennsylvania Secretary of Education served in George W. Bush’s Department of Education, is leading the governor’s education reform efforts, and has played a major role in the development and reform of a number of education policies. In short, he’s a major player in education legislation and reform. One of the biggest issues rocking the education debate in Pennsylvania right now is school vouchers, the outcome of which could set a precedent for states nationwide. Since he’s been in office, Tomalis has reached out to parties on both sides of the aisle, looking for ways to compromise and improve educational outcomes in the state.

  14. Geoffrey Canada:

    Many know Canada for the attention he received in the documentary Waiting for Superman, and since then he has become one of the most well-known faces of education reform in America. Since 1990, Canada has been president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization dedicated to improving high school and college graduation rates among students in Harlem. Canada is also on the Board of Directors of The After-School Corporation and the Chairman of Children’s Defense Fund’s Board of Directors. He has written a number of books about violence in the education system and has been the recipient of numerous awards for his activism and work in education.

  15. Randi Weingarten:

    Teachers’ unions have been taking a beating from all sides all over the nation, as states look to cut budgets by slashing teacher benefits and salaries and creating policies that are especially hard on teachers, many of whom are already overburdened. Weingarten has been at the forefront of that battle in recent years as the former head of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers and current president of the national American Federation of Teachers. In that role, she is perhaps one of the most powerful players in education reform and teacher advocacy in the nation. Weingarten will have a challenging battle ahead of her in the coming years as she has to revamp the image of teacher’s unions in the U.S. and balance the interests of numerous teacher and educational groups in the United States, who don’t always want the same things.

  16. Michelle Rhee:

    As former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools from 2007 to 2010, Michelle Rhee was one of the most well-known and infamous education reformers in the nation, taking a slash-and-burn approach to the failing D.C. area school system. While she no longer holds that position she remains a controversial figure in the field of education due to her aggressive style of reform, what some believe to be anti-union sentiments, and her unsubstantiated claims about what she accomplished during her tenure as chancellor. Still, few can argue that she hasn’t had an impact on education activism in America, both as chancellor and as the founder of StudentsFirst, a nonprofit political advocacy organization that works on education reform issues such as ending teacher tenure.

  17. Mike Feinberg:

    In 1994, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin started KIPP (short for the Knowledge is Power Program) in Houston immediately after completing their Teach for America commitment. This program would go on to be one of the most successful programs in low-income areas in years. Within the first year, two-thirds of students, many of whom were still learning English, would test at the gifted and talented level. To date, more than 80% of students from the original KIPP academies have gone on to college (only 25% of students from the larger community do the same). While KIPP programs have spread nationwide and have made a difference in many students’ lives, they aren’t without criticism. Some say the screening processes weed out students who really need help, selecting those who are already highly driven. There is also a very high attrition rate for low scorers and while many more students go to college, not all of them graduate. The program is also hard on teachers, who are expected to work unrealistic hours, creating a system that is prone to burnout. Still, it’s hard to argue that the KIPP program hasn’t had some serious benefits and Feinberg, as a result, has become a major force in educational activism.

  18. Jonah Edelman:

    Edelman heads up Stand for Children, an organization that advocates for children’s education causes. It was founded in 1996 but in recent years has gained momentum, pulling in more than $3.5 billion in public funding for K-12 programs throughout the United States. The group has helped to push through policies that have had a marked impact on education in places like Oregon, Colorado, and Illinois. Edelman has proven to be a powerful leader of this grassroots operation, changing the focus of the group from rallying behind children’s issues to actively changing the public education system. Edelman has drawn criticism in recent years, however, as he is a supporter of charter school expansion, the evaluation of teachers based on test scores, and the elimination of seniority protections for teachers, which, predictably, has raised the ire of teachers’ unions and teachers themselves.

  19. David Coleman:

    You may not have heard of David Coleman, but you’ve undoubtedly heard about his work on the Common Core Standards that will soon be the prevailing modus operandi for public schools in 45 states. Coleman is a classicist, enamored with ideas and reading, things that have had a major impact on his development of the Common Core Standards. The new standards focus on getting students to better analyze what they’re reading, though some have balked at how they downplay fiction and poetry in favor of nonfiction texts. Starting in October, Coleman will become the president of the College Board, the group that administers AP courses and the SAT, as well as supporting a number of education advocacy issues.

  20. Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey:

    This dynamic duo founded Revolution Foods, an organization that provides healthy school lunches to low-income students in a number of school districts around the U.S. The women are part of a growing movement to provide healthier options in school cafeterias, with the goal of reducing obesity and helping students develop healthy habits as they grow into adults. Since 2010, the organization has gone from serving just 30,000 meals a day to a whopping 120,000 and has recently begun offering students access to health-focused vending machines. Their business may see a boost in the coming years, as states look to give schools incentives for providing healthy meals, and as youth obesity rises, the services offered by these entrepreneurial women are only going to be more in demand.

  21. Jay Mathews:

    Jay Mathews is an education columnist for the Washington Post, penning a column for the paper itself and also writing a blog on its website called Class Struggles. Mathews has been perhaps one of the most outspoken voices in education-related writing over the past decade, both in his work for the Post and in his own publications. In 1999, Mathews won the Benjamin Fine Award for Outstanding Education Reporting for both features and column writing. He has also published a number of successful books on American education, including Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) with America’s Best Public High Schools, Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools, Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, and Work Hard. Be Nice. Mathews has also developed a national ranking system for high schools, called the Challenge Index, which is published on the Washington Post website.

  22. Sam Chaltain:

    This DC-based writer and education activist works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to create healthy, functional learning environments. He is currently the National Director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 educators create more democratic learning communities. Chaltain draws on his experience as an English and history teachers in New York and Brooklyn in his work, penning education-related articles that have appeared in publications like the Washington Post and Education Week and writing a number of books on education and education policy (especially as related to the First Amendment) in the United States.

  23. Joe Rogers:

    Joe Rogers wants to help young black and Latino men see reading literature as something that’s cool, normal, and positive. That goal is a big part of the work being done through his education and youth advocacy group, Total Equity Now. Recently, Rogers led a march and book donation event in Harlem called "Literacy Across Harlem," which brought out many residents who paraded their favorite reads donated them at the Harlem Book Fair. So far, the event has collected 250 books, a good start for the community leader’s goal of promoting literacy is the troubled neighborhood. While Rogers is still mostly a local player, look for him to push harder and on a bigger platform for education reform in Harlem in the coming years.

  24. Jonathan Kozol:

    Writer, educator, and activist Kozol is best known for his books on public education in the United States, work that has helped cement his role as a powerful education advocate and activist. Kozol began his career as a teacher in the Boston Public School system where he was fired for teaching a Langston Hughes poem, an experience he documented in his first book, Death at an Early Age, which won the National Book Award. Kozol is currently on the editorial board of Greater Good Magazine, and during his career he’s held two Guggenheim Fellowships, has twice been a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation, and has also received fellowships from the Field and Ford Foundations. His books, among them Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, have helped to expose some of the worst problems with America’s education system, especially in documenting the vast inequities between rich and poor areas.

  25. Diane Ravitch:

    Former Assistant Secretary of Education under George W. Bush Diane Ravitch has undergone a bit of a reversal in recent years. Once a champion of tough accountability measures, national standards and testing, and school vouchers, she was hated by teachers and educational groups alike. Yet since her tenure in D.C., Ravitch has changed her stance on nearly all of those issues, winning her wide favor and support. Ravitch has been a vocal critic of nearly every aspect of modern school reform and the architects behind these reforms, airing her concerns on her blog and in national publications. She has become the go-to source for critical analysis of all things related to education policy and will likely play an important role in key election issues this year.