Education Next Offers Policy Views, With an Edge

By Mark Walsh — March 24, 2015 9 min read
Paul E. Peterson, the editor-in-chief, has faced criticism over the cover of the journal’s spring issue.
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Education Next, a crisply produced quarterly that straddles the worlds of newsstand magazines and academic journals, has claimed a prominent spot in K-12 debates that tilts toward support for higher standards, accountability, and school choice.

That prominence was magnified by the glare of social media this month, when cover artwork depicting a black mother and a disappearing black father sparked sharply negative reaction—and differing responses to the controversy from two of the journal’s own high-profile editors.

The episode spotlights the emergence over the past decade of Education Next as a platform for opinion and research.

The magazine was founded in 2001 out of a school-choice-minded panel at Stanford University, the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

Education Next has been closely associated with such approaches to improving education as charter schools, private school vouchers, greater teacher accountability, and digital learning.

“We do have hobbyhorses, I’ll give you that,” Paul E. Peterson, the editor-in-chief and a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said in an interview. He insisted, though, that the journal abides by its mission statement that in “the stormy seas of school reform,” it will go “where the evidence points” in promoting “bold change” in K-12 education.

Cover to Cover

Education Next’s articles have included, from top, its retrospective on the Moynihan Report, with a controversial cover image; a piece on school choice; and a look at the educational value of field trips.


“I think we have tried to live up to that,” said Mr. Peterson, whose own research has often centered on the efficacy of vouchers and charters.

“Of course, we do get criticisms from many sides,” he added. “People throw rotten tomatoes at us routinely.”

‘Provocative’ Cover Image

Criticism pelted Education Next a few weeks ago over the cover for its spring issue.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the document best known as the Moynihan Report, a 1965 analysis that noted a rising proportion of black children being raised in households headed by unmarried mothers, the journal’s editors compiled a package of articles examining the current state of the American family.

The original report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant U.S. labor secretary and later a U.S. senator from New York, was titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” It was deeply controversial for its discussion of racial “pathologies.”

Education Next‘s retrospective carries the cover headline “Today’s American Family? 50 Years After the Moynihan Report” above an illustration of a young black couple in a pose inspired by Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting, but with the mother holding a baby and the image of the father fading from view.

Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute and one of five executive editors of Education Next, put the cover image out on Twitter—and asked his followers whether they found it “provocative” or “inappropriate.”

Mr. Petrilli quickly got his answer. Some on Twitter called the cover racist and asked why in 2015 a package about single-parent families needed to be illustrated with African-Americans rather than people of other races.

“Your cover is perpetrating blatant ugly fraud about Black fathers/families,” said a tweet by Melinda D. Anderson, a Washington freelance writer on education and race.

Mr. Petrilli soon apologized for promoting the cover in a way that he acknowledged was “to provoke a reaction.” A spokeswoman for the Fordham Institute said Mr. Petrilli had no further comment on the controversy or on Education Next.

Mr. Peterson, the journal’s top editor, responded quickly, too, but he was unapologetic about the cover. He wrote on Education Next‘s blog that while “single parenthood is not the prerogative of any one racial group,” it would be “disrespectful of Moynihan’s original contribution to illustrate a reconsideration of the report entitled ‘The Negro Family’ on its 50th anniversary with a portrait of a family from another racial background.”

In his interview with Education Week, Mr. Peterson declined to elaborate on the matter.

An Academic Discussion

On March 5, just a couple of days after the controversy erupted, Education Next held a half-day symposium in Washington about the Moynihan Report’s anniversary.

Outside, a 7-inch snowfall was more than enough to shut down most of official Washington. But Mr. Peterson, down from the snow-ravaged Boston area, was disinclined to cancel the event, in part because it was going to be webcast from the Hoover Institution’s new Washington office.

(Hoover is the nominal publisher of Education Next, with Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance—which Mr. Peterson directs—and the Fordham Institute’s parent, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, listed as sponsoring institutions.)

With an enlarged version of the Education Next cover displayed on an easel, the symposium was about as far away as one could get from a Twitter debate. It included scholars such as William Julius Wilson, a Kennedy School expert on urban poverty; Greg J. Duncan, a professor of education and economics at the University of California, Irvine; and Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. They painstakingly delivered summaries of their articles in the Education Next issue assessing the legacy of the Moynihan Report.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, told of working down the hall from Mr. Moynihan in President Richard M. Nixon’s White House. And the conservative columnist George F. Will, looking perfectly pressed despite the snowstorm, delivered some anecdotes about Mr. Moynihan’s outlook on poverty and education.

At a Glance: Education Next

Founded: 2001

Publisher: Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, with Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation as sponsoring institutions.

Mission: “In stormy seas of school reform, … [to give] voice (without fear or favor) to worthy research, sound ideas, and responsible arguments. Bold change is needed in American K–12 education, but Education Next partakes of no program, campaign, or ideology. It goes where the evidence points.”

Features: Magazine stories, peer-reviewed educational research articles, and an annual survey on K-12 education issues.

Frequency: Quarterly in print, plus an active website.

SOURCE: Education Week

“The single-parent family seems to be a more critical variable today than ever before,” Mr. Peterson said during the session.

The current contention aside, Education Next is known for its mix of magazine features, peer-reviewed research articles, and its annual survey about attitudes toward education.

The journal, which is sold on well-stocked newsstands, at a cover price of $7, as well as by subscription, has some 16,000 readers, according to its advertising rate card, and its website gets more than 110,000 unique visitors per month.

Mr. Peterson said that one of the journal’s most widely felt pieces was a 2010 research article about snow days. The article, by Dave E. Marcotte and Benjamin Hansen, suggested that as more school time is lost to snow days during the winter, the more negative the effect is on test scores.

“That piece has been used again and again in legislatures to justify longer school years,” said Mr. Peterson.

Another article with impact was a 2014 research piece by Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida, and Daniel H. Bowen on the educational value of field trips. Taking students to an art museum, the authors concluded, is good for critical-thinking skills.

Paul Teske, the dean at the school of public affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, called it “a cross between a journal and a magazine, and it’s more digestible than many academic journals.” He added: “It has a perspective that is pro-choice, pro-charter, pro-teacher-accountability—basically, the mainstream reform agenda.”

Sizing Up ‘Point of View’

The education historian Diane Ravitch, in her eponymous blog, has called Education Next part of a campaign funded by “billionaires and millionaires … to rid the nation of teachers’ unions.”

In an interview, the New York University professor, who has moved leftward from her days as a U.S. Department of Education appointee under President George H.W. Bush, noted that she was an original board member of Education Next and a contributor. Ms. Ravitch parted ways with the journal, she said, in a disagreement over a 2008 cover story featuring then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York as a knight in shining armor saving the city’s schools.

“I think it’s an interesting magazine, but it’s not nonpartisan. It’s not bipartisan,” she said. “It represents a respectable point of view. It’s a conservative point of view. I just don’t happen to agree with it.”

Andrew J. Rotherham, a former White House education aide to President Bill Clinton and now an education consultant, said he believes Education Next has not committed the sin of being boring or repetitive.

“Underneath the daily howling at the moon that goes on in education blogs and on Twitter, there is a much smaller group of people who are trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “Education Next provides that context that people want to read.”

Bill Bushaw, the chief executive of the educators’ group Phi Delta Kappa International, which publishes the Kappan journal, has taken notice of one feature of Education Next: its annual poll on education issues.

In a bit of guerrilla marketing, the newer journal has published its own poll results one day before the progressive-leaning Kappan has released its widely cited poll of public opinion about education late each summer.

“Their poll is well done,” said Mr. Bushaw, whose PDK poll, conducted by the Gallup organization, goes back more than 50 years. He notes that aside from a few results, such as a variation between the polls last year on attitudes toward the Common Core State Standards (the PDK-Gallup poll showed 33 percent favor the standards; Education Next had 53 percent), the journals’ polls are fairly consistent.

Mr. Peterson, for his part, said that much can depend on the wording of a poll question.

“There is science in the sampling, but the questions are an art,” he said. “I think reading the two polls together is the best way to understand public opinion about education.”

While the Kappan is not distributed on newsstands, at least one progressive-minded education journal is. Rethinking Schools, published out of Milwaukee by a nonprofit advocacy organization of the same name, sends some 1,600 copies of each quarterly issue to newsstands, its website says.

Kevin Welner, an education professor at the University of Colorado Boulder with a more liberal outlook, directs the National Education Policy Center there, which regularly scrutinizes the K-12 policy reports of think tanks, many of them conservative or choice-oriented.

While his policy center has analyzed some of the longer papers that underlie the research articles in the journal, he said, the Education Next articles themselves “tend not to have enough meat on them to analyze.”

“But I don’t intend that as a criticism,” Mr. Welner was quick to add. “I think that for what they are trying to do, they do it well.”

“Look, it’s published by one think tank and co-sponsored by [two others], so no one should be surprised by its outlook,” he said. “I think that, over the years, they have put out valuable and interesting content.”

He wishes that “when you walked by the newsstand, there were two or three other magazines offering other perspectives on education.”

“That,” he said, “would be a nice, healthy marketplace of ideas.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as For Education Next, Views With An Edge


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