Education Opinion

The Ayers Affair (VI): What About Petrilli’s Memo?

By Marc Dean Millot — May 23, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I’ll get to my May 15 comment on Flypaper and my May 16 expansion on edbizbuzz in response to Petrilli’s May 12 “Memo to the AERA” in the next posting.

My Reaction

My initial reaction to the cross-blog exchange between Petrilli and eduwonkette was that it could reopen the culture wars’ education front in the territory of patriotism, that Petrilli had stepped across the rhetorical equivalent of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone and moved dangerously close to its 38th Parallel, and that eduwonkette had directed a measured warning to him of where this debate could lead.
I was absolutely stunned to read Petrilli’s post. I was not surprised to see such remarks in the blogosphere, and not necessarily from Mike Petrilli - although I had no idea of his experience or interest in national security or law.

I was very surprised to see such a statement from Fordham’s number two. Yes, Flypaper purports to be a forum for the views of its staff rather than the organization, but the Institute is not some vast bureaucracy with processes to vet the company line. Fordham’s website lists a complement of fifteen – including support and administrative staff, interns and fellows. No one is clearing what Petrilli says before he ventures into the media. Flypaper is not Mike’s personal blog, but part of Fordham’s website, with Fordham’s logos, the larger site’s look and feel and the like. People are going to view what Petrilli says as something Fordham stands behind.

Maybe I’m hopelessly out of touch with the new media’s rules, but in the position he enjoys, and accepting that Petrilli believes what he wrote, Fordham’s second in command has some responsibility to exercise restraint.


First, if for no other reason than to protect his small outfit’s credibility. Fordham is not some fly-by-night, “one man” policy shop funded by one foundation. It’s been around a while, and has built up a following among education conservatives, a certain credibility among Washington’s political centrists, and even the grudging respect of its adversaries. That reputation has value – especially the credibility with the middle. What took years to build can be wiped out in a minute.

Second, because the game is not worth the candle – AERA isn’t going to remove Ayers, so what precisely will Fordham gain?

Third, because as I will explain later, and as I explained about Ayers, once Petrilli started down the path he took, it was inevitable that others to his right would use the statement to keep going where he left off. And an escalation of this fight will do nothing but harm to the cause of education reform. Open warfare over patriotism can only help those - on the right and the left - who benefit more from fighting than working the education problem.

Finally, because if he made an equally incendiary statement about a substantive matter of education policy, Petrilli would not base it on a few news clippings, a couple of articles written by a colleague; one relevant quotation that the maker has since denied and qualified; and second-hand knowledge of the relevant facts and methodology.

Petrilli wouldn’t do that as Fordham’s Vice President for National Programs and Policy because he knows he’d look foolish, put Fordham in the same league as the Center for Education Reform, and undermine the credibility of whatever Fordham chose to say about education at its next press conference. He wouldn’t do it as a professional engaged in education policy research because professional ethics dictate otherwise.For both reasons he would want a very solid case based on Fordham’s own detailed research.

Education, national security and law are three fields where people feel entirely free to voice their opinions without the benefit of professional study or practice. Professionals beg to disagree, and not only to restrain competition in their markets. People not only have a right to their opinions, they generally have a rational basis for their broad policy preferences.

But drop the same people into a discussion about real decisions in real cases in a specific policy area and they will quickly embarrass the experts they support. The distinctions, precedents and lines of reasoning that don’t matter to beliefs about the national direction suddenly matter a great deal. When experts in one field step into another without benefit of training or experience, they are no more capable than the average thinking person. Sol Stern did not cross that line. Since Petrilli’s statement, Fordham President Checker Finn has not added oil to the fire with additional remarks reiterating Petrilli’s challenge. Knowing what you don’t know is an important rule for all professionals.

This was where I was coming from when I wrote my response to Petrilli’s memo.

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: May 29, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 8, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 20, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read