Ronald A. Wolk, a pioneer in education journalism whose publications and passions helped inform and elevate the conversation about K-12 schooling in the United States, died on April 28 at age 86.
Wolk, who lived in Warwick, R.I., had been in and out of the hospital frequently in recent months and died of congestive heart failure and kidney failure in East Sandwich, Mass., said his daughter Suzanne Wolk.
Wolk was the founding editor-in-chief and publisher of Education Week, which launched with a splash in 1981 by running a scoop about efforts by President Ronald Reagan’s administration to downgrade the U.S. Department of Education, which was then still in its infancy. The administration’s efforts fizzled.
Wolk had been an editor of the alumni bulletin at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore when he became instrumental in an effort among college magazine editors and publicists to establish a national newspaper. That was the Chronicle of Higher Education, founded in 1966.
In 1978, when the Chronicle was sold to its editors and became a for-profit publication, Wolk took over as president of the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education Inc., which had started the Chronicle. He soon began efforts to study the possibility of a similar national publication to cover precollegiate education.
That led to Education Week, as well as later EPE endeavors such as Teacher Magazine and the annual Quality Counts report, which grades the states on a number of metrics of their education systems and has helped foster the standards-based movement to improve schools.
“There was no source of information like Education Week when we started,” Wolk said in January 2018 during an interview for an oral history. “Most of the people who were getting any information in education were … getting it from their local newspapers.”
Besides newspapers, there were just a few national and professional magazines that provided some larger perspective on K-12 education, such as Time magazine, Phi Delta Kappan, and Educational Leadership, Wolk said in the interview with Bethany Rogers, an education history professor at City University of New York College of Staten Island.
“And none of those was providing the kind of information that we thought people who were making decisions in public education need,” Wolk said. “So, we provided it, and it was an instant critical success.”
Today, Education Week provides in-depth news, analysis, and opinion on pre-K-12 policy and practice to 1.4 million unique visitors each month through edweek.org, live and virtual events, and its weekly print publication.
Wolk retired from Education Week and EPE in 1997 and moved to Rhode Island, where he remained active in efforts to improve public education nationally and in the state, such as serving as chairman and later chairman emeritus of Big Picture Learning, based in Providence, an organization devoted to creating small, innovative schools.
But to merely detail Wolk’s professional resume does not quite capture the forceful personality of a man with a booming, baritone voice who rarely minced words when it came to dealing with his reporters, policymakers, or anyone else.
“He was a gentle bear in many ways, but we always knew when he was in the house because he would be barking out orders,” said Virginia B. Edwards, who succeeded Wolk as editor and publisher of Education Week and as president of EPE in 1997. “He really demanded intellectual rigor from his colleagues, from his opponents, from anyone he wanted to engage in verbal sparring with.”
“He had his foot in the education policy world, but he was also a journalist,” added Edwards, who retired from that position in 2016. “He really appreciated the role of the public square, and the role of journalists feeding strong data and information into the policymaking arena.”
An Intellectual Awakening
Wolk was born in 1932 in Pittsburgh, to a steelworker father who left the family when Wolk was about 10 years old, and a mother who also worked in steel mills and other hardscrabble jobs.
Wolk didn’t expect to attend college, but his high school English teacher encouraged him to apply to Westminster College, a small religious institution in New Wilmington, Pa., and she even paid his application fee and helped arrange his room and board.
“I lived with a wealthy widow, and for my room, I cut her grass and drove her,” Wolk told Rogers for the oral history. “You know, chauffeured her around in her car, which turned out to be a real blessing to me because I had a new Buick most of the four years I was in college.”
Wolk said that a watershed moment for him occurred when an art history professor was giving an impromptu lecture drawing parallels between the worlds of art, literature, and the real world.
“I sat there for an hour, and I could feel the gooseflesh, you know, the goose pimples rising around my neck,” Wolk said. “For the first time in my life, I could really see how things connected. It was like a light went on.”
Wolk said he had gone to the college thinking that he might become a newspaperman because he loved to write. “But when this happened, I was really trying to figure out how the hell I could combine being a journalist with being … a learner, a lifelong learner.”
Wolk earned a bachelor’s degree from Westminster in 1954 and a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University in 1956. He served in the U.S. Army, assigned to an Army intelligence school at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, from 1955-57.
After serving as the education editor of the Endicott Daily Bulletin, a small newspaper in New York state, Wolk joined the alumni magazine at Johns Hopkins. He later told an interviewer that he had some misgivings about joining an alumni magazine, since he had grand ambitions to edit a publication such as LIFE or Look, the massively popular photo newsmagazines of that era.
But Wolk’s outlook changed after he spent a summer combing the files of the alumni publication.
“There were letters in there from some of the country’s greatest photographers and editors, complimenting the Johns Hopkins Magazine,” he told the magazine in a 2000 recollection. “I realized, somewhat belatedly, that I had joined a pioneering magazine.”
The editor was Corbin Gwaltney, himself a Johns Hopkins alum who in 1950 had launched his concept of a university magazine that offered not just alumni news and notes but substantive articles and crisp photography. Time magazine would later praise Gwaltney for creating “a model of lively thought.”
Wolk joined the magazine’s staff in 1958, the same year that Gwaltney and a core group of alumni magazine editors from around the country had launched the “Moonshooter Report,” which was designed to provide a national perspective about higher education and be included as a supplement in those magazines. By the second year, there were orders for more than 2 million copies of the report.
The annual reports continued, and in 1961, Gwaltney left Johns Hopkins to become the head of Editorial Projects for Education, which later became Editorial Projects in Education. Wolk, who succeeded Gwaltney as the editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, was the informal board chairman of EPE in those early years.
In 1962, Wolk took a leave from Johns Hopkins, and with a $25,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, visited higher education leaders around the country for eight months about the issues they faced and the information they had.
Wolk wrote a report noting that “members of the horse-racing fraternity, fans of baseball, investors in stocks receive complete daily statistics within hours, a number of persons reminded us, while persons in education must wait for months, and sometimes years, for the data they need.”
Wolk told Patricia Baldwin for Covering the Campus, a 1995 book detailing the history of The Chronicle of Higher Education, that one of the recommendations of his report “was for a communications vehicle for college and university trustees.”
The initial newsletter that resulted, called The 15 Minute Report, would lead by 1966 to the debut of the Chronicle, with Gwaltney at the helm.
With Governors and Kings
Wolk, meanwhile, had returned to Johns Hopkins to become a special assistant to the institution’s president, Milton S. Eisenhower, a brother of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Wolk had initially helped Eisenhower shape a manuscript he had written about his eight years as a special ambassador in Latin America during his brother’s presidency. The book, The Wine Is Bitter, was well-received, and Eisenhower asked Wolk to become his special assistant.
At about the same time, Gwaltney tried to talk Wolk into joining EPE full time. Wolk opted to accept Eisenhower’s offer.
“I have to confess that I just was so seduced by the prospect of working with Eisenhower because his brother had just left office,” Wolk said. “The next seven or eight years … I got to sit, you know, in the councils with senators, and governors, and kings, and queens, and princes as a fly on the wall.”
One such heady moment came in 1964, at the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The GOP was poised to nominate the ultraconservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona as its standard-bearer to go up against President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Milton Eisenhower was head of a moderate, 24-member panel called the Republican Critical Issues Council, which sought to steer the party toward the center with papers on a series of issues, including civil rights. The paper on that topic called for stronger voting rights laws, job creation, equality of educational opportunity, the enforcement of legal protections, and an end to segregation and discrimination, Wolk recalled in a widely published op-ed last year.
At the convention Eisenhower was determined to nominate the moderate Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania for president.
“I shall never forget the experience of writing that nominating speech,” Eisenhower wrote in his 1974 memoir, The President Is Calling. “I had scrawled some rather complete notes on a pad on the trip to San Francisco, but they were far from satisfactory. My assistant at Johns Hopkins, Ron Wolk, an able writer who had helped me with the Critical Issues papers (despite his being a Democrat), arrived in San Francisco a few days after I did, and I asked him to expand my notes into a draft.”
Eisenhower recalled Wolk and another operative being called to Scranton’s hotel suite, where the governor’s aides began rewriting the speech as a committee. Wolk sat quietly in a corner, refusing to participate in drafting a speech that he knew would trouble Eisenhower. For example, the Scranton aides wanted their man mentioned right off the bat, which Wolk and Eisenhower knew would set off a raucous response in the Cow Palace.
Still, Wolk delivered the draft to Eisenhower, who threw it away, and the two went back to making some final changes to their original effort, which is what Eisenhower delivered at the convention that night.
The speech wasn’t enough to derail Goldwater, who won the nomination on the first ballot, Wolk wrote last year. But Eisenhower wrote that Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC News lauded the speech as a highlight of the convention.
A ‘Chronicle of Lower Education’
Wolk’s career took what he called “a series of forks in the road.”
In 1968, he went out west to work for Clark Kerr, who had recently been fired as president of the University of California system by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, on the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Wolk spent 11 months in the job before moving back east to rejoin Milton Eisenhower on a new project, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.
Wolk was special assistant to Eisenhower on that panel, created by President Johnson after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The commission issued extensive findings about crime, poverty, education, and the media.
Wolk envisioned the commission post leading to a job in the administration had Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey won the 1968 election. “He disappointed me and let [Richard M.] Nixon win,” Wolk wryly said in the oral history.
Wolk instead took an offer to become a vice president at Brown University in Providence, R.I., charged with raising national awareness about an institution that was not nearly as well-known as its fellow Ivy League colleges.
In 1978, Wolk joined EPE as its president soon after the nonprofit organization had sold the Chronicle of Higher Education to its editors. He toyed with ideas such as a Chronicle-type publication for the health-care field, and a TV newsmagazine for college-owned public television stations. For various reasons, those didn’t pan out.
“So, the third idea was a ‘Chronicle of Lower Education,’ and that’s what we called it,” Wolk said. “It was the working title.”
Wolk acknowledged frequently that he was no expert on K-12 schooling despite his wide experience in higher education. But with intellectual ferment growing about how to improve precollegiate education, and with signs of interest from funders, Wolk and co-founder Martha K. Matzke set out to create a new publication.
Matzke, a veteran journalist who had worked with Wolk at Brown, would eventually become the executive editor of Education Week. In 1980, while foundation grant requests were pending, Wolk says he and Matzke began planning the nuts and bolts of the publication.
When Education Week did get on track, the founders had to consider one seemingly mundane but financially significant factor—postal rates. The founders learned that to qualify for the most advantageous rates, they would need to produce a minimum of 24 pages of content, not 12 pages as they had originally planned. That would mean busting their first-year budget and hiring more reporters, which they decided to do.
The editors also let writers run free with story lengths, and they also employed databanks and ran the full texts of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on education cases (in a pre-web era, when such texts were not easily accessible) to help fill those pages.
An Inaugural Issue Scoop
Wolk was not keen on hiring experienced education reporters from daily newspapers. “Most of them were jaded, they’d been there, … they weren’t very excited about this,” he said.
One exception was Peggy Caldwell, an education writer from the Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky.
“She knew a lot of the people in school finance, the people who were making policy around the country,” Wolk said. “She saved our bacon many times in those early years because she read every word and corrected most of the mistakes we were making just because she had the experience and the knowledge.”
As Education Week was preparing for its inaugural issue, published on Sept. 7, 1981, reporter Eileen White obtained a 91-page Reagan administration memo that called for downgrading the year-old Education Department to sub-Cabinet status and shifting key federal responsibilities to the state and local levels.
Just days before the deadline for that first issue, White phoned Wolk and said, “I got it.”
“I said, ‘You got what?’” Wolk recalled. She said, ‘I got the report that [then-Education Secretary Terrel H.] Bell did for Reagan.’ I said, ‘Get your ass over here right now!’ I slammed the phone down. She came over, and she had it, and we did a front page, copyrighted exclusive.”
The scoop rated mentions for the debut of Education Week in the newsmagazines and on network TV news.
“We broke the story nationally,” Wolk said. “We had the report. Reagan was going to dismantle the department, and Bell was recommending something like the National Science Foundation to replace it. And that made us. I mean we just—boom, we just landed.”
Education Week came along just two years before the release of “A Nation at Risk,” the groundbreaking federal report that helped spur the school improvement movement. It chronicled the many developments in that movement while keeping its news pages free of opinion and publishing vibrant opinion essays in its Commentary section.
In 1989, EPE launched Teacher Magazine, a monthly designed to treat the field’s frontline educators as the professionals they were. The magazine eventually transitioned to a web-only presence.
In 1996, Education Week began work on Quality Counts, an annual report on the progress of the states toward improving their school systems. Wolk recalled with some satisfaction in 2016, on the 20-year anniversary of the launch, that both Education Week and U.S. News & World Report had been considered by foundation funders to publish such a report. (The idea grew out of a 1996 summit led by President Bill Clinton.) U.S. News eventually dropped out of the bidding for the project grant, and the Pew Charitable Trusts awarded the grant to EPE.
When the Quality Counts report came out in January 1997, Wolk went on what was then PBS’ “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and said, “I think you have to start worrying about a nation in which fewer than half of its students can read proficiently, and fewer than that can do math proficiently. These kids are going into a high-tech information society. ... And if we can’t get a higher percentage of our students achieving, I suspect that this nation is in for real trouble.”
In September 1997, Wolk retired from full-time work with EPE and moved to Warwick, R.I. He remained as board chair of EPE until 2011, when he was named chair emeritus.
Wolk remained a participant in the debate over education reform and wrote commentaries in Education Week and elsewhere.
Michele J. Givens, the president and CEO of EPE, said Wolk was a “larger than life man” whose influence was felt far and wide.
“He had an incredible intellect but also a sharp wit,” she said. “It could be biting at times.”
Givens said that Wolk “held certain values that we have continued to carry through,” such as a dedication to journalism and those who carry out the craft, as well as a commitment to presenting “both the panoramic as well as the straight-arrow view” of developments in the field of education.
Wolk is survived by Mimi McConnell, of Cotuit, Mass.; their three children, Suzanne Wolk of Roslindale, Mass.; Lauren Wolk and her husband, Richard Hall, of Centerville, Mass.; Cally Wolk and wife Denise of Attleboro, Mass.; grandchildren Ryland and Cameron Hall and Ashley Wolk; a sister, Carol Westphal, of Ft. Smith, Ark., and numerous nieces and nephews. Another grandson, Dylan Wolk, died in 2010.
Articles by Ronald Wolk
Far-Reaching Shift in Federal Role Urged by Bell
Ron Wolk’s first article for Education Week. (September 7, 1981)
Ron Wolk’s Contributor Page. A collection of articles written by Ron Wolk for Education Week.
To Change Education, Change the Message (Commentary)
Laurene Powell Jobs’ investment in model schools is not enough to alter the education landscape, writes Ron Wolk. (January 5, 2016)
Why We’re Still at Risk (Commentary)
Ronald A. Wolk writes, “We will make real progress only when we realize that our problem in education is not one of performance but one of design.” (April 20, 2009)
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2018 edition of Education Week as Ronald A. Wolk, Dies at 86; Launched Education Week