Wonder Wonk Unmasked

Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Jennings

Just a few days after she handed in her dissertation proposal, Jennifer Jennings, a soft-spoken Columbia sociology grad student who’s wicked with statistics, decided to start a blog. She was seeing plenty of praise and criticism of Mayor Bloomberg’s takeover of the city schools, but almost no serious analysis of the available data. “Education-policy debates are dominated by a small number of very loud voices,” she wrote in her first posting a year ago, and “ideological claims, rather than research, data, the experience of educators, and common sense, are wielded as weapons.” Thus was born Jennings’s alter ego, the— until now—anonymous blogging caped crusader Eduwonkette, clad in stretchy purple dress, face mask, and golden boots. Eduwonkette has become, as the New York Sun put it last month, a “stubborn thorn in the Bloomberg administration’s side.” The revamping of public schools is one of the administration’s proudest achievements, and a year before Albany must weigh the question of renewing mayoral control of the system, it’s important for it to look successful.

Unlike her online avatar, Jennings doesn’t wear spandex much. She says she initially opted for anonymity to leave herself a way out if the blog flopped. She wasn’t sure anybody would even want to read it, and feared that her fellow grad students and advisers would deride it as unserious. Still, “I didn’t become an academic to talk to five guys in a room with transparencies,” she says.

Her anonymity drove the city crazy. DOE spokesman David Cantor criticizes her for using the mystery to build cachet. “She doesn’t come on as someone who’s politicized, but as someone who’s using data to hold government’s feet to the fire, stuff I approve of theoretically,” he says. Still, he accuses her of “tremendous bad faith” for her aggressive interpretation of the stats. “She’s writing as if she wants the reforms that we’ve implemented and, by extension, the mayor’s tenure over education, to fail,” Cantor says, before quipping, “Don’t tell me it’s his ex-wife?”

Jennings says she didn’t set out to thwart the mayor and is surprised by the commotion the blog stirred and the guessing games that ensued as to her identity. Blogger Andrew Rotherham, a.k.a. Eduwonk, accused her of partisanship—having “skin in the game.” Others guessed that she belongs to the city teachers union. Education Week, the trade paper that hosts the blog, was also attacked.

Jennings decided to come out now because a handful of education insiders were beginning to guess her identity, or in some cases, mistake it. Some believed she was Amy Ellen Schwartz, director of NYU’s Institute for Education and Social Policy. Jennings feared that Schwartz, who relies on data from the city, could get blamed. “When it starts affecting other people, it is a problem,” she says.

In her field, Jennings is hailed as one of the brightest up and comers. “There’s no question about the quality of her work. She’s off the charts,” says demographer Andrew Beveridge, the Times’ chief consultant on analyzing census data, who has worked with Jennings for four years. Cantor is less impressed. “Her use of data is almost inevitably disingenuous,” he says, while conceding that Eduwonkette is “a gifted researcher.”

Many nights, Jennings writes while watching The Daily Show. She started a contest recently in which she solicited slogans for the DOE. “Reach out and test someone” won; she ran it alongside Michelangelo’s God bringing Adam to life. Perhaps more to the point was a runner-up: “Redefining success since 1876.”

Eduwonkette vs. Educrats
Who gets a gold star?

City Claim #1
Chancellor Joel Klein said that carving large high schools into smaller ones raises graduation rates from 30 percent to upwards of 80 percent.

Eduwonkette says: Students admitted to the smaller schools were of a higher caliber to begin with, with fewer in special ed or behind in reading and math than in the original, larger schools. Meanwhile, the kids who did not make it into the smaller schools ended up in other sprawling schools.

City says: She’s not comparing “apples to apples.” DOE spokesman David Cantor contended that graduates Klein celebrated were doing only marginally better than their peers in reading and math when they entered the small schools as ninth graders, but clocked spectacular graduation rates.

City Claim #2
The achievement gap is closing between black and Latino students and their white and Asian counterparts.

Eduwonkette says: Comparing average scores on state tests last week, she found widening gaps among fourth and eighth graders in all but one category—eighth-grade English. And when compared to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given to students in all 50 states, the picture is worse.

City says: Cantor acknowledged that the national assessment offered “a much less positive picture for us.” Still, when the shares of students achieving proficiency in reading and math are compared, the gap is shrinking on the state test. Klein has argued that the gap matters little if test scores are rising for all groups.

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Wonder Wonk Unmasked