12 People Changing Education As We Know It

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If the crisis in higher education and the recent teacher strikes in Chicago are any indication, this is a tumultuous time for education, as major changes are being made, hard battles fought, and policies redefined. There are some big names at the forefront of those and other changes being made all over the nation. Some of these individuals have cemented their place as forces of educational change over the past decade by being outspoken advocates, leaders in innovation, and policy writers, while others are just starting to affect real change in education.

Here, we highlight some of the biggest names in education right now (in no particular order), whose contributions may just change schools, teaching, and the educational system in America for decades to come.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates may not be an educator himself, but through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he’s having a pretty big impact on schools around the nation. This shouldn’t be surprising, as Gates not only garners a lot of attention through his position as a business leader, but also through the hundreds of millions of dollars the foundation doles out in funding for educational projects. In 2010, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center named Gates the most influential person in education policy over the preceding decade, and for good reason. Over that period of time, Gates contributed over $1.2 billion to high school reform efforts, helped bring technology into schools that needed it, and advocated with some success for changing the high school system in the U.S. It’s unlikely that Gates will slow down anytime soon and with more than $30 billion in the foundation, the group will stay a major player in developing education policy for years to come.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

One of the biggest talking point in education reform over the past few years has been the Common Core curriculum that will be adopted by most U.S. states by 2015. The inspiration for that change comes from E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Hirsch was motivated to develop a core curriculum due to experiences he had studying written composition. He discovered that it wasn’t just the readability of a text that influenced a student’s ability to understand it; background knowledge also played a very key role. Since then, Hirsch has been an outspoken education reformer, writing several acclaimed books on education, defining the phrase “cultural literacy,” and now helping to develop a system that will give students nationwide a set structure for their learning, hopefully giving them the skills and abilities needed to get ahead in the 21st-century world.

Diane Ravitch 

Diane Ravitch has held key positions in education under two U.S. presidents, helping build a decade’s worth of educational policy and assessments. Yet, Ravitch is unique among education reformers in that her
experience in government actually shifted her opinions on what reforms American schools need to succeed. While working under George H.W. Bush, she was an advocate of school choice and accountability. Later, under George W. Bush, she helped develop and implement No Child Left Behind. While Ravitch once supported these policies, she eventually became disillusioned by them, realizing that neither would help make the drastic changes necessary to reform American education. Since then, Ravitch has become an outspoken opponent of NCLB, charter schools, and test-based accountability. She is a one of the loudest and most important voices in education reform today and her books, articles, and commentary on education matters are some of the most sought-after and respected, making her a sure player in any educational change in the future. 

Cami Anderson

Cami Anderson become superintendent of the Newark school system in 2011, which despite spending an astronomical $25,000 per students is largely failing due to poor graduation rates and test scores. Anderson might not be in a position that different from many other superintendents nationwide, except that the school system she’s just taken on drew enough national attention that even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg stepped in, donating $100 million to improving urban schools. This has put Anderson on a national stage, and many are watching to see what she’ll do to really reform some of New Jersey’s worst schools. With other high-profile school reform attempts resulting in some less-than-stellar results (Michelle Rhee’s tenure in D.C. comes to mind), Anderson has a tough battle ahead of her, but if she succeeds, her methods could become the model to emulate for struggling schools nationwide.

Linda Darling-Hammond

Linda Darling-Hammond has been a major force in education for almost two decades. As a professor at Stanford, she helped to redesign the school’s teacher education program, offering teachers in training a chance to learn how to work with students from diverse backgrounds and better navigate subject matter standards. More importantly, however, she served as the executive direct of the National Commission of Teaching and America’s Future which, in 1996, produced a highly influential blueprint for education reform called What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future. Darling-Hammond continues to be at the leading edge of education, but not necessarily in reinventing the classroom experience, at least for K-12 students. Her influence has been in changing teacher education itself, both at Stanford and around the state of California. She has worked to develop a network of education and professional development schools that cater to the needs of teachers and that help them learn about ways they can lead reform and change in their own communities and classrooms. Darling-Hammond’s belief that teachers, not bureaucrats, need to be the ones reforming education will have far-reaching implications for educational change in the U.S.

Salman Khan

Just this year, TIME named Salman Khan one of its “100 Most Influential People in the World.” It’s a big honor and one that this educational innovator rightfully deserves. Even if you haven’t heard of Khan himself, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Khan Academy, the free online learning tool that’s showing up in classrooms and in homes all around the world. Khan didn’t set out to make waves in education, however. His first videos were created to help his teenage cousin with algebra but soon became popular with other learners, and the project simply snowballed from there. Today, Khan Academy is home to more than 3,000 lessons that allow students to learn, practice, and get help at their own pace. With pilot programs in schools in California gaining momentum, it could soon be a pretty commonplace method of helping students with a wide range of educational topics.

Freeman Hrabowski

Freeman Hrabowski is another one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” in this case for his contributions to higher education. Hrabowski heads the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and since 1992 when he took over the school, it’s been transformed into one of the nation’s top institutions for graduating students of color in science, math, and engineering. It’s quite a feat and has gotten him accolades for being one of the best leaders and college presidents in the U.S. today. With STEM education and graduation rates being a key issue at educational institutions throughout the U.S., especially for minorities and women, Hrabowski’s accomplishments are incredibly inspiring and have served as a national model for how to promote equal access to science and engineering careers for minority students. If other schools begin emulating Hrabowski’s model, the achievement gap in these fields could narrow substantially, and STEM education may just become a popular choice for minority groups.

Sir Kenneth Robinson

 Educational advisor and former professor Ken Robinson has given several talks that have become internet sensations on the popular site TED (one video has over 12 million views), but his role in education extends far beyond giving inspirational talks. Robinson spent 12 years as a professor of education at the University of Warwick and has since his retirement been honored with numerous awards (even being knighted) for his dedication to arts and cultural education. In 1998, Robinson led a commission on creativity, education, and the economy, which produced an incredibly influential report called All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture, and Education. In that same year, Robinson helped develop a creative and economic development plan in Northern Ireland and chaired the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. At the crux of Robinson’s activism in education is his belief that Western systems of education undervalue and ignore creativity, which he thinks are key factors not only in educational success but also in economic development. As schools move away from providing art, music, and drama classes and focus in on test scores, activists like Robinson will be increasingly important voices in developing education systems that really produce individuals who can take on 21st-century challenges.

Sebastian Thrun

Thrun, along with partners David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky, is poised to have a major impact on the future of education through Udacity, an open educational tool that offers free high-quality courses to the general public. A former Stanford professor, Thrun is a robotics expert and is currently working on a number of projects as a Google Fellow in addition to leading Udacity. He has also been named one of the most creative people in business and has been inducted into the National Academy of Engineering and the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, winning a number of prestigious prizes and awards in the process. In short, Thrun has long been a leading force in academia, but through Udacity, he’s bringing his expertise and that of others to learners all over the world. Thrun was inspired to create online course materials when he felt frustrated that he could only reach 200 or so students a semester on Stanford’s campus. In response to that frustration, he developed a free online class, which was an amazing success: 160,000 students signed up in the first two months. Realizing the huge potential for online education, Thrun launched Udacity soon after. Through Udacity, people from any country, any background, and any income level can receive an elite education at virtually no cost. It’s a development that has many in higher education rattled and could predict a major shift in how people learn, and what they pay for it, in future years.

Conrad Wolfram

The Wolframs, Conrad and brother Stephen, are other big names in education who are perhaps best known for an assortment of popular TED talks, though their contributions to education, technology, and business go far beyond that. The two have helped develop some critical educational technology over the past few decades, including Mathematica software and the Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge engine. Those contributions have been great, but recent activism work by Conrad Wolfram on reforming mathematics education could have more of a long-lasting impact. He believes that mathematics education needs an overhaul to bring it in line with the realities of modern technology, more specifically advocating for the use of calculators and computers in place of hand calculation. Wolfram believes this will make math education much more practical and less mechanical and will both open up its appeal to more students and make it easier to integrate into the real world. It’s a radical idea but one that could see greater adoption as computers become an ever larger presence in the classroom.

Jose Ferreira

Jose Ferreira is the founder and CEO of Knewton, an online education platform that aims to personalize educational content. The program allows schools, publishers, and developers to easily and cheaply provide adaptive learning resources for any student. Adaptive learning helps to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses, providing targeted lessons and practice bases on the students’ proficiency and needs. Recently, Knewton has entered a partnership with Pearson Education which shares the educational publisher’s content through the Knewton platform, further expanding the teaching and learning opportunities it offers. Currently, Knewton focuses on prepping students for tests like the ACT, SAT, and GRE, but the technology and the opportunities it affords have potential for application in many more settings, some of which are already being realized. Students at Arizona State University can take blended courses in a pilot program that uses the Knewton platform. Ferreira and Knewton must be doing something right, as the technology helped to raise pass rates in the ASU courses nearly 10%, a promising number that could lead to Knewton having an even more influential role in educational settings outside of test prep in the future. 

Anant Agarwal

While traditional education isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, if ever, online education is becoming an ever larger force in how students learn, from grade school all the way up to grad school. At the forefront of that change are people like professor of electrical engineering Anant Agarwal. Agarwal is the first president of the MIT-based project edX, an online education endeavor that’s bringing together free course materials from MIT and Harvard and providing access to students anywhere in the world. Agarwal believes that over the next few years, other large universities are going to want to offer their courses through the edX platform as well and that this change offers students from all over the world access to high quality education, regardless of their backgrounds or economic circumstances. With the success of previous online educational ventures like MITx and MIT OpenCourseWare in mind, edX seems poised to have a serious impact on both online education and education as a whole. 

This is a cross-post from content partners at onlineuniversities.com; Image attribution flickr user esparta, nmcsecondlife, and eschipul