By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 14, 2006 10:44 AM
Walt Gardner had a nice letter in The Washington Post last week. He gently reminded the headmaster of the Washington Latin School, who had called for a new training institute for principals, that good principals alone cannot save the city's schools. Something more is necessary, Gardner said, to "overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that disadvantaged students bring to school through no fault of their own."
If you think you have seen Gardner's name somewhere you are, God bless you, a reader of newspapers. Since Gardner, 70, a former Los Angeles high school teacher, decided to spend much of his retirement writing thoughtful and wonderfully short education-related messages to newspaper letter pages, there are few major publications that have not carried something signed by him.
He has had almost 200 letters published in the past 14 years, including 41 in the New York Times, 29 in the Wall Street Journal and smaller numbers in The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, Business Week, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, and several others publications. The Washington Post has had the good sense to print his thoughts four times so far.
I think this is a worthy feat because I do not know of any other teacher so widely published, because I love newspaper letters pages and because Gardner is one of the senior members of a corps of Americans interested in education whose comments on and discussions of schools are blossoming everywhere, to the greater good of American schoolchildren. This is principally a result of the Internet, and the rising tide of school-related blogs. But it is also happening on radio and television and even in newspapers like mine.
Gardner's effort to be part of a national conversation on schools began in 1992, after he retired from 28 years of teaching English at University High School. He had seen a essay in Forbes that revealed, he told me, "an appalling naivety about teaching disadvantaged students." He wrote a letter to the magazine telling them why he thought so. Then he saw something in another publication that he thought ought to be addressed. That led to another letter, and so on.
The underlying cause of all this mounting pile of correspondence, he said, "was my growing awareness that public education was entering a new era, with unprecedented threats to its very existence. I decided I could no longer stay mute when so much was on the line."
Gardner is, like many people writing letters and blogs and op-ed pieces about schools, a professional who knows the issues and has seen what works and what doesn't. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1957 and was first in his class when he received a master's degree from the Graduate Department of Journalism at UCLA in 1964. He writes very well, and knows what newspapers want. "Editors today are hungry for articles that are knowledgeable but crisp because education is a hot issue," Gardner said. "I always try to tighten what I've written, discarding anything that isn't absolutely essential to make my point."
He thinks of his letters as "mini essays that require more work in some ways than op-ed pieces because of space constraint," sort of poetry for policy wonks.
Gardner also knows of the disdain that many publishers have for the views of classroom teachers. "Who wants to read them?" the book people say. Gardner has written a manuscript for a short book which he has entitled "To the Editor: Behind Education's Hottest Issues." He identifies the 10 most controversial topics in public education and attempts to clarify them for readers. But a publisher who was first interested became less so when the editor realized that Gardner intended this book for a general audience, not just fellow teachers.
Like me, Gardner is also not very familiar with the education blogs. "I have an aversion to them because they too often become venues for rants rather than for reason," he said. "It's a question of time management. I do learn valuable things at times from blogs, but they seem to attract a disproportionate number of self-styled experts with dubious credentials who just want to ventilate."
I have a different view. The education blogs I have seen look pretty interesting. But of course if there is anyone who qualifies as a self-styled expert with dubious credentials who just wants to ventilate, it is me, so perhaps I am drawn to my kindred spirits.
In any case, it is time to change this column's appalling lack of interest in the blogs. It seems to me they are the most likely heirs to the spirit of Gardner's letters, even if they are not all to his taste.
So I have asked Gardner to help me, and him, become more familiar with this new opinion delivery system by joining me in a blog-judging contest. I hope readers will e-mail me at email@example.com and Gardner at firstname.lastname@example.org the links to their favorite education blogs -- no more than five per reader, please, and I would love you to rank them in your order of preference. Gardner and I will look them over and reveal our favorites in a future column. He and I have different views on some key issues and different tastes in writing styles, so entries should not be at any disadvantage no matter what their slant or tone.
In other words, help drag two old guys into the 21st century, where I hear there is much to learn.