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Innocents in Blogland

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 2, 2007 1:24 PM

I was not sure what to expect when I announced in the Nov. 14 column an education blog judging contest. May I call them edblogs? I feel like a freshman pledging a raucous fraternity (I was way too nerdy to join one in college) and wanting to be very careful not to say the wrong thing.

I leapt into this without looking, although for safety's sake dragged along champion letter-to-the-editor writer and retired teacher Walt Gardner. I realized I knew far too little about education blogs, the most vibrant and fastest growing part of the national conversation on education. Asking readers to nominate their favorite blogs would, I thought, give me a good excuse to read them -- while making a pretense of superiority by saying that I (and Gardner) would be judging them.

I suspect many bloggers were laughing at that one. Or, lol, right? One of the first things I learned was that some of the best bloggers have been judging me for some time, and finding me wanting in talent, perspective and depth. They are right, of course. The nastier they were, the higher I put them on my list.

I picked 10 favorites, and so did Gardner. It was so much fun that I am determined to make this an annual Class Struggle event, with a different and hopefully provocative approach to the blogosphere in the first column of every year. That way I can mention more blogs, since I was clearly incapable of including all that deserve notice in this first feeble attempt.

Next year, through bribery or trickery, I hope to persuade Ken Bernstein, teacher and blogger par excellence, to select his favorite blogs and then let me dump on his choices, or something like that. There is a pugnacious quality to many of these blogs that connects with that 98-pound-weakling in my soul. I always stayed out of fights in school but dreamed about pounding the big guys.

Here are my favorites, and Gardner's. Our choices overlapped in four cases, so I put them all together in one alphabetized list. I have labeled our individual comments, so you will know whom to credit or blame for each. I am at mathewsj@washpost.com and Walt is at walt.gard@verizon.net. (Notice how Gardner, the master newspaper letter writer, says so much with so few words.)

1. The Chalkboard

Gardner: Comprehensive approach to "keeping an eye on public education." A watchdog on constant duty.

2. Critical Mass

Gardner: Combines newspaper articles on education from around the globe with personal entries. A nice balance.

3. D-Ed Reckoning

Mathews: The contributors -- apparently the accepted term for people who run and write blogs -- are Ken DeRosa, a lawyer, and Catherine Johnson, who does not reveal what she does for a living. I did not realize that some of these bloggers remain anonymous, particularly the teachers, who want to be frank without being fired. D-Ed Reckoning includes very wise, inside-the-classroom postings, sophisticated discussions of topics as difficult as reading instruction and dissections of pompous columnists, like me. I found one error in the blog's critique of my Dec. 19 column on KIPP teacher Lisa Suben: DeRosa said she had no prior teaching experience, but I said she did two years in an Louisiana eighth grade. That is a minor flaw. These are smart people.

4. edspresso

Gardner: News, commentary and debate about education reform in a brew formulated to provoke debate.

5. Education Policy Blog

Gardner: Distinguishes itself from the pack by examining educational issues through the prism of social foundations. Stimulates reflective thinking.

Mathews: There are 13 listed contributors, including the above-mentioned Bernstein, and a New Jersey educator with a doctorate named Jim Horn who derided me as a KIPP cheerleader. Unlike DeRosa, however, he seemed to like what I wrote about Lisa Suben. You have to really, really love the intricate and jargon-laden grudges of the education obsessed to like everything in this blog, but I am in that group, and waded in happily. The writing is very lively, which always wins me over, and they have a lot of talent.

6. Eduwonk.com

Gardner: Penetrating analysis in a lively style on a wide range of issues.

Mathews: This is one of the few blogs I ever read before doing this column. Its contributor is Andy Rotherham, one of the most important education policy thinkers and politicos in the country, and my pick to be U.S. secretary of education someday. He is a former Clinton education adviser, a member of the Virginia state school board, and a co-founder of the Education Sector think tank. The blog is full of very lively short items and is always on top of the news. He gets extra points for skewering my high school rating system.

7. From the Trenches of Public Education

Gardner: Written from the point of view of teachers who deal with students, rather than from the vantage point of those pontificating from afar. Realistic and involving.

8. Intercepts

Mathews: This is the work of Mike Antonucci, the great independent watchdog of the teacher unions. He is a first-class writer and reporter, and looks regularly at this important topic that we mainstream press folk pretty much ignore.

9. Joanne Jacobs

Gardner: Professional commentary from a former Knight Ridder columnist.

Mathews: I have admired Jacobs' work for some time, and blurbed her book, "Our School." She is a former columnist who made the transition to blogging with great courage and confidence. I might have left her, as well as Rotherham, off of this list because I knew them so well and could be accused of favoritism. But so many readers put their blogs on their lists of favorites that I figured it was okay to have them on mine.

10. MathNotations

Mathews: The contributor, Dave Marain, is a math teacher who has attempted to correct my many flaws as a reporter of math education by sending me e-mails. Now I can look at his blog too. He tackles very difficult topics, but is clear and aggressive and well worth reading.

11. A Passion for Teaching and Opinions

Mathews: The contributor refers to himself as a 33-year-old social studies teacher and basketball coach at Ukiah High School in California, but does not give a first name, just Coach Brown. (Perhaps his first name IS Coach. You can get away with that in Ukiah.) The writing is very good and very personal, and I was drawn to his "Stupid Bastard of the Month Award," presented to the San Francisco Board of Education for eliminating Junior ROTC.

12. A Shrewdness of Apes

Mathews: This is another very personal inside look at teaching from a smart educator. She identifies herself only as "Ms. Cornelius" and says she teaches in a public high school somewhere in the United States.

13. Susan Ohanian. Org

Gardner: Pulls no punches in confronting controversial issues. Tough but fair. (Full disclosure: My letters to the editor have been cited favorably in t his blog.)

14. Teaching in the 408

Mathews: The contributor identifies himself only as TMAO. He says he was in Teach For America and now teaches language arts and also coaches at a middle school somewhere in what I assume is the 408 area code, San Jose, Calif., and environs. The writing about his coaching experiences is particularly good, and honest.

15. This Week in Education

Gardner: True to its title, provides a succinct roundup of what's transpired in the field.

Mathews: The contributors are Alexander Russo, Amanda Millner-Fairbanks and Margaret Paynich, who keep up with the news and not only do their own thinking, but their own reporting. They put educational poobahs on what they call the hot-seat, and the results are often illuminating.

16. TLN Teacher Voices

Gardner: Opens a window into the hearts and minds of practitioners.

Gardner said that "choosing the 10 best blogs out of the 74 I received was far tougher than I anticipated. I selected those that I thought were successful in achieving their stated mission. Because blogs are still in their infancy, it's impossible to know how they will evolve. If they move in the direction of persuasion, rather than pronouncement, they have the potential to advance taxpayer understanding of issues in public education. My hope is that they take advantage of the opportunity to stimulate rational debate through the use of evidence, and shun ad hominem arguments."

Gardner told me before we started that he had concerns about blogs, but afterward said his review "opened my eyes to the huge potential for allowing citizens to interact on educational issues." As usual, he said it better, and in fewer words, than I could.

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