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Edward B Fiske

Edward B Fiske

Edward B. Fiske is a journalist who, after a long career covering religion and education for the New York Times, went on to write about education in developing countries for UNESCO and other international organizations. In 1981 he founded, and continues to edit, the Fiske Guide to Colleges, the country’s leading selective college guide.  


Religion Editor

Fiske began his journalistic career in 1964 as a news clerk at the Times. He was soon promoted to religion reporter and, subsequently, Religion Editor, at a time when religion news was moving from traditional Saturday church sections to the front pages of U.S. newspapers. He covered the sweeping liturgical and other reforms in the Roman Catholic Church enacted by the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, including the introduction of vernacular liturgies and the establishment of the Synod of Bishops, whose meetings took him regularly to Rome. In 1967 he covered the historic meeting in Istanbul between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the first such encounter in 1,000 years. Fiske’s reported on meetings of the World Council of Churches in Sweden, Crete and Ethiopia and in 1971 traveled across Africa for a series of articles on indigenous Christian churches. He wrote about Falasha Jews in Ethiopia and covered the 1978 Lambeth Conference in London where Anglican bishops approved the ordination of women.   

Much religion news at the time dealt with the increased involvement of churches and religious leaders organizations in the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and the push for women’s and gay rights. Fiske was one of a handful of reporters inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for the 1968 funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King. A 1971 article on one of President Nixon’s controversial White House church services, which quoted participants as suggesting that the event had political as well as religious motivations, prompted H. R. Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, to fire off a memo declaring that Edward B. Fiske “is not to be invited to any White House Church Services again in the future under any circumstances whatsoever.” 

In the 1980s Fiske chronicled growing interest in Eastern and other non-traditional forms of religious practice as well as cults and sects. Fiske wrote about the self-described “Jesus Freaks” in San Francisco and described efforts to “deprogram” members of the Children of God. He also documented the growing involvement of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other American evangelicals in politics.  


Education Editor

In 1974 Fiske was named Education Editor of the Times and began writing and editing articles on all levels of education, from pre-school to graduate and professional education as well as editing the Times’ quarterly education supplements. He chronicled the launching of legal challenges to the use of property taxes to fund public education, the rise of charter schools, growing challenges to the use of standardized test scores and the controversial decision of City College of New York to begin charging tuition. In 1983 he reported on the controversial report A Nation at Risk that inspired a wave of national school reform efforts. Other topics that caught his eye ranged from the 1981 power struggle between two factions of the Eastern Division American Philosophical Association, which he characterized as “a battle fought with virtually every traditional academic weapon short of hemlock.” 


The Fiske Guide to Colleges

The Fiske Guide to Colleges grew out of his education reporting. The early 1980s was a time when high school graduation rates were declining, the last of the baby boomers were graduating from college, and many colleges, anxious about filling their freshman classes, became increasingly aggressive in their marketing. Fiske described these trends in the Times, and in 1982, sensing the need for a publication that would help students and parents navigate the increasingly complex college admissions process, he created what began as the New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges, published by Times Books.  

The guide was an immediate success, but its candid assessments of the academic climate at some colleges sparked controversy. In response to a complaint from a history professor at Syracuse University, Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger announced that the newspaper would withdraw its name from the title of the book. He described the guide as “an excellent book that is based on solid reporting” and added, “We’re pleased to be publishing it.” However, given that the judgments about colleges and universities “are those of The Times’s education editor, Edward B. Fiske, and not those of the newspaper,” he continued, it was “inappropriate” for the name of the newspaper to appear so prominently in the title. The guide was renamed the Selective Gide to Colleges and soon evolved into the eponymous Fiske Guide to Colleges.  

An annual publication, the guide immediately became a standard part of college admissions literature and is now the country’s most respected and best-selling selective college guide. Since 2002 it has been published by Sourcebooks, which has sold more than a million copies. Fiske has also co-authored more than a dozen books on college admissions.  

The Fiske Guide consists of narrative descriptions of approximately 325 of the “best and most interesting” colleges in the U.S. Information is obtained each year from questionnaires sent to the administration and a sample of students. The editorial goal, Fiske explained, is to capture the unique institutional personality and culture of each school so that applicants can judge if a school might be a good “fit” for them. “Even colleges that at first glance look alike have very different academic cultures,” he said. “Moreover, these cultures tend to persist over time. The climate at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, continues to reflect the pragmatic intellectuality of Benjamin Franklin, who founded it in the 18th century.” 


Education in Developing Countries

Fiske left the Times in 1991 to pursue his interest in reporting on education in developing countries while continuing to edit the Fiske Guide. He spent 14 months in Cambodia in 1993-94 working for the International Rescue Committee on a cluster school project. He also carried out a study of women and girls for the Asian Development Bank that was published in 1995 entitled Using Both Hands: Women in Education in Cambodia.

After returning to the U.S. he wrote frequently on educational issues in developing countries for UNESCO, USAID, the World Bank, the Academy for Educational Development, and the Asia Society. Among other projects, he attended and wrote the final report of the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, and in 2001 he visited northern Pakistan to evaluate rural schools on behalf of the Aga Khan Foundation. He published frequently about the state of girls and women in global education, including the World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education, published by UNESCO in 2012. Fiske’s journalistic travels have taken him to more than 60 countries.  


Marriage and Research

In 1997 Fiske married Helen F. Ladd, a Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University, and they began collaborating on research and publishing on global education issues. With the support of a Fulbright Grant, they spent five months in New Zealand in 1998 studying that country’s experiment with market-based school reform. Their book, When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale, was published in April 2000 by the Brookings Institution Press. “We’re the only couple we know who wrote a book together on their honeymoon,” Fiske quipped.  

The couple spent the first half of 2002 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa looking at that country’s efforts to build an equitable and democratic state education system in the post-apartheid era. Their book, Elusive Equity: Education Reform in Post-Apartheid South Africa, was published in 2004 by the Brookings Institution Press. They subsequently spent the first half of 2010 University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands carrying out research and publishing papers on the Dutch system of weighted student funding for primary schools. The goal was to determine what lessons the Dutch experience might hold for U.S. education policy makers.  

In 2015 they lived in London and did a study of the remarkable success that Inner London boroughs have had in educating clusters of disadvantaged pupils that was published by the Brookings Institution. They returned to London the following year and, based at the Institute of Education and at the Institute for Fiscal Studies carried out research on changes in the English state education system, including the proliferation of “academies” similar to charter schools in the U.S. A second paper, England Confronts the Limits of School Autonomy, was published in October 2016 by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at the Teachers College of Columbia University. Together they are co-editors of the Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy, the official handbook of the American Education Finance Association Routledge).  

For many years Fiske was a Senior Adviser to Widmeyer Communications, a Washington-based public affairs consulting firm with clients such as the U.S. Department of Education.  


Biography

Fiske was born in Philadelphia on June 4, 1937 and graduated from the William Penn Charter School in 1955. He subsequently earned his B.A. at Wesleyan University with high honors and a major in English in 1959 as well as master’s degrees in theology from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1963 and political science from Columbia in 1965. He spent 1961-62 in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was assistant director of a student residence and studies at the University of Geneva and the Graduate School of International Relations. Upon graduating from seminary he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and served as assistant minister at the Church of the Master in Harlem. In 1963 he joined a delegation from the church to the March on Washington and heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Fiske and Ladd lived in Durham, NC from 1967 until 2019, when they moved to the Carol Woods Retirement Community in adjacent Chapel Hill. He was a founding member of the board of the Central Park School for Children, a charter school in Durham, and over the years he served a served on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations, including the Durham Children’s Initiative and Go Global NC.  

Fiske has two daughters, Julie Hogan of Alstead, NH and Suzanna Fiske of Perkinsville, VT. He also has four grandchildren and one great grandson.   

Books By Edward B Fiske

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