3/20/2006

Fish Porn, Fame -- Secretary Rotherham? Eduwonk On The HotSeat

On this weekend's HotSeat, Andy (Eduwonk) Rotherham talks about fish porn, what he did before he was famous, how there needs to be more and better education journalism, and whether he's going to be the next Secretary of Education.

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I first heard about Andy Rotherham when I was still on the Hill and he was working at one of the education groups. As longtime readers already know, he's been a frequent presence on this site. We agree on a lot of things, and disagree on a few. Most of the time, it's enjoyable and thought-provoking either way.

Q: Is it true that you started out pushing block-grant proposals from AASA or some other part of the blob?

AR: No, not really. In terms of ESEA I worked mostly on Title I and IDEA funding when I was there and left before ESEA reauthorization became a big issue.

Q: As you know, everything does not turn up roses for everyone who works on education issues at the White House (think Claude Allen). How long were you at the DPC, and what did you get to do?

AR: Yeah, wow. I just had to return something to L.L.Bean this week and it occurred to me that I’d better keep the paperwork handy! Bogus returns are the new nanny trap, I guess. The experience turned out well for me though. For the year I was there it was a great chance to serve, I learned a lot, and worked with some terrific people. Bill Clinton was a rare political talent and rarer still because he genuinely cared about education and knew a tremendous amount about it.

Q: What's it like being on a state board of education?

AR: Just what you'd expect from the glossy magazines about it, it's the glam life. Actually, I shouldn't make light because it's a real honor and privilege as is the opportunity to engage in any kind of public service. It has again for me illustrated the challenge of policymaking in a field like education, the anecdotes and emotions are often compelling but the aggregate picture is where the action is in terms of quality policymaking that's in the best interest of kids.

Q: If VA Governor Mark Warner runs for president, will you go to the campaign or advise him, and if he becomes president, will you be Secretary of Education?

AR: There are sure a lot of ifs in that sentence! I think very highly of Mark Warner. He’s strong on education and he gets it. It was a real honor to be appointed to the state board of education by him. In terms of what’s next, I think he’d make a great president if he decides to pursue it. He’s got diverse experience, the right temperament, instincts, and smarts and I’ll help him out if I can. All that said, I don’t think you’d go broke betting against me to be Secretary of Education!

Q: Which is the "real" Andy Rotherham – you, or Eduwonk?

AR: It's a genuine mix.

Q: Your blog is known in part for its salty sense of humor. Do people really stop you in the street and yell, "I'm Rick Hess, B---"?

AR: Actually, they do, it's sort of funny and it's fun to get the feedback. I get stopped at a lot of conferences and so forth where people share inside jokes from the blog and suggest bits, names, and items. In addition to Rick's moniker, which is a big hit, the various nicknames for Margaret Spellings are perennial favorites as well and a lot of emails about Blogback Mountain, people really seemed to like that one. There is no reason you can't mix substance with a little humor as long as you keep your eye on the ball

Q: Education Sector sounds ominous – very “24.” How did you pick the name?

AR: It's probably more Lost Boys than 24. We chose it to convey that we're not a group that just worked on one part of education, say pre-K or teacher quality. We're covering education overall, including its linkages with society more generally.

Q: Why create a new education think tank –aren’t there more than enough of them already?

AR: You know, for all the groups out there already, there actually wasn't a group doing what we wanted to do. Achieve does great work but on a narrow slice of the issue: Standards based reform. And there are plenty of groups like that that do great work but are really focused on one thing. And there are plenty of big organizations that do great work on education. But there was no one just doing education in its broadest sense.

Q: What about the EdTrust?

AR: Not surprisingly, we work on a lot of the same issues they do because they're issues where the action is and where there is a chance to drive some positive change right now. But, at the end of the day, the EdTrust is an advocacy group and we're not. You're not going to see us on the Hill for or against certain pieces of legislation. We'll provide analysis and opinion, but we won't have legislative priorities that we're going to try and accomplish. That's not a slight, they do outstanding work and I'm a fan but this ecosystem needs different kinds of organizations tackling different parts of the problem.

Q: Sure, but there’s no shortage of education groups out there.

AR: There's no group that has the kind of journalistic and policy ethos that we are striving to have. That's the whole point of having two principles in the organization representing those two viewpoints and trying to create synergy from them. We want to put out work that is at once influential in terms of public policy but also accessible and grounded. In addition, there is no other group seeking to be as transparent in its operations as we are. If we do work on something, it's clear who's funding it. That lack of transparency is a real frustration for a lot of people, especially journalists, in our field and it's a real source of mischief.

Q: What about the New America Foundation?

AR: I'm hoping for really good things out of NAF now that Mike Dannenberg is there. He gets it. Some of their past ideas like nationalized funding coupled with vouchers were infeasible and marginal and I think he's going to take them in some good and useful directions now. Overall that place is a hotbed of interesting thinkers so it's been frustrating to not have them more out there on education.

Q: Who are your favorite education writers these days?

AR: Sam Freedman at the New York Times, everything that guy writes is I think worth reading. Same for Richard Whitmire at USA Today, whose new work on boys could end up being really important. Sam Dillon at NYT is really finding his voice, too. There's also Nick Anderson at the Washington Post, a former political writer at the LA Times where he was really strong, he's new on the eduscene but I'm hopeful he'll be doing some exciting stuff because he has great instincts and Jay Mathews is a must-read mainstay. Even when you disagree with Jay he's a must-read. In the trades Michelle Davis and Erik Robelen at EdWeek are two to watch. The one I really miss though is Siobhan Gorman who covered education for National Journal. She was a genuine star who was a great writer and a great analyst. Now she's covering national security for the Baltimore Sun. It's unfortunate that education can't hold people like that.

Q: What about favorite publications?

AR: There are not a lot of great education publications out there. In fact, I think there's room for another one. EdWeek you have to read, obviously. And I think Education Next is thought provoking and they're keeping it lively and diverse which isn't easy. And I read some of the online stuff. But most of my regular reads are more mainstream: The New Republic, Washington Monthly, Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, , and often the Weekly Standard to see what those guys are up to. I also read a few blogs regularly, Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, and you! And, aside from non-fiction, my vice is fishing magazines, especially fly fishing ones. It's like porn for me. Fish porn.

Q: Do you think there are voices or perspectives that should be seen or heard from in the education press more than are?

AR: There's one obvious group of folks who aren't in the press enough: Actual educators. I know it's tough to find them, and they're often understandably reluctant to talk to reporters, but it's a void. Sure, their representatives are in the stories in all the time but that's not really representative. The diversity of viewpoints that exist among educators about various issues rarely comes through in news stories and that's a shame. Just by way of one obvious example, it does educators no favors to have the prevailing public sense be that they're hostile to No Child Left Behind.

Q: What if we really, really need a talking head and you’re off fishing?

AR: Beyond the obvious names you mean. I actually think that our field is blessed by actually having relatively few talking heads. Most of the people you see quoted a lot have produced substantial and influential work about various issues. There isn't enough money or interest in education for anyone to make it as just a pundit and that's a good thing. But, the real gems I see right now are people like Jane Hannaway at the Urban Institute (full disclosure, my co-editor on my most recent book). She won't BS reporters and comment on issues she doesn't know about, she's doing important research, and she's really up to speed on the literature in the field. On the teaching front, Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee have so much to offer and such interesting perspectives; it's unfortunate they don't get called more. And social entrepreneurs like Kim Smith, Jon Schnur, and Don Shalvey don't get called enough. They're working at this from different angles, they're at it every day, they've learned a lot of lessons, but they're not asked often enough to share them.

Q: If Mike Petrilli is the "crown prince," who are you? Golden boy, king of all media, Andy Everywhere?

AR: You can't choose your own honorific, it's against the rules! I'd like to be remembered as that guy who used to do education policy work and now splits his time between the Caribbean and Montana, what was his name again?

3 Comments:

Blogger Amerloc said...

" Siobhan Gorman ... covered education for National Journal. She was a genuine star who was a great writer and a great analyst. Now she's covering national security for the Baltimore Sun. It's unfortunate that education can't hold people like that."

Like education isn't national security. But the money follows the big issues, so the reporters follow the big money....


Gaah! And I promised myself not to be cynical on St. Patty's day :(

7:22 PM  
Anonymous Chris C. said...

Nice interview - thanks for sharing this.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous marc dean millot said...

Alexander --

I'm going to use "The HotSeat" again in School Improvement Industry Weekly because it offers our industry leadership great insight into the gestalt of DC's "edfly" community.

Still, I haven't seen such an "inside baseball, usual suspects, our little club" interview packed into such as small space in a long time.

Someone has to be the "responsible, centrist Democrat" "go to guy" for education reporters on a deadline, and Andy Rotherman has filled the vacuum very well.

Until your interview, I never really thought of him as among the clever, ultimately disconnected, self-congratulatory, self-satisfied education policy wonk community living the high life off the new philanthropy - with an emphasis on self-satisfied; which is the picture painted in that interview.

AR the writer comes off a whole lot better than "AR- the interview," which had that insular, yet stylish quality of a "Within the Hedges" piece in hamptons.com. (Sorry, my sister has a home there.)

Even recognizing the intangible value of ideas and debate, and the need for philanthropic investment in it across the political spectrum -- speaking of the whole lot, never was so much money spent on so few for so little real impact, except undoubtably on each other.

It's hard to see Education Sector as more than a platform for Andy and Tom Toch - two accomplished writers - but, when you get right down to it, that's pretty much the norm for most k-12 education "think tank" shops after the true "institutions" such as RAND. And there's nothing wrong with this aside from the use of labels and packaging to make them all seem like something less fleeting to the general public. ("Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain").

Tom Toch's paper on testing was "new and different" and I hope EdSector will carve out the niche that work suggested. The bleeding edge of school reform is industry after all.

Interesting how it takes an "outside the beltway inside the blogosphere" journalist to bring out the Washington merry-go-round's provincialism.

Marc Dean Millot
Editor
School Improvement Industry Weekly
School Improvement Markets Report
New Education Economy® LLC

11:34 AM  

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