Fordham's Petrilli Survives The HotSeat

Fresh out of federal employ, the Fordham Foundation's stylish Mike Petrilli is brave enough to inaugurate the Education HotSeat, the first of what I'm hoping will be a semi-regular series of SportsCenter-style conversations with education policymakers, reformers, and practitioners on issues high and low.

Take a look, enjoy -- and if you think you and your organization have it in you to battle a series of impetuous questions, send me an email. You might be next.


During an intense grilling, Petrilli comes clean about what Fordham is really up to (world domination), what he thinks of all the other relatively new policy shops doing education work ('bring 'em on), what he really thinks about what the USDE is doing to NCLB (being too nice), and what it's like to go from working with the education goddess Nina Rees to education gadfly Checker Finn. It was no holds barred. I only wish I'd remembered to ask him his infamous open-necked appearance on CNN last year.

What's it like coming back to the Fordham Foundation after spending a few years at the USDE?

MP: Remember the sense of freedom you had when you turned sixteen and could finally drive a car? A lot like that. Life is a highway, baby! Seriously, I had a great experience at the Department and was honored to help promote No Child Left Behind, but was ready to have an independent voice again.

How has Fordham changed over the last few years, or evolved in ways that people might not know or understand?

MP: Fordham has changed in two big ways since I left. First, we created the Fordham Institute, a sister organization which allows us to raise money from other foundations so we can do more work. Second, we are now a sponsor (or “authorizer,” in the lingo) of ten charter schools in Ohio. That takes us (halfway) out of the ivory tower and into the schools. It’s fascinating, and we’re learning a ton from it (including a lot of humility).

What's it like working for Checker Finn, the mad scientist of education policy?

MP: “Mad scientist” isn’t right; Checker is more of an artiste. Call him a virtuoso. Checker is brilliant, impatient, generous, and demanding. He’s a wonderful mentor and a friend, and a helluva chef. Of course, as the first person ever to work for Checker twice, I must either think highly of him or be crazy. (The jury is still out.)

Where does Fordham 'fit’ in the world of education think tanks and policy centers, ideologically, functionally, politically?

MP: We don’t come at problems from an ideological perspective. We get labeled “conservative” by the media because of our support for vouchers, accountability, etc., but it’s not accurate. For instance, we also support national standards and equal funding in education, hardly conservative positions. Our niche has been the overlap between the standards-based reform movement and the market-based reform movement. We think standards and choice go together, are actually mutually reinforcing. And we’re one of the only policy organizations that actually seems to care about content. And, as mentioned earlier, we benefit from having a bit of a policy lab in Ohio.

What is the foundation ramping up to do that's new or different in the upcoming year?

MP: We’ll have a big focus on NCLB, with reauthorization right around the corner. We’re planning a major, rigorous analysis of whether states are, indeed, “racing to the bottom” and making their tests easier. We’re going to look at whether high-achieving students are being ignored because of the law. And we’re going to continue to pave some ground on the national standards and tests debate. Beyond that, we’ll continue to do what we do best: hard hitting analyses of important topics related to content, standards, choice and charter schools, and deregulation. And, of course, we’ll continue to play the gadfly, pointing out ridiculous fads and stupid ideas.

Is Fordham a foundation, a think tank, or a little of both?

MP: Both.

What do you think about the possible demise of FairTest?

MP: We won’t mourn its passing. As far as I can tell, it’s an organization of people who already enjoy excellent schools in the leafy suburbs, fighting against policies that are good for poor and minority kids. They are on the wrong side of history.

What do you think about the arrival of all these new think tanks on the scene with an education agenda -- the ed sector, new america foundation, center on american progress, others?

MP: Bring ‘em on. We’re thrilled that there is so much common ground across the ideological spectrum on issues like standards, charter schools, and the deregulation of the teaching profession. To us, this means that good ideas have a shot at winning the day.

Looking down the line, what do you think's going to happen on the HEA accountability effort?

MP: Tweaking and tinkering. Maybe a pilot project for states to provide a “value-added” analysis of how ed school graduates perform in the classroom.

What about NCLB between now and reauthorization, whenever that happens?

MP: We’d love to see changes immediately, but it’s not likely. We’re probably stuck with more tinkering between now and reauthorization, which probably won’t happen until after the 2008 election. Hopefully Secretary Spellings and company will not give away the store between now and then.

What's something about Secretary Spellings that most people don’t know but should, and how would you rate her first year in office?

MP: Secretary Spellings deserves lots of credit for deflating the NCLB backlash, though at a cost (in some cases) to good public policy. She showed incredible leadership during the Katrina recovery; everyone at the Department deserves to feel proud about their efforts. It’s next to impossible to turn that ship around on a dime, but she did, and that’s no small feat. I worry though that she and her team are overly concerned with making nice with the education establishment. Bringing a sense of cordiality makes good sense, but most of the blob simple doesn’t want to change. I hope she doesn’t forget that. After 8,000 glowing features articles about Secretary Spellings in the past two months, there’s nothing that I know about her that the world doesn’t also!

What was it like working with Nina Rees, perhaps the hottest woman in education policy?

MP: I refuse to answer such a sexist question.

What happens to the Office of O and I now that you and she are no longer there?

MP: You mean the office of I and I (Innovation and Improvement). It’s in good hands under Chris Doherty; I hope the Secretary appoints him permanently. The office is staffed with very strong career civil servants, and will continue to do its good work, though probably with a lower profile.


Anonymous jim pastore said...

Your interview of Mike Petrelli made me curious enough to jump to
the Fordham Foundation, after a brief stop at the Bio of Nina Rees...

I saw that in both their bios (Petrelli at the foundation; Rees at
the DOE) there is a significant lack of mention of actual classroom
teaching experience. Granted, it is possible that this is de-
emphasized purposely...but I can't figure out why? So I went to the
Fordham Foundation, and checked all the employees listed bios...only
three list any type of teaching experience at all, and only one in US
K-12 schools. (note: Chester Finn has the longest bio, yet not a
single mention in it of actual K-12 classroom teaching experience.)

This seems awfully strange, and if I wasn't busy working all day in a
school (or if I was a journalist) I might find this an interesting
article to write, ie. what is the actual K-12 classroom teaching
background of so many of the "experts" shaping educational policy in
the US?

Thought I'd point this out to you... perhaps someone else has
noticed, and it isn't just me wondering about this. Perhaps not.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What was it like working with Nina Rees, perhaps the hottest woman in education policy?

This is crap. Caroline Hoxby is by far the most beautiful woman in education poicy.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Maurice said...

I would've asked Mr. Petrilli about the NY Times report this week about for-profit education companies that "approached several principals with an offer to pay each of their schools $5,000 if they enrolled 150 or more students" in a tutoring program funded by No Child Left Behind.

In discussing these same tutoring programs awhile back, Mr. Petrilli, then a federal official supposedly looking after the taxpayers' money, told the Times, "We want as little regulation as possible so the market can be as vibrant as possible."

"Vibrant" is a weird word to describe a market. Maybe "Vibrant" = "Corrupt"?

9:04 PM  
Blogger Alexander Russo said...

market choice folks talk about markets like wine lovers talk about wine -- using all sorts of interesting terms to describe this perfect but never quite stable thing they're looking for.

about rees and hoxby, i don't know what to say. it's a debate as old as less filling - tastes great.

about having experience, most if not all of the education policy folks in DC don't have education experience -- my three years in a college prep parochial school classroom aren't much better. the sad but true thing is that classroom experience wouldn't necessarily make you a very effective policymaker; knowing folks with lots of classroom experience, or having access to them, would.

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Classroom (and principal) experience should count when policy decisions are made. Both bring in perspectives that are sorely needed, and too often missing in policy discussions.
Unfortunately people with classroom experience sometimes use typical teacher unionspeak and principals tend to become teacher bashers and both sometimes can't look past the funding problem as the reason for poor schools.
But without these perspectives, policy decisions are incomplete.
It is well worth the effort to include educators in educational decisions and there are many thoughtful educators out there who can bring value to the discussions.
And I vote for Nina.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Michele at AFT said...

In my experience, the world is filled with former teachers- folks who have taught "a little," myself included.

3:43 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home