In 1999, Andrew Rotherham was hearing from more than a few people that his career was over. An education analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute, Rotherham had just authored a report, Toward Performance-Based Education Funding, for the 21st Century Schools Project. The report’s recommendations are, in 2008, pretty basic stuff, even in left-leaning circles. But in 1999, before the advent of No Child Left Behind and the cementing of a bipartisan consensus around “results-based learning,” Rotherham’s suggestions, bearing the PPI label, struck many of his fellow Democrats as nothing less than heresy.
Fortunately for Rotherham, the reports of his professional demise were greatly exaggerated. Now co-director of Education Sector, a new education-policy think tank he founded with journalist Thomas Toch, Rotherham is the go-to guy for those looking for serious, cogent analysis of the latest education trends. Rotherham’s irreverent blog Eduwonk has become must-reading inside and outside the education establishment, earning praise from the New Republic as “a very smart blog” for those hoping to separate “the demagogic attacks on NCLB from the serious criticism.” In 2006, Education Week named Eduwonk one of its top-ten most influential education sources.
Eduwonk mixes it up. Some entries are deeply wonkish, others are more accessible to lay readers, and some are just good-natured fun. Rotherham’s “Friday Fish Porn” posts — which feature pictures of various education-types posing with the gilled loot from their aquatic hunting-adventures — are particularly popular. (He’s an avid fly fisherman.) Its philosophy is, in many ways, an outgrowth of what Rotherham was pushing at PPI: The government’s role in k-12 education is necessary and important, but there’s a serious dearth of smart innovation taking place in the public schools. His mission might be broadly summed up as: Let’s find out what works, and let’s do it.
Rotherham hadn’t always planned on becoming an education wonk, but his boyhood proximity to Washington, D.C., infused him with a need, it seems, to involve himself somehow in the bustling policy atmosphere.
He grew up in Reston, Virginia, amid the venture capital firms and crypto-government organizations not far from Dulles Airport, a 40-minute drive west of the nation’s capital. His mother was a teacher; his father, an official in the Office of Management and Budget, who eventually went to work on Capitol Hill. In those days, Rotherham is quick to note, working on the Hill wasn’t something one did for five years in between college and a lucrative lobbying career on K Street. Hill staffers tended to be older, more professional, more apt to stick around for a while, and, not by accident, more collegial. “You knew,” said Rotherham, “that you’d have to work with the guys on the other side of the aisle tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. So it was a less partisan place than today, and things actually got done.”
Some of those good, bipartisan feelings seem to have made an impression on Rotherham. He’s a lifelong Democrat, but his ideas don’t always follow those of his party. His 1999 report on performance-based funding, for example, violated several Democratic Party taboos by calling for real school accountability coupled with increased flexibility in school spending. Indeed, in an August 2000 New Republic article, Ryan Lizza noted that “much of the Bush campaign’s education agenda is cribbed from” Rotherham’s report.
Rotherham also put forth a direct and uncompromising position on public-school choice: “Charter schools and magnet schools are now an integral part of the educational landscape.”
He was right. Charter schools are public schools that operate mostly free from the traditional district school-systems and their stifling bureaucracy. They are thus able to experiment with different innovative educational approaches. Some of the highest-performing public schools in urban areas — the KIPP Academies, for example — are charters.
But in 1999, Democratic Party support for charter schools was shaky, despite then-President Bill Clinton’s avowed support. The teachers’ unions — which carry a lot of weight in Democratic politics — didn’t like them, and still don’t, for the most part. The Ohio Federation of Teachers, for example, threatened in April 1999 to sue the Buckeye State over its charter-school law and labeled charter schools the “leading threat” to public schools. (Never mind that charter schools are public schools.) In New York, after the state approved its first eight charter schools in June 1999, union officials, grasping at technicalities, charged that the vote was illegal. Similar opposition occurred across the country.
To Rotherham, however, charter schools offer new hope to poor kids who have been repeatedly failed by the traditional public-school system. He also believes that the extra funding allotted for Title I schools (those that enroll large populations of poor students) should be performance-based, and he wrote as much in the 1999 PPI report. To receive funds, he wrote, “states must demonstrate that they have a plan in place to identify and reconstitute failing schools; are ending social promotion by identifying and helping students in need; and have a standards and assessment plan in place so they can be held accountable for the performance of impoverished students.”
Rotherham studied at Virginia Tech, where he double majored in history and political science. He also has a master’s degree from the University of Virginia, where he’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. in political science. He took his first job in 1993, as a corporate trainer and consultant for Horizons Consulting, straight out of college.
In 1995, Rotherham entered the education sphere. He began work at the Close-Up Foundation, a civics-education group, where he designed curricula and taught civics to high-school students. While there, Rotherham met his wife, Julie, who has worked for NGOs in international aid and education. His next stop was as a policy analyst for the American Association of School Administrators, after which he moved to PPI, and, in 1999, he became an education-policy advisor to President Clinton.
In many ways, it’s a familiar Washington career track: One job in [insert policy area] leads to another, and before you know it, you’ve become an “expert” and defined your life’s work. But Rotherham didn’t stick with education because he was blithely moving along a defined trajectory but because education truly engaged and motivated him — and still does today.
“What does it mean for our social contract, this incredible inequity in educational opportunity?” he asks. And while Rotherham believes in markets and competition (“you have to give people choices”), he is a strong defender of the government’s role in education, mostly because he believes there are “important equities and public interests the federal government needs to protect” and not leave to the market.
In addition to being his passion, education is a safe niche, and a smart one, for Rotherham to occupy. Most people are completely confused about the inner workings of K-12 policy, but they nonetheless care about it because, well, they have kids. And education, as a political issue, never gets stale. It’s so intimately connected with values (what will we teach the future?); it’s such an important facet of economic and social development (how will American companies meet their staffing needs?); and it always has room for improvement (to put it politely).
Rotherham’s astute observations, and his knack for successfully boiling down impenetrable education studies have made him much sought-after. He seems optimistic about the future of our schools, and sees a “shift in how people approach public education” which reflects “much more of a consumer focus across the board.”
“You’re starting to see the beginnings of a parent revolution around the country, as people realize how important education is, how inequitable it is, and start to demand change,” he said.
It’s tough to argue with him. What was taboo in 1999, when Rotherham publicly suggested that Democrats could support standards and choice, is no longer so in 2008. And as values continue to shift, who knows? By 2014, maybe the teachers’ unions will be calling for vouchers. Whatever lies ahead for education, it’s a safe bet that Rotherham will be in the mix.
–Liam Julian is associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
(From the Spring 2008 print edition.)
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Hadley Heath