Three Questions for Andy Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners
Richmond: You have said that you believe improving education is integral to improving social mobility in America. As we begin the third decade of the 21st century, some are skeptical of that belief. They believe other factors, like racism and poverty, are more powerful than education. Why are you prioritizing education?
Rotherham: This is a conversation that can be confusing and, given the politics of our sector, sometimes gets weaponized in unproductive ways. A lot of people believe, as I do, that improving education is integral to improving life chances for a lot of Americans. It doesn’t mean you believe that at the expense of other things, whether that is health care, poverty, racism or other issues. You can support addressing more than one problem at a time. Rather, it is an argument that, if you’re goal is a more just and equitable society, we’re not going to get there unless we also address education. And the evidence is pretty clear that even all else equal, our schools can do better than we do today. Education is not the only thing that matters, but it is one thing that matters a great deal.
There is a pragmatic reason for this and a philosophical reason. The philosophical reason is that people who can think for themselves, make good decisions, and have choices in their lives, are going to be able to live more purposeful and fulfilled lives. A piece of that is the economic component of your life — the ability to make a living in a changing economy, but it’s also just about a life with choices and options and intrinsic things for humans as they move through the world.
The more pragmatic reason is not that these other issues don’t matter — but rather that there are 168 hours in the week and you have to make a choice about where your best leverage point is. Health, housing, lots of issues matter, but you cannot do them all.
It’s also hard to miss the fact that this debate happens more with education than other issues. My friends who are doctors and nurses, nobody is attacking them for indifference to housing or education policy. Only in education policy is focusing on a single issue as one lever for change considered a problem. It’s about politics more than substance.
Richmond: Why do you think this happens in education more than in other fields?
Rotherham: There are some unique aspects to education that fuel this. Schools and education are inherently political. You’re not going to find absolute and empirical truths about what children should learn. You can find empirical evidence about the most effective ways to teach children, but, what a 3rd grader should know at a given point in time is a political construct. And we struggle with that. We weaponize it. We pretend there are absolute truths and it clouds the conversation. We conflate values with empiricism.
A good example is the raging debate about charter schools. When you actually dig into the evidence, there is pretty clear evidence that urban charter schools tend to be better than the other alternatives available to those kids. But you can look at that evidence and still say, “You know what, I think charter schools have collateral effects that are bad for communities. I don’t think they’re the right policy. I support instead …” fill in the blank, whatever policy you prefer. Reasonable people can look at that evidence and come to those points.
But if you look at the actual debate, it is nothing like that. It is constantly trying to weaponize low quality studies and it is tortured public rhetoric. People don’t want to talk honestly. There are values at play. People on the progressive left have a set of values, conservatives have values, parents have a set of values. We should talk more forthrightly about these things rather than try to weaponize them.
Richmond: You were a special assistant to the president for domestic policy in the Clinton administration. What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Rotherham: Volumes. I was young and have hopefully learned a lot since then. A big one would be that I have always been results- and action-oriented, which means a bias against process. But to be really effective in government, you have to embrace process. That was a blind spot of mine and continues to be. Over the last few years have I started to think deeply about the importance of process. In our sector process can become an end itself and there is plenty of activity that has the appearance of work and is a convincing approximation of work but is doing nothing to improve the lives of young people. But the other extreme, neglect of process, is a problem, too.
There is some merit to the criticism that education reform has neglected process and has not engaged communities enough. Ironically, it is often leveled in the debate over charter schools, where it is much more complicated, because one of the most basic processes a family goes through is picking their kids’ school. If an alien landed here and listened to our debate about charter schools, they would think these kids were being held against their will in these schools. The tenor of the debate is crazy.
A better question might be, “What should choice actually look like for a community?” In affluent communities, parents have lots of different choices, whether it is Montessori, Core Knowledge, or something with a thematic approach. But in low-income communities, the choice is too often the traditional public school, that hasn’t done well for generations, or three different flavors of vanilla. That doesn’t seem like genuine choice.
If we are serious about choice and equity, the choice frame in low-income communities should look like it does in more affluent communities in terms of the range of options that are available to parents — and grounded in what parents in that community desire for their kids. We have not realized that vision in a lot of places and obviously the insane politics around charters don’t make it any easier.
A case can be made that education reform moved too fast without adequate stakeholder engagement and changes were not embedded enough in many places to avoid the inevitable political backlash. But you also have to ask, “What is the counterfactual?” What were things like before? And what would have happened absent the efforts of the past twenty or thirty years. Those are key questions. Education reform didn’t start in 2001 with No Child Left Behind or 2009 with Race to the Top.
Also, on process, the reform community, on the communication side, has skipped a step in making its case. We used to do that. We did that in the 1990s and 2000s, for instance the Citizen’s Commission on Civil Rights, the work Bill Taylor was doing, and Kati Haycock at Ed Trust, really building a case and educating people about the scale of the problems. We haven’t done that since Obama became President. People decided that we had “won” with his election and there is a price to be paid for that.
Most immediately, education reform looks like a solution in search of a problem. When you talk to people who are not intimately involved in this, they don’t fully appreciate the reality of just how grave the education problems are in some communities and the catastrophic consequences for young people. If you think that struggling schools are just a little bit worse, maybe a step or two behind, then big ambitious plans seem like over kill. You think, “Do we really need that? That seems really disruptive,” rather than, “This is an enormous problem that completely diminishes the life chances of millions of Americans so we do have to be big and bold.”
Each week, in “Three Questions For,” I interview interesting people in education and share their stories. I publish their interviews on Medium every Sunday and hope they provide you ideas and inspiration for your week. — Greg
This interview first ran here on Medium.