Q&A with Andy Rotherham

November 2017

Andrew Rotherham - The Line Editorial Advisory board

Andy Rotherham,
Co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners

Get to know Andy Rotherham - The Line Editorial Advisory board

The Line is proud to have an exceptionally talented group of education leaders serve as advisors to the publication. We have brought together 19 editorial advisory board members – some of the brightest superintendents from across the country, experts in leadership, management and education policy, think-tank scholars and non-profit and former union leaders – all educators at heart. Each brings a unique voice to The Line, shaped by personal and professional experience, expertise, ideological leanings and passion. But all are united in their dedication to finding common ground that advances the future of public education.

… there are a lot of people who want improvement not infighting.

Q: Why did you agree to serve on The Line’s editorial advisory board?

A: There were a few reasons. First, I respect what John [Editor-in-Chief of The Line] is trying to do and want to help. But in addition, among the challenges this sector faces is fostering a rigorous, civil, and ideologically diverse dialogue about the challenges the education sector faces. I’m happy to put time in with any publication seeking to help us do better. It’s why I work with The 74 and U.S. News & World Report and why I’m excited about the promise of The Line.

Q: Do you believe The Line can be a catalyst for civil engagement among education community leaders and other stakeholders?

A: I do. Just look at John’s work. He’s definitely in the camp that says we can and must do a lot better with our schools. But he’s also been a public school superintendent and someone focused on the most overlooked students. It shows that a lot of the “divides” in our field, stoked by many with a vested interest in dividing us or creating controversy, obscure how as soon as you get away from the extremes and the stridency there are a lot of people who want improvement not infighting.

Q: Is it possible to bring the conversation about school choice back to doing what’s right for students in today’s highly politicized environment?

A: The debate about school choice has never been only about doing what’s best for students nor has the debate about most schooling issues. In an enterprise that is the size of the public education system there are always going to be multiple factors to balance in any consequential decision. What’s striking about this moment in time is just how little what’s best for students comes into play, we’ve lost a lot of ground there.

What’s striking about this moment in time is just how little what’s best for students comes into play…

Q: How can we guard against our own personal bias about choice and instead consider the facts?

A: We can’t. And on an issue as fundamental as choice values matter along with the evidence so we shouldn’t. For instance, it seems quite reasonable for someone to say, yes, I look at the evidence on school vouchers and it’s hardly a slam dunk in favor but I think that in a liberal society like ours people should be able to make school choices regardless of their income. On the other hand, it’s also reasonable for someone to say that even if the evidence is favorable toward vouchers their view of church-state relations or how communities should allocate and control education dollars means they don’t support private school choice.

The problem is that rather than a measured conversation about either evidence or values, both get weaponized by stakeholders and the debate is toxic as a result. This happens on other educational issues besides choice, too.

I’m not saying evidence doesn’t matter, rather that we often balance evidence with other considerations on various issues and we might think about doing that more thoughtfully here.

Q: How can the education community work to assure underserved students aren’t adversely impacted by school choice?

A: By rejecting the extremists on both sides. One way to ensure that school choice doesn’t impact underserved students is to not give it to them. That solution seems not to trouble a lot of education’s mandarins who have their own kids safely out of harm’s way in private schools or tony public school districts. Conversely, too many choice proponents don’t want to engage with a host of complicated choice issues around equity, discipline, harder to serve students, and the other issues a public system of schooling must grapple with. These issues were not front and center when choice was a sideshow but they are issues the choice community must grapple with today to realize the promise of choice for chronically underserved students.

… parents are starting to demand more change as well.

Q: Are choices about education being made by people other than educators? Is that trend growing??

A: Sure, choices about education are being made by people other than educators. And while educators should be involved, obviously, other stakeholders such as parents and the public should have a say, too. You don’t see too many calls to leave policing policy just to the police. Or military policy solely to the military. Should Wall Street make all the calls on financial policy and regulation? But for some reason in education there is this unquestioned idea that in this one domain everyone else should beat feet. Obviously, some of it is just politics and some is the insular nature of this sector. Regardless, we call it public education for a reason.

What’s more, this is a historic issue, not a recent trend. We talk a lot about Carnegie units, right? Since the beginning of public education various interests and advocates have called for and made changes, successfully and unsuccessfully. A great example is the federal government’s late 1950’s foray into math and science. It was people like Admiral Rickover leading the charge on that. Later the standards movement was a hodgepodge of players, many from outside of education. And many of the most vocal advocates for choice, on the political right and left, came from outside the field.

For my part, I don’t think we’ll find all the answers inside or outside the profession, we need to look everywhere for ideas and lessons.

Q: What makes you hopeful about the future?

A: If I was not fundamentally optimistic about our ability to bring about dramatic change in this sector I’d be in another line of work. These challenges can all be met. I’m excited because despite the ups and downs there is a lot of demand for change from within and outside the education field and parents are starting to demand more change as well. And the political arrangements are starting to evolve. It’s slow going, sure, and a lot of politics that have more to do with adults than kids, but if you look around there has been quite a bit of progress, a lot of compelling examples, and some exciting opportunities and challenges ahead.