Podcast: A Conversation with Andy Rotherham on Hot Topics in Education for 2023
In this episode of our Public Policy & Regulation Group's "Eyes on Washington" podcast series, Senior Policy Advisor Lauren Maddox sits down with Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit organization working to support educational innovation. Their conversation takes a deep dive into the rises and pitfalls taking place in the education space today. Topics discussed include how the U.S. can improve its education system, the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning and school systems, and the use of artificial intelligence in the classroom. Mr. Rotherham shares final thoughts on the challenges and changes being faced in education to wrap up the conversation.
Lauren Maddox: Hi, everybody. I'm Lauren Maddox, senior policy advisor at Holland & Knight, and I'm joined today by Andy Rotherham. Andy is one of our nation's foremost thinkers, doers, reformers in education. He's the founder of a nonprofit education organization which employs over 100. He's also serving right now on the Virginia State Board of Education. He's advised presidents, governors, cabinet secretaries, electeds on both sides of the aisle. He's also a prolific writer who writes a great blog, Eduwonk. He's also a fisherman, lover of live music. He's a world traveler and a bicyclist. And I'm just going to add one more. He's also one of the nicest guys I've met in Washington, D.C., so I'm delighted to be here with Andy. And Andy, before we jump in and talk about education and politics, I'd love to hear more about your great adventure in August, your big bike ride. If you can tell us a little bit about that and the organization that you raised money for and have been raising money for, for a long time.
All About the Pan-Mass Challenge: Biking for Cancer Research
Andy Rotherham: Wow. Lauren, what a generous introduction. Thank you. It's great to be here with you all. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I mean, one of the anchor points of my year, I ride my bike across Massachusetts, or most of Massachusetts, from Sturbridge over out to the tip of Cape Cod, to Provincetown, a super fun place. So about 192 miles, and I raise money for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and raised about a quarter million since I started doing it. And collectively, the PMC has raised almost $1 billion and will raise more than $70 million this year. And so, it's a great bike ride and great experience, but it's first and foremost a fundraiser to support the really amazing work that they do at Dana-Farber, where they're literally changing the arc of what's happening with cancer and helping people not only with treatments, but with things that ultimately research is going to lead to cures. So it's exciting, and it's, you know, outside of sort of family and work, it's the most meaningful thing I get to do every year.
And so, it's a great bike ride and great experience, but it's first and foremost a fundraiser to support the really amazing work that they do at Dana-Farber, where they're literally changing the arc of what's happening with cancer and helping people not only with treatments, but with things that ultimately research is going to lead to cures.
Lauren Maddox: Do you have to train all year for that, Andy, or do you just hop on the bike every August?
Andy Rotherham: I should. I know, I know. I can't hop on my bike every August, I spend a lot of time on my bike. And fortunately, I can't say that I, I'm like a bear. I sort of hibernate a little bit in the winter and put on a few extra pounds, and I have to train off every spring. But yeah, it's, it's, you know, the first day I think we ride 112, the second day 80. It's nothing unmanageable, but you can't, if you just show up and try to do it, it'll bite you. So there's, there's some training, but that's — look, that's part of, it reminds you why you're doing it and the commitment to it. And the cool thing is 100 percent of the money the riders raise passes through. I think anyone who's been around for a while knows some of these athletic fundraisers can be real scams in terms of overhead and so forth. And the PMC's got this incredible hundred percent model, and so that encourages people like yourself — I'm always grateful for your donations, too — to really step up and help us really raise, again, a lot of money that is changing lives, and all along the route you see people remind you of that.
Lauren Maddox: That's great. You've mentioned PMC a couple of times. You want to tell everybody what that is?
Andy Rotherham: For the guy who does a lot of external relations work at Bellwether, I'm lousy at external relations. I should've mentioned that. It's the Pan-Mass Challenge. And so, it's going to be its 45th year next year. And we raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which is just an amazing research and treatment institute in Boston.
Lauren Maddox: That's great. So thank you for that, Andy. And thank you for all you're doing for cancer research, that's great. Let's pivot a little bit to education. You've been in the space for the better part of three decades, and I marveled at an answer that my old boss, former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, gave to a reporter one time when she was asked how she got into education, and she said education found her, you know, as if it was some kind of a calling. And I love that answer, but I'm not sure that kind of works for everybody. So I guess I would ask you, did it find you? Did you find it? Did you pursue it? Just really, how did you get into this space, and, frankly, what keeps you in the space?
Discussing the Education Space
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, it's a great question. And I guess kind of like Margaret, I can't say like it found me out of the blue. It was something I pursued because I just have always — I mean, early in my career I was an experiential educator, spent time in outdoor education. I just never understood, sort of, just why in a country like this, education is such a game of chance for kids depending on where you're born. And look, I'm sure a lot of people that listen to your podcast are in the D.C. area, which, I mean, we have absolutely world class public schools in some of the places around D.C., and then we also have schools that are the envy of absolutely nowhere. One of the worst examples of how we do public education and lots of things in between. And that's just in our community right here in the in the DMV, and I never understood that. And so, it got its hooks into me. I think there are sort of immutable things in life that we can't change, but I don't think this is one of them. We can do better. And a lot of our problems, frankly, come down to politics and sort of an unwillingness to really work together and do better. And so like, I guess I'm attracted to problems that are both difficult but solvable. And this is one.
I just never understood, sort of, just why in a country like this, education is such a game of chance for kids depending on where you're born.
Lauren Maddox: Yeah. So I've been in this space probably about half as long as you've been in the space, and there's just a lot of frustration. I feel like sometimes we're dealing with the same issues over and over again. So in your time, do you feel like that, or there are sort of new issues that pop up? And it seems to me like funding seems to be just a perennial issue. You know, the Democrats and Republicans disagree on sort of the funding of it, but do you know in your time, is it kind of a combination of old and new issues, or are you just trying to look through a different lens to solve issues that have been around for a long time?
Andy Rotherham: Yeah. I mean, I guess embedded in your question is this idea, have we made progress? And I think we've made in some cases pretty astounding progress. If you look at sort of the scope of how social policy changes historically in this country. I mean, when Bill Clinton said, I'm going to have 3,000 charter schools, that was his goal. People thought that was absolutely insane, unrealistic, something he just like pulled out of thin air. We blew past that goal an awful long time ago. And, you know, there's more than 7,000 charters. They're not all great, but many of them are absolutely fantastic schools that are changing trajectories for kids. No one saw that. Tom Kane up at Harvard has done really good work showing, you know, we were really seeing steady gains for the kids who were furthest from opportunity. So particularly low-income kids, Black students, Hispanic students, we are seeing steady gains. And we saw that, we saw that into the middle of the last decade when it started to drop off, and it was trending in the wrong direction, even before the pandemic. So my frustration more than anything else is that we can't acknowledge that there has been progress. Things do work, double down on that. And then also to say, here are the things that haven't worked and we need to reform. So money and abolishing the Department of Education, this kind of stuff, those are sort of like greatest hits. They just kind of keep coming back. They're not super productive conversations. But underneath that, yeah, a lot of stuff has happened and changed, and there's still some old problems, finance, school finance being one of them. And then there's new challenges. Obviously, the pandemic presented a whole set of new challenges in terms of what happened to kids during that. But I don't get frustrated with that. I do get frustrated with the lack of learning. The extent sometimes it does both feel like Groundhog Day, and feel like people aren't looking at the places where we have done well and we can we can learn from.
Lauren Maddox: And I do want to touch on the pandemic because so much has been written. But before I do that, I just want you to talk a little bit about the education organization that you started, really geared to transforming the system so that the system works for everybody, especially marginalized populations. So again, were you looking to, was it a policy vacuum that you were trying to fill? Was it just that you felt a different lens or lenses were needed to sort of look at the needs of students, and families, and communities? Just, can you talk a little bit about that and then maybe the work that you're doing there that's transforming education as we know it.
Andy Rotherham: It was both a practice and a policy. The sit play, essentially, you know, you reach this point in the arts, typically in the wake of the Bush Administration, where reformers were still talking as though they were the insurgents and they sort of fancied themselves as the insurgents, that they were still, you know, the Jedi’s fighting against the Empire. But you look, and you're kind of like, well, you guys, you kind of are the Empire. Like, you know, Arne Duncan had become Secretary of Education. You had reformers leading states and school districts. Teach For America was, you know, really ascendant at that point. And the problem it seemed to us, myself and my three co-founders, was there's just not the capacity to do this. And we would sort of joke like, well, you didn't, you know, Teach For America is great, but maybe what we need is middle management for America, because there just wasn't the capacity to execute on a lot of this stuff in a lot of places, and so that’s what Bellwether was. It was how do we address context and conditions, do policy work, but also practice. And that model is the model that still we have today. So half the shop is strategic advising, and those are sort of folks with a deep background in strategic advising and consulting. And we do lots of hands-on work with schools, with school districts, CMOs, states, foundations, other kind of intermediary organizations. We also do academic program advising. So we're in schools, helping schools with questions of curriculum, culture, strategy, things like that. And then the other side of the shop is policy and evaluation, which, as the name suggests, is, you know, a lot of policy work, some proprietary for clients, some field facing and a lot of evaluation work. Same thing, some field facing and some proprietary helping people with, you know, internal learning and so forth. And we're still so I mean, we've grown, you know, we went from four to more than 100, but we are still doing that same kind of work, which is how do you change context and conditions? How do you help people get better? And I think that also gives you a good perspective on the debate. Our work, our policy work is informed by our hands-on work. And as frustrating as policy can be and the atmospherics and some of what you've given voice to, like when you're out there actually working with folks who are, who are on the ground doing the work, that's incredibly satisfying, and it keeps you energized to keep going to come to work.
The sit play, essentially, you know, you reach this point in the arts, typically in the wake of the Bush Administration, where reformers were still talking as though they were the insurgents and they sort of fancied themselves as the insurgents, that they were still, you know, the Jedi’s fighting against the Empire. But you look, and you're kind of like, well, you guys, you kind of are the Empire.
Lauren Maddox: Yeah. Is there a space that you prefer, Andy? Do you like the evaluation, the data, that sort of thing, or the policy development, or do you just like it all?
Andy Rotherham: I like it. That's my problem. I like it all. I am incredibly happy if I get to be in a school and I get to sit with kindergartners and read to them, that is like for me, about as good of a day as you're going to have. And I do also like analysis. I like solving problems. I like the big part of our work is constant learning. That's the great part about being an analyst. And so I enjoy that. Yeah. So that's, that’s my problem. People are like, “what do you like?” And it’s kind of, I like all of it.
Lauren Maddox: You’re not just theory based. You’re also sort of hands on, strategic learning, practical. You’ve also been an educator. You’ve been in the classroom, both K-12 and higher up.
Andy Rotherham: Yeah. More actually, these days over the years. Much more, much more higher ed. But yeah, early in my career, yeah, both in experimental settings and in a public middle school.
Lauren Maddox: Yeah. Yeah. No, I agree. There's a lot going on in higher ed in particular. But let me, let's just talk about COVID for one minute too, because so much has been written, and I just would like you to sort of set the record straight. What's happening with kids? You're also serving on the Virginia State Board of Education. So what data are you looking at? Tell us where kids are at. Is it as bad as we're hearing it is, or are there pockets of good things happening?
COVID-19's Impact on Education
Andy Rotherham: I think it's worse, actually. I think, I don't think people fully realize the extent of this, and it's not every kid and we should be — some kids thrived during the pandemic, but if you look at the data, there are a large number of kids who missed out on an awful lot of learning. And we don't have a real strategy yet to catch them up. And it's become incredibly politicized. And so I will say in Virginia, every time we raise this, you get an argument about, well, is it really a big deal? Do these tests really tell you anything? Should we be paying attention to other stuff? We have the largest learning loss of any state. We need to address that, and not coincidentally, our schools were closed longer than most places. And we need to address that. We need to make that up to these kids. We need to live up to the warranty that their parents expect from us in public education. And then there's also all the mental health stuff that's going on, which these are, all of this stuff was preexisting issues to some extent, but the pandemic just exploded it. But again, every time you raise that, you get a fight about politics now. And it's sort of the Virginia Governor, Glenn Youngkin, early in his term, an analysis on achievement in Virginia, that honestly was the kind of analysis the Education Trust could have written. That was, here's what's going on. Here's what the data shows, here are the gaps, here's what we're not doing well when you break it out by, you know, race and income. Here's where we're not doing well overall. And instead of people being like, oh, yeah, this is like a call to action, we should come together, it just turned into the usual politics. And I just think this is a time, there's plenty of stuff to argue about, this is a time we can ill afford, we can't afford that.
We need to make that up to these kids. We need to live up to the warranty that their parents expect from us in public education.
Lauren Maddox: So you're saying that there were issues that existed before the pandemic hit, but when you look back at the arc of your career, you know, what has changed, I guess? Can you can you just talk a little bit about the sort of the bigger picture?
The Bigger Picture
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, well, I mean, I talked earlier about, like, what's changed in terms of achievement. If you look, we actually, we're making real progress. No Child Behind Act focused efforts on, on low-achieving kids, and we've made real progress around things, around school choice and so forth. And curriculum and standards are much better. There's lots of things. You know, when I got into this business you had people who dissented. So like, Dale Kildee, was a Democrat from Michigan, George Miller, a Democrat from California, both in the House. They dissented from Democratic Party orthodoxy on accountability, and they felt like we needed to go a different direction. And what has happened is this, this intense polarization. We've lost the ability to sort of work across lines of difference. Everybody is now aligned with their tribe. And what that's given rise to is just this incredible amount of preference falsification where lots of people are saying stuff that privately they don't believe. And we see this on a range of issues. If you ask Democrats about some of those culture war issues privately, they're like, oh yeah, that's not good. Republicans are actually much more LGBT inclusive than you would know from the rhetoric when, but like nobody can say that stuff. And so people are out there saying things on just a range of issues that they don't actually believe. And I think that's an unwelcome change, if you believe in progress. And I think it's a major problem, we've got to figure out how to get past and get back to being able to have much more honest debates rather than just the absolute reflexive polarization, which not only has taken over our political life, but it's now taken over the education community.
We've lost the ability to sort of work across lines of difference. Everybody is now aligned with their tribe. And what that's given rise to is just this incredible amount of preference falsification where lots of people are saying stuff that privately they don't believe. And we see this on a range of issues.
Lauren Maddox: Yeah, you know, you raise a really good point, and I've written about this before. You know, I talk about it to groups, and one of the questions I always get asked is, you know, how can you stand to live and work in that city and in, you know, I mean, when you live and work here, you see the bipartisanship much more so than if you're just watching the cable shows where you see none of that. So I don't know how we get past that. Even, you know, as we were talking about, even the presidential politics, you referenced earlier about, you know, some of these Republican candidates now are talking about shutting down the Department of Education. You know, I served there, so I've got a sweet spot for the place. And but I think some people see it as more financial institution than anything, but yet they're not regulated by one. They, they believe all these decisions need to be made at the local level. I'm just not sure if that's a helpful message at this point. I think what we need to do is really talk about student needs and how to tackle those.
Andy Rotherham: And what's our strategy? I would love to hear more of those debates. Everyone about the part of education is this thing people say, I think education is probably a state responsibility. I'm a two-time state board member, but you have to have a national federal role. You have to have a national federal strategy. And I would like to hear when people say, I'm going to abolish this, they're asked for a serious answer to, OK, if you look around the world, we face a variety of competitive threats and adversaries. If we get rid of the Department of Education, that's fine. Then what is your strategy for us having a national competitiveness strategy, which includes making sure we're not leaving so many people behind just because of where they happen to be born, but also that we're addressing all these competitive challenges? Like, sure, get rid of the Department of Education, what's your answer to that? I mean, I don't see how you do that with getting rid of a national agency like the department. Focus on that. I'm not there. But that's at least the question people should be forced to answer, is how would you then do that? Otherwise, it's just simply a throwaway that people love but it doesn't make — I mean, leave aside the mechanics of administering the money, just like how are you actually going to have any kind of a national competitiveness and sort of a strategy on sort of a more inclusive economy and more social mobility? It just doesn't, it's hard to see that happening at the federal level.
Lauren Maddox: I think that's right. But let me shift gears real quick to AI, artificial intelligence. You know, it's gathering steam on Capitol Hill, you know, the Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, is going to be convening a number of forums this fall on the issue. He's tasked the committees to try and come up with some bipartisan solutions. You have the top Republican on the Senate Education Committee, Senator Bill Cassidy from Louisiana, releasing a white paper. He was talking about its door cuts, but also the benefits of freeing up more time for teachers to actually instruct. So he laid out a number of good questions, frankly, to consider. And I know the EU is already moving pretty rapidly into developing sort of legislation that they hope to get through. So I guess the question is, you know, technology in general really hasn't had an impact, you walk into a classroom, it still looks the same as when we were kids. Talk a little bit about AI, I'm guessing about whether your educational organization, you're probably doing some work in this space, but I guess, you know, where do you come down on all of that?
Thoughts on AI in Schools
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, we are doing some work in it. I don't come down anywhere yet because I think we're still in learning mode. And I think everybody — I do worry, you know, historically, generally, two, a couple of things have happened. One, anytime you get a new technology, it freaks people out. I mean, you can remember, you know, back in the day there was concern about everybody having email and how are we going to regulate that. You know, printing presses at one point they want to make you have to have a license to have one. People, kind of this was like a dangerous technology, which in some ways it is, right? Print, you know, print the printed word, you know, is power and freedom. And so every time this stuff happens, you're sort of seeing this with AI, with these outrages, we've got to ban it and so forth. Like, first of all, that's unrealistic. It's not going to happen in seconds. It's probably counterproductive. The second thing in education is every time we get a new wave of technology, get people predicting this is the one and it's going to replace teachers. You know, so Edison thought record players were going to replace teachers because you'd be able to put the best lesson on it and then just like distribute that. Rickover, you know, Hyman Rickover, he thought the filmstrip that was the final like breakthrough, right? And when's the last time you saw a filmstrip? There are some unique features of AI that I think could lead it to have a bigger impact than any of those technologies, but at the same time, to your point, when you — in your question, there's two institutions that look basically the same way they look 200 years ago, and that's schools and churches. And there's, there’s something to that. I think the change will be, will be somewhat tempered, but the political scene is going to do sort of what it does with swirling around this. I'm more interested in sort of the applications that are being developed with what some of these companies are doing. There's a lot of stuff. The rate of growth of just like creation of new companies coming into the ed sector, it's pretty remarkable, and a lot of it'll bounce off, but I think some of it could be, you know, fairly transformative ideas. And in particular a space I'm watching very closely is sort of tutoring and student engagement because there seems to be some real potential there to do stuff differently than we than we've done with AI.
Lauren Maddox: Yeah, I mean, I think that does seem to be a bright spot. It just feels, you know, I mean, Congress is kind of a reactive body more than it is a proactive body. So I think to move forward on, sort of legislation funding, you know, somebody in the Senate shared that they're looking to put something in appropriations. I don't know exactly what that would be, but it just feels a little soon until we kind of get our heads around what this is and the impact. But again, you know, sort of this white paper asked a whole bunch of questions, you know, thoughtful, wasn't just they weren't negative. They were just, you know, let's get our head around it and how can students benefit from it. I did read I think it was in New York public schools. New York City public schools who are trying to sort of put a lid on it. I think a little worried about ChatGPT, which I think created a movement in the space. So I'm not — I think putting a lid on it probably is not, not the right answer. So the question is, you know, just about what do we do? Especially watching video, I think, you know, maybe we just watch and see what happens there a little bit longer before we start. You know, you don't want to stifle innovation. Like you said, there's just a lot of companies that are now in the space and trying to figure this out.
So I think to move forward on, sort of legislation funding, you know, somebody in the Senate shared that they're looking to put something in appropriations. I don't know exactly what that would be, but it just feels a little soon until we kind of get our heads around what this is and the impact.
Andy Rotherham: Yes, schools have a long and storied history of trying to ban stuff that young people want to do and failing to do it. And I suspect this will be the same thing. I worry — it's not a replacement for doing your own research, and how do we help, like any other technology or new thing, how do we actually empower students to engage with it smartly and thoughtfully? And schools can sometimes kind of be a, a stagger step behind on addressing things like that. And so that's a place, because it is going to change things, that we're going to have to do better.
Lauren Maddox: Yeah. Andy, so as we're closing this out, I could spend another hour talking about it, but I just want to talk to you just personally, your sort of advocacy style. First of all, like I mentioned, you work across the political spectrum. You've got elected, too, who want the benefit of your wisdom as they develop and execute on your own education agendas or just talk about, you know, you've been able to do this. Why aren't there more people who do this, who can work across the aisle, and listen, and learn, and help each other get to a better place? But, you know, sort of as your advocacy style changed over the years, or is it just that the Andy of 30 years ago is the Andy we see today, and you're just about finding the right solutions for these challenges that we're facing?
Andy Rotherham: Well, I hope I'm not the same. I hope I've learned some stuff over 30 years. I really mean that. I do think I was impatient, and I'm even more probably impatient now. And one experience is, you know, I had kids. My girls are seniors in high school now. And I remember when I had kids there were some people who were like, oh, now you'll be more understanding. And actually, as I became even less patient because I was like, I'm not going to put up with this stuff for my kids and this sort of dysfunction. And so why should anybody else have to? And I'm a relatively empowered person and things that would, my kids would experience, I'd be like, what would this be like if you, this is not acceptable and we can do something about it because we're empowered, but if you're not empowered in those ways. And so it's actually made me, like that, that whole experience has actually made me more impatient on sort of the urgency and need to do something. I have become more skeptical of different kinds of solutions because I've seen things, you know, work and not work and so forth. And so I think if anything has changed like a more of a blend of those things. But one thing that hasn't changed, I used to, people would be like, you can't talk frankly about these things. And I was always like, why? And I still have that instinct. I feel so incredibly blessed to be an American and live in a country that has a First Amendment. And if you travel around the world, or your family, as my family did, came here from elsewhere, you realize what a precious thing that is. And I do not understand in our education culture, why people don’t take more full advantage of that, and it's instrumental to progress. That's the only way we get anywhere, is talking frankly about things, learning from each other, making mistakes and learning, and errors and learning from them. And so I still just try to continue to lean into that.
I feel so incredibly blessed to be an American and live in a country that has a First Amendment. And if you travel around the world, or your family, as my family did, came here from elsewhere, you realize what a precious thing that is.
Lauren Maddox: So, and it's why you're so good at what you do. I mean, you hit on something as well. The one thing to coming out of COVID, it just seems parents are more engaged or they want to be closer to what their kids are doing or they sort of forced to be because everybody was at home and they were hearing it, or just seems like parents are, they're not afraid anymore to jump in there, too. Is that just my own observation, or is that what you're seeing kind of across the board?
Andy Rotherham: No, I do think the pandemic fundamentally changed people's relationship with schools in different ways. One, people felt like this institution always had their best interests at heart and had their back. And it was clear in a lot of cases that was not the case. There was, decisions are being made for politics or for adult reasons and so forth. And so I think that — plus people got a good look at what was going on, or not going on, in the classroom learning level of work. And so I do think you can overstate that everything's changed. Everybody now is sour on the public schools. I don't think those things are true. But I do think something changed in that relationship. And the question is how durable will that be? Because the one thing the schools, parents are moving through, you know, like it's hard for me to believe I won't be a public school parent a year from now, right? And that's like, it's hard for me to get my head around because that's like been something I've been, you know, more than a decade. But there will be other parents along. And so, has that relationship changed in ways that are going to be permanent or as we get newer parents through and parents age out of the system, will things revert? And I don't think anybody knows. But right now I think you're spot on. Something is different.
Lauren Maddox: With that, Andy, let's wrap. I think it's going to be a busy year with the election. With the end of this session, I don't know how much they're going to get done legislatively on education, but maybe more so on the state level then on the federal level. So we'll watch what happens in Virginia in particular.
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, there's definitely stuff happening. And thank you so much for having me. This was fun.
Lauren Maddox: Yeah, this was great. Thanks so much.