“Anyone who’s listening who’s thinking about getting into education should familiarize themselves to some extent with just the general education data of this country to just appreciate just the seismic gaps in achievement that we tolerate between different racial, ethnic, income, socioeconomic groups of students that persist over time and how those are just linked to broader opportunity gaps in America.”

That’s Andy Rotherham, this week’s guest on Why Public Service?, discussing his decades of work in education policy and where to begin if you want to understand the underlying system of more than 100,000 schools in the country.

(Subscribe to Why Public Service? on Spotify or Apple, by RSS feed or search for it wherever you listen to podcasts.)

Transcript:

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Why Public Service?, a podcast of the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, D.C. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar, and each episode, I speak with an individual who made the choice to participate in governing our nation. Some of my guests have worked for the government. Others have toiled in various private sector organizations, including think tanks, philanthropies, and political groups. All of them share the same goal, however, which is to improve our country through public service.

Kevin Kosar:

Today’s guest is Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit organization, working to support educational innovation and to improve outcomes for underserved students. Andy is a contributing editor to U.S. News and World Report, and a senior editor at The 74, an education news and analysis publication, and he blogs at eduwonk.com. Andy previously worked in the White House and has started two other educational organizations. You can learn more about Andy by visiting bellwethereducation.org. Andy, welcome to the Why Public Service podcast.

Andy Rotherham:

Kevin, thank you for having me.

Kevin Kosar:

As our listeners have heard, you are an entrepreneur in the education policy space. What led you to co-found Bellwether? What was the path that led you there?

Andy Rotherham:

Sure. And obviously it wasn’t just me. I had three co-founders, three amazing people, Mary Wells, who’s still at Bellwether. She’s our managing partner. Kim Smith, who was at Bellwether for a while, was our first CEO slash managing partner, but then has spun out her own initiative and led that for a while, and Monisha Lozier, who likewise, a few years later, spun out an initiative.

Andy Rotherham:

And so it was four of us, and the problem we were basically trying to solve is, this was the latter part of the last decade, and what was happening is educational reformers were still very much talking about themselves in this outside frame, that they were the insurgents and all that, but if you looked, they were increasingly being appointed to leadership roles in states. Arnie Duncan was becoming secretary of education.

Andy Rotherham:

It seemed harder to claim that this was an insurgent outside movement. And in fact, it was a movement that needed to be accountable for results. And collectively, we took a look at different areas where we felt there was work to be done there and we were coming up short, and concluded that there was an organization, a nonprofit mission-driven consulting firm to be built to address those, and that was particularly capacity execution.

Andy Rotherham:

So a lot of the work we do around strategy and planning and that kind of work and implementation, and then also around both policy analysis, policy development and ideas, and so forth, and that there was a lot of work to be done there as well.

Andy Rotherham:

And those are the two things that the organization has blended, which makes us a little bit unique that we do both of those in the way that we do. You don’t see a lot of other folks doing that, but that was the problem we set out to solve. Now, formerly, we’ve been in business for 10 years and have obviously learned a lot, but we still see those problems as pretty acute ones.

Kevin Kosar:

For listeners who are new to the education policy innovation space, can you clarify, who are the customers of Bellwether, generally speaking? Is it foundations? Is it individual schools? Or is it someone else?

Andy Rotherham:

Since we’re a nonprofit and we’re mission driven, there’s two. There’s our clients and then our impact. We view the ultimate customers, clients, our kids, and our entire mission statement is around we want to see dramatic change for historically underserved populations.

Andy Rotherham:

That is particularly, obviously, in this country, as anyone who understands the history of this country knows, racial and ethnic minorities have been particularly ill served by public schools, but also low-income kids, special-ed kids. So kids who have historically been marginalized by public schools. All of our projects we take on through a lens of, What is the impact going to be there?

Andy Rotherham:

The clients that we work with to achieve that, we work with a range. And we’re a little different. A lot of firms focus, so they day work on early-stage stuff, or they have a large, public sector practice or whatever. We pick our clients more, and they pick us, based on two dimensions. One, that impact piece I just talked about, and then also, is it a new, impact-driven, I hate to say entrepreneurial because that has a private sector connotation, but new creative, innovative, entrepreneurial way of trying to solve problems.

Andy Rotherham:

And so that leads us. We work with school districts, we work with charter schools, we work with foundations, we work with local organizations that are philanthropically dependent. We do a little bit of private sector work. We work with a lot of large national nonprofits.

Andy Rotherham:

And that mix of clients we think is interesting because it helps us learn more and have a broader field of view, creates some variety and diversity in the work, and allows us to have impact in more places. And so it’s unusual that we can work with media outlets and so forth, and we also work with school districts. It gives us, we think, a interesting reach and perspective.

Kevin Kosar:

As a co-founder and partner at Bellwether, what are your specific responsibilities and what does your average day look like?

Andy Rotherham:

All right, those are two different questions. And over the years, my responsibilities have obviously evolved. So now some general leadership, big picture stuff. Day-to-day, I’m very involved in our external communications work, which is a place traditionally we haven’t actually put a lot of attention on that, and we want to become much more intentional about that.

Andy Rotherham:

Per what I was saying earlier, our strategy folks are out in the field, our analysts are out in the field, learning … A little less out in the field right now during COVID, but in general, in and out of schools a lot, our evaluation work. We’re learning a lot of different things and we want to be much more intentional about translating that and so forth.

Andy Rotherham:

And traditionally we’ve been very driven, the projects are what motivate us. And we haven’t really paid a great deal of attention to that, and we want to work on that. So I’m spending a lot of time on that and leading that part of our work right now. And then, I also do a lot of work on our policy and evaluation team, both working on projects and then also helping sell and find projects for us.

Andy Rotherham:

There really isn’t typical day, and obviously, nothing is typical right now in the COVID period. But I guess I would say, to the extent there is, one of the great parts about our work is you’re learning a lot. I think the kind of people who both enjoy and succeed at our work are sort of broad-minded people who like to learn about things and are naturally curious and naturally empirical in terms of how they approach the world.

Andy Rotherham:

So I spend a lot of time, the early parts of my day I try to hold back a lot of time for reading and writing, and I would describe as general learning, and that’s both for the topical things that are happening and deeper things. And then as the day goes on, I tend to get sucked in. That’s where more of my meetings get scheduled.

Andy Rotherham:

In the old days, you’d be able to meet a colleague for lunch and kick stuff around. I used to meet you for lunch. Obviously, that’s not something that’s happening so much anymore outside of Zoom, and then more meetings and so forth throughout the afternoon. In a normal time, there’s a fair amount of travel, and so you are out meeting with people, you’re onsite.

Andy Rotherham:

One of the really cool things about our work is you get to be in and out of a lot of schools. We tend to talk about schools a lot in this country in the singular, but there’s 100,000 of them, they’re all over the country, and they’re very different, and that’s a real awesome part of our work. Since March, we haven’t been doing, obviously, any of that.

Andy Rotherham:

And so, those meetings during the afternoon are both on that biz/gen, talking to people about different things and what we do, and then also working and advising on the projects that we’re currently working on. So I guess, part of the day is solo, part of the day is meetings.

Andy Rotherham:

So if you’re sort of in the line between introvert and introvert, it’s probably perfect. Our introverts might find parts of the day kind of exhausting, and are extroverts, this kind of work, as you know, a lot of what we do, policy work, this kind of thing, a lot of it’s actually solo work that you do in isolation, and that that’s obviously not for everybody either.

Kevin Kosar:

You’ve been in the public sphere in one position or other since the 1990s. What lessons have you learned in that time about governments, about affecting change in society?

Andy Rotherham:

Oh man, so many. I mean, I think so many things that you change your views on, your views evolve. I guess, a couple of things that have been very influential in my thinking. Jonathan Rauch, he’s in the news a lot right now, because he does a lot of work on free speech and free expression and so forth. That’s obviously a topic right now that’s getting a lot of attention.

Andy Rotherham:

But he wrote a book called Demosclerosis. That’s about special interests in Washington, and I think that book, it wasn’t specifically about education, but that book was hugely influential in understanding the policy ecosystem that exists in Washington to a lesser, but very real extent, out in the states.

Andy Rotherham:

And a guy named Eric Potashic, he’s a professor at UVA, was actually one of my professors a long time ago in grad school. Eric wrote about when the general interest prevails, which is basically about how, in general, in American life, special interests wield a great deal of concentrated influence and the general interest wins out sometimes, and you see that in broad, general interest reforms. But in general, special interests are able to work their will, and that’s just how things work in a governmental system our way.

Andy Rotherham:

So both of those books were influential for me when and those ideas, when I first encountered them, and then just throughout the course of my work. Second, I spent a lot of time thinking about incentives. I mean, I have a very basic view of the world on this that, essentially humans do respond to incentives. We’re all humans, and therefore incentives matter to some extent in policy.

Andy Rotherham:

And I think we, and especially in education, people can sort of assume that some of the normal things that apply in the world and in policy-making somehow don’t apply here, and that gets us in a lot of trouble. Third, the role of choice. My views on that have evolved, and that’s also 20 years of ed-reform battles.

Andy Rotherham:

Choice itself is a form of accountability, and we need to think creatively about how we deploy it and empowering citizens. I mean, the work I do, I do in general to give people choices in their lives, but I’m speaking in a governmental context in terms of just giving people choices inside various kinds of policy arrangements. It seems an undervalued mechanism.

Andy Rotherham:

And then finally, a big lesson that I’ve just been struck by, there’s always a disconnect between policy and politics and rhetoric. When I say always, at least since I’ve been doing this work, since the 1990s. I was at the White House under President Clinton in ’99 and 2000, and that was obviously an interesting time. So with that perspective, and then the oughts.

Andy Rotherham:

There’s always been a gap, but I’ve seen it over the last 25 years grow, this gap between what’s actually happening in the policy making process, what’s the policy about, what is it intended to do, what is it doing, and how it’s talked about, the larger atmospherics. And that has really accelerated in the age of social media.

Andy Rotherham:

And so just for example, you and I are talking in the middle of August. So just yesterday, there was a federal court ruling around the Title IX sexual assault guidelines that the Trump administration just issued earlier this year. And I look at the way that issue is debated on social media and so forth, and then the actual ins and outs of a fair number of court cases and legal processes, and the gap is just enormous.

Andy Rotherham:

And you see that on a range of issues. I mean, we saw that on No Child Left Behind, obviously, but it’s grown on a range of things, and I think that is actually impacting governance in some ways that we don’t maybe fully understand or appreciate.

Andy Rotherham:

What is actually happening and what people who are charged and accountable for governance, and so that’s staff and elected officials and all that, what they’re doing and trying to do versus this larger noise and debate around it, if that gap is growing, and it seems to me it is, I think there’s some real consequences there politically, and just in terms of our democracy. And so that last one’s not a lesson I’ve learned, but more like a trend I am watching and trying to figure out.

Kevin Kosar:

What’s the toughest part about your current job?

Andy Rotherham:

Besides that I’m stuck in my home office and I can’t go anywhere? More generally, if you’re speaking more generally other than COVID, I think mechanically things like balancing multiple priorities, constant need to be learning and trying to be reflective against the press of business and operations and all of that. So mechanically, it’s all those kinds of things.

Andy Rotherham:

I guess, more spiritually, larger, policy issues come and go. I’ve been doing education work long enough now that I’ve seen us twice people were trying to really radically change how we deliver schooling and focus on equity in this country. I’ve seen now two boom-and-bust cycles from when we were darlings to villains and back to being darlings and back to being villains.

Andy Rotherham:

You have to take the long view, but at times it’s easy to be philosophical about that, at other times it’s extremely frustrating, especially given some of the urgency and the importance of this work. Anyone who’s listening who’s thinking about getting into education should familiarize themselves to some extent with just the general education data of this country to just appreciate just the seismic gaps in achievement that we tolerate between different racial, ethnic, income, socioeconomic groups of students that persist over time and how those are just linked to broader opportunity gaps in America.

Andy Rotherham:

I teach part time, and I like doing that because your impact is very tangible and real. You can see with students, the work you’re doing. If you work in policy and you do these things, you do see impact, and you can point to things and that’s very satisfying. And often, it can be fairly consequential things, but boy, it is long. The period between those and everything else that goes on, it is long.

Andy Rotherham:

And so it requires a degree of patience and a real North star that, I think, for most people can be testing it and trying at various points. I think that is the toughest part. And the great thing about American democracy is American democracy. It is messy and complicated and factionalized. It’s been all those. It’s been that way since Madison and Hamilton and Jay were writing about it.

Andy Rotherham:

That is also the frustrating thing about it. It can be very hard to get things done, even as I was saying on that earlier point on the general interest and special interests, it can be very hard to get things done, even when the answer is relatively obvious or widely supported. And that’s a frustrating thing you have to make your peace with if you intend to do this kind of work.

Kevin Kosar:

So that leads me nicely to my final question. The work you do is not easy. There’s not a quick payoff. Success is often hard to achieve. You could have chosen another career path. So why public service?

Andy Rotherham:

Yeah, I mean, I have a very personal answer on it, but also just in general, I feel like one of the best things you can do is simply try to make life better for others. And there are many, many ways to do that. I take a fairly broad sense of what is public service. And then I also think people just in other sectors, entrepreneurs who are building products and things, and different things in medicine and biotech, there’s lots of different things. But trying to make the world a better place for others strikes me as a fairly, at least for me, it’s a fairly central value.

Andy Rotherham:

And so that’s why. And I think if you look at education and you reflect on your own experiences and so forth, I mean, I didn’t grow up super wealthy. I didn’t go to private schools, anything like that. My mom was a private school teacher, my dad worked for the government, but we were comfortable. I didn’t worry about where my next meal was coming from. That’s just a function of zip code, right? And so I was able to go to decent public schools.

Andy Rotherham:

And it strikes me that if you believe in some idea of that this country needs to be about equality of opportunity and that people have a chance to grasp for the various rings and so forth that they want to and move up the ladder, we simply cannot tolerate these incredible inequities.

Andy Rotherham:

And if you just look at the data in terms of people are born into poverty, and if they don’t get a quality education, the likelihood that they’ll live their life in poverty versus there’s some chance at social mobility and so forth, it’s just an issue that I think it’s not that everything would be better, but it strikes me as it’s not sufficient, but it’s extremely necessary.

Kevin Kosar:

Andy, thank you for your efforts and thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Andy Rotherham:

Kevin, thank you for having me. I hope it’s helpful to somebody who’s thinking about going into this line of work.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Why Public Service, a podcast of the R Street Institute. Please subscribe to the podcast and share it with your friends. Even better, rate and review us on iTunes so we can reach more listeners. Tell us what you thought about it and who we should interview next by finding us on Twitter at RSI. If you want to know more about R Street, sign up for our newsletters at www.rstreet.org. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. Thank you to producer William Gray and editor Parker Kent from parkerpodcasting.com.