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Interview Of The Month: Alexander Russo

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For November, I should actually call it “Interviews Of The Month” because I’ll be posting two of them.

Today, I’m sharing my interview with Alexander Russo, writer of the popular blog This Week In Education (and several others). Next week, David Cohen, one of the key people behind The Accomplished Teachers Forum and co-author of a recent Op Ed piece titled Test scores poor tool for teacher evaluation, will be the guest.

Can you give a little background on who you are and how and why you got connected to the education “world”?

I’m a 45 year-old freelance education writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. I got into this by teaching at a parochial boys school in LA for three years right out of college – English Lit – going to grad school to learn a little more about policy and politics, and then ending up in Washington DC working on the Hill as a legislative aide in the Senate (and briefly for the former Chancellor of New York City Schools, Ramon Cortines). I worked on education issues for Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and for Jeff Bingaman, a Dem from New Mexico who is on the Senate education committee.

I currently have three blogs, This Week In Education (about national trends), District 299 (about Chicago schools), and most recently Hot For Education (about pop culture and schools).

Your popular blog, “This Week In Education,” seems like a combination of an education news digest, some strongly opinionated pieces, plus an occasional touch of Walter Winchell thrown-in. How did you arrive at this combo, and how did you ever get a company like Scholastic, which has a bit of a stodgy reputation, to publish it? What are your goals in writing it?

I started This Week In Education in 2004 as a weekly email. I was living in Chicago and missed being in DC. I turned the email into an awful-looking Blogger blog in 2005 and spun off the Chicago-related content into District 299 a year later. In late 2006 the far-sighted folks from Education Week signed me on as a paid freelance blogger, where I was their first big blog to get rolling. A year after that I moved over to Scholastic where I work with the folks who put out Instructor and Administrator, Scholastic’s two magazines for educators.

My Chicago blog has also had two different homes – Catalyst Chicago, a nonprofit publication about Chicago schools, and (currently) ChicagoNow, a part of the Chicago Tribune that’s sort of like the Huffington Post.

The goal is to educate, engage, and amuse – and to provide a little bit of a reality check where needed. I like to skewer trendy school reform ideas and lame news coverage of schools – and educators who do knuckleheaded things like ‘ban’ hugging. Plus which, school reform is difficult and can be demoralizing. There’s so much failure and so much judgment and hot air. And there’s so much misunderstanding among educators, reformers, advocates, and the media. No one understands each other’s values or methods.

In a couple of paragraphs (maybe three?), do you think you could summarize — for someone who might not at all be familiar with what has been going on — what you would consider the major “school reform” flashpoints and the positions of key public players on them?

Most of what gets discussed in the school reform bubble seems incidental to me, if not downright superfluous. Performance pay, for example, seems like a tremendously difficult and only mildly effective way to change academic outcomes. Ditto for charter schools, mayoral control, vouchers, alternative certification.

I’m not saying that we need to wait for research to prove these things effective or ineffective – the research is almost always going to be outpaced by lawmakers’ and leaders’ needs for short-term action. I’m just saying that the things that are most likely to make the most difference are the very most basic levers: the amount of time spent in school, the rigor and depth of the curriculum that’s taught, the quality and ability of classroom teachers, and the measures of success that are used to determine and compare achievement. There’s nothing cute or innovative about this stuff. But it’s what’s going to make a real difference in and when it happens.

I think that most think tanks are glorified PR outfits for their funders, and that many many education advocates are sadly ineffective. I think innovation is highly over-rated compared to implementation. (I’m currently in favor of a moratorium on innovation while we implement some of the things we already know how to do. Maybe with a little less distraction we’d actually get down to business and get some things done.)

I haven’t really answered your question. Sorry.

Who do you think are some important people to watch in education over the next few years — and why– who might not be on everybody’s radar now?

Someone is going to come along in the next year or two who is hard-working, passionate about education and has an amazing skill at communicating complex issues. A Malcolm Gladwell type, if you will. That person – I don’t know who it is – will be picked up by a mainstream media outlet and could become the nation’s first mainstream education blogger, the person through whom many Americans will come to understand school reform issues. That’s who I’m looking for. That’s what I’m waiting for. Meantime, I think my blog is the fastest, smartest, most wide-ranging education blog out there (besides yours, of course).

The other category of person we’re going to be hearing a lot more from in the future are what I call the aisle-crossers or hybrids – people who have worked for districts and teachers unions, or governors and legislators. People who understand the other side’s perspective. Brad Jupp from Colorado is an example. Jonathan Gyurko is another. There may be a few more. Ideally, they’ll help bridge the different worlds of education and help get more done faster.

What kind of legacy, if any, do you think Arnie Duncan and the Obama administration are going to leave with public education?

I’d love to be wrong about this, but Arne Duncan could well end up exposed as the Obama administration’s version of Rod Paige – a generally nice guy who’s in way over his head in Washington as he may have been in Chicago. And I worry that the Obama administration will be too focused on innovation and political needle-threading that it won’t get anything meaningful or transformative done on the education front. Even before the past six months, Obama displayed an enormous unwillingness to take a side or make someone mad. Vagueness is a good way to get and stay elected, but it’s a bad way to make important changes. I’m not saying Obama and Duncan should be unnecessarily confrontational. But they’re trying to be everything to everyone and that isn’t going to do much good. Duncan has been wagging his finger in a lot of peoples’ faces without doing much heavy lifting of his own. Unless Race To The Top ends up being a much bigger success than I think it’s going to be, NCLB reauthorization is going to be a struggle.

What people — through their writing, speaking, or actions — do you get most intellectually stimulated by these days?

I very much enjoy communicating with longtime education writers like Greg Toppo (USA Today), Jay Mathews (Washington Post), and Stephanie Banchero (Chicago Tribune). I’m also a big fan of Charles Payne, the University of Chicago academic who seems to tell it like it is. I greatly admire the writings of Jesse Katz (Los Angeles magazine) as well as Kate Boo (New Yorker) and James Traub (New York Times Sunday Magazine). I’m writing a book about a bunch of educators in LA who are trying to turn around Locke High School under a Green Dot unionized charter. There’s also a small set of smartypants and big thinkers who give me great ideas and correct me all the time, but they don’t like to admit that they know me so I can’t tell you who they are.

Is there anything else you’d like to share that I haven’t asked?

Not that I can think of. I love your blog and I appreciate the chance to share my thoughts and experiences with your readers. I’m always looking for good content to share with my readers, whether or not I agree with it. Thanks again.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Larry,

    Congratulations! I love reading Alexander Russo’s blog. I hope you are right that hybrid people will bridge the gap. I think this is the most important way the education system will be truly changed.

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