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Interview Of The Month: Washington Post Journalist Valerie Strauss

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Each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

This month, Washington Post journalist Valerie Strauss, who writes the increasingly well-known “The Answer Sheet” blog at the Post, agreed to answer some questions. “The Answer Sheet” is becoming the “go to” place on the Web for thoughtful pieces on educational policy.

Can you share a little about yourself — what led you to a journalism career, how and why did you specifically begin to write about education issues, and what would you say are your goals/purposes behind writing your blog? What do you want a reader to get out of reading it?

I grew up in Miami with parents who read two newspapers a day, a mother who was an activist and a father who didn’t believe anything until he read it in The New York Times. The problem then was that the paper came in the mail, so the news was several days late. As a kid I could see myself as an adult journalist, and when Watergate broke, I was in high school. That was that. I wanted to do public service, and the only way I could see doing that was being a journalist, and I really wanted to work for The Washington Post, which I have been lucky enough to do.

I’ve covered many issues over the years at different organizations in foreign, national and local news. I began covering education about 16 years ago, moving from editing as the Post’s assistant foreign editor for Asia. I made the change for several reasons, including a desire to do something new and to have regular day hours.

At the time I never expected to stay in the field this long, and, frankly, neither did anyone else. Reporters often like to use the education beat as a stepping stone to “bigger things.” It didn’t take me long to realize there was no bigger thing than public education. I’ve been on different education beats over the years, including higher education, D.C. schools and private schools. A decade ago I, along with Jay Mathews, created The Post’s Schools & Learning Page, a place where we wrote about ideas and things that happened in class.

Last year, with the rise of digital and washingtonpost.com, my editors asked me to try something new: An education blog. I agreed but frankly it took me months after launching The Answer Sheet to begin to know what I was doing (and I’m still figuring it out). Blog writing is very different from newspaper writing, but I didn’t realize that for a while. The blog started as a kind of advice column for parents with kids in school, but it has evolved into a place where everything about education is discussed. The blog has delved more into national education policy in the past six months as the federal involvement in schools has become larger and, essentially, the elephant in the education room. Parents need to understand what is going on as much as professional educations do.

What do I hope a reader will get out of it? I hope they learn something and stretch their thinking. I do every day, not only through my own research but through the various guest writers I host on the blog. I include other writers — including some with whom I don’t agree — because I think it broadens the blog, invites richer discussion, and, I hope, makes the blog more interesting.

What are your key memories of K-12 school, and how do you think they influence you now?

Probably the most seminal K-12 experience was in elementary school. In fact it WAS my elementary school. I went to Everglades Elementary School, which was led by a dynamic, progressive principal named Esther Kazer. I learned more under fifth grade teacher Barry Shaw than probably with any other single teacher. Looking back, I realize that Everglades formed my understanding of the need for great educational leadership and strong teaching.

What are the three most important things you’ve learned about education issues since you’ve started writing about them?

Great question. I’ll try to keep it to three.

1) How complicated the art of teaching really is and how little our society appreciates it.

2) How there really is nothing new under the sun in education; we recycle ideas and just give them new names and find some research (often badly done) to support the brand new initiative.

3) How in the past decade money has come to a key motivation in education reform.

I can’t keep it to three:

4) How our schools continue to seriously address the most basic issues facing kids: physical and psychological health.

In fact, the web isn’t expansive enough to hold all the important things I’ve learned so I’ll stop here.

What do you find most frustrating about the school reform debates that are going on now? And what, if anything, do you think can be done about those things?

There are so many frustrations about the current debate that it is hard to list all of them. For one thing, there isn’t really a debate. The administration does what it wants, critics holler, and the administration keeps doing what it wants. One particular frustration is that most of the mainstream press seems to be supporting the initiative, or, at the very least, failing to rigorously question them in the same way journalists look at other issues.

What recommendations would you make to people who want to make changes in our school system about how they can be more effective communicators?

It is understandable that people trying to bring about change become frustrated but they have to resist the urge to go nuclear. Very strident messages get ignored, and that doesn’t help anybody’s cause. The best way to get messages across is by being concise, using facts and never calling anybody a nasty name. Even if they deserve it.

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

I prefer frosting (buttercream) to cake, the Beatles over the Rolling Stones, and wish I were strong enough in math and science to be an astronomer.

Thanks, Valerie!

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for interviewing Valerie. Her blog as in recent months turned to spewing biased vitriol, so I’m suprised she considers herself a journalist.

    It’s also suprising she says the best way to get messages across is by “using facts,” yet her blog is glaringly devoid of any (guest bloggers excluded, usually). Furthermore, her critiques are never backed by data, studies, research or anything a sensible person requires to be persuaded.

    It should also be noted her kids go to Georgetown Day School – so much for caring about public education.

  2. As an independent school teacher who does support public education through voting, speaking and writing (yes, we do exist), and who supports research-based reform rather than what the Administration is pushing, I am grateful for Valerie’s work.

  3. Yes, Valerie’s pieces are investigative, thoughtful, insightful, and superbly written all the time. She is, as Dr. Ravitch recently wrote, the most indispensable journalist writing about education today. I think she’s the best journalist of all topics! Thank you, Valerie!

  4. And, thank you, Larry for the great interview piece!

  5. I loved Valerie’s succinctness in the top important thing: How complicated the art of teaching is, and how little our society appreciates it. Dan Brown’s current article on the Answer Sheet give some promising directions to respond to the challenge to teach (e.g. the school takes an active interest in teachers improving in teaching); the work is to appreciate and value teaching on its own, as distinct from students’ performance on exams, or whatever experience or certificates one earns.

  6. Hi there

    I am the editor of “Independent Education”, a magazine based in South Africa, and am desperate to get hold of Valerie to ask her permission to reprint one of her articles.

    Can you help? It’s impossible to find a contact email for her!
    Here’s hoping,
    Fiona de Villiers

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