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HotSeat: Controversial Washington Post Blogger Tells All*

Picture 109It's hard to remember that when Washington Post veteran Valerie Strauss first started The Answer Sheet it was mostly about kids and classsrooms. Over the past few months she's featured a widely-admired/-derided stream of her own commentary and others (Ravitch, classroom teacher bloggers, etc.). Want to know how many schools applied to get an Obama appearance at commencement this year?  Check it out here. On the HotSeat, Strauss talks about what it's like to be the Arianna Huffington of education bloggers, how she decided to turn the blog into something more policy oriented about a year ago, why she mostly focuses on what traditional educators have to say (but sometimes makes exceptions), how she vets the columns and commentary from her many contributors (including sometimes me), and why Nick Anderson doesn't have a blog.  Check it out and let me know what you think of her blog (or what I should have asked her).

 So how’s it feel to be the Arianna Huffington of education?

  VS: I’ll let you know when AOL pays me $315 million.

Did you start out as an education reporter, or are you only here by force?

VS: I’d done lots of things over the centuries and was assistant foreign editor for Asia at The Post about 20 years ago when I decided to make a change and started reporting on education.

How did you end up blogging?

  VS: My editors asked to try something new. I’d written for the newspaper about D.C. schools, private schools, higher education, and created, with Jay Mathews, the Schools and Learning page, which was originally about how kids learn, rather than about education policy. Alas, now I write about policy, because it affects how kids learn more than ever.


  VS: Alas, now I spend too much time reading through boring reports and analyses.

How many readers or page views do you get, and does the rest of the education team mind that you get more readers than they do?

VS: I’m not allowed to say how many readers and page views I get, something about proprietary information, but it’s a whole lot, more than I ever expected.

Who’s idea was the blog originally and how’d you figure out how to make it so popular?

VS: The idea was Craig Timberg’s, the education editor at The Post who pushed the importance of the web on the ed team. The original concept was to give education advice to parents, but my focus started to broaden and change about a year ago. I was in Florida and wrote a post about the anti-teacher bill going through the state legislature. I posted it on a Saturday afternoon and it got tens of thousands of viewers that night. That told me there was a hunger for something else.The blog is still evolving.

What’s the nicest thing that’s happened because of the blog, and what’s the worst/hardest? 

VS: Nicest: Teachers thank me for giving them a voice in the mainstream press, because they don’t have one anywhere else. Hardest: You might think it would be the nasty emails like the one I got wishing I would die slowly of colon cancer, but it’s not. Hardest is probably the hours.

What’s the single post that’s gotten the most attention, and what’s the post you wish you hadn’t run?

VS: I wrote one last year about Oprah Winfrey hosting Michelle Rhee and calling her a “warrior woman,” completely ignoring the fact that even the Army knows that it is supposed to win the hearts and minds of the people and not fire on their own troops. The post I wish I hadn’t run: I still feel a little silly running a post early in the blog’s life with this headline: “Should teachers tell kids the truth about the Tooth Fairy?”

How come they won’t let Nick Anderson have a blog when everyone else has one?

VS: The premise is wrong: Not everybody does have one.

Jay has a commentary-based column, as do you. Turque has a more newsy / reportorial blog. Who’m I missing?

VS: The Virginia schools reporter. The Maryland schools reporter. The school reform reporter. The high school reporter.

How come you don’t have much by way of pro-"reform" commentary on your blog?

VS: The “reformers” do not lack for public venues to get across their message. There is no real outlet in the mainstream media for the opposing voice. Hence, the focus of my blog. That said, I don’t always agree with everything I post. That includes things you’ve written for my blog. And I’ll continue to put pieces with which I don’t agree but that I find make sense and are interesting.

What about balance and objectivity and all that other stuff I hear they teach in journalism school? Do you ever feel the pull of those things, or want to write some traditional news coverage?

VS: I sometimes still do traditional reporting. I worked, for example, on a story about a scandalous baseball coach at a private school. Blogging, as I said, is a different form of journalism.

What do you do if one of your guest columnists (of which I’ve been one) says something crazy or factually inaccurate?

VS: I’ve had that happen. I correct it when it is brought to my attention and when I research it and discover that it is indeed inaccurate. I’ve had some folks complain about things they said weren’t accurate, but the accusations themselves weren’t accurate.

Interesting – what’s an example (of corrections or inaccurate demands for corrections)?

VS:  I wrote a critique of a piece Steven Brill penned about schools in New York City. He complained about a number of things in the piece. There was one thing wrong, which I corrected, though it was actually a change without much meaning; it was about whether a school had an 81 percent “poverty rate” or whether it had 81 percent of kids eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

What’ve you learned from your blogging experience that you wish you’d known from the start?

VS: It is a different enterprise from news reporting, and it is, in some ways, harder. The pace is relentless. I serve as assigning editor, writer, text editor and publisher.

It sounds like the blog is exciting but exhausting – do they need to get you some minions like Ezra has?

VS:  But then I couldn’t complain about working too hard.

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*Apologies for having mis-spelled Strauss's name in the original version of this post



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I wish you had asked her about the Washington Post's for-profit subsidiaries, like Kaplan K12 Virtual Learning. I've been fighting for Jay Mathew's soul since November, when he offered to post a guest blog about it. He says his editors finally wouldn't allow him to post it. Discussion of Kaplan K12's businesses is a line neither Valerie Strauss or Bill Turque has crossed, either.

Mathews will answer me by email or in the comments, but not up there below his WaPo byline. Here's what he wrote about it two weeks ago:

"for mport84---I apologize for not clearing up with happened with your piece. I didn't lie. I honestly thought at the time I could post what you sent me, but my editors vetoed it. We were preparing a news story about the Kaplan situation at the time and they preferred to go with that. I seem to recall that you posted it on another blog. If so, feel free to comment here and include that blog post's address."
Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 1, 2011 12:15 PM

What I'm asking any of them them to discuss is this:

This link is the first story that comes up on a search of Edweek for Kaplan K12:

I wish you would read the whole conversation in the comments. I think only about a dozen people have seen it. Both Jay and Nick Anderson both pretend the only issue with WaPo's Kaplan disclosure is the Higher Education scandals. Have their editors muzzled them? There is a whole other conflict going on, that nobody anywhere will report or discuss at a national level.

For instance, since October, Kaplan Virtual (along with Edison) has somehow succeeded in raising Greorgia's public school reimbursement for their for-profit virtual charters from $3500 per student to $5800. Here's a whole Google search page on that epic lobbying effort.

Can you ask them what they think about WaPo's incursions into public education budgets, for me? Would you consider writing about Kaplan's expansion into the public kindergarten-high school public education "market" yourself? If not, would you post a guest blog?

And,also: Which side are you on?

Some of VS's commenters are great but some are seemingly chosen for their ability to stake out an extreme position that they can't (or don't bother to) defend. She could find better proponents of "no homework" than Alfie Kohn, and better proponents of curriculum reform than Marion Brady.

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