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HotSeat: The "Real" RiShawn Biddle Is Too Hot To Handle

Rishawn biddle 2015
Let's spend a little time with RiShawn Biddle, the self-identified education "editorialist" who's one of the most provocative, controversial, and perhaps hardest-working people in education media.

According to his About page, making change "isn't purely academic for me. These are kids, young boys and men, who look just like me. Many of them are growing up in neighborhoods that look like the one I grew up in..."

I know him from his 2011 work unearthing an AFT attack memo against the parent trigger, and from his 2014 work revealing that some of the groups protesting against TFA on college campuses were AFT-supported. He's one of very few folks out there tracking union issues in education, albeit from a very critical point of view.

But he's not just all about bashing the union. Earlier this year, he was one of very few who predicted (correctly) that the House attempt to revamp NCLB would end up getting pulled.  And he's bashed reform folks for several things including inattention to diversity, weak efforts on social justice, and more. 

Admired by some, he's reviled by others -- including some reformers who agree with him on substance but who find him abrasive, overly aggressive, or simple too independent-minded for their liking. Among other things, he calls for "a revolution, not an evolution, in American public education."

Asked about him, Chris Stewart (aka @citizenstewart) wrote, "I think his faith is an important driver in his understanding of the world. And, his time as a journalist and some of the fall-out with the black community in Indianapolis adds complexity to his story." 

On the HotSeat, Biddle tells us how he gets it all done (and pays the rent), dishes on who his favorite writers are (I'm not one of them), complains (justifiably) about how he's treated by trade and mainstream reporters (you know who you are), tells us what he thinks of like-minded reformers (be afraid), and predicts what's (not) going to happen in the rest of 2015. (Spoiler alert: No, he doesn't feel the need to answer your question about what happened at the Indy Star.)

Where are you from and where are you now?

RB: I am a New York City native. Grew up five blocks away from JFK International Airport. Today, I live in Bowie, Md., outside of D.C., with my lovely wife and my energetic son.

What are you best known for?

RB: Causing pain and consternation to both traditionalists and reformers alike.

Hah! What else?

RB: Reports such as Left Behind, the 2005 editorial series I co-wrote with Tim Swarens while at The Indianapolis Star; the 2011 reports revealing the AFT’s Connecticut affiliate presentation at a union confab on how unsuccessfully attempted to stop passage of the state’s Parent Trigger law; and my reports on school discipline, truancy, and the economic consequences of the nation’s education crisis.

What do you say to folks who want to bring up your sudden departure from the Indy Star?

RB: Who's going to bring it up? God? He's fine. Family, friends, and allies? They're cool, too. Those who have nothing substantive to say? I don't answer to them.

What's your biggest contribution to improving education?

RB: Shedding light on issues that both traditionalists and reformers often ignore. This includes the condemning of far too many kids into the nation’s special education ghettos and the overuse of harsh school discipline... Then there is my efforts to bring in new and unconsidered voices, especially those from poor and minority communities, into school reform. From where I sit, diversifying the players who advocate for brighter futures for all of our children is critical to sustaining systemic reform.

How do mainstream news sites generally treat you?

RB: Depends on the outlet and the issue. On some issues, especially accountability, school choice, school discipline, and Parent Power, I’m considered a source, an expert, and an advocate. On other issues, I am a source.

Do you identify as a journalist, blogger, advocate, or none of the above?

RB: I call myself an editorialist. Reporting and advocacy are combined in what I do. I model my work after the muckraking and advocacy journalism that was embodied by Ida B. Wells, Emile Zola and Lewis Hine (and now reflected in the work of Glenn Greenwald), and combine it with the reportorial opinion-writing that has been the standard of The Wall Street Journal.

Do you feel mainstream reporters give you and your work a fair shake?

RB: As for mainstream reporters shying away from crediting my work? Possibly, though I’m too busy doing work to pay that matter much mind. Why? Three possible reasons. One lies with the reality that mainstream media, in general, tend to feast off the work of alternative outlets (and, occasionally, even national publications such as Forbes) without giving credit when it is due. This is especially true when those outlets beat them on a big story that they should have gotten. That’s just how the game goes. Second reason: Dropout Nation covers a wide array of educational issues and not one or two specific topics; as a result, mainstream reporters, who tend to be hyper-focused, don’t know how to deal with it. The third reason? Because DN is an opinion outlet, there will always be immediate suspicion from mainstream reporters who tend to fetishize objectivity.

What's your workday like -- how do you get it all done?

RB: The day begins at 5 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t end until nine at night. Between editing, writing columns for the American Spectator and Rare, consulting with clients, and taking care of my family, a lot has to get done in a short time.

How do you pay the rent?

RB: Through my columns for Rare and the American Spectator, as well as through my communications and policy consulting work, which is separate from Dropout Nation. Past and present clients include the National Council on Teacher Quality and Bellwether Education Partners.

Who are your biggest allies and adversaries?

RB: My foremost focus is on building better lives for all of our children. So all adversaries and alliances are temporary.  

Who's your favorite writer out there right now?

RB: Depends on the day. On education policy, Conor P. Williams, Andy Smarick, Chris Stewart, Andy Rotherham, Matthew Ladner, and Grant Wiggins [RIP] are among my daily reads. Outside of education, Ross Douthat, Jonathan Rauch, Russ Smith of Splice Today, my pal (and one of best men at my wedding) Jeremy Lott, John McWhorter, Brent Staples, Tony Ortega, and Errol Louis are on my daily reading list.

Got any predictions for the remainder of 2015?

RB: I’ve learned a long time ago that God laughs at predictions. All that said, I will say that the No Child Left Behind Act won’t be reauthorized this year; the Supreme Court will likely rule unconstitutional compulsory dues laws that finance public-sector unions such as NEA and AFT; that there will be more battles within the school reform movement over its direction; and that the influence of NEA and AFT will continue to decline.

Edited and condensed for clarity and length. Image provided by Biddle. 

Related posts: Rounding Up The 2014 Midterm RoundupsFact-Checking Cami Anderson (X2)White Reporters & Students Of ColorThis More Diverse List Of Top Education Tweeters Needs More Names*.

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