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Biden Taps Ex-Obama Aide Roberto Rodriguez for Key Education Department Job

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 28, 2021 3 min read
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President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he plans to nominate Roberto Rodriguez, one of former President Barack Obama’s top education advisers, to lead one of the most important divisions of the U.S. Department of Education.

Biden wants Rodriguez to lead the Education Department’s office of planning, evaluation and policy development. Rodriguez, a former special assistant to Obama on education policy who also previously worked in the Senate, is currently the president and CEO of Teach Plus, a teacher-advocacy organization.

The office Rodriguez would lead, if confirmed, has played a significant part in past presidential administrations. For example, Carmel Martin, who oversaw the development of the Race to the Top competition and the expansion of School Improvement Grants in the early part of the Obama administration, led the office. Under former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the office was led by Jim Blew, who came to the department after many years of working to promote school choice.

As a deputy assistant to Obama, Rodriguez played a major role in developing and advocating for the president’s K-12 policy priorities.

Rodriguez defended Race to the Top in a 2012 Education Week article, saying that it was sparking major shifts for schools, such as the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Both Race to the Top and the standards, of course, became controversial as time went on, and attracted criticism from Democrats as well as Republicans.

“I think the president has made it really clear that the status quo in education is unacceptable,” Rodriguez said in that 2012 story, referring to Obama. “He has embraced reform from day one.”

In a 2016 story on Obama’s education legacy, Rodriguez highlighted the president’s focus on teachers, saying that Obama “has long recognized ... the importance of the adult in the front of the classroom.”

Biden’s selection of Rodriguez to be assistant secretary signals that the president wants a degree of continuity with the Obama administration’s approach. However, with the coronavirus pandemic dominating discussions and plans for schools, it remains to be seen what exact role that office (and Rodriguez, if confirmed) will play. The appetite for big policy initiatives from the Education Department along the lines of Race to the Top could be quite limited; Biden proposed competitive education grants related to COVID-19 in his blueprint for what became the American Rescue Plan, but Congress left them out of the final relief package.

Rodriguez’s organization focuses on teacher leadership

In 2017, the Washington Post identified Rodriguez as one of several well-connected parents who, with the help of former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, circumvented the District of Columbia’s school lottery system in order to get their children into “coveted” schools.

The organization he currently works for, Teach Plus, works to empower teachers and put them in leadership roles. It focuses on everything from curriculum to teacher diversity. During congressional negotiations in 2015 (before Rodriguez’s time leading Teach Plus) over what became the Every Student Succeeds Act, the group’s members lobbied for lawmakers to keep annual state tests as part of the law. The Biden administration has polarized opinion by not granting blanket waivers from those tests, although the testing situation in states has gotten complicated.

Rodriguez worked for Obama from 2009 to 2017. Previously, he worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy on the Senate education committee, and for UnidosUS, a Latino advocacy organization.

“He has a strong track record of shaping bipartisan policy solutions that are informed by the experiences of educators,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement about Rodriguez’s nomination. “Roberto is also a fierce advocate for educational equity who will ensure we prioritize, replicate and invest in solutions that work for all students.”

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