The Education Beat

One of the turning points in the life of Thomas Toch '77 involved a hallway, a rental sign, and a Kenyon connection.

Newly arrived in Washington, D.C., where he had an internship lined up as a policy researcher at Common Cause, Toch was out searching for a place to live. While perusing the many listings posted along the hallway in the George Washington University housing office, he kept passing another young graduate. After a few wordless back-and-forths, the two finally spoke.

"It turned out we knew people in common from Kenyon, and we decided to start a house together," Toch says. "It was kind of what convinced me that D.C. was the place for me to stay."

Toch, who is currently writer-in-residence at the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, had been drawn to the nation's capital in vague pursuit of a life dedicated to public policy. An English major at Kenyon, he had done some graduate work in fine-art photography, then taught high school and coached soccer for a year. While he had enjoyed the teaching stint, "I didn't really think of education as my calling," he says.

It was in Washington that he discovered his calling as an education journalist. "It just so happened that while I was at Common Cause, a group came in with a story that I thought was very interesting, journalistically. So I wrote it up and went to theWashington Post."

The story, after arduous reworking with another journalist, was published, and "from then on I declared I was going to be an editor," Toch laughs. Through a coworker, he heard about a new publication starting up in Toronto called Education Week. Toch applied, was offered a job, and ended up being one of the magazine's original ten or twelve staffers.

"Hence I became a journalist," he says, "and, what's more, a specialist in education."

After cutting his teeth as an editor at Education Week, Toch was hired away byU.S. News and World Report, where from 1989 to 1999 he covered education as a chief correspondent. "U.S. News was almost unique in national publications in its commitment to covering public education," he says. "I wrote about everything from the conflict between research and teaching on big public university campuses to the rise of merit scholarships."

Gradually, he became an authority. In 1991, he analyzed the school reform movement in In the Name of Excellence: The Struggle to Reform the Nation's Schools, Why It's Failing, and What Should Be Done. From 1999 to 2002, he was a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. While there, he was hired by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to write a study of successful small schools. The book, entitled High Schools on a Human Scale: How Small Schools Can Transform American Education, was published in 2003. The Washington Post wrote that it was "likely to become the bible of a growing movement to break [up] big high schools."

In addition to the books, Toch has published articles and essays in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, and other periodicals. He has also been a guest commentator on education on ABC Nightly News, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio.

He finds the education beat as fascinating as ever. "People get into journalism because they love to learn and they like to think they're making a difference, and certainly those two things apply to me," he says. "You have to be sort of genetically curious.

"I could have just as easily been writing about foreign policy or the environment. I got into education because I happened to get a job writing for an education paper, and it proved to be a stroke of luck. I've had an opportunity to spend more than twenty years learning and thinking and writing about one of the most important aspects of public life in America--and pay my mortgage at the same time."

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