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An Interview with Rick Hess: Letters to a Young Education Reformer

May 2, 2017 by

An Interview with Rick Hess: Letters to a Young Education Reformer

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

In this interview, Rick Hess discusses his new book Letters to a Young Education Reformer.


  1. Your newest book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer, hit the shelves last week. What motivated you to write the book?

I’ve been struck by how much school reform is bedeviled by many of the same ails that afflicted the establishment, and that first made me a “reformer,” more than two decades ago. There’s an insularity, a tendency to talk only to those who agree with us, a surety that we know the “right” answers to big educational questions, an unhealthy degree of deference to funders, and a conviction that things that go wrong are “mere implementation problems.”

A couple years ago, I was discussing some of these issues with a good friend, Harvard’s Jal Mehta. I told him that I wanted to share what I’d learned from my time in and around school reform; I thought it was a timely topic but had no clue how to tackle it in an engaging or readable way. Jal thought for a moment, then suggested, “How about writing Letters to a Young Education Reformer?” So I did.

Letters doesn’t lay out a prescriptive agenda. Rather, it’s a book about how to think about schooling, policy, and change. It’s for anyone—young or not-so-young—who thinks schools can and should do better. It’s for advocates, journalists, state and district leaders, researchers, and anyone else looking to improve the status quo. I hope that it’ll help readers work more effectively for the changes they believe in.

  1. You’ve worked in and around education policy for a quarter century. Can you explain how you think about policy and what things it is well- or poorly-equipped to do?

Our schools and systems aren’t built for what we’re asking them to do today. Retooling and reimagining our schools requires big changes to policies governing staffing, spending, and much else. But policy is better at facilitating that kind of rethinking than at forcing it.

A case in point: Recently, reformers have spent enormous amounts of time, energy and money to push states to adopt more rigorous teacher evaluation systems. But in 2016, researchers Matt Kraft and Allison Gilmour looked at teacher evaluation results in the 19 states that adopted new systems and found that, on average, 97 percent of teachers were rated effective. Reformers’ efforts had yielded remarkably little change.

The lesson is that policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well. Policy is a blunt tool that works best when making people do things is enough. We can write policies for compulsory attendance, annual assessments, class-size limits, and graduation requirements. But when we care more about how things are done than about whether they are done, policy is far less effective. The more moving parts it has—and the further away from communities and families it is written—the more likely it is to encounter problems. As frustrating as that may be, it means the work that matters most is always what educators, parents, and entrepreneurs are doing at the local level.

  1. During the 2016 election cycle, there was plenty of harsh language on both sides. Why are the right and the left so divided in education debates, and where do you think they can find common ground?

First, it’s important to recognize that the center in education is two standard deviations to the left of the American public. People in and around education think they have the whole spectrum covered: there is, after all, a fierce conflict between the “reform” camp and teachers unions. But this clash has primarily existed within the Democratic Party. The “reformers” have mostly been Great Society liberals who believe in closing “achievement gaps” and pursuing “equity” via charter schooling, teacher evaluation, the Common Core, and test-based accountability. And their opponents have been staunchly Democratic teacher unions and their allies.

Unfortunately, many in education spend so little time talking to or engaging with anyone on the right that they sometimes seem to conclude that no reasonable person would be on the right. Expressing mainstream conservative concerns about federal overreach or the problems with race-based policy can be enough to get you called a clueless reactionary.

A core difference between the two camps is that progressives tend to see social policy in terms of structural inequities—particularly race, class, and gender—while conservatives are more prone to see things in terms of individual responsibility. But those things are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, American education has always been about combatting structural inequity and cultivating personal responsibility, so there should be lots of room for cooperation. Education can open the doors of opportunity and give all students a more equitable start. These are things that we all want. And we all want every child to attend schools that fire their imaginations, impart knowledge, teach critical skills, equip them to be responsible citizens, inspire joy, and prepare them for success. Our disagreements are usually over how to do all this.

  1. If reformers disagree with the policy priorities of the day, can’t they just turn to the courts and get their preferred policies passed that way?

Reformers have tried this already, without much success. The most notable attempt in recent years was Vergara v. California, in which nine Los Angeles students charged in 2012 that the state’s teacher tenure, due process, and seniority policies violated the state constitution. Judge Rolf Treu initially ruled for the plaintiffs, but the verdict was overturned by the California Court of Appeal. Four years after they first filed suit, Vergara’s plaintiffs had their final appeal rejected by the California Supreme Court in 2016.

The complexities of school improvement are better suited to legislative wrangling than to judicial declarations. Legislatures can negotiate and compromise; incorporate evidence, ideology, and experience as they see fit; and rewrite laws at a later date. Legislators represent a range of views and can be voted out of office if their constituents disapprove of what they’ve done. On the other hand, courts are poor venues for compromise because they apply laws to specific cases, can rarely revisit past decisions, and are overseen by judges with little democratic accountability. School reformers are dealing with complex issues rife with unintended consequences—exactly the kind of thing that courts aren’t designed to handle.

What’s more, going through the courts is vastly more complicated than it might seem on first blush. Courts are good at ensuring access, but lawsuits like Vergara aren’t about access to schooling. Instead, they are efforts to force alterations to state policies in hopes of improving the quality of teaching. Even if the ruling is in favor of reformers, the court has to order the legislature to change policies—and the legislature may refuse to comply or make changes that the judge deems unsatisfactory. Given that uncertainty and foot-dragging, decisions like Vergara are more likely to yield bureaucratic paralysis than dramatic action.

  1. Education reformers talk a lot about accountability for schools, but parents also play an important role in educating their children. How do you think about the balance between families and schools?

Over the past two decades, reformers have insisted that educators be responsible for educating every child. For those of us who recall when lots of children were labeled unteachable or when school failings were blamed on parents and families, this has been a hugely good thing.

But I fear we may have gone too far. In this era of accountable schools and educators, any talk of parental responsibility risks being dismissed as “blaming the victim.” We just don’t talk much anymore about whether parents are pushing kids to do their homework or respect their teachers. But education is always a handshake between families and teachers, between students and schools. Compulsory attendance laws can make children show up, but it’s really hard to teach someone who doesn’t want to learn. Part of a teacher’s job is finding a way to open a student’s heart and mind, and the job of parents and guardians is to raise children who are responsible, respectful, and ready to learn.

When reformers hesitate to address the role of parents and families, they give educators the impression that they’re more interested in finding scapegoats than in improving schools. When reformers speak to parents as well as educators, they forge trust with teachers, help parents do their jobs, and foster the kind of school communities that lead to lasting success. It cannot be an either-or; everyone needs to step up.

  1. How important of a role does technology play in education reform?

In other sectors, technology usually makes our lives more convenient and comfortable and opens the door to new experiences. But in education, technology has a poor track record. Whether the latest fad is Internet connectivity, smartboards, or ballpoint pens, reformers insist that the world is about to change. Eventually, though, we realize that all the new stuff hasn’t made much difference. Teachers are teaching the same way and students are learning the same amount. The problem isn’t the technology; it’s how it’s used. Technology is added into schools and classrooms, but the rules and routines governing classroom design, scheduling, staffing, and pedagogy remain unchanged.

Technology can be a powerful lever for rethinking schools and systems. But the rethinking is more important than the technology. TNT was originally invented in 1863 by a German chemist for use as a yellow dye. Forty years later, people realized it could also be an explosive. A new technology is not innately “good” or “bad.” What matters is what we do with it. Technology isn’t about hardware, software, or cool gizmos—it’s about finding ways to give students the opportunities, time, attention, and support they need.

  1. Looking back on eight years of the Obama administration, what do you make of Obama’s signature Race to the Top program?

In theory, Race to the Top had much to recommend it. In reality, I thought it was immensely disappointing—and probably counterproductive.

Race to the Top was fueled by admirable intentions, supervised by talented people, and reflected sensible thinking on school improvement. In practice, it was mostly a product of executive branch whimsy, turning federal bureaucrats into petty commissars. The administration created 19 “priorities” that states seeking Race to the Top funds were required to address in their applications. States that promised to follow administration dictates got more points, and therefore won the cash. The most successful applications were hundreds of jargon-laden pages long, rewarding grant-writing prowess and education buzzwords over deliberate, well-thought-out proposals.

In the end, every winning state has come up well short on its promises. Meanwhile, the program made Common Core feel like a quasi-federal endeavor, caused states to adopt new tests and teacher evaluation systems on political rather than practical timelines, entangled local reform efforts in national politics, and moved the locus of school reform to Washington. In the end, despite the effort’s massive PR success and short-term appeal, I’d argue that none of this was good for schools or school reform.

  1. In hindsight, what are your thoughts about the Common Core?

Calls for higher academic standards have a long, bipartisan history. But the Common Core reading and math standards were sprung upon the nation without any heads up when the Obama administration encouraged states to embrace the Common Core in their pursuit of Race to the Top dollars. Tying the standards to a federal grant program made the Common Core feel a lot like a federal initiative and invited critics to view it as another part of the president’s agenda.

The problem is, if you rush changes into place, it’s a lot like submerging a beach ball in a pool. The harder you shove the beach ball under, the more forcefully it will pop back up on you. Advocates thought they’d finessed things so that the Common Core beach ball wasn’t going to pop back up on them, but, boy, did it ever. By the end of 2016, just 20 states and DC were still using a Common Core-aligned test. Recent polling finds that the phrase “Common Core” has become a poisoned brand, much like “No Child Left Behind” became.

The biggest mistake the Common Core advocates made, I think, was mocking and dismissing criticisms rather than answering them. When would-be reformers push big changes to public systems, the burden is supposed to be on them to make their case to the public. Though it would have been slower and less sweeping than advocates might have wished, the Common Core could have been piloted by interested states. Those states could have adopted the standards on their own timeline, designed a common test, and shown that it could work. If things had gone smoothly, more states would have wanted in. This is how you set in motion a virtuous cycle.

  1. In Letters to a Young Education Reformer, you talk about how education reformers can sometimes get into trouble because they are so impassioned about the work. How can reformers make their passion work for them rather than against them?

Education is brimming with passionate people who see schooling as a way to make a difference. Most of the time, passion is a wonderful thing. It energizes us and gives our work meaning. In school reform, though, I think we suffer sometimes from too much passion.

The thing about passion is that it tends to make us true believers. It leaves little room for uncertainty. It can make things seem simpler than they are and us more confident in our answers than we should be, so we redouble rather than rethink our efforts. It can cause us to brush aside second thoughts and to be less than fully honest with ourselves about mistakes and setbacks. Over the years, I’ve watched impassioned reformers stumble in these ways time and again. This is bad for kids, teachers, schools, and even for reformers’ own agendas.

Reformers need to pursue their passion with the professional discipline to match. I don’t have much use for a surgeon who’s so impassioned that she can’t see straight or a marine sergeant so gung-ho that he needlessly exposes his unit to danger. In every field, professionals are responsible for marrying passion and professionalism. That holds for school reformers as well.

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