An Interview with Frederick Hess: Ten Years with AEI

Jan 8, 2013 by


Frederick Hess

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Rick, this fall, the education policy program at the American Enterprise Institute celebrated it ‘s tenth year under your guidance. What are your current feelings about the past ten years? What do you see as your main accomplishments?

It has been a wonderful ten years. In terms of accomplishments, as we mention in our 10-year anniversary review, the policy process is remarkably capricious-so we’ve tended not to focus on “this legislation” or “that bill” but on trying to inform and push the direction of policy. On that score, it’s enormously heartening to see that so much we’ve fought and argued for is now a simple fact of life. We argued and explained that education philanthropy had to get serious about policy; that No Child Left Behind needed to be fundamentally rethought; the import of lowering the bars to teacher licensure; that it was necessary to move away from teacher tenure and towards merit pay, and that we needed a conception of school choice which devotes far more attention to entrepreneurship and market conditions. When it was deeply unpopular, we argued that education policy needed to focus on cost-effectiveness and productivity and that entrepreneurship needed to be a serious source of scholarship and policy thinking. All of these things have come to pass.

Obviously, we cannot (and do not) claim credit for these developments, but we have been significant voices in pushing for change. And, because we’re committed to ideas rather than party, we’re now also prominent (sometimes dissenting) voices in trying to make sure that these policy victories are not done in by hubris or simple-mindedness. In the end, we tell our truth as we see it, while recognizing that other smart people will see things differently, and understanding that they will and should share their own truths. And we’ve a naïve enough faith in the American system that we think the wisest and most promising ideas will ultimately prevail. That’s where clarity of thought, incisiveness of writing, and cogent communication are key!

2) I have read and reviewed several of your books over the past ten years- Could you list them here for the record and just kind of summarize some of the main points?

Well, there have been a number of single-authored books and edited volumes. For a full list, you can see my scholar page at AEI ( My most recent is The Same Thing Over and Over (Harvard University Press, 2010), which shows the historical roots of today’s education reform debates. My next book is coming out in February from Harvard Education Press. Entitled Cage-Busting Leadership, it is geared towards school leaders and helping them understand where laws and rules impede their ability to reform, and where these leaders have more room to maneuver than they might have imagined.

3) The role of the Federal government- increasing, decreasing, good thing, or evil ?

I’m not asking if the federal government is “too big” or “too small,” “a good thing” or “a bad thing” is the right approach. Rather, I think it’s more informative to take a look back. After all, the feds have been involved in K-12 schooling in some fashion since the country’s founding, but especially starting in the mid-1960s. That gives us over 50 years to look at. A more useful question than the bland right/wrong one is “What do we know about what Uncle Sam can do well in K-12 education, and what might be left for states, districts, or other actors?” I think framing the question this way allows us to carve out a very useful role for the federal level, while not letting our ambitions carry us away.

4) NCLB—what hath it wroth?

NCLB is a good example of what I mean when talking about the role of the feds in education. On the one hand, the federal government has enjoyed considerable success in compelling or incentivizing states and districts to implement clear, “bright line” policy changes. The disaggregation requirements in NCLB are a case in point. Prior to the passage of NCLB, just eleven states disaggregated student achievement data by gender or ethnicity. When NCLB made disaggregation a requirement for states to continue receiving Title I funds, compliance quickly became universal. So that’s a good thing.

But on the other hand, NCLB has clearly failed to meet expectations, as evidenced by the mad dash to attain one of the Obama administration’s waivers. Other critics highlight how NCLB has led to an overemphasis on test-taking and stifled new schooling options. To my mind, it just illustrates how even the best of intentions can quickly turn sour.

5) If I hear any more about standardized testing, I think I will puke, and maybe you will too- but could you make a palatable statement about it’s impact?

Sure. While there’s certainly room for overkill, test taking has generated a lot of very useful data on student and school performance. Leading states are using those data to design new methods of teacher evaluation and to better understand how individual schools are faring. In turn, organizing groups like Stand for Children or 50 CAN are working to inform and mobilize parents for change. While it’s true that what testing data tells us is highly limited–and, indeed, can lead to foul play as we’ve seen in Atlanta and other big districts of manipulating the numbers–it does tell us something, and top states are slowly refining their data collection efforts to be more accurate and meaningful.

6) Cost effective—is the American educational system really cost effective- where can we make reasonable cuts and should we?

Of course it’s not cost effective. Indeed, until my 2010 volume “Stretching the School Dollar” with Eric Osberg of the Fordham Institute, painfully few foundations or policymakers were paying much attention to how to do more with less. I’m proud to say our work has helped inform that dialogue, with Arne Duncan giving a major keynote in November 2010 here at AEI on the “new normal” and Bill Gates touting the book for its practical lessons for district leaders. The recession, and its lingering effects, has given us a great chance to take a hard look at K-12 cost efficiency.

7) Special education – continues to grow in terms of paperwork, procedures, policy issues and the like. What have you seen over the past 10 years?

Once again, this is a good example of the complications of the federal role. On the one hand, the feds are good at ensuring constitutional protections are upheld. When states or districts are unwilling to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, Washington has played an invaluable role. Landmark federal efforts to ensure access for disabled children (such as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) prompted significant and salutary changes in the way schools educate students with disabilities. Unfortunately, government action on this front has often been heavy-handed, not infrequently giving rise to interest group demands downstream.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.