An Interview with Rick Hess: How to Rescue Educational Reform

Dec 14, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

  1. Rick, it’s impressive that you & Linda Darling-Hammond came to agreement here. How did this come about?

    Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

It came across very organically–we had no plan to hatch a grand compromise. Rather, when the Senate HELP Committee held its final hearing on Harkin-Enzi last month, I was invited to testify. Linda reached out to say, much to my surprise, that she had heard what I had to say and that we were on the exact same page. Given that the two of us happened to agree on this issue, despite our substantial differences on many issues, we thought it worth writing something that sketched out some shared principles as to what a smart federal role should look like.

  1. There seem to be four areas that you and Linda Darling Hammond have some consensus on- what are they?

Linda and I agree that the federal government has an appropriate, specific role in education–which translates into four things. The federal government should: encourage transparency for school performance and spending; ensure that basic constitutional protections are respected; support basic educational research; and offer competitive grants that provide political cover for leaders looking to innovate.

3) One of the GOP candidates, let me see if I can remember his name, oh yeah, Rick Perry says he would abolish the Department of Education- your thoughts?

We’re hearing many calls, from Perry as well as other politicians and Tea Party sympathizers, to get Washington “out” of education. But few have actually shown a willingness to get serious about putting an end to federal education spending. Even the aggressive budget put forth by House Republicans earlier this year called for only modestly trimming federal spending on education programs like IDEA, Title I, and Pell Grants. Not even Paul Ryan, who’s admirably willing to take on Medicare and Social Security, has shown any inclination to talk about scaling back federal aid to education. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to see Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, or Romney actually promise to zero out (or even cut back) federal spending on student loans or special education.

So, it seems like a radical “zeroing out” of Washington is unlikely. But, it is possible to identify a principled, limited federal role in education. And, I think that’s what Linda and I have done in this piece.

4) You advocate for “basic research.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Sure, basic research is a public good, leading to a dearth of private investment, while applied research has benefits for private actors and therefore is less in need of public investment. For example, the difference between investigating the chemical properties of a new compound versus designing a marketable drug, or in education, between funding research in neuroscience versus developing that research into instructional resources.

5) Why is transparency so important? And what does good transparency look like, in your opinion?

Without transparency, it’s tough for parents, voters and taxpayers to hold schools and public officials accountable. The federal government is uniquely positioned to demand this information. But, No Child Left Behind has allowed states to use statistical gimmicks to report performance. Reporting a state’s “adequate yearly progress” isn’t helpful, because the meaning changes state-to-state based on standards, assessments, cut scores, and the rest (it can even change school-to-school depending on subgroup size, safe harbor, etc.).

Instead of AYP, states should be held to a truth-in-advertising standard—which reliably describes achievement (or lack thereof) and spending. To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement.

6) What about the achievement gap- or is that an overblown, politically correct topic that should not be touched?

You know me, Michael, I’m happy to address any topic! As you know, I wrote a long piece for National Affairs ( in September on the achievement gap. There, I argue that we’ve yet to consider the unintended consequences of making closing the achievement gap our single focus in education reform. Specifically, when it comes to the comes to the federal role in closing the achievement gap,  I think it’s important that NLCB required states to “disaggregate” assessment results to illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations were doing. But federal efforts to reduce inequities have too often led to onerous and counterproductive micromanagement. They should stick to the business of demanding transparency, enforcing civil rights laws, and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly.

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