I was eager to receive Rick Hess’s latest book ‘letters to a young education reformer.’ Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank. Hess is one of the few defenders of the reform movement whom I respect. His writings, like his column in Education Week, always have the nuance that most reform writers at places like The 74 and Education Post lack.
With states opting out of the Common Core, parents opting out of state tests, and prominent reformers even opting out of ed reform, the reform movement is currently experiencing a slump. This book explains what is behind some of the failures of the reform movement.
Though the book is written in an informal tone with plenty of very interesting anecdotes, it is a very scathing critique of the reform movement, the style of reform that really became big with people like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and, of course, President Obama.
Hess knows what missteps reformers committed along the way to lead to this. By writing about these mistakes in a series of letters to an unnamed ‘young education reformer,’ Hess hopes that the next generation of ed reformers will avoid those mistakes.
Many of these mistakes are things that Hess warned reformers about as they were making them. They didn’t heed many of his warnings back then, but maybe now that they seem to be losing momentum, this book could be used not just by young education reformers, but by old education reformers who could maybe use his advice to get the movement back on track.
Hess still believes in the basic pillars of the reform movement, which he summarizes nicely in one of his letters:
“I think that those making decisions should be responsible for making them work; that schools and educators should be accountable for whether kids are learning; that people who are good at their jobs should get more money and recognition than those who aren’t; and that bureaucratic routine is a lousy way to cultivate great schools.”
But he laments that reformers have been too sloppy in their implementation: they have misused data and research, they have misused the court system, they have ignored concerns from teachers and from parents, and they have chased one education fad after another.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
From the first letter:
“Washington-centric, dogmatic big R Reform has too often neglected this reality, with reformers exhausting themselves to win policy fights and then winding up too bloodied and battered to make those wins matter. It’s left me to wonder whether all the fuss and furor of recent years has done more harm than good.”
In the fourth letter he writes:
“Calling something an implementation problem is how we reformers let ourselves off the hook. It’s a fancy way to avoid saying that we didn’t realize how a new policy would affect real people … and that it turned out worse than promised.”
In the eighth letter:
“They’ve given students more reading and math instruction, and less science and history. All of this means that test results can improve even if students aren’t actually learning more.”
“If ignoring data and metrics was ‘the old stupid,’ the slapdash embrace of half-baked data is ‘the new stupid.’”
“While helpful, these data [Value Added Metrics] are primitive, limited, and often misleading.”
“Using these scores as a proxy for overall quality is especially awkward because there’s remarkably little evidence that they tell us much about other things we care about, like college-going, employment, citizenship, or creativity.”
“Used carelessly, research can impair good judgement, lead reformers to imagine that ‘research based’ reforms guarantee much more than they do, and cause reformers to focus on whether reforms are adopted while shortchanging how they are adopted. And that’s not good for anyone.”
One letter that resonated with me was called “The Value in Talking with Those Who Disagree.” Even though it is uncomfortable getting challenged on your ideas, these challenges are vital. Otherwise if you stay in an echo chamber, there is no chance that the problems with your plans will get uncovered until a lot of time and resources have been expended. I can speak from experience that I’ve been ignored, criticized, mocked, been called names, and even been the target of a blog-post called ‘The Misanthropy of Gary Rubinstein’ just because I’ve fact-checked reform claims with data that was publicly available. I was also barred from participating in panel discussions at the TFA 25th anniversary alumni summit despite being way more qualified than the majority of the participants. So the idea of reformers being more open to discussion, even public debate, is something that I would like to see more of.
Hess makes a distinction in his first letter between what he calls ‘Big R’ Reformers and, what he considers himself to be, a ‘little r’ reformer. Though he doesn’t name names, a ‘Big R’ Reformer would be someone like a Campbell Brown who knows all the talking points — tenure gives teachers jobs for life, the union protects sexual predators, the system values ‘adult interests’ rather than putting ‘students first’, students are trapped in failing schools by virtue of their zip code, and things like that. Hess is a ‘little r’ reformer, he believes in the premises of ed reform, but he has a more nuanced view of it and isn’t going to follow blindly every new idea. Maybe one of his hopes is to get some of these ‘Big R’ Reformers to reduce the size of their ‘R’ a bit, be a little more humble about what they think will work, and be more inclusive of differing opinions from players including ‘adults’ like teachers and parents.
In this 1 minute video, Hess summarizes the idea of ‘Big R’ Reform and what the problem with it is.
For sure, the percent of ‘Big R’ Reformers in 2009 was quite high. With the rise of Michelle Rhee, ‘Big R’ reformers were unapologetic about their zeal. But now, eight years later, I wonder how many of the prominent players would read this book and think that they are now ‘little r’ reformers? Most of those them, I see, have taken on a kinder and gentler persona already, but are they actually ‘little r’ reformers, or are they just pretending to be? I’d say that about 90% of reformers present themselves as the ‘little r’ variety. And the other ones, the ones that seem like throwbacks to 2009, someone like a Campbell Brown or a Steve Perry or even some of those bit players who work for 50CAN and harass me from time to time on Twitter, those people are not going to tone down their personas. Every movement has to have their share of fanatics. The fanatics make the more moderate ones seem that much more reasonable. It’s like ‘Good Reformer / Bad Reformer.’ If I were advising the reform movement, I’d say that they would want to maintain some percent of ‘Big R’ Reformers, maybe 10 to 15 percent, which seems to be what they are at right now anyway.
If you take a random moment from these panel discussions, the first from 2011 and the second from a few days ago, and compare the tones of these Reformers you will see what I mean.
2011 Teach For America 20th Anniversary Panel
2017 AEI Panel about Rick’s Book
In one of the letters ‘The False Promise of Court-Driven Reform,’ Hess writes that he does not support the recent trend that started with the Vergara case in California with copycat cases in New York, Minnesota, and New Jersey. Reformers are trying to argue that things like LIFO violate students’ constitutional rights to an education. He says that he does not trust judges to make such decisions. I wasn’t so thrilled when I heard that reform groups were going to fund lawsuits like this, but now that in case after case these lawsuits are getting thrown out, I’m beginning to think that a better reason for reformers to not try to get their way through court cases is that the more that they have to reveal their evidence under testimony, the more it goes into the public record that they have almost no evidence. There have been some lawsuits recently in New York and in Texas challenging the value-added calculations. In both cases, judges ruled that the value-added measures, basically the keystone of the reform strategy, was garbage. Whether or not legislating through the court is the right thing to do, it turns out to be an awful strategy for reformers.
There are two main theses of Hess’s letters that I disagree with:
One is that I think that Hess has overestimated the potential of the Reformers. I see his central argument as: it’s time for us to start playing more fair, to stop misusing data and to stop ignoring, and otherwise showing contempt, for Reform critics. He seems to think that the Reform movement has made some progress, but to get to the next level, to win, they will need to be more open to discussion with critics and be more open about potential problems when things like the Common Core are implemented.
I think the opposite is true. I think the Reformers have actually overachieved to get the victories they have. Getting more humble and honest and letting critics participate in the discussion will not get them to the next level at all. In a fair matchup, Reformers will get clobbered. I think they are going to lose the education reform war either way, but really the only chance they have is to ramp up the slick messaging and the lying. With the dishonest route, I think they have about a ten percent chance of ultimately winning. With the honest route, I think they have a zero percent chance of winning.
I also think Hess is overly optimistic if he thinks the Reformers will take his advice to heart. Some of them will surely read this book and think, “I get it. We need to start pretending that we really care what teachers think.” Though Hess warned against just trying to improve messaging in one of his letters “Beware the Media Glare,” what he should realize is that the same thing that prevented Reformers from listening to criticism, even from him, the first time around, will prevent them from listening to him now too. The best that most Reformers can do is pretend to care because most Reformers are — how should I put this tactfully? Most ‘Big R’ Reformers I’ve encountered are also ‘Big J’ Jerks. And they can try all they want to act like they aren’t, but they won’t be able to do it convincingly. I really think that this is the Achilles’ Heel of the Reformers. Maybe the young education reformers Hess is recruiting will be better than the old reformers in that way. It would help their cause a lot.
Peter Cunningham, the head of Education Post, wrote a reflection about this book and about the panel discussion I posted above. As evidence that he was not moved to drop some of the hostile rhetoric that so characterizes ‘Big R’ Reformers, his final line was “when the politics gets confusing, and it always does, remember that our job is not to please adults but to fight for kids.”
Michael Petrilli from the Fordham Institute wrote that he agreed with 98% of this book, but had problems with the other 2%. He made this odd suggestion at the end of his reflection “If you work in an education advocacy organization and have a legislative agenda to push, set this book aside until the session is over. Pick it up again this summer, give it a “close read,” and think hard about what a smarter, more teacher-friendly, more humble legislative agenda would look like next year. In the meantime, go team win!”
Maybe you can’t teach an old reformer new tricks.
Even with these kind of strange defensive reflections, the reception of the book, despite its clear message of “You guys messed up and I tried to warn you about it, but you wouldn’t listen.” has, ironically, been generally well received by the reform community. My sense is that they want to act like they are in on it, have been aware of these issues all along, even though Hess’s same arguments when made by critics over the years have been ignored, dismissed, and even ridiculed by these same people. I also think that Reformers like to have a Hess on their side since he is a thoughtful guy who thinks things through and Reformers like to imply that they all do that but just that Hess is better at communicating it.
Hess’ book is well worth the read, regardless of which side of the education wars you consider yourself, whether you are a Big R Reformer, a little r reformer, an anti-Big R Reformer, an anti-little r reformer, or somewhere else on the spectrum. Whatever side you are on, it probably won’t convert you either way, but it will make you think, which I think is the goal.