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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion


By Rick Hess — August 18, 2010 1 min read
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It’s been six months since I first stuck a toe into the blogosphere. At a minimum, that got pals like Alexander Russo, Andy Rotherham, Sara Mead, Kevin Carey, and Mike Petrilli to stop ridiculing me for being behind the times (though they’re now telling me my posts are too long, too removed from the blog v. blog fray, and insufficiently linky. Sometimes, you just can’t win...).

Anyway, as I told former Ed Week honcho Caroline Hendrie when she suggested that I try my hand at blogging, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. I had a notion of wanting to write a regular, wide-ranging, dyspeptic column, but wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to stay true to my vision. Here we are six months later, and I’d welcome your thoughts on how it’s all turned out.

A quick reminder-slash-invitation. Since I’ve started, many of my most trafficked posts--on the composition of the UFT electorate in NYC, RTT application foibles, the nature of Superintendent Gallo’s victory in the Central Falls showdown, the termination language in the DC teacher contract, and so forth--have sprouted from tips shared by a variety of sources (from state chiefs to teachers to irate consultants). If you’ve got an insight, a story, or a tip, I’d like to hear from you.

I also want to know whether you think I’m hewing to the furrow I said I’d plow. Back in February, you might recall, I promised:

In due course, I plan to cover a fair bit of ground, touching on the scholarly and the silly, the programmatic and the political, the practical and the philosophical. The common thread will not be the content so much as the dyspeptic, skeptical, and occasionally cynical lens through which I tend to view the world. I have always had an uncanny empathy for P.G. Wodehouse's characterization of his beloved Jeeves in Code of the Woosters: 'If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.' It's my impression that, in most walks of life, impassioned do-gooders are a crucial corrective to cynicism and self-interest. I've long worried that in schooling, however, we've a curious malady--a surfeit of passion, good intentions, and big plans. For what it's worth, I find K-12 schooling to be one of the few places in life where we suffer a shortage of cynics and skeptics. The cost is a dearth of observers willing to deliver some bitter medicine to a sector gorged on saccharine sentiment. For better or worse, I've always found myself well-suited to be the guy with the castor oil. I know the conventional wisdom is we can deliver great schools if we just care more, come together, and focus on 'the children.' It undoubtedly says something about what a terrible person I am, but my instinct has always been--as soon as folks start telling me how much they love children--to pat my rear pocket to make sure my wallet is still there. I know it's not a popular view, but I've long thought our greatest problem is not a failure to care enough; it's the reverse. It's our inclination to allow good intentions (or proclamations of good intentions--I'm looking at you, NEA) to excuse lazy thinking, willful naiveté, and a refusal to make tough choices. We allow the mantra of 'best practices,' vapid assertions of our love for kids, and the search for consensus to stand in for honest debate or critical analysis. Thus, we get...teacher quality policies that consistently ignore the fact that the huge well of natural talent that fueled teaching until the 1970s (women who had few career alternatives) has dried up and seek to tweak the content of preparation, or provide cash bonuses to teachers who fuel test score bumps, rather than fundamentally rethinking how K-12 schooling might attract, nurture, utilize, and retain talent. We get technology enthusiasts who talk excitedly about their toys but remain uninterested in or naive about the professional, contractual, and institutional barriers that hinder the import of those advances. We get a research community intent on determining whether merit pay or mayoral control 'works,' notwithstanding the fact that no researcher has ever been able to prove whether it's a good idea to pay good employees more than bad employees--or whether it's better to appoint or elect judges or utility commissioners. We get champions of 'best practices' who celebrate any number of instructional and pedagogical strategies without any apparent curiosity about why decades of successive best practices reforms have failed to deliver the desired results. We get a Congress and an administration that borrowed $787 billion from our kids and grandkids for a stimulus to minimize our pain and soften the need for states and localities to tackle unsustainable budgets predicated on a bubble economy."

I concluded, “On all these topics, and many others besides, I’ll have much more to say.” For good or ill, am I delivering what I said I would? Have I strayed from that initial vision? Are there big, important questions you think I’ve ignored? I know what some of my regular commenters think (a well-deserved hat tip to folks like plthomas, john thompson, Ben Foley, and Daniel J. Fallon). And there are others out there--like David Marshak, Susan Ohanian, and Fred Klonsky--who’ve made it clear they think me something of a menace to society. (I did quite like jpfarr202’s comment earlier this week lamenting my efforts to promote “an illiterate, ill-preparedness [sic] and ill-behaved society.”) But I’d like to hear what other readers have to say, too, whether you’re inclined to share your thoughts as a blog comment or a personal e-mail.

With that, I turn back to my daily labors on behalf of “an illiterate, ill-preparedness and ill-behaved society.” Cheerio.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.