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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.

Education Opinion

A Handy Reader’s Guide

By Rick Hess — September 06, 2013 3 min read

A few years back, folks who knew me at all mostly knew me from my books or moderately long-form pieces in places like Education Next and Phi Delta Kappan. Of late, many more people are reaching out who know me primarily from public appearances, my blog, or even (never thought I’d say this) twitter. Now, that’s all fine. I put my stuff out there and everyone is free to take or leave it as they like. But it does mean I’m encountering more people who are reacting (positively or negatively) to their impression of a fragment rather than to the whole of the argument. That’s become doubly clear as I’ve had a spate of recent inquiries from readers and listeners asking for suggestions of what they should read as they try to determine if they vehemently disagree with me, or only kind of disagree.

With the start of the academic year upon us, seemed like a good time to address such questions. So in the name of efficiency, and in the nature of a public service announcement, here’s a quick thumbnail guide to my key books:

Cage-Busting Leadership (Harvard Education Press, 2013). When I’d be out talking about Education Unbound, a frequent question was, “Rick, that’s all well and good, but what’s this mean for people stuck in today’s schools and system?” This book is the response to that question. It argues that leaders can do much more than they think they can do, even given today’s rules, regulations, and norms, and that bold leadership ought not be a recipe for martyrdom. Really, in many ways, a lineal descendant of Spinning Wheels, in arguing that transformation is at least as much a matter of practical, clear-eyed problem-solving as it is of enacting new reforms.

Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling (ASCD, 2010). Ed Unbound explores what it means to approach education as a “greenfield” endeavor. Makes the case for stepping back from assumptions about states, systems, and schools, and asking more fundamental questions about how to tap talent, spend money, and wrestle with quality control. Whereas Common Sense was an argument for how to move schooling from the 1930s to the 1980s, this was a vision of how to think about bringing schooling into the 21st century.

The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas (Harvard University Press, 2010). Same Thing tries to put today’s reform efforts in historical context. Explains why those who oppose “reform” are defending not an ideal but anachronistic compromises... and why so many popular reforms--from merit pay to mayoral control--fail to cut deep enough, meaning that would-be reformers are just tweaking dysfunction. It’s kind of a prologue to Education Unbound and makes clear why I’m so often hard on reforms that people expect me to love.

Common Sense School Reform
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Common Sense made the “reform” case that structural reform isn’t “more important” than improving instruction, but that getting incentives and structures right is the key to serious, sustainable instructional change. At a time when these ideas were more controversial, argued for things like value-added accountability, importance of choice-driven competition, revamping leadership and governance, and transformative power of technology that have now become overcooked conventional wisdom among some reformers.

Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems (Brookings Institution Press, 2002). Made the case that school choice advocates had too readily assumed that “choice” alone would produce dynamic educational competition. Studied heralded voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Edgewood, Texas, and found that incentives, institutions, and context conspired to dampen any competitive impact. Controversial at the time among choice advocates; much less so today.

Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform
(Brookings Institution Press, 1998). Sought to explain why urban school systems reform so much to so little effect. Examined 57 urban districts during mid-1990s, finding that the typical district launched more than a dozen major reforms in a three-year window. The need to show that something was being done trumped any concern for implementation. The whirlwind of activity bred cynicism and led to inattentive execution.

Anyway, there you go. We’ll get back to regularly scheduled programming on Monday.

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.

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