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Opinion Blog

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 Little Light Reading

By Rick Hess — March 16, 2012 2 min read

Before I blogged, people who knew my writing generally knew it from my books or essays. Nowadays, though, many seem to know me primarily through RHSU. That’s cool, but it means readers sometimes sidle up at conferences or speeches to ask, “How the heck can you be both for X and against Y?” After all, blog columns don’t provide a lot of context or nuance.

I try to explain how I can be for rewarding excellence and against simple test-based merit pay; or why I believe in the potential of online learning but am skeptical about the impact of the Khan Academy; or why competition is a powerful tool for school improvement, but one which school choice today doesn’t actually harness. Sometimes I get blank looks. Other times, someone will ask what they could read if they want to see how this all supposedly knits together.

Anyway, I thought I’d take a moment to answer that for any of you who might be curious. I usually point to five books I’ve penned (none very long) that collectively distill my thinking. I’ve tried to list them in order of import:

1] Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling (ASCD, 2010). Ed Unbound explores what it means to approach education as a “greenfield” endeavor. Examines the barriers; what’s possible when it comes to using talent, tools, technology, and capital; and the challenges of quality control.

2] 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 idyllic public schooling 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 get stuck tweaking dysfunction. Kind of a prologue to Education Unbound.

3] 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 essential for sustained improvement. Addressed competition, performance accountability, teacher quality, leadership, governance, and the transformative potential of technology.

4] Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform (Brookings Institution Press, 1998). Spinning Wheels 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 or execution.

5] Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems (Brookings Institution Press, 2002). Revolution 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, finding that incentives, institutions, and context conspired to dampen any competitive impact. Controversial at the time among choice advocates; much less so today.

If you do happen to pick these up, would welcome the chance to hear your thoughts, reactions, and criticisms.

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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