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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

Greetings and Salutations

By Rick Hess — February 16, 2010 4 min read
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Hi there. Or, in the phrasing of Christian Slater’s homicidal but quirkily charming high school misfit in 1988’s Heathers, “Greetings and salutations.”

I’m Rick Hess and this is my new blog, “Rick Hess Straight Up.” Delighted you’ve taken a moment to stop by. For those of you who know me, glad to have you here. For those who don’t, a quick introduction may be in order.

I’m the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (one of the DC think tanks), an executive editor at the journal Education Next, author of a few books (if you’re interested, my newest, Education Unbound, is out this month from ASCD), and occasional contributor to an array of academic and popular publications. I’m a former high school teacher and professor of education and I still teach every so often at the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, and Rice University. I’ve studied school boards, school choice, No Child Left Behind, educational leadership, collective bargaining agreements, and topics like ed research and ed philanthropy; supervised student teachers, evaluated programs, and advised districts and vendors; and had the honor of speaking in a host of places--from the Chicago Federal Reserve to the NEA to the White House to the North American Association of Educational Negotiators.

In this first post, I hope just to give you a sense of what you can expect to encounter on future visits.

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 a “differentiated instruction” community which offers a strategy of reform predicated on the notion that, if every teacher is exquisitely trained and does everything just right, it’s possible to effectively teach children of highly variable achievement levels together in a single classroom.

We get a “school choice” community that advocates charter schooling or school vouchers while showing remarkably little interest in what it takes for markets to work, or for “choice” to yield good choices.

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.

We get a President and Secretary of Education who took pains to promise that $100+ billion of those borrowed funds would help transform our schools and not simply protect the status quo. The result? Proud reports that $100 billion have helped protect the status quo and the hope that the final five percent of that $100+ billion prompted some changes in state law and may fuel some reform. Speaking of which, we get a hyped Race to the Top program that may ultimately topple under the same kind of rickety infrastructure that undid Reading First.

On all these topics, and many others besides, I’ll have much more to say. And that, I think, will do for now. Hope to see you soon.

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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