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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

Of Enemies Lists and Education Leadership

By Rick Hess — October 26, 2010 4 min read
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I was amused to learn this morning that the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) is now in the business of issuing “enemies lists.” A hat tip to NC State’s Lance Fusarelli for the heads up. It’s actually even better than that. In the same quarterly issue of the UCEA Review that begins with a piece titled “Diversity-Responsive School Leadership” (presumably embracing intellectual diversity, no?), UNC-Chapel Hill’s Fenwick English has penned “The 10 Most Wanted Enemies of American Public Education’s School Leadership.” English is no marginal figure in ed leadership--he is credited by Wikipedia with being the “father” of the curriculum management audit; is a former superintendent, dean, and president of the UCEA; and editor of the Encyclopedia of Educational Administration. This respected scholar writes that these “enemies” of school leadership are waging a “war for the soul of school administration.” Heady stuff, right?!

I was gratified on two counts. First, it’s the kind of thing that perfectly illustrates my argument in The Same Thing Over and Over (to be released by Harvard University Press in just a few weeks) that those in schools and schools of education too often turn every call for rethinking schooling and teaching into an “attack” on public schooling. Second, I was kind of tickled to learn that I’m America’s #5 enemy of school leadership, trailing only Eli Broad, Arne Duncan, Checker Finn, and Bill Bennett. English broadly explains that we enemies are driven by three motivations: the desire to “preserve economic privilege,” “uphold traditional notions of gender and sexuality,” and protect “the privileges of certain racial groups and nations.”

Now, some who don’t follow the tribal politics of education schools might be puzzled by all this. Eli Broad has spent tens of millions recruiting and training district leaders. Duncan is a former superintendent and the U.S. Secretary of Education. I’m an academic who has done a fair bit of research on educational leadership and principal preparation, publishing that work in such radical venues as Teachers College Record, Educational Policy, Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, and American School Board Journal. But this is where we are.

My friends at the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education or the American Educational Research Association tell me that, at least nowadays, their members are interested in serious debates and are open to alternative points of view. Well, be that as it may, English’s list of “enemies” was formally published in an official publication of the University Council for Educational Administration--a (self-described) “consortium of higher education institutions committed to advancing the preparation and practice of educational leaders for the benefit of schools and children.” Indeed, the UCEA has recently announced that it is relocating to the University of Virginia’s respected Curry School of Education. I do hope that both UCEA executive director Michelle Young and Curry Dean Bob Pianta, both good and smart people, will make it clear that enemies lists don’t have a place in academic debate and that they will not be entertaining more such screeds (from any point of view).

Most striking of all to me was how incredibly lazy English’s piece was. As best I can tell, he hasn’t read anything I’ve written since 2003. If he really wanted to paint me as an enemy of educational leadership, I’ve given him loads of fodder since. It’s remarkable to me, and more than a little pathetic, that he instead opted to rely upon guilt by association and insinuations of evil motive rather than a straightforward critique of what I’ve said and written.

For instance, here’s English’s entire description of me:

Frederick M. Hess is director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Prior to assuming this role at the American Enterprise Institute, he was an instructor at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute. Emery and Ohanian noted that the Progressive Policy Institute has received generous funding from the Bradley and Heritage Foundations. The Bradley Foundation is one of the four "Big Sisters" previously noted. Its money comes from the sale of auto parts magnate Harry Bradley. The Bradley Foundation has a long history of sponsoring conservative ideologies in education and in the larger policy arena. Hess sits on the review board for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Hess is a frequent critic of school of education leadership programs for failing to teach candidates "proven" business management skills."

In all honesty, I’m not even sure what a “proven” business skill is. And, disappointingly, there’s not much here that’s even relevant--much less that explains why I’m an enemy of school leadership.

English does take another stab at it. He revisits me a bit later, to explain why I’m enemy #5. This time, he writes, “Currently the director of [education] policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Hess proffers the tried and true neo-liberal ideology in education: privatization, vouchers, non-educators in leadership roles; run schools like business or the military; alternative certification; and anti-teacher unions and schools of education. He is one of the reputed anonymous authors of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Broad Foundation’s political broadside against educational leadership programs, Better Leaders for America’s Schools: A Manifesto.” Reading down English’s whole enemies list, this is pretty much the norm--a tedious mix of job titles, vague assertions, and convoluted discussions of foundation relationships. The amazing thing is it’s not even interesting, searing, or fun.

For what it’s worth, I think we’d all be far better off if we spent more time arguing ideas and policies and less time hurling insinuations. At the least, perhaps we can reserve academic venues and outlets for serious debate--and save the ad hominem invective for elsewhere? Failing that, I’d like to think that a veteran academic could execute a hit job so that it reads like something other than a fifth-grader’s plagiarized book report.

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.