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. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Santa’s 2017 Naughty and Nice List for Education

By Rick Hess — December 21, 2017 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Santa rang the other night, in a state of frustration. To make a long story short: He’d gotten a Gates grant to hire a big-shot education consulting firm to help flag who’d been naughty and who’d been nice this year (in years past, he said, he’d just winged it). As Santa put it, “Everyone’s in such a state, I thought it’d be a lot easier if I just had a clean rubric—a quick-and-easy way to determine who in education was naughty this year, and who was nice.” The problem, he said, was the firm had delivered the promised PowerPoint—"and it wasn’t cheap!"—but it had left him nonplussed. He said he was reaching out to see if I’d take a look and offer any thoughts. (We’d served on a commission together a while back and hit it off.) Anyway, I figured I’d also share it for your consideration.



It’s nice when parents are engaged and support their children’s education.

But it’s naughty when parents hover, helicopter, or help their children at the expense of others.

It’s nice when personalized learning allows students to pursue their passions at their own pace.

But it’s naughty when it yields anything-goes curricula that abandon rigor and permit students to lag behind.

It’s nice when big foundations diligently refine their strategy based on experience

But it’s naughty when they cartwheel from one strategy to the next, leaving a trail of disruption in their wake.

It’s nice to set ambitious, aspirational goals for student achievement.

But it’s naughty to set ludicrous, unreasonable targets for student achievement.

It’s nice to passionately fight “for the kids” against those who are, you know, fighting “against the kids.”

But it’s naughty to spew venomous, ad hominem vitriol and contribute to our political polarization.

It’s nice to thoughtfully embrace social and emotional learning.

But it’s naughty to recklessly embrace faddish SEL enthusiasms that sacrifice real learning.

It’s nice to fight for social justice and call out the forces that contribute to inequity and poverty.

But it’s naughty moralizing to say that out-of-wedlock births or lack of personal responsibility can contribute to inequity and poverty.

It’s nice to eliminate policies that entrench privilege or exacerbate class divides.

But it’s naughty to support tax reform which would curtail the privileges accorded to graduate students and deep-pocketed colleges.

There were a lot more, but you get the idea.

What frustrated Santa, he said, was that the rubric just isn’t all that clear about how to tell naughty from nice. When does parental support cross the line? When does personalized learning go from invaluable to insipid? When do ambitious goals morph into frivolous targets? Santa pleaded, “With all this, how will I ever be able to make a list—or check it twice?!”

I sighed. I told Santa that I got his problem but didn’t know what to do about it. After all, the longer I’m in education, the more I’m struck by the thunderous assurance with which the same exact things get denounced as naughty or celebrated as nice, based on nothing more than word choice, inflection, audience, or the mood of the moment. Though, in the spirit of the holidays, I reminded Santa that one of the nice things about education is that precious few people really are “against the kids.” And that’s nice.

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.