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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

Where I’m Coming From

By Rick Hess — September 24, 2010 4 min read
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This week, in light of my posts jabbing the Nashville merit pay study, the irresponsibility of tax cuts unaccompanied by spending cuts, and Waiting for Superman, I’ve seen a pretty big uptick in my “you’re a terrible person” mail quotient. And that’s been accompanied by some puzzlement about just “who the hell I think I am” and what my agenda is.

In the spirit of being as clear as I possibly can, here are six tenets that I typically find guiding my writing, scholarship, and the rest:

1] Policymakers and policies can’t “fix” schools or make teachers into good teachers; they can create conditions where it is easier or more difficult to improve teaching and schooling.

2] I vastly prefer sharp, honest disagreements to watery consensus or agendas hidden behind obfuscation--which is why I try to be straightforward about my own positions and views.

3] I see absolutely no reason why sharp, honest disagreements about substance or research should so frequently become personally ugly, descend into defamation, focus on ascribed motives, or otherwise make it difficult for thoughtful people to debate in a civil manner despite their disagreements.

4] I’m not big on the journalistic credo of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. I’m more inclined to agitate the arrogant and to push back--hard--when the things that we’re expected to feel, or that I’m expected to think, are at odds with my own judgment.

5] A boon of being largely irrelevant--as I don’t lead any organization, control any votes, or claim to speak for anyone else--is that it enables me to try to speak my truth, as I see it. I try, as best I can, to explain how the world looks to me--and thereby, hopefully, offer one potentially useful or insightful take that can complement those offered by others who resolutely man the established battlements in our edu-debates. To that end, I don’t see a lot of value in piling on when I agree with the folks that are winning a debate; then having me jump in seems pretty superfluous.

6] Research can’t definitively settle many of the questions we really care about, such as how to organize schools, school systems, and education writ large. Contingencies and system dynamics mean that randomized field trials can inform judgment but generally can’t tell us “what works” when it comes to issues like site-based management, merit pay, or mayoral control. We need to get over that disappointment, understand what research can and can’t do, and take responsibility for our decisions. In short, like Jeff Henig and I argued in 2008, we’ve got to think of research as “a tool, not a crutch.”

Anyway, that’s where I’m coming from. Don’t know if it’s helpful, interesting, or anything else. But it is what it is.

Oh, and one last thing. Several RHSU commenters have asked about an internet rumor that I was a booster of Nashville’s simple-minded merit pay plan and had eagerly awaited its results, only to have my hopes dashed by the findings. In this telling, Monday’s blog was my devious attempt to protect encyclopedia salesman-style merit pay plans. I’ve three things to say about this.

First, as I noted at the time, Monday’s column was consistent with what I’ve been arguing when it comes to teacher pay and to the role of research for the better part of a decade: including in chapter four of 2004’s Common Sense School Reform, in 2004’s “Teacher Quality, Teacher Pay,” in 2005’s “Science and Nonscience,” in my introduction and conclusion to 2008’s When Research Matters, in 2009’s “The New Stupid,” in 2009’s “How to Get the Teachers We Want,” in my forthcoming book The Same Thing Over and Over, and right here in RHSU in blog posts addressing policies that seek to evaluate or reward teachers solely on test scores.

Second, I had forgotten the Nashville program existed until I received an e-mail, a week or two before the report release, offering me a chance to read an advance copy of the study if I signed a confidentiality pledge. I declined, expressly so that I could pen a piece arguing the results would tell us nothing of import. I wrote that piece and put it in the can, holding it to run the day before the report release. Now, last Friday, a colleague casually mentioned to me, after I’d written the piece but before it was posted, that he’d been part of the evaluation team and that the results showed no effect. Since the entire premise of my argument was that it didn’t matter what the findings said, I posted the piece without thinking about noting his comment. I sympathize with the assertion that I should have included a disclaimer saying I’d been told the result.

Third, that brings us to the claim that this wasn’t just a judgment call or modest oversight but an intentional act of deception. All I’ll say on that score is that if any reader thinks I wade into principled, sometimes unpleasant, and frequently career-impeding fights with people I like and respect so that I can put my credibility on the line to defend a goofy merit pay system of the kind I’ve long disdained, then so be it.

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.