School & District Management

Author Wants to Rid Education Of ‘Nice’ Reform Policies

By Lynn Olson — April 14, 2004 6 min read
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Enough “nice” school reform. In a book out this month, Frederick M. Hess calls for a sharper-edged version of change centered on tough-minded accountability, competition, and workforce design meant to foster what he calls a “culture of competence” in the nation’s schools.

This isn’t the first time the 36-year-old scholar, who directs education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, has taken on what he terms “status quo” reformers. Mr. Hess has made a name for himself tackling everything from teacher licensure and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to the difficulties of turning around urban school districts. Moreover, as the executive editor of Education Next, a quarterly journal of research and opinion, he’s regularly tweaked conventional wisdom in education.

Common Sense School Reform, published by Palgrave Macmillan, pulls together his ideas in one place. The mixture of analysis and tart rhetoric sets up a dichotomy between “status quo” and “common sense” advocates for change. (“Status Quo vs. Common Sense,” Commentary, this issue.)

“Status quo reformers are all for reform so long as it changes nothing of consequence,” Mr. Hess writes. They’re happy to tinker with curricular and pedagogical improvements, and even tread in such areas as accountability and choice, he asserts, as long as those measures don’t affect anybody’s job security or fundamentally change what schools do.

In contrast, he writes, “common-sense reform” rests on the twin pillars of accountability and flexibility. “Common-sense reform,” he says, “sets as its guiding beacon the goal of constructing a culture of competence in schools: a culture where success is expected, excellence is rewarded, and failure is not tolerated.”

Challenging Assumptions

Doing so, Mr. Hess maintains, requires rethinking everything in schools, including who should be running them, whom schools hire, how schools are staffed, how performance is recognized and rewarded, how ineffective employees are removed, how such services as information management and human resources operate, and how money is spent.

“Common-sense reform is really just that,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s the way that you build systems and organizations that get the best out of people and that create room for diverse forms of excellence.”

Central to his vision is the notion that schools and educators be judged based on “value added” measures of student achievement, or how much they improve children’s learning over time. Rewards for performance need to be “large, ongoing, and tied to individual performance,” he writes. Unsuccessful schools should be shut down, and new faculties assembled from scratch.

But, unlike some proponents of test-based accountability, Mr. Hess doesn’t advocate mechanically linking educators’ pay and performance directly to test scores.

“Improvements in student performance should constitute a significant part, roughly half of a teacher’s job evaluation,” he argues, “but not the entire thing.” Other factors, such as whether teachers mentor their colleagues, go above and beyond the materials tested, and take on challenging assignments should also influence their pay.

Similarly, he says, sensible accountability systems should take into account a few important contextual factors. For example, educators in affluent communities may find it hard to raise test scores substantially. As long as schools in those circumstances perform at consistently high levels, that ought to carry more weight than student improvement, he argues.

Moreover, while tough-edged accountability is good at raising the floor in education, he contends, “it’s hard for a central agency to mandate excellence.”

That’s why he’s convinced that accountability and choice are natural complements. “Markets are good at creating mixed services and provoking excellence,” he said in the interview, “but they’re very unreliable in terms of ensuring that everybody will be adequately served. So by coupling the two in a sensible way, you provide security, and you allow schools to do some things really well.”

The former assistant professor of education and politics at the University of Virginia and graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University argues that competition only “works when it hurts.”

In that sense, Mr. Hess concludes, most choice efforts remain firmly on the “nice” side of school reform. “Schools that lose or gain students inevitably lose or gain less than the full amount of funding attached to that student,” he writes, “easing the blow to unpopular schools and giving those schools in demand little incentive to attract students.”

He proposes linking principals’ pay and futures to their schools’ performance and enrollment, although those who took on challenging assignments would have that factored into their evaluations and be paid much more than their peers. Actual funding for each student would follow the child to a new school as rapidly and completely as possible, based on a weighted per-pupil formula.

Many within the education community disagree with Mr. Hess’ remedies for improving the nation’s public schools.

“Dr. Hess has contributed a provocative analysis of the ills of American education, but his Draconian prescriptions for reform seem likely to worsen the disease,” said Gary Sykes, a professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

“If urban schools today are high-stress environments for teachers, administrators, students, and families, then mounding additional accountability pressures on themdoes not seem likely to improve matters,” Mr. Sykes wrote in an e-mail. “Rather, as countless analysts have argued, schools serving poor and minority children require capacity-building strategies that promote formation of learning communities, with all that concept requires.More accountability is not the answer.”

Hiring and Budgets

In Mr. Hess’ view, though, accountability measures, for example, will help parents choose schools. States should collect systemic information on a variety of measures beyond test scores, including school safety, attendance rates, graduation rates, and college-going rates, he writes. States should permit a variety of intermediary groups to use the data to produce guides or ratings that compare schools in whatever manner they wish, thus helping parents make sense of it all.

Mr. Hess advocates chartering schools as the most promising option for increasing the supply of new schools. And he argues that the fastest and most effective source of growth may be for-profit firms that can run multiple sites.

But none of those changes will work, he continues, without giving principals and superintendents the ability to hire, fire, promote, and reward employees based on performance, and to control their own budgets and resources.

To pursue that agenda, Mr. Hess returns to themes he’s struck in the past, including the need to do away with rigid licensure requirements, embrace performance-based compensation packages, and shift schools away from traditional pension plans that value longevity to “defined contribution” arrangements.

Mr. Hess makes a point of not vilifying teachers’ unions in the book. After all, he notes, they’re only doing their job in protecting their members. But he’s unlikely to win friends among those he targets for criticism, ranging from author Jonathan Kozol to the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Michael Apple.

“Clearly, I have some fun in the book at the expense of folks whom I’ve jousted with over the years,” he said. “But it’s not entirely meant to be pejorative.

“I think one of the things that’s gotten lost in the education discourse,” Mr. Hess said, “is the ability to have a spirited but genial debate.”

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