Interview: Rick Hess and His 21 Letters
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Renowned military school student, Rilke, once imparted the advice, "There is only one way: go within." While this may appear to embody an enigmatic form of mysticism, it closely aligns with the overarching theme of Frederick M. Hess’s latest publication, Letter to a Young Education Reformer.
Surprisingly, this message comes from one of the most well-connected and influential figures in the education realm. Hess is a prolific author, editor, and blogger, serving as the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, executive editor of Education Next, and an educator with appointments at prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Georgetown universities. However, his new book predominantly veers away from policy discussions and political matters, instead providing an in-depth exploration of the traits and qualities of mind and character that aspiring education reformers would be wise to cultivate.
Hess postulates that individuals drawn to school reform often possess an unwavering sense of grandiose mission, setting them apart from their peers in other professions. Their passion tends to breed impatience and close-mindedness, resulting in a binary thought process that leaves them susceptible to double standards and the demonization of those who disagree.
In his book, Hess imparts invaluable life lessons to his colleagues: remain humble, assume good intentions and learn from everyone, perform acts of kindness, cultivate self-restraint and discipline, honor your commitments, and never become overly impressed with yourself. He emphasizes that successful education reform necessitates discipline and precision as much as, if not more than, sheer passion. Hess clarifies that his intention is to advocate for professionalism, rather than mere "niceness" (although, judging by the diverse range of ideologies embraced by those who endorse his book, it can be inferred that he is generally affable). He aims to correct thoughtless passion and well-intentioned miscalculations that often hinder progress.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss with Hess his motivations for writing this book (which consists of short, focused chapters rather than traditional letters) and its exploration of research, parental involvement, and empathy.
The following is an edited version of the interview for brevity and clarity.
: What inspired you to write a book that focuses less on identifying areas in need of reform and more on guiding individuals in becoming effective reformers?
Observing the turmoil surrounding the Common Core, the gradual unraveling of No Child Left Behind, and the challenges encountered in reforming teacher evaluations, I couldn’t help but notice the eerie sense of familiarity. It wasn’t that the ideas themselves were flawed, but rather that those striving to make positive changes in education were implementing them in ways that predictably backfired or exploded.
These observations prompted me to contemplate how I could share the lessons I’ve learned without sounding overly critical or offering hindsight advice. I wanted to impart wisdom acquired through experience, not embody the persona of an aging sage at the end of his career (despite being born in 1968).
[Laughs.] One of the insights I’ve gained is that involvement in education reform ages us at an alarming rate.
Do you believe the culture surrounding education reform differs significantly from that of other sectors such as healthcare or energy?
There are indeed some differences. Education tends to attract a younger demographic, partially because many individuals enter the field of education reform not solely due to a profound interest in the inner workings of schools and classrooms, but because they view education as a catalyst for creating a better world by addressing issues of inequity and poverty.
This fervor is not as prevalent in other industries. Infrastructure and energy sectors lack this level of idealism. Though healthcare exhibits some degree of this passion, it remains grounded in the understanding that the system is inherently complex, driven by extensive medical research and the influence of pharmaceutical giants. This serves as a significant distinguishing factor.
Consequently, individuals often engage in education for a limited time, utilizing it as a stepping stone to broader endeavors aimed at combating poverty or pursuing higher education and early childhood development. As a result, the field of K-12 education lacks the same institutional memory present in other areas, while the intensity and unbridled sense of purpose burn brighter. Though this carries numerous benefits, it is not without its costs.
[Excited.] Yay! Multiple individuals have noticed this in various ways. In part, it is this overall feeling that the passion and desire to achieve greater things play a significant role in the education conversation. However, there is also a desire for certainty: decision-making based on data, practices grounded in science. What I believe has been forgotten is that when dealing with broad policy instruments and complex, deeply human organizations, science and data are not as predictable as we would prefer them to be.
For example, I have full confidence in our ability to conduct randomized controlled trials that will help us determine the effectiveness of one well-designed reading program compared to another. However, I have much less confidence in our ability to conduct randomized controlled trials that can tell us the best way to evaluate or hire teachers or hold schools accountable, simply because these are high-level matters. … I think what has been overshadowed by the passion and the search for certainty is our capacity to exercise judgment. In other words, wisdom. Personally, over the past five or ten years, a lot of what I have tried to convey is a sense of self-discipline and proportion regarding what we perceive as good or bad. A sense that how we do things matters. I think the label for all these concepts is usually life wisdom. Those chapters in the book explicitly capture that, but for me, it was perhaps the most prominent theme running through the 21 pieces.
Do you think the failure of many educational reforms is a failure of character?
It’s not a matter of character in terms of whether people possess good character or not. I believe almost everyone involved in education genuinely believes they are working towards positive goals. I don’t know many individuals who I would say, "You’re in this profession to harm children," regardless of whether I agree with them or not. However, when we consider character in its classical sense, which includes self-control, patience, and restraint, I do think these traits are generally lacking in many education reformers. In fact, they are often dismissed as undesirable because of the urgency and sense of mission we feel. In that sense, I believe the character of how we pursue reform, the character of what we perceive as a good reformer, has caused issues.
You mention that reformers can become inflexible about data. What about reforms that lack sufficient research support? This was one of the concerns about No Child Left Behind.
I think that’s essentially true. … The same can be said a decade later when we implemented the School Improvement Grants (SIG). The idea that there is any empirical basis for either the interventions under No Child Left Behind or under SIG is simply unrealistic. However, if education reformers want to feel better, they should recognize that even in the private sector, there is no empirical foundation for the right turnaround strategy. It’s just that these things tend to be less driven by passion and certainty, making us more comfortable with the idea that consulting firms like McKinsey will assist us in making the best possible guess, rather than relying on one of four models someone claims is the most effective.
You describe education as a partnership between parents and schools. But what about the argument that you can’t hold parents accountable for their children’s performance because you can’t control parents?
You’re correct, we cannot blame children for the parents they are born to. When I started working in this field 30 years ago, it was alarmingly common for teachers to openly say, "I can’t teach those kids." … For me, that was the fundamental moral principle behind No Child Left Behind — it is morally unacceptable for schools or educators to simply give up and say, "I can’t teach certain kids." This was the right approach. Educators must fulfill their responsibilities.
This phenomenon has had a detrimental impact in several ways. Firstly, it has disrupted the necessary moral balance that should exist in relationships between schools and families, doctors and families, and police and families. It has created an imbalance that hinders the discussion of healthy relationships. Secondly, it has caused a division among individuals on the right side of the political spectrum. When discussing this book on conservative talk radio, people often contend that we have become afraid to address the role of parents in education. This fear has hindered the ability of education reform to appeal to both the right and the left.
Furthermore, teachers now feel like they are being unfairly targeted. They believe that because we are unwilling to be honest with parents, due to political correctness or fear of racial and income disparities, it is easier to place the blame solely on teachers. This perception has led teachers to feel that the system is rigged against them. Many reformers dismiss these concerns and expect teachers to simply adjust and make things work. This is an example of passion overriding wisdom.
You mentioned the importance of engaging with people we disagree with, mentioning "the game is played between the 40-yard lines." Could you please explain this concept further?
To begin with, some of us have an advantage in engaging with those who hold opposing views. As someone who is fairly conservative, received a Ph.D. from Harvard, and has experience in public education, it is easier for me to talk to people who disagree because I frequently find myself surrounded by individuals who hold differing opinions. If I hadn’t learned to soften my approach and listen to others, I would not be able to engage effectively.
You are certainly not one to shy away from expressing your opinions.
No, that’s true. I have been quite critical of the actions taken by the Obama Department of Education. However, I have always made an effort to respect the motives of Joanne Weiss, Arne Duncan, and Carmel Martin, despite disagreeing with them. I may have thought they were making mistakes or being unwise, but I never questioned their intentions or their desire to do what they believed was right.
Part of the problem we face today is the prevalence of social media. It is much easier to be cruel and dismissive when we do not have the opportunity to engage with someone face-to-face, when we cannot see their facial expressions or have a genuine human interaction. This is amplified by platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Interestingly, this experience is not limited to one political ideology. Even liberals working in fields such as national defense often encounter a majority of individuals with conservative leanings. However, we tend to delude ourselves into thinking our circles are more diverse than they actually are. We label people as friends or allies based on limited connections, disregarding a broader perspective. For example, some might consider Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who are passionate Democrats, as right-wing allies simply because they are known as strong reformers.
The dynamic of policy implementation during the 1940s is such that there exists a substantial portion of the population that will always strongly oppose school vouchers. This group, amounting to approximately 30-35 percent, holds a fundamental belief that school vouchers are inherently wrong. Conversely, there is also a significant segment of the population, let’s say around 20-25 percent, that has firmly embraced the idea of school vouchers. The policy debates that take place in state legislatures and Washington are primarily focused on catering to the needs and preferences of the 20-25 percent of voters who are paying attention to the issue, but remain open to hearing arguments from both sides.
The key to winning these debates, and ultimately gaining support for a policy idea, lies in securing around 60 percent of public support. Once this threshold is reached, victory becomes much more attainable. It is worth noting that winning over the die-hard opponents of school vouchers is an arduous task. Instead, the strategy for success revolves around convincing those individuals who have mixed feelings or uncertainties about the issue. In order to connect with this group of people, it is imperative to move beyond simply reiterating the arguments that resonate with one’s own supporters. Instead, it requires finding new words, using different imagery, and tapping into alternative intuitions that will strike a chord with those who are undecided.
The only way to truly identify these effective communication strategies is by engaging in meaningful conversations with individuals who do not already align with our viewpoint. By actively seeking out and genuinely listening to concerns expressed by those who are not yet on our side, we can gain invaluable insights and refine our approach. It is crucial to resist the temptation of surrounding ourselves only with like-minded individuals, as this will limit our ability to persuade and win over those who are still undecided.