74 Interview: Rick Hess and His 21 Letters

See previous 74 interviews, including 2017 Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffeeformer education secretary John King, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The full archive is here.

“There is only one way: go within.” So Rilke told an admiring military school student at the start of what became Letters to a Young Poet. Dark mysticism aside, that message is not far from the theme of Frederick M. Hess’s latest work, Letter to a Young Education Reformer.

Which you wouldn’t necessarily expect from one of the education world’s most wired-in and emphatic figures — a prolific author, editor, and blogger; the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute; an executive editor of Education Next; and an educator with appointments at Harvard and Georgetown universities, among others. Yet the new book mostly forgoes discussion of policy and political issues in place of an extended consideration of the qualities of mind and character that anyone who hopes to succeed at improving education would be wise to cultivate.

School reform attracts young people who tend to be more grandiosely mission-driven than those who enter other professions, Hess suspects; their passion tends to make them less patient and open-minded, more binary in their thinking, susceptible to double standards and demonizing those who disagree.

Hess offers something like life lessons to colleagues: Be humble, presume good intentions and learn from everyone, do favors, be temperate and self-disciplined, keep your word, don’t get too impressed by yourself. “Education reform is hard,” he writes. “Doing it well is at least as much about discipline and precision as it is about passion.”

He says he’s counseling “professionalism,” not “niceness” (though if the breadth of ideologies among his blurb providers is an indication, he’s probably pretty nice). “What I’ve tried to offer is a corrective to heedless passion and well-meaning miscalculation,” he writes.

I talked with Hess recently about why he wrote the book (which is a collection of short, topical chapters rather than letters), and its discussion of research, parents, and empathy.

The interview has been edited for length.

The 74: What motivated you to write a book that’s less about what needs reform and more about how to be a reformer?

When I was watching the Common Core get embroiled in everything that consumed it, when I watched No Child Left Behind just unraveling, when I watched thoughtful efforts to reform teacher evaluation getting bogged down — I was struck at how familiar it all felt. It wasn’t that the ideas weren’t reasonable ideas, but that people who were trying to do good things for kids had done them in ways that were backfiring or blowing up in a manner that felt frighteningly predictable.

So I sat down and started thinking, “Well, jeez, how do I try to share some of what I think I might have learned without sounding too much like I’m second-guessing or doing Monday morning quarterbacking?”

The book sort of sounds like an elder statesman at the end of his days conveying the wisdom that he’s accumulated. That’s not you. (Hess was born in 1968.)

[Laughs.] I guess one insight is that ed reform ages us at a remarkable rate.

Do you think that the culture of education reform is different than the culture of another sector, like health care or energy?

I think there’s some differences. One, I think education tends to skew really young. Partly because a lot of people get into education reform not necessarily because they’re really interested in the wheels and spokes of schools and classrooms, but because they see education as a mechanism to make this a better world — to tackle inequity and poverty.

You don’t see that the same way in a lot of other sectors. You don’t see that in infrastructure or energy. You see a little of it in health care, but health care — there’s so much more understanding that it’s technically complex, so much of it is driven by medical research and Big Pharma. That’s one big difference.

That means you get a lot of people who come in and do education for a little while that it’s almost a gateway to broader efforts to tackle poverty or move on to higher ed, early childhood. So one of the things that happens in K-12 is you have less institutional memory than in some of these other fields, and the sense of passion and mission burns brighter and is less constrained, which is obviously really good in some ways,  but also carries certain costs with it.

Did you intend for some of the book to read like life lessons or even philosophy? The chapter you write to the younger version of yourself and the Finding Your Way chapter at the end, for instance, are really about how to be a decent person.

[Excited.] Yeah! A number of people have picked up on this in different ways. Partly it’s this larger sense that passion and desire to do greater things fuels so much of the education conversation. But also, partly, there’s a desire for certainty: data-driven decision-making, scientifically based practice. What I feel has gotten lost is, when you’re dealing with these broad policy instruments, when you’re dealing with really complex, enormously human organizations, it turns out that science and data are less deterministic than we’d like them to be.

For example, I have great faith in our ability to do randomized controlled trials that will help us ascertain the efficacy of one tightly designed reading program versus a second. I have much less faith that we can run randomized controlled trials that tell us the best way to evaluate or hire teachers or hold schools accountable, simply because these are high level. …  I think what’s gotten lost between the passion and the search for surety is our ability to use our judgment. In a word, wisdom. For me, a lot of what I find myself trying to impart over the last five or 10 years is a sense of self-discipline, a sense of proportion about the things we think are good and the things we think are bad. A sense that it matters how you do things. I think the label for all this stuff is usually life wisdom. Those chapters capture that most explicitly, but for me that was maybe the single largest thread running through the 21 pieces.

Do you believe the failure of many ed reforms is failure of character?

Not character if it’s about whether people have good character or not. I think you know I’ve always been willing to concede that just about everybody in education thinks they’re trying to do good things. I don’t know many people who I’d say, “You’re in this business to hurt kids,” whether I agree with them or not. But I do think when we think about character classically it’s about temperance and forbearance and restraint, and I do think that those are characteristics that are generally lacking in many ed reformers. In fact, they get pooh-poohed as undesirable because we have a sense of urgency and a sense of mission that to say hold on and ask too many questions, to be uncertain, can be seen as a bad thing. In that sense, I do think the character of how we pursue a reform, the character of what we think makes a good reformer, has caused problems.

You point out that reformers can become rigid about data. What about reforms that don’t have enough of a research base? That was one of the concerns about No Child Left Behind.

I think that’s basically true. … The same is true a decade later when we did SIG [School Improvement Grants]. The idea that there is any empirical foundation for either the NCLB interventions or for SIG intervention is just nuts. On the other hand, to the extent that ed reformers want to feel better, what they should recognize is if you go back and read decades of the Harvard Business Review, for instance, nobody has any empirical grounding for what’s the right turnaround strategy in the private sector either. It’s just because these things tend to be less soaked in passion and certainty, we’re more comfortable with the idea that McKinsey is going to go in and help you try to make a best guess, rather than look for one of four models that somebody tells you is the best bet to make it happen.

You describe education as involving a handshake between parents and schools. But what about the idea that you can’t hold parents against the kid because you can’t be accountable for parents?

Right, you can’t blame kids for the parents they’re born to. When I got into this stuff 30 years ago it was frighteningly easy for teachers to say out loud, “I can’t teach those kids.” … For me, that was the great moral anchor of No Child Left Behind — that it is morally unacceptable for schools or educators to just wave their hands and say, “I can't teach certain kids.” That was right. Educators have to do their job.

What I think has gotten lost in the passion and the groupthink is … if I take one of my boys to a pediatrician, and the pediatrician says, “Well, Rick, your son’s gotta lose some weight.” And I give Gray a bag of Cheetos every night, not many people would say, “Your pediatrician’s not good at their job.” There’s an understanding that respecting the Hippocratic oath, that being a good physician, does not necessarily require being a miracle worker. There has to be a partnership with guardians, parents, home. We take that for granted in a lot of walks of life, but ed reformers, partly because it’s not just about having schools do their job well, it’s about fixing the larger world, and it’s about justice, have managed to say that none of those considerations apply in education. If kids aren’t doing homework, if parents aren’t following through on discipline, if kids aren’t getting [other things they need], none of this excuses you as an educator.

That’s been really destructive in a couple of ways: I think it has thrown off the moral balance that has to prevail if we’re going to talk about healthy relationships between schools and families or doctors and families or police and families. I think the second thing is, it’s alienated a lot of folks on the right. When I do conservative talk radio about this book, this is one of the things folks leap onto — about how we have become afraid to talk about the parent half of the equation. I think that’s had a real negative impact on school reform’s ability to connect broadly on the right and left.

And I think the third thing it’s done is made teachers feel like they’re being scapegoated. To teachers, it feels like, because we don’t want to have to be honest with parents, because we’re too politically correct, or too afraid, or too sensitive of [sic] racial and income fault lines, that we find it easier to just throw this all on teachers’ shoulders. And that has made teachers feel that this stuff is rigged in an effort to blame them. And again, this is a case where most reformers are like, “Look, suck it up, make it happen.” I think this is one of those places where passion has prevailed over wisdom.

When you talk about needing to talk to people we disagree with, you say, “The game is played between the 40-yard lines.” Will you elaborate on that?

First off, certain of us have an advantage. As somebody who tends to be pretty conservative, who did my Ph.D. at Harvard and has worked in and around public education, it’s easy for me to talk about working with people who disagree with you because I spend most of my time in conferences and convenings where most people disagree with me, and if I hadn’t learned how to shave off some of the rough edges and listen, I couldn’t do it.

You’re not exactly a shrinking violet.

No …  I was a pretty tough critic of what went on at the Obama Department of Education. But I tried very hard never to suggest that I didn’t respect the motivations of [chief of staff to former education secretary Arne Duncan] Joanne Weiss or Arne Duncan or [Duncan’s senior adviser] Carmel Martin. I disagreed with them; I could think they were being foolhardy or mistaken or unwise without questioning their decency or their desire to do the right thing.

Part of where we have gotten to, and it’s partly the fault of social media: It’s much easier to be vicious and dismissive when you’re not actually talking to somebody, when you’re not seeing the look on their face, when you don’t actually have any human interaction with them. So partly it’s a consequence of the fact that so much of this stuff plays out via Twitter and Facebook and the rest. I think, frankly, it’s interesting, you talk to liberals who work in something like national defense and they’d have the same experience, where they work in a field where huge numbers of people tend to lean right. But the interesting thing is, when you work around a lot of like-minded people, it’s very easy to either think that “Oh, I’ve got a friend who voted for John McCain one time, so I know Republicans.” We tell ourselves that our circle is much broader than it really is. Or, “Hey, [former New York City schools chancellor] Joel Klein and [former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor] Michelle Rhee are hard-charging reformers, so they’re my right-wing friends,” even though under any reasonable map of the nation, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are passionate … Democrats.

So partly there’s a phenomenon where we don’t realize how cloistered we are sometimes, and that we live in this environment where it’s easy to learn bad habits and also … when you know people, you tend to fill in the blanks for them in a positive way. So you and I have the privilege of getting to know a lot of these people who have done a lot of this work, and so when you hear clips of superintendent X or advocate Y and they sound kind of dumb in their two minutes on Fox or MSNBC, if you know them, you fill in the blanks in a positive way. You say, “Well, they didn’t really get time to make their full point.” But when you don’t know somebody or when you disagree with them, you tend to fill in the blanks in the most negative possible way. So that’s one of the real consequences — we think we know people and really don’t, and we think they are much dumber than and much less well-meaning than they actually are.

What happens is that policy plays out between the 40s in the sense that there’s some big chunk of the country that’s always going to hate school vouchers, it feels wrong to them. Call it 30, 35 percent. And there’s some big chunk of the country that’s pretty much just decided it likes school vouchers. The policy debates in state legislatures and Washington are always going to play out for those 20, 25 percent of voters who are paying some attention but think both sides make points. The way you win these debates — if you get 60 percent support for a policy idea, you’re generally home free. So the way you see people winning debates is not by convincing the people who are die-hard opposed but by convincing those folks who are kind of mixed, who are uncertain. The way you connect with them usually is not by rehashing the arguments that work for the folks on your 40 yards of the field. You connect with those folks by finding different words, different images, tapping into different intuitions. The only way you figure that out is by talking to and hearing from and hearing concerns from people who aren’t already on your side. When you wind up drawing your circles tight and only listen to people who agree, you lose the ability to win those guys over.

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