Apparently, Rick Hess doesn’t like being called a contrarian. That’s what one surmises from the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s response to last week’s Dropout Nation commentary about his pieces on “achievement gap mania.” From where Hess sits, your editor somehow misinterpreted his position on what he considers the nation’s unhealthy effort to overhaul education for all children, even though I pulled quotes from his own pieces saying so. Hess can disagree with my ultimate summation of his thoughts all he wants, but it stands and that’s that. After all, he did write a piece dedicated to arguing that the idea that a focus on stemming the achievement gaps of poor and minority children (as well as young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds) is a bad public policy idea.
Funny thing is that Hess didn’t offer up much of a defense of his underlying argument: That the focus on stemming achievement gaps has sapped time, money and political resources from addressing other educational concerns (and causing the performance of even top-flight students to decline). Probably because that argument was based on a series of specious evidence that didn’t prove anything. After all, in the decade since the achievement gap became a national mania, policymakers have managed to focus their energies on anti-bullying legislation, childhood obesity (including federal rules requiring schools to start victory gardens as part of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act), and the expansion of school choice. It hasn’t consumed “the whole of our attention” as Hess declares. Same is true for philanthropies, which have also poured dollars into teacher quality reform initiatives, character education efforts, and family engagement and Parent Power activities. While the latter has garnered the fewest resources that has less to do with the available pots of money than with the reality that donors are more comfortable conversing with Hess and other think tankers over goat cheese hors d’oeuvres than dealing with the messiness of working the grassroots. And given that all American students, including those at the top of their game, have been struggling against their peers internationally for at least three decades, would be off-base in blaming the focus on stemming achievement gaps for these issues.
Contrary to what Hess (and others such as the otherwise estimable Jay P. Greene and the generally one-note Robert Pondiscio) may think, the focus on stemming achievement gaps has not been exacerbated the nation’s education crisis. If anything, as folks such as No Child Left Behind Act mastermind Sandy Kress have pointed out (and Mike Petrilli has admitted), the focus on achievement gaps has helped push the very systemic reforms — from subjecting teachers to private sector-style performance management, to the expansion of school choice — Hess and other reformers desire. It has also yielded some success especially in improving overall student achievement. Certainly, none of these reforms are silver bullets on their own. Nor does one set of instructional method for on. But these efforts, along with others such as blended learning, are creating opportunities for spurring the systemic reforms needed to help all children — from young men struggling with reading at every economic and racial category, to those with stronger learning backgrounds — succeed in school and life.
Hess attempts to blame the focus on stemming achievement gaps for the lack of strong development of instructional techniques that can work for both struggling and more-advanced students. It doesn’t work. What he calls a bitter fruit of “achievement gap mania” is really a problem emanating from the talent and sophistication problems endemic within American public education itself. As Hess himself noted when discussing the spates of cheating in Atlanta, and as Dropout Nation pointed out this month in its commentary on the use of school data, the low quality of teacher and principal training has resulted in the proliferation of school staffers who do plenty badly. And we end up with other players in education who misread the problems instead of realizing that you have teachers and principals on the ground not trained well enough to use any tool — from instructional methods to data — properly in helping students succeed. As Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli made that mistake with data, same is true for Hess when it comes to the focus on stemming achievement gaps.
Again, Hess has a thesis that isn’t worth defending. It deserves to be put into the trash with ability tracking and the Poverty Myth of Education Diane Ravitch and Ruby Payne peddle for profit and prominence. What is particularly amazing is that Hess then goes on to proclaim that the new voices articulating for reform are risking the success of the movement by transforming solutions into dogmatic and “stifling orthodoxies.” Again, he can’t offer any real strong examples from anyone of note (including yours truly; after all, I am as much willing to challenge reformers for faulty thinking as I do education traditionalists). Instead, he offers up a blanket statement about Steve Brill and his new book, Class Warfare, and Davis Guggenheim of Waiting for “Superman”.
One wonders if Hess is reading and seeing what he wants to believe in both the case of Class Warfare and Superman. As Andy Rotherham points out in his review of the book, it is far more nuanced about the problems in education — including how to improve teacher quality — than dogmatic. If anything, Brill’s book hardly offers dogma, but solid reporting that offers a complex picture of both reformers and education traditionalists. Same with Superman, which acknowledged that charter schools weren’t the sole answer, and that teachers’ unions aren’t the only obstacles to systemic reform. And, contrary, to what Hess argues, few of the new voices coming into school reform are all dogmatic. A woman like Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, for example, is probably far more open to new solutions than many longtime reformers; the same is true for her counterparts.
Meanwhile Hess, like a number of Beltway reformers, is obtuse about the concept of filmmaking and writing for the public. For books that are meant to be read be the average person (you know, the folks who will never read the 100-page policy studies Hess writes for living, and I put together when I’m not writing for average people), a book has to offer this thing called a narrative, in which there is a struggle between opposing forces that disagree on critical matters; there also have to be these people called characters and protagonists, who are engaged in that struggle. Meanwhile filmmaking is a form of communication in which images are more-important than turns of phrase. This means scenes of unemployment lines in rural South Carolina, images of teachers working heroically in charter schools, and even a menacing sound bite from Randi Weingarten in front of a black background.
A cinematic version of AEI panel discussions, lovely as they are (and as much as I, a policy geek, enjoys them) will not grab any public attention. And, as I said last year about Hess’ wrongheaded criticism of Superman, school reformers have to realize that you will need more voices, more Brills and more Guggenheims (along with others in the creative fields) in order to rally strong support for reform from the public. Up to now, the movement has succeeded in spite of itself; save for folks such as Steve Barr of Green Dot and others working in communities, they have done a poor job of rallying both urban families (who have flocked to reform in spite of that deficit) as well as suburban communities whose schools are more mediocre than they realize. Instead of criticizing these voices for using their tools for advocacy as they are supposed to (because those forms demand it), reformers should embrace them, learn more about these formats, and use them for their own efforts.
Some may argue I have been too hard on Hess. And perhaps, I have. But he’s a grown up and he can take it the same way I do each day. While I certainly admire Hess’ work and his thoughts on reforming American public education, I also think that his views on both the achievement gap and new voices in education are off-target. More importantly, in criticizing Hess and other reformers, Dropout Nation is fulfilling its mission. This publication not only exists to push for a revolution in American public education that helps all children succeed in school and life, and to speak truth to educational traditionalists who hold influence and power. It is also to constantly remind reformers, especially Hess, that they must walk the talk, that they must stand straight and upright for the very children they want to help, and that they must be held as accountable for lapses in thinking as status quo defenders must be for, as school reform donor R. Boykin Curry, would say in his slight overstatement, getting proverbial blood on their hands.
This is not a bloodless exercise, and not a public policy game. Our kids get only one chance every day to get ready for the future – and we only get this time, right now, to help them make their ambitions real. This doesn’t mean being dogmatic, but being thoughtful radicals unashamedly, unapologetically pursuing systemic reform for both our kids who get the least and our youngsters blessed with abundance. This means challenging everyone, from Beltway reformers to grassroots activists, the same way voices of conscience from past movements — including the student groups that energized and questioned established groups in the civil rights and conservative movements — to live up to the best within themselves. And that means every reformer must spend time challenging each other as well as the other side.