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New Book Takes Aim at Ed Reformers and Status Quo Defenders

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Oops, Rick Hess has done it again: challenged conventional wisdom and shown how fuzzy much of today's education-reform thinking is. In his latest book, The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas (Harvard University Press, 2010), Hess drives home the point that doing the same thing over and over with the expectation of different results is, as Einstein said, the definition of insanity.

A leading thinker on education policy and reform, Hess has no patience for most reforms that leave basic educational structures untouched. And he's hardly shy about expressing his opinions - no one, to my knowledge, has ever accused him of lacking confidence or mincing his words. (Disclosure: Hess sits on the advisory board of The Hechinger Report, for which I write.)

In The Same Thing Over and Over, Hess argues that most of today's reforms thought to be cutting edge -- merit pay, charter schools, extended school days and years, Teach For America -- aren't really cutting edge at all. And in the long haul, most aren't likely to result in significant change. Consider, for instance, the issue of teacher quality. As Hess said at a Nov. 30 event promoting the book, most of our current strategies to get better teachers into classrooms, including alternative certification, are essentially just "throwing thimbles of water into a river" -- which is a slightly more polite way of saying they're totally inconsequential.

Why? Because, Hess says, we aren't willing to start from scratch in our thinking about what it means to be a teacher in the 21st Century: "So long as we retain the shape and scope of the familiar classroom-teaching job, we are not going to recruit or retain our way to a workforce of 3.3 million high-quality teachers. It is not going to happen. Not in 2014, not in 2024, and not in 2124. ... Trying to retrofit a 20th Century teaching profession without revisiting its basic assumptions may well be a futile task" (132). This is a line of argumentation that Hess has pursued before, including in "How to Get the Teachers We Want" (Education Next, Summer 2009), but he makes the case with particular cogency in this latest book.

Our current predicament, Hess says, can best be understood by looking at the past and seeing how times have changed while certain practices and beliefs haven't. The teaching profession itself provides a good example. Hess writes: "Today's teaching profession is the product of a mid-20th Century labor model that relied on a captive pool of female labor, presumed educators to be largely interchangeable, and counted on male principals and superintendents to micromanage a female teaching workforce. Teaching has clung to these industrial rhythms while recruitment, professional norms, and the larger labor market have shifted underfoot" (132).

To make this and many of his other arguments, Hess returns to the roots of American schooling, though he also makes it clear that the reader should look elsewhere for an academic history of U.S. education.

But Hess, who in the early 1990s taught social studies at a magnet high school, is a pretty good historian himself. As such, he revels in highlighting beliefs that have changed, even though we'd prefer to think our now-enlightened beliefs are timeless. An example is the current conviction that all young people can and should learn to high levels; this, Hess reminds us, wasn't shared by those who centuries ago planted the seeds of today's educational system: "American schooling was not borne of the expectation that all children would be educated, much less that all students would be academically proficient, lifelong learners" (77). What our public education system needs, then, is not just an extreme makeover but a total rethinking. Tinkering won't get us to utopia, Hess says.

What I find most refreshing about The Same Thing Over and Over -- in part because I didn't expect it -- is that Hess is almost as skeptical of today's self-labeled "reformers" as he is of status quo defenders. There is no one best way, he says, and we should be especially wary of reformers hoping to usher in new orthodoxies. "[T]he path out of this tangled thicket," Hess writes, "lies in defining an essential minimalist body of skills and knowledge for all students and then taking care to avoid prescriptions about methods or content beyond that floor" (emphasis in the original, 129).

What Hess ultimately calls for is "emancipatory reform," which he says "is not about finding a middle way but about stripping away old routines, rules, and habits of mind to create new room for educators and problem solvers to do profoundly better" (216). He does offer a few examples of how we could do things in radically new ways -- New York City's School of One is among his favorite examples -- but I finished the book with a much clearer sense of what's wrong with American public education today (and why) than with concrete ideas about how we could do things much differently or better. In other words, the book is heavy on diagnosis but somewhat slim on solutions.

I can't help but think that's because solid, scalable solutions are elusive -- and Hess, favoring a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach, likely sees them as nonexistent or so watered-down as to be useless. In fact, he almost says as much: "The frustrating truth is that there are no permanent solutions in schooling, only solutions that make sense in a given place and time" (210). That is, to borrow from Hamlet, context is all.

Hess had this to say about replicating reforms on a large scale in his talk on Nov. 30: "Emulating a successful enterprise is not merely a question of knowing what to do; it's being able to execute it, which is partly a question of organizational culture, it's a question of who you hire, how you bring them into that cultural DNA, what you value, what you reward ... If we want ideas to work at scale [in education], let's do it the way we do it everywhere else in the world, which is when somebody figures out how to do it, we let them keep doing it, and we reward them..." Others, then, will presumably follow.

Overall, there's very little not to like about The Same Thing Over and Over, though I find it necessary to call Hess out on his cherry-picking of quotations by Fred Hechinger, the esteemed New York Times education reporter and editor in whose honor the Hechinger Institute is named. In making the case that teacher tenure has "long been recognized as a significant barrier to boosting teacher quality," Hess writes: "In 1972, education reporter Fred Hechinger explained in the New York Times, 'The perennial problem with teachers' tenure is that it protects the incompetent and freezes them into a system' " (154).

Yes, Hechinger did write that. It is the first sentence of an article entitled "Tenure: The Case For--And Against." The second sentence, though, also deserves to be quoted: "The perennial problem with a lack of tenure is that it exposes teachers to such dangers as dismissal for holding unpopular political views." Hechinger goes on to say that "even when actual dismissal is not involved, the tendency of unprotected teachers, insecure in their jobs, often is to knuckle under and to adjust not only their personal opinions but their teaching to the prevailing political climate." Tenure has a place, or at least it did in the 1970s, in Hechinger's opinion.

The final words -- pay close attention here to his well-chosen adjectives -- belong to Hess: "Rather than seeking ways to nudge this limping jalopy a few feet forward, it may be the better part of wisdom to step back from yesterday's schools and pursue solutions that might live up to our grand new ambitions ... There is a great deal to rethink and a long way to journey. Not because some flavor-of-the-month pop intellectual has announced that our civilization is at stake, but because perhaps our greatest democratic legacy is a confused, anachronistic, and barnacled mess. ...The faster we've sought to run, the harder it's been to recognize the treadmill on which we're running" (211).