Gary Rubinstein: Rick Hess is the Reformer Who Thinks

Gary Rubinstein read Rick Hess’s latest book, “Letters to a Young Education Reformer” and found much to admire, even though Gary is one of the most perceptive critics of what is now called “reform.”

He writes:

“I was eager to receive Rick Hess’s latest book ‘letters to a young education reformer.’ Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank. Hess is one of the few defenders of the reform movement whom I respect. His writings, like his column in Education Week, always have the nuance that most reform writers at places like The 74 and Education Post lack.

“This book explains what is behind some of the failures of the reform movement. With states opting out of the Common Core, parents opting out of state tests, and prominent reformers even opting out of ed reform, the reform movement is currently experiencing a slump.

“Though the book is written in an informal tone with plenty of very interesting anecdotes, it is a very scathing critique of the reform movement, the style of reform that really became big with people like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and, of course, President Obama.

“Hess knows what missteps reformers committed along the way to lead to this. By writing about these mistakes in a series of letters to an unnamed ‘young education reformer,’ Hess hopes that the next generation of ed reformers will avoid those mistakes.”

Gary offers quotes from the book that he likes, such as:

““Washington-centric, dogmatic big R Reform has too often neglected this reality, with reformers exhausting themselves to win policy fights and then winding up too bloodied and battered to make those wins matter. It’s left me to wonder whether all the fuss and furor of recent years has done more harm than good.”

“In the fourth letter he writes:

“Calling something an implementation problem is how we reformers let ourselves off the hook. It’s a fancy way to avoid saying that we didn’t realize how a new policy would affect real people … and that it turned out worse than promised.”

Gary disagrees with two major arguments that Hess makes:

“One is that I think that Hess has overestimated the potential of the Reformers. I see his central argument as: it’s time for us to start playing fair, to stop misusing data and to stop ignoring, and otherwise showing contempt, for Reform critics. He seems to think that the Reform movement has made some progress, but to get to the next level, to win, they will need to be more open to discussion with critics and be more open about potential problems when things like the Common Core are implemented.

“I think the opposite is true. I think the Reformers have actually overachieved to get the victories they have. Getting more humble and honest and letting critics participate in the discussion will not get them to the next level at all. In a fair matchup, Reformers will get clobbered. I think they are going to lose the education reform war either way, but really the only chance they have is to ramp up the slick messaging and the lying. With the dishonest route, I think they have about a ten percent chance of ultimately winning. With the honest route, I think they have a zero percent chance of winning.”

Gary clearly enjoyed the book because it made him think.

Without having read this book, I want to add my thoughts about Rick Hess. I sponsored Rick’s first appearance in D.C. right after he received his doctorate from Harvard. For several years in the 1990s and early 2000s, I ran an annual education policy conference at the Brookings Institution, to which I invited researchers on different sides of contentious issues. I also invited a lunch speaker and a dinner speaker. In 1998, looking for a fresh face, I invited Rick as the lunch speaker after hearing good things about his first book, “Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform.” Rick subsequently found a home at AEI, and my confidence in him was affirmed.

From the very first day that I turned against the corporate reform movement, Rick has been gracious to me. When “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” was published in 2010, I called Grover (Russ) Whitehurst at the Brookings Institution, where I had been a Senior Fellow for 17 years, to ask if I could hold an event at Brookings to present my book, which was my refutation of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. He said I would have to rent the auditorium, pay for the sound system, and pay for any incidental costs, in addition to paying my own way. Having sat in his seat at Brookings in the mid-90s, I knew this was not customary for someone who was part of Brookings.

So I called Rick to ask if I could do the event at the free-market American Enterprise Institute. Rick immediately said yes and created an excellent event, where I spoke to an overflowing crowd, and a balanced panel responded with thoughtful questions. AEI paid all expenses. It was an excellent setting in which to present to the D.C. establishment my change of mind about the basic “reform” principles of testing and choice. Clearly, I appreciated Rick’s openness to dissent.

from novemoore


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