Review of Letters to a Young Education Reformer

Below is an edited version of a review of Rick Hess’ new book that John Thompson, educator and frequent internet commentator, sent to me.  While I’m sure that John and I do not see eye to eye on all things (I think I’m much shorter), I find his perspective valuable and there is much in this review that I find useful.  The original came in at over 5,000 words spread across multiple posts, but with his permission I have edited it down to about 2,000 words in a single post. Enjoy.

(Guest Post by  John Thompson)

I’m not sure that I completely believe him, but Rick Hess concludes his Letters to a Young Education Reformer by saying he’s not a nice guy. He chides the last generation of school reformers not for the not-nice things they’ve done, but for ignoring too many key tenets of professionalism. He also shares some valuable thoughts with “‘far-from-young,’ reformers,” and veteran teachers like me who still have a hard time grasping how and why the accountability-driven, competition-driven social engineering experiment was imposed on our nation’s schools.
Hess describes himself as a “little-r reformer,” as opposed to a “Big-R reformer.” Little-r reformers believe that schools can do a far better job, and that schooling must be reimagined. They are less confident than Big-R Reformers that they know the answers. Hess seeks a “big-tent” approach to education, and a small d-democratic vision for public education. Big-R Reform, however, “has congealed into a set of prescriptions, it has grown more bureaucratic and self-assured, and further and further removed from the intuitions of little-r reform.”
Similarly, Big-P Philanthropy has enabled the hubris of Big-R Reform, and furthered the move towards the micromanaging of diverse schools across the nation. When Big-R Reform, Big-Philanthropy, and an activist federal Department of Education join together in an effort to social engineer public education, dissent can be quashed. I would add that when the clash of ideas is driven out of schools, the way that it often has been during the last 15 years, democracy is undermined.
Hess explains to young reformers why they should learn to control their passion. Thinking that they are uniquely on the side of angels, reformers pushed the soundbite, “This is about kids, not adults!” In doing so, novice reformers remained oblivious to another of Hess’ truisms – “implementation matters.” Real world, Hess explains, “For better or worse, good schools are the product of thousands of tiny judgments that those educators make every day.” So, by definition, if you want to improve kids’ lives, continually disrespecting teachers is not the way to transform “the status quo.”
Hess does a great job in explaining how and why reformers often display little patience for opposing ideas or for obstacles to their grand theories. First, they were in much too much of a hurry to learn from history’s missteps. Reformers, who often had two or three years of classroom experience – or less – quickly developed an extreme case of “groupthink.” Not knowing what they didn’t know about the history of “silver bullets” that have been hurriedly and repeatedly dumped on our schools, “this or that group of reformers” have demonstrated a clear pattern where they “settle on an agenda and then dismiss doubters as troublemakers.”
As much as it pains me to admit this about a conservative, Hess offers the single most telling anecdote illustrating the irrationalities that groupthink can produce. In late 2002, Hess attended a secret briefing at the Pentagon about the Bush administration’s educational mission in Iraq. It was clear that nobody had much of an idea regarding the situation they would be facing. One issue dominated the meeting, however. Iraq needed its own version of No Child Left Behind!
Hess isn’t a fan of high-stakes testing and he is skeptical of the value-added teacher evaluations that were pushed by the Gates Foundation and the Duncan administration. He credits reformers for ending the “old stupid,” or ignoring data systems, while concluding “the slapdash embrace of half-baked data is ‘the new stupid.’” Hess estimates that test scores “reflect 30 to 35% of what we want schools to do.” The use of those metrics was supposed to move us into the “moneyball,” or the data-informed baseball coaching that was popularized by Michael Lewis. Real world, data moved schools into the pre-moneyball era. But, reformers chose to act nice by talking about teachers as if they are girl scouts. They then used value-added models in ways that teachers were bound to see as a “hatchet job.”
One of the best things about Hess, the Little-r reformer, is that he advises reformers to learn from history’s missteps. He understands that “implementation matters,” but that reformers can have little patience for opposition or obstacles to the experiments that they mandate. As Hess has watched “this or that group of reformers settle on an agenda and then dismiss doubters as troublemakers,” he has been dismayed by the “groupthink” that has grown out of their frustrations.
My favorite Hess statement is that Big-R Reformers “learned the lyrics, not the music.” I’ve repeatedly heard reformers, who had little or no experience in the classroom, complain that the attaching of stakes to test scores did not need to produce teach-to-the-test, basic skills instruction. They demand that “everyone sing from the same hymnal” but deny that any words in the lyrics require drill and kill. Being clueless about the people side of schooling, Big-RReformers never understood that it was not what they said that matters. What matters is what school systems would hear.
Of course, test-driven accountability, as well as using test scores as the ammunition in the fight between charters and neighborhood schools, forced administrators and teachers to engage in bubble-in malpractice. The big harm came from the rapid scaling up of high-stakes testing directed at individual teachers and students, and charters.  Even in the early days of No Child Left Behind, educators had plenty of options for pretending to comply with mandates while, predictably, shutting their classroom doors and continuing to teach in the same old, good and bad ways.  Reformers responded by doubling down on both the punitive in terms of both the survival of schools and the evaluations of individuals, and by a “growing fascination with PR campaigns and political strategies.”
As with NCLB, the Obama administration imposed quantifiable targets that obviously were impossible to meet. I don’t know when Hess attended the meeting described in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, but he recalls “a no-nonsense veteran” state administrator in Florida who said he could manage about seven turnarounds. The audible shock that he prompted would have been funny if it hadn’t illustrated the reality-free nature of the campaign for mass transformations of the lowest-performing 5% of schools.
Hess is especially perceptive in diagnosing the predictable failure of Race to the Top (RttT) and School Improvement Grants (SIG). I don’t know how many 500-page RttT applications on a nineteen-item checklist Hess read but he reached the same conclusion that I did after studying many of them. There was no need to read the lyrics when the RttT hit an unmistakable chord. The applications’ words didn’t explicitly forbid the investment of time and money into the aligned and coordinated student supports that would have provided the foundation necessary for increases in meaningful learning. The timeline and the accountability metrics made it inevitable that hurried, in-one-ear-out-the-other, teach-to-the-test would take off.
In his dealings with national reformers, Hess saw what I witnessed on a local level. Reform leaders enthusiastically embraced the RttT even though “many of the folks in charge had – until about five minutes earlier – been eloquent in explaining how bureaucracy had stymied school reform.”  They had sincerely prided themselves on their opposition to red tape and their entrepreneurialism, but they turned on a dime because, “When your buddies go off to war, you go with them.”
Hess then nails the dynamics which, I believe, made the damage done by corporate reform increase during the Obama years, “When foundations and the federal government link arms, disagreeing with the president’s policies is tantamount to attacking the foundation’s agenda – and vice versa.” He then calls for “little-p rather than big-P philanthropy,” more rethinking, and less defending of the agenda of the moment.
Hess also witnessed the rise of the public relations campaigns that grew out of the effort to immediately impose transformative change. It looks to me that Big-R Reform peaked in the early Obama years when teacher-bashing propaganda like Waiting for Superman was dominant. Hess adds telling details about the way Big-R Reformers sought An Inconvenient Truth for school reform. He clearly remembers one PR pro who said the reform message needed to be “simpler, stupider, and snazzier.” At the time, it was argued that reformers were “too thoughtful for their own good.”
 For years, I tried to explain to Democrats who pushed the Big-R Reform agenda that in education it’s the lyrics, not the music that matters but perhaps Hess is better at getting that point across. I would argue that a huge reason for miscommunication is that Big-R Reformers were disgusted by the timidity, the “culture of compliance,” of school systems and they tried to intimidate the education sector into courageousness.
Not understanding the education sector’s culture of powerlessness, as well as a history of “silver bullets” being continually imposed on schools, Big-R Reformers couldn’t understand why systems remained so cautious. This prompted impatient reformers to become even more strident that punishments must always accompany rewards. They seemed to see disincentives as a normative and essential component of policies, and they seemed frustrated that educators focused on the punitive, not the incentives that corporate reformers also helped fund.
The best example of systems focusing on the music and not the lyrics is the predictable manner in which systems responded to value-added teacher evaluations.  When educators encountered the test score growth models, that were inherently biased against teachers in the highest challenge schools, administrators weren’t likely to listen to the words of reformers who presented new teacher evaluations as a means of recruiting and retaining talent in the inner city.
Reformers would explain that the use of “multiple measures” would make value-added scores less inaccurate than other measures. Reformers were reluctant to put estimates of the inaccuracy rate on paper, but I often heard the guess-timate of 5 to 10%. Somehow, Big-R Reformers failed to comprehend that that would mean that inner city teachers, especially, would face that much of a chance per year of having their careers damaged or destroyed by statistical errors. Reformers seemed incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of educators and understanding why systems would profess support for the measures but then “monkey wrench” them so that only 2% or so of teachers would be dismissed.
Rather than refight the big battles where smart people read the same evidence in different ways, I’ll close with a NAEP test score chart cited by reformer Kevin Huffman in support of the contemporary reform movement. I’d argue that Huffman’s evidence makes a powerful case against his approach to school improvement. (Huffman was debating conservative Jay Greene. Once again, this liberal respects the analysis of a conservative reformer more than the neo-liberal or liberal reformers in the debate.)
Huffman’s graphic shows that 4th grade reading rose nearly 20 points from 1996 to 2015. My first reaction is that reform has shown some success in improving math instruction, especially in the early years. That should not be a surprise given the sorry state of math instruction, especially in elementary schools, that I’d always seen as the norm. (Similarly, it should not be a surprise when input-driven reforms, like increasing high-quality tutoring or adding counselors or mentors, raise student performance but that is not evidence in favor of output-driven reform.)
However, reform has largely failed to raise reading scores, especially in the older years. There also is a simpler example of how reformers twist themselves into pretzels in order to view this evidence as supportive of reform.
The first years when NCLB could have started to improve schools would have been around 2002 or 2003. Fourth grade test scores increased more in the seven years before 2003 than they did in the twelve years that followed the law’s accountability system.  In other words, even the subject which produced the law’s greatest success does not provide support for the effectiveness of school reform.
I would argue that the metric which is most important is 8th grade reading, which is the most valuable skill and the most reliable NAEP test given to the older students. (It’s hard to evaluate the reliability of 12th grade tests.) Those reading scores increased about as much in the four years that preceded NCLB as they did in the thirteen years which followed 2002. And the same pattern applies to all of the data that Huffman presented. If anything, NAEP test score growth slowed after NCLB, and often it stopped after the Obama administration put NCLB accountability on steroids.
I would not argue that NAEP scores, alone, prove that reform failed. But clearly NAEP scores don’t provide evidence that output-driven, market-driven reform increased student performance.
Some reformers reply with the idea that an accountability “meteor” hit schools in the late 1990s, so gains that preceded NCLB should be counted as evidence for its effectiveness. I don’t know how, but some smart reformers may see this argument as something other than intellectual dishonesty and/or Alt Truth. But that opens even more cans of worms in terms of why smart people see the same education evidence in very different ways.
And that brings us back to why we need Letters to Young Education Reformers. The current and new generation of reformers may not find this to be comprehensible, but they need to know that there was a time when teachers were allowed to teach according to their professional judgments and when the economy boomed, student performance increased markedly – more than anything accomplished by the test-driven, competition-approach to increasing student performance.
Gosh, I remember a day when teachers who taught in a meaningful and culturally relevant manner, and treated students as whole human beings, did not have to fear for their jobs for having the temerity to do so. If I go too far down that road, however, I’ll betray myself as even older than Rick Hess.
Finally, somebody needs to write: Letters to a Young Education Reformer, Obama Loyalist to Obama Loyalist.
(edited to correct error in book title)

11 Responses to Review of Letters to a Young Education Reformer

  1. Greg Forster says:

    All this obviously points to two directions for reform: school choice and breaking the unions’ stranglehold on school board elections. But neither the word “choice” nor the word “union” appears in this review; Waiting for Superman is “teacher bashing.” I’d be interested to hear what Thompson would advocate other than a return to the union-controlled “old stupid.”

    I’m not sure the big-R, little-R labels will work in the long run. Being a little-R reformer sounds like a way of being for reform without being in favor of anything particularly controversial. Choice and election reform are both big-R in their way.

    Value added accountability models are of course biased in favor of the districts with the students who are furthest behind, not against them as Thompson thinks. But of course while reformers pushed value added models, the politicians usually produced level models, which are biased in the way Thompson attributes to value add models. And the reformers’ Underpants Gnomes political strategy left them with no choice but to pretend the level models were something they weren’t.

    • matthewladner says:

      I believe that choice is consistent with little r reform, or can be, because it starts from a premise of modesty: we don’t know how every school should be run, so we are going to create mechanisms to allow educators to create new schools and then let parents sort things out in terms of who flourishes and who folds their tent. No gosplan needed!

      • Greg Forster says:

        But choice requires you to claim to know that choice is good, and that is such a controversial claim that fighting to secure choice will not allow you to remain in the modest posture of Socratic ignorance. Another way of stating my original point is to say that no reform can actually be secured politically except as a big-R reform, which is why the little-R people don’t have a program.

        I can’t remember who it was who originally taught me that the posture of Socratic ignorance is inconsistent with participation in the work of the Athenian assembly. It’s on the tip of my tongue but I just can’t place it!

      • matthewladner says:

        A certain Bossy McBossytoga perhaps? 😀

      • Greg Forster says:

        Togas are Rome, Matt.

        “Let no one ignorant of the chiton enter here.”

      • John Thompson says:

        I’ve never opposed choice. I’ve just opposed the denial of the harm done by choice to kids in schools like mine who would not be accepted and retained by choice schools. The problem spun out of control with the scaling up of choice. Then, it became doubly important to defeat traditional public schools in order to win the mass competition. Worse, since test scores were the ammunition for the battle, more teach-to-the-test was imposed. We in my run-of-the-mill inner city school did a lot wrong. It was the combination of test-driven and competition-driven reforms that created a student body from such extreme poverty, who had endured so many traumas, that meant that improvement was largely impossible. In other words, what happened by my high school was explained by Organizing Schools for Improvement and explained the failure to improve the toughest Chicago elementary schools.

      • Greg Forster says:

        That choice has a positive effect on educational outcomes for the students who remain in public schools is one of the most strongly supported findings in the research. 32 of 34 studies find public schools affected by choice have improved educational outcomes:

    • have you read the research? VAMS are most biased against schools with ELL students, then IEP students, poor children of color and then magnet schools. The first reason, almost certainly, is the role of peer pressure. Also, the Matthew Effect.

      • Greg Forster says:

        I think you and I are probably operating with different definitions of “bias.” The question is, what is biased compared to what? If the relevant comparison is a value added accountability regime versus a level accountability regime, value added is obviously better for schools starting at the lowest level. If I were leading a school with high disadvantaged populations I’d much rather hear that I’m going to face a value add accountability regime than hear that I’m going to face a level accountability regime. That’s separate from the question of whether the tests themselves (rather than the accountability regime) are biased as compared with an ideal, perfect test.

  2. John Thompson says:

    Yes and different views of education. I want teachers fired for what they do, not a guestimate. More importantly, I oppose an eval system that incentivizes teach-to-the-test. I mostly write as an inner city teacher. We students and adults in the toughest schools have been most damaged by the ed malpractice dumped on us to comply with test-driven accountability.

    again, In the inner city, its harder to increase learning at the same rate and to meet student growth targets. It punishes us for tackling the toughest challenges and makes it inevitable that nonstop basic skill instruction will often be mandated, further driving down meaningful learning..

    • Greg Forster says:

      Well, I’ve been attacking test-based accountability systems for a decade on exactly these grounds, so I’m not sure our views are as different as you think. I was making an empirical point about the difference between two different kinds of accountability systems, not defending the policy.

      So what is your preferred way of getting to the point where teachers are held accountable?

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