Hess, Straight Up
Had he stuck with it, Rick Hess, Ed.M.’90, would have been one incredibly cool teacher.
Would he have been an extraordinarily effective one? Who knows. But spend even a few minutes with one of America’s most influential and respected, yet unpretentious, education policy experts, and it’s clear that being a teenager in a Rick Hess classroom would have been a blast.
For two years, 9th- and 10th-graders in his world geography, civics, and free enterprise classes at Scotlandville High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had that opportunity. But a high school in bayou country proved too small for Hess, who’s become one of the biggest wonks in the onetime (and sometimes still) swamp that is Washington, D.C.
“Whereas a lot of [teachers] are much more concerned about the social mission of schooling and battle through their frustrations, my attitude was, screw it,” Hess says. “If you’ve taught 20 years, almost every contribution you have to a conversation is going to grow from that experience. I don’t think about my time in schools that way. It was last century. It was a very limited part of my career. I don’t imagine that it should give me some authority or that I have any deep insights from it. But from a personal level, the thing that struck me was how fundamental the act of learning and teaching is, and how natural it should be for learning to be an exciting, engaging activity. Not because anybody’s evil, but just because of the way the world works, we’ve made it really hard for teachers and kids to have that kind of joyous, wondrous, liberating experience in a lot of schools and classrooms. And that pisses me off.”
On his Education Week blog “Straight Up,” to his 6,155 Twitter followers (@rickhess99), to the tens of thousands of people who read his books, or to a single reporter sitting in his office at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on this cold January afternoon, Hess doesn’t mince words. Yet over the course of his career he’s managed to craft controversial arguments, challenge conventional thought, and make his strong opinions known without, well, angering too many people.
“I have never seen him call someone a name to make his point,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, an organization that has about as much love for the conservative think tank AEI as the Red Sox do for the Yankees. “Even if he agreed with you, he would sneer at someone who has to reduce themselves to name-calling. He’d say it’s obvious that they can’t actually use reason and evidence to make their point. I would say that Rick is the noble opposition. Out of 10 issues, we’re probably going to disagree on eight of them, but that’s okay. He’s not my enemy, and I’m not his.”
Hess, 46, is tipping back in a chair that’s off to the side of — not behind — his desk, which is crowded not just with piles of papers and books, but with knickknacks from vacations to various islands, a wooden pencil case from a recent trip to the Republic of Georgia (“My translator looked a lot like Stalin,” he says), and a Cartman squeeze doll from one of his favorite TV shows, South Park. He’s wearing sneakers, dark blue jeans, and a pullover fleece, which is about as dressed up as he gets.
“He’s not going to put on a suit unless he has to,” Eskelsen García says. “I think it’s in his contract that he doesn’t have to wear a tie to work.”
It would be easy to confuse Hess’ friendly demeanor and casual manner for a lack of seriousness. It would also be a mistake.
Frederick Hess was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. His family moved to New Jersey before settling in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Virginia, when he was in fifth grade. His father, Milton, was a systems analyst, and his mother, Sheila, was a librarian. They eventually separated, and Hess spent most of his childhood living with his dad and brother.
School never interested him much until he joined the newspaper at W.T. Woodson High. He was more Robert Novak than Bob Woodward, and one op-ed he penned on the federal deficit caught the eye of his local congressman, who entered it into the congressional record.
Sporting a sub-3.0 GPA but solid test scores, Hess applied to nine northeast colleges including Bucknell, Swarthmore, and Brown. Brandeis was the only school that admitted him. He took classes he enjoyed, like social sciences and history, and also picked up work as a substitute teacher in the public school district. He pocketed $50 a day, which usually went toward pizza and beer.
“Between substitute teaching and actually doing well in college, I started getting really interested in this question of what is it that makes people either turn on or shut down,” says Hess, speaking with his hands as much as his voice. “A lot of people get into education, especially nowadays, because it’s a cause. For me it was always more that I found I can’t think of a more fundamental human act than the act of learning or the act of teaching. It’s what we do with our kids; it’s what we do with our friends. Why did I like learning stuff now, and I didn’t like learning stuff then?”
Armed with a political science degree but no desire to teach in a private school, he enrolled at the Ed School, where he earned his teaching certification and master’s in 1990. A few months before graduating, he mailed 130 letters to school districts inquiring about jobs.
“I could have taken those letters to the Tobin Bridge, set the bag on fire, and thrown it off,” he says. “The reason, which I didn’t learn until later, was that’s not how school districts hire.”
It was one of his first glimpses into the often illogical behavior of the American educational system.
“Districts don’t even worry about hiring until after they know how many slots they have to fill, which is the craziest strategy for recruiting talent you’ve ever heard of,” he says, still dumbfounded.
At a job fair, he landed an interview with East Baton Rouge Parish, which hired him to teach high school. When he arrived down South, he was reassigned to a middle school, only to be switched back two days before school started.
After two years that were simultaneously thrilling and unbearably frustrating, he quit. The experience provided an up-close-and-personal look at the joys of educating young people and the minefields teachers must negotiate.
“I learned a lot. None of it is a surprise to anyone who’s ever seen Office Space,” Hess says. “Almost everybody in education is trying to do good stuff for kids. Some people get tired and get frustrated, but if you’re a ‘bad person,’ K–12 education is just not that fun a place to go. There are just lots of rules and norms and regulations in schoolhouses. There can be a real reticence for people to make judgment calls because they’re worried that somebody’s going to second-guess them or they’re going to run afoul of some rule. There was very little upside for doing things out of the norm. It’s not like it would get recognized in your file. But if you did that stuff and it went wrong, there was a lot of risk of getting grief.
“Far and away the best job I’ve ever had was walking [into a room] to spend the day talking to a bunch of 15-year-olds about the U.S. Constitution or supply-and-demand curves,” he says. “But I’m not a good enough person to do that. I was making 18 grand a year. I have enormous respect for people who are willing to make those sacrifices.”
At the end of the day, Hess wasn’t one of them. So he returned to Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in political science in 1997. While in Cambridge he supervised student-teachers and was struck by the ways in which so many seemingly disparate school systems actually were similar. His dissertation, which became Spinning Wheels, one of his nine books (he’s also co-authored two and edited dozens more), examined school reforms implemented by 57 cities.
His findings — specifically that much of what afflicts K–12 schools actually is the result of continuous reform, not the reforms themselves — caused people to take note. He joined the faculty at the University of Virginia, where for five years he discovered that his views often didn’t mesh with those of his colleagues.
“I’m a conservative because I am hugely skeptical of human foresight. I’m hugely skeptical that we can design big, complicated policies that do what we want them to do,” he says. “I have huge concerns that we tend to create lots of unanticipated consequences, which don’t work. This way of thinking about the world makes me something of a minority in education space, but you know, that’s cool. It’s a free country.”
After he published “Tear Down This Wall,” a controversial paper that argued teacher certification in this country is flawed, Hess and Virginia mutually agreed to part ways (the paper was just one reason for the divorce, he says). AEI, which hadn’t had an education program since the ’80s, was looking to get back in the game, and Hess was now a free agent. He was recommended to then-AEI president Chris DeMuth by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, M.A.T.’67, Ed.D.’70.
“He was establishing quite a reputation as a bit of an education renegade and gadfly,” says Finn, now distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “I was impressed by both: what I read and him personally.”
So was DeMuth, who hired him. AEI was back in the education policy arena, and Rick Hess was heading back home to Washington.
No horns protrude from Hess’ head. No tail pokes out the back of his jeans. This may come as a surprise to some on the other side of the ideological divide when they first meet him.
“When you talk ed reform, things are very polarized,” says Maddie Fennell, a literacy coach at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska, where she was state teacher of the year in 2007. “There’s very little gray. There are some times when I’ve gotten really miffed at him. We were somewhere once, and there was a prominent speaker saying, all teachers are so great, yada yada, and Rick just started in. It was like sitting next to a seventh-grader who got mad at a teacher. He started saying, ‘This is a bunch of crap.’ I said, ‘What? Teachers are great.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but not every teacher is great. When you say every teacher is great, you devalue the ones that truly are great.’ I couldn’t disagree with him. He was right.
“When you argue with Rick, you have to be reasoned, and you have to see both sides,” continues Fennell, who serves as a classroom teaching ambassador fellow for the U.S. Department of Education. “I think he’s an ally of great teachers, but he’s not the kind of ally who’s going to sugarcoat things.”
Hess’ latest book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, might be a surprising read for those who assume that because he works for AEI, he unflinchingly toes the conservative company line. Based on interviews with hundreds of teachers, it “uncovers the many ways in which teachers can break out of familiar constraints in order to influence school and classroom practice, education policy, and school reform,” write Hess’ editors at Harvard Education Press. It even garnered a blurb of praise from Eskelsen García, who says she couldn’t have offered one for some of his other books.
Often a go-to source for education reporters, Hess has worked hard to ensure that he’s not pigeonholed as a predictable conservative talking head.
“Part of being successful when you’re a writer or a public voice is you want to do a good job of communicating your thoughts, so people are reacting to you rather than some stereotype of you,” he says. “I think today as opposed to 10 years ago, many people have a sharper image in their minds of who they think I am and what they think I’m for and against. So I think they’re much less likely to use AEI to fill in the blank.”
Diane Ravitch is one of the nation’s most well-known education policy scholars. A former U.S. assistant secretary of education, she’s now a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. In 2010, Hess invited her to introduce her latest book at AEI, despite the fact it essentially renounced many of the education principles conservatives believe in.
“We’re on different sides of the fence because of my own political and ideological transformation,” Ravitch says. “Rick is working at a free-market institute, and he shares the free-market approach. What sets him apart from a lot of the other free-market people is that he is not dogmatic. He has strong opinions, but he’s respectful of people who disagree with him. In the polarized world that we live in, it enables him to be heard across the political spectrum.”
One of Hess’ core beliefs is that government is at its best when it gets out the way and helps only around the edges. For all the limitations of state and local governments, he would prefer to see education policy made at that level rather than in Washington. He points to No Child Left Behind as an example of a law that’s heart was in the right place but probably did more harm than good because of the way it was constructed.
“That’s what happens when you do these big policy compromises,” he says. “I think it really wound up narrowing the scope of instruction and placed too much emphasis on reading and math tests. I’m not sure that reading and math scores are always a good proxy for what I think is going to be a great place of learning. They tell us something, but I think we put too much weight on them.”
A staunch advocate for charter schools, he serves on the review board for the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools and the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS.
“I think charter schools are an opportunity to create great, wondrous learning environments,” he says. “There are many district schools that do that. The reality is that district schools are required to abide by state teacher evaluation systems that I think are highly limited because they have to be one-size-fits-all. That’s how laws get written. State systems are going to restrict what schools can do in terms of the school day, the school year.
“Charters create an opportunity for people, whether it’s entrepreneurs or educators, to start schools from scratch and let those schools keep going if they deliver on the promise. Do I think that charter schools on average do a better job moving reading and math scores? Very marginally. Do I think charter schools are better schools on average? It’s not clear. But I think charter schools open a door that creates hugely empowering opportunities.”
Perhaps one day Hess’ son, Grayson, will attend a charter. Perhaps not. There’s plenty of time to decide — he turned 1 this past April. Maybe by then his daddy will have ditched his office on 17th Street, about a mile from the White House, in exchange for a high school classroom somewhere in the actual America.
“Just the act of teaching is so real,” Hess says before flying to Boston to teach a six-class J-term session at the Ed School. “You’re actually connecting with other people. It’s just so much more fun than sitting around writing treatises or sitting on committees. I absolutely could see at one point going back [to a high school classroom]. If anyone ever wanted me and I could teach something I like, I think that would be cool as hell.”
— Mike Unger is a D.C.-based writer at American University and senior contributing writer for Baltimore magazine.