Nothing, Absolutely Nothing, to See Here, Folks…



By 05/13/2011

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It was almost fifteen years ago now that I was sharing my Harvard dissertation, on the dynamics of school reform in fifty-seven urban districts, with a few potential publishers. The three presses I talked to–Teachers College Press, Harvard University Press, and the Brookings Institution–all sent the manuscript out for review. Brookings sent it to policy and political science professors. TCP and HUP sent it to education professors.

The Brookings reviews were broadly positive, with assorted smart criticism and caveats. The policy scholars deemed the research and the argument fresh and interesting, but sensibly noted that the manuscript needed a lot of work. I revised it accordingly. Brookings published the volume, Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform, in 1998. It went on to have a nontrivial impact on the debate about urban schooling and reform, doing much for my career in the process.

This is not the interesting part of the story. The interesting part was the response from the six education professors who reviewed the manuscript for TCP and HUP. Unanimously, they declared the manuscript to be uninteresting, unimportant, mean-spirited, and undeserving of publication. They thought my characterization of popular reforms, like block-scheduling and site-based management, was uncharitable. They thought my interpretation of the institutional politics was callous, unduly harsh, and devoid of any new insights. The editors at TCP and HUP were apologetic, but said, essentially, “Hey, I thought it was interesting, but there’s no way I can go to my editorial board after this kind of feedback.”

A few years later, in 2001, I wrote a white paper for the Progressive Policy Institute titled, “Tear Down This Wall.” An unapologetic critique of teacher licensure and a recommendation for a dramatic overhaul of current practice, the piece gained favorable notice in the Washington Post and USA Today, was touted by then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige, and made me into a nontrivial presence in the teacher credentialing debate. It has since been widely cited in the scholarly literature. At the National Press Club event where the piece was launched, my friend David Imig, the then-president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, declared that my arguments qualified not even as “old wine in new bottles” but just “old wine in old bottles.” He suggested that the University of Virginia (my then-employer) really ought to consider whether, given my skepticism about teacher education, I deserved to be employed at its School of Education.

Two years later, when I departed UVA for AEI, many of my ed school colleagues enthusiastically ushered me to the door, with my program chair taking care to tell me that he regarded my work as trivial and insignificant.

This all came to mind the other day when a colleague sent me the Teachers College Record review of my recent Harvard University Press book The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas. The review was penned by James Kauffman, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia. I probably should’ve known what to expect: one more assertion that there’s nothing to see here.

The irony is that what HUP most liked about The Same Thing is that it provokes strong, complex reactions from serious readers in competing camps. (The rest of this paragraph feels ickily self-promotional, so skip if you’re willing to stipulate that some thoughtful people think the book has merit.) KIPP CEO Richard Barth was kind enough to say, “Sooner or later [Hess] challenges everyone’s assumptions. You probably won’t agree with everything he has to say, but this book will surprise you into thinking in completely new ways about what schools could be.” Deborah Meier generously offered, “Half the time I’m agreeing with every word Rick Hess says, and wishing I had said it myself. The other half the time I’m provoked, stimulated, and arguing with him. He’s got it both all right and all wrong. Read him, argue with him, take him very seriously.” In Washington Monthly, Johns Hopkins political scientist Steve Teles judged, “No one will be shocked that [Hess] has a lot to say that will infuriate liberal defenders of the educational status quo. The book’s real surprise is that he is perfectly willing to take on the sacred doctrines of conservative education reformers…Hess is a refreshing change from many other analysts who hold forth on the subject of education.”

So, what was Kauffman’s take on The Same Thing? He opined, “Many scholars besides Hess have noted that school reform is the same thing over and over… Metaphorically, if previous essays on school reform are the tomayto, this book is the potayto or, at best, the tomahto.” He explains, “Hess repeats the tired ideas of the earlier reformers he so justly criticizes.” (Though, it may be worth noting that the quote used to make this point is from page one.) Kauffman complains that the book never “focuses squarely on instruction” and “contains the same-old-same-old complaints about rut-stuck educational structures.”

There’s plenty more in this vein. Check it out, if you’re inclined. The insistence of ed school cognoscenti that I’ve nothing much to say, despite some occasional evidence to the contrary, has long puzzled me. I’m not sure what to make of it, but there it is.

- Frederick Hess

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.




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