As an educator, political scientist and author, Rick Hess has a uniquely well-informed perspective on today’s education system. His views on key reform issues, including “differentiated instruction” — the notion that one teacher can simultaneously instruct 20-30 children of different abilities in a single classroom — have appeared in numerous popular and scholarly publications. And Hess doesn’t mince words. As he noted recently in The New York Times, this approach “is appealing precisely because it seemingly allows us to avoid having to decide where to focus finite time, energy and resources.”
Through his work, Hess is focused on solving some of the most frustrating and entrenched problems of the American education system. Here, he shares with us his insights on what it will ultimately take to reform the system.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
I’m not entirely sure they have. I’m a scholar, so I’ve studied and written about dynamic problem-solvers and the barriers that get in their way. I like to think that my books like Education Unbound and The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship have helped spotlight opportunities and obstacles and helped inform policymaking and educational leadership. We have also launched the Future of American Education working groups (in K-12 and higher education) at AEI, where we regularly convene key figures from the new sector, research and evaluation, and policy and philanthropy to promote real R&D in education and to seed and nurture crucial collaborations.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
It’s hard to claim too much given the nature of the work I do. But my work has been cited as an impetus and a guide in promoting alternative teacher licensure, to overhauling education leadership, attending to the supply side of school choice, and thinking about the tensions that come with efforts to enhance quality control when it comes to digital learning or charter schooling. Our working groups have seeded dozens of promising partnerships and research efforts, and some of my convenings and books—on topics like “stretching” the school dollar and education philanthropy—have been credited with helping to leapfrog research and policy thinking in specific areas.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I think it’s mostly a matter of taking the kinds of intuitions I’ve addressed and determining how they apply to a given situation. Most of my work focuses on questions like barriers, policy levers, incentives, and the perils of simplistic assumptions or wishful thinking. In books like Education Unbound and The Same Thing Over and Over, I’ve tried to explore the source of our frustrations and sketch principles to guide those seeking to transform teaching and learning.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
A legacy of statutes, contracts, rules, and regulations which has constricted the way our schools and systems operate. This legacy stifles creative problem-solving, impedes new providers, and has yielded a culture of timidity and compliance among too many school and system leaders.
What is your country doing right to support education?
We’re promoting transparency and exploring how to use new tools and technologies to rethink the way we support great teaching and learning.
What conditions must change to better support education?
Leaders and influencers need to do much more to make the case for the value of schooling and delayed gratification. We must take care that the pursuit of educational improvement enlivens sometimes stifling classrooms and opens doors for dynamic and creative schools and schooling.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
Finding ways to more creatively and thoughtfully use the instructional talent we have. This is partly a matter of specialization, partly of using technology in smart and
powerful ways, and partly of tapping resources in our communities.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Don’t get overly impressed by your passion or good intentions. Don’t operate out of guilt, but with joy. Take your work seriously, enjoy your work and your charges, and do your piece of the puzzle to the best of your ability. And do it with a sense of humility and an appreciation for how big and complicated the world is; don’t imagine that you, alone, are going to “save” millions of kids whose names you don’t know.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
The focus on trying to build smarter systems to track and measure inputs and outcomes, and to help us think more deliberately about the cost-benefit of various programs and policies, has great promise—if we don’t goof it up through hubris or mechanistic application.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
That’s a great question. I think I’m unusual in that I’m reluctant to answer. I generally think the power of tools is not in the tool itself but in the hand that wields it. And I worry that our inclination to talk about tools in isolation actually fuels troubling habits of how we think about the challenges of teaching and learning. I’d ultimately answer: “It depends.
It depends on the problem we’re trying to solve for that child, what the tool is intended to accomplish, and the skill of the hand that’s going to wield that tool.”
About Frederick (Rick) Hess
Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)
Rick Hess studies a range of K-12 and higher education issues.
He is the author of influential books on education including The Same Thing Over and Over, Education Unbound, Common Sense School Reform, Revolution at the Margins, and Spinning Wheels, and pens the Education Week blog “Rick Hess Straight Up.”
His work has appeared in U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Review Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly and Chronicle of Higher Education, to name a few.
Hess has edited widely-cited volumes on education philanthropy, stretching the school dollar, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind. He also serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, on the Review Board for the Broad Prize in Urban Education, and on the Boards of Directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, 4.0 SCHOOLS, and the American Board for the Certification of Teaching Excellence. A
former high school social studies teacher, Hess has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, and Harvard University.
Birthplace: Allentown, PA
Current residence: Arlington, VA
Education: B.A. Brandeis University, M.Ed. Harvard University, Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University
Website I check every day: Education Week
Person who inspires me most: my 6th grade teacher, Selma Ziff
Favorite childhood memory: playing ball at summer camp
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Las Vegas, for work
When was the last time you laughed? Why?: Yesterday, because my wife
was making peculiar faces while we watched a movie
Favorite book: You Gotta Play Hurt by Dan Jenkins
Favorite music: Bruce Springsteen
Favorite quote or motto: Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be given to you