Rick Hess on Why Academics Should Engage the Public

A conversation with Rick Hess, Executive Director of education for AEI

Posted Jan 22, 2013

I first learned about Rick Hess due to his prolific writing for the public in major outlets like National Affairs, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.  This led me to his popular blog on Education Week, his policy papers for the American Enterprise Institute, and to read his books The Same Thing Over And Over Again and Tough Love For Schools, both of which I highly recommend.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Rick about his thoughts on educating our best performing students, how to craft useful education reform, and why it is important for academics to engage in the public sphere for their work and ideas to matter beyond the ivory tower.  He gave very thoughtful responses to my questions.

JON: In your National Affairs article Our Achievement-Gap Mania you argue that this mindset “stifles innovation” and that “the United States cannot afford to be cavalier about the education of its best-performing students.”  I agree that we need to help our best performing students from all backgrounds, in particular those from low income backgrounds.  What do you think we can do to help our best-performing students perform and innovate even better?

RICK: I'm no expert in pedagogy, so I can't really say what we can do to help our best-performing students perform better.  But I can offer some thoughts on how foundations, reformers, and policymakers can make sure they're serving high ability kids along with needy kids.  Specifically, reformers should ensure that moral claims to serve the most vulnerable children are placed in their proper context - weighed against the competing claims of other children and of society at large.  Reformers should welcome this debate and insist that the demands of gap-closing crusaders be subjected to rigorous, careful scrutiny.  They have a responsibility to help lawmakers, educators, and foundations understand that, while achievement gaps are important, they are just one challenge in a vast education landscape.  Doubling down on one area of education reform inevitably means easing up somewhere else.

Furthermore, achievement-gap mania has prompted reformers to treat schools as instruments to be used in crafting desired social outcomes, capable of being "fixed" simply through legislative solutions and federal policies.  Education reformers insist that closing the achievement gap is a simple matter of identifying "what works" and then requiring schools to do it.  This has led them to champion "one-size-fits-all" solutions to problems like teacher evaluation, pay systems, and interventions in the lowest performing schools.  Reformers should remember that policy is a blunt tool, and not assume that just because it has worked in one place or another, it should be applied across the board.

Your book The Same Thing Over And Overmade me think about how it is important to both “look back” and “look forward” when thinking about education reform.  For example, if things in the past have or haven’t worked, it would appear critical that people proposing new things wouldn’t reinvent the wheel.  What are your thoughts on striking the right balance between learning from the past and breaking free from the past to create something genuinely new and useful in education reform?

In The Same Thing Over and Over, I argue that the arrangements first crafted over a century ago would be enormously successful - if the criteria are ensuring that every child has a school, a principal, a teacher, transportation, a schedule, a report card, and receives their diploma on time.  Today, however, these systems are clumsy and ill equipped to promote widespread academic excellence.  Designing a wholly new system capable of fostering world-class teachers and learning for all of our nation's 50 million students would be exhausting.  But we can abandon the one-size-fits-all ethos of the industrial era and take advantage of talent, time, tools, and resources in smarter, better ways.

Doing so requires us to stop defending familiar institutions and focus on the mission of providing outstanding teaching and learning.  Take today's teaching force.  Rather than try to convince today's twenty-two-year-olds to enter - and remain in - teaching, we might do better if we rethink the profession with an eye to the contemporary talent pool.  Boston-based citizen schools recruits adults from a wide variety of occupations to design apprenticeship after-school experiences for middle school kids. Instead of having 3.3 million teachers with broadly similar roles, we could instead envision roles as different rungs on a career ladder, having outstanding educators take on more roles and responsibilities with more pay, and an army of other educators who could complement them in a variety of roles. The same rethinking can be useful when it comes to taking advantage of new tools and technology, using time well, and spending limited resources in more cost-effective ways.

You have been writing and blogging for the public press for many years now.  In 2012 you ranked academics on their “public presence” in the Rick Hess Straight Up Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings.  The typical smart person today is unlikely to read scholarly papers, let alone a long article, simply due to time constraints.  So how important do you think it is for academics to go beyond the Ivory Tower and communicate with the public about their work?  And why do you write for the public and what have you learned from doing it?

In short, public engagement matters.  Today, academe offers big professional rewards for scholars who stay in their comfort zone while pursuing narrow, hyper-sophisticated research, but little recognition, acknowledgment, or support for scholars who operate in the public sphere.  One result is that the public square is filled by impassioned advocates, while we hear far less from those who have devoted their lives to the research and are equipped to recognize nuance.

Now, one can hardly blame those academics who seek to avoid the unpleasantness by remaining swaddled in the pleasant irrelevance of the ivory tower.  After all, wading into the public debate can anger friends and call forth vituperative personal attacks.  One small way to encourage academics to step into the fray and to push back on the academic norms fueling the status quo is, I think, to do more to recognize the value of engaging in public discourse and the scholars who do so.  That's why I publish the Rick Hess Straight Up Edu-Scholar Rankings every year.  I rank scholars in five areas: disciplinary scholarship, policy analysis and popular writing, convening and quarterbacking collaborations, providing incisive media commentary, and speaking in the public square.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

More Posts