Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Hess: The Reform Agenda

Man, it is always so hard to get your hands on a copy of an agenda. For instance, we've been hearing about gay agenda for years, and yet nobody seems to have an actual copy of the thing.

But last week over at the National Review, Rick Hess (AEI), one of my favorite writers that I generally disagree with, laid out the reform agenda (actually a reprint from conservative forum). And I'm not just reading between the lines here-- the article is entitled "An Agenda for K-12 School Reform." Hess comes from the free market wing of reformsterdom, and this article is a perfect chance to take inventory of what they're after these days-- and for me to reflect on why I disagree with their goals.

He opens with some simple premises. Some American schools do some things well, and while many Americans have a low opinion of schools in general, they think their own kid's school is largely okee dokee. Also, we spend hella money on education and spending any more would be a Bad Idea. And Hess also rattles off the Three Big Mistakes of modern post-2000 reformsterism. 1) Reformsterism became all about reducing "racial achievement gaps," leaving high achievers and the middle class out of the discussion. 2) Because "liberal reformers" wouldn't embrace vouchers or the crushing of collective bargaining, they used a top-down regulation-heavy approach. 3) Reformers threw their weight behind federal arm-twisting to achieve ends instead of local control.

I'm not sure I agree with Hess's version of events so far (liberal reformers? and the lack of voucher embrace might have been related to how they kept getting ruled illegal), but that's outside of our focus today. Let's go ahead and look at that reformster wish list. What is it, exactly, that Hess thinks they want?

Expand the choice continuum 

Hess claims first that choice programs have been a "godsend" for some poor families. That's debatable, and it is certainly debatable that they have been a godsend for the students who are still in the public schools whose resources are being drained by choicers.

But Hess's bigger point is that just because middle and upper class families are happy with their schools, that doesn't mean we can't find a way to market profitable education products to them give them the benefits of choice. He's touting the idea of micro-choice, allowing students to make their school choice on a course-by-course basis. He also argues that homeschoolers should be allowed to enjoy school activities, which is a thing that the law already requires in at least Pennsylvania.

Have dollars follow students

After all these years, I still don't understand how this idea fits in a conservative framework, since it disenfranchises every single taxpayer and voter who does not have a child in school. Don't want your tax dollars to support the Sharia Academy or Tree Hugger Prep? If you don't have a child, you don't have any say. I don't see how taxation without representation fits a conservative mindset.

Nor do I see how traditional conservative views embrace the notion that schools are not a public good maintained for the benefit of the entire community, but rather a service provided for families alone. If the money follows the child, then why not hand the child a voucher and let them buy a car, or a tip to Cancun, or a couple of kilos of coke, or whatever they want to do? We know the answer-- because a community pools its resources to create a common good by educating the young so that they can grow up to be productive members of a community.

There's really only one argument for letting the dollars follow the students, and that's that doing so makes it easier for companies with an education-flavored product to market to get a clear shot at getting that money for themselves. Never mind all the things I find wrong with the money-following idea; I remain dubious that any traditional conservative can truly be okay with it.

Hess says there would be three benefits to this. He is wrong all three times. First, he says that weighted funding (students would get different voucher sizes based on need) would make school staffing more flexible. Not sure I see either how, or why such flexibility would be a good thing, unless your goal is a school where it's super-easy to fire people-- but that kind of instability makes your school really unattractive both for "customers" and prospective "employees."

Second, he says it would make educational costs transparent. Again, it's unclear how. Public schools, which must open their books to any taxpayer, are already transparent and charter schools, some of which have gone to court to avoid having to show anybody including the state their books are clearly inclined to fight transparency.

Third, he thinks this would create "healthy market incentives that reward schools for attracting students and families." Not really. It would reward schools that can attract customers, but that's not a healthy market incentive at all, since it rewards a good marketing campaign, not a good educational program.

Promote accountability for costs as well as test scores.

NCLB’s one compelling legacy was pushing states to adopt reporting systems that made it simple to compare basic measures of school performance. Providing this information helps equip parents, voters, and taxpayers to set priorities and make decisions. The problem is that these systems, in addition to focusing almost wholly on reading and math scores, ignore the cost of producing those results.

NCLB promoted a system of looking where the light was good instead of where the things we actually need to see are located. The easily compared measures were, and are, not measures of anything that matters. Figuring out the cost of producing meaningless results is a fool's errand. And while I understand Hess's "bang for the buck" reasoning, we can already see it Not Working in the wild. Parents who send their children to private schools do not seek out a cost-to-test-results report, and parents sending their children off college generally look for the best school they can afford. Selecting a school is not like buying a toaster oven.

Require accountability for more than reading and math.

This point suggests that we are currently requiring accountability for reading and math. We are not. We are offering punishment and rewards for scores on narrow, badly-written standardized tests. But his general point is well taken-- schools need a full range of data, and they need to collect that data without having to worry what punishments it might trigger.

However, Hess will also need to accept that data that is most meaningful to a specific school may not fit the goal of having data that can be compared across and between schools across the country. Data that can be used by people within a school community to improve that school is not the same as data that can be used by people outside that school community to evaluate and compare that school with others.

Overhaul teacher evaluation and pay, but avoid one-size-fits-all rules

The federal government's attempt to commandeer teacher evaluation, including the punishment phase, was not helpful for anybody. Here Hess and I agree.

Feds should get out of teacher evaluation business. Check. Teacher evaluation systems should leave non-problematic schools alone, and should be very gentle with schools that are in the grey area. Check. Charters should get to do whatever the hell they want, personnel-wise. Ummm... I might consider that if they're very transparent about it, and if they agree to stop calling themselves public schools.

Free schools from overgrown employee contracts 

You know there's a problem when Hess cites the union-busting work of Scott Walker. Hess doesn't like that teacher contracts affect the "flexibility" of a school district, which roughly seems to mean affecting management's ability to do whatever strikes their mood. It's an odd position from the author of the Cage-Busting teacher, since the basic complaint here is that teachers are negotiating cages that aren't tight enough. I would guess that his response would be that current contracts that define things like work days and work conditions cage teachers by getting in the way of their own flexibility aims (like working lots of extra hours for free, for instance). We would have to disagree here.

It's also an odd argument from a conservative, as Walker's move was basically one more version of pre-emption in which the state exerts its authority over local matters. What Walker did was make it illegal for locally elected school to negotiate contracts with local teachers. If that's not government intruding on local control, I don't know what is.

Likewise, I don't see the conservative wisdom in saying that the local invisible hand should be clamped down. How is a Walker-like move not similar to government setting the price for certain goods?

Those are all the conservative arguments about Walker-style behavior. We could also get into the sheer oppressiveness of stripping teachers of their right to collectively exert influence on working conditions, but now we're just back to the age-old argument about whether or not the Hired Help should Stay in Their Place or not.

Deregulate and attack bureaucratic creep

By bureaucratic creep, does Hess mean like having states regulate what local authorities can negotiate in their local contracts?

No, he doesn't. He means that people should stop making charter schools follow all those damn rules, which is kind of like insisting that authorities should stop forcing Donald Trump to make sense. Pretty sure the problem is not a problem. But Hess sees problems. "In many states, charter schools are compelled to use the same measurements to evaluate their teachers, enroll students, and discipline students as traditional public schools use." Well, yes. I'll make the same offer I made above-- we can talk about freeing charters from these regulations in the same conversations that charters agree to stop calling themselves public schools and start saying in their marketing that they are private schools funded by public tax dollars.

Hess also wants to see a form of educational bankruptcy, so that when a school is turned over, all previous contracts are null and void. Because education-flavored businesses should have the same freedom to screw over their vendors and employees that private businesses have.

Permit for-profit providers to compete on their merits.

Hess says that liberals have made their opposition to for-profits "a point of pride." I think not. I think a lot of weasely neo-libs have used the for-profit distinction-without-a-difference as a way to come out both for and against charter schools.

But as far as "competing on their merits" goes-- been there, done that, and that's exactly why for-profits are on everyone's hit list now. Hess wants them to compete "on the same footing" as pubic and non-profit charters, but their different footing, their profit-making nature, is one of the "merits" on which they claim the right to compete. Hess allows as they can have "unattractive consequences," and yes, so does cholera. Profit-making has no business in education, at the very least because it puts the interests of the owners and investors in direct competition with the interests of the students and community being served. It's a bad idea, with nothing to recommend it.

And if we've learned anything so far, it's that the very fact that for-profits involve huge piles of money lying around people whose main interest is collecting huge piles of money, the for-profit education business needs more oversight than other varieties. Otherwise it's just a huge invitation to corruption and fraud.

Champion due diligence of the Common Core

What he means is pay closer attention to the possible bad side-effects of the standards movement, which is not a bad idea. Simply scrapping the Common Core (and all its bastard half-siblings) is an even better idea.

Protect privacy and also research

Hess recognizes that we no longer keep student information in manila folders, and that parents are concerned that government and vendors have unprecedented, unlimited access to student data. He calls for student privacy laws to be updated, though the last time that happened, students ended up with less privacy rather than more. And Hess is dead on with this: "Experience suggests that these student results are as likely to be used for political purposes as for serious research."

Nevertheless, Hess believes we are "entering a promising era of educational research" and the scholars studying "important questions about school choice, teacher quality, learning methods, and more" should have access to the data that can help them study those things. He suggests that medical protocols provide a model for balancing research and privacy rights. I'm not sure that deals with an exclusively-minor population, and I'm not sure how we build a firewall between legitimate education research and marketing research. But I agree in principle that it would be nice if all educational debates weren't being held in fact-free zones.

Other random points

Hess then uses a FAQ format to toss out a few other concerns.

Will choice fix all the other things?

Hess calls choice a "necessary but insufficient element" of reform. He's half right. Market dynamics do not work to improve education for a number of reasons. Healthy market competition requires full information for customers, but good marketing requires careful control over what information the customers get, and charters have been aggressive in keeping information under wraps. Remember "pro-market kinda girl" Dr. Margaret Raymond (CREDO) explaining that she's concluded that the market doesn't work in education.

Not only has choice failed to spur any kind of dramatic improvement in education (or even an undramatic one), but it is hugely inefficient, requiring a costly duplication of services and maintenance of considerable excess capacity. And there is no free-market industry of any sort that is built on a model of full and excellent service to every single possible customer; one of the most basic actions of a market is to separate customers into those who are and are not worth serving. At a minimum, a charter choice system requires redefining public schools as the dumping ground for students the charters don't want.

That's because so far, choice charter systems end up meaning choice for the schools, not for the families. Choice will not only not fix all other issues, it will not fix any issues at all.

Do charters hurt public schools?

If you're having trouble maintaining one house, will it help or hurt to buy a second house? Free market fans like to fall back on the idea that public schools are hotbeds of waste and excess and that market forces will spur them to cut the fat, but that assumes a lot of fat. In my region, market competition has led to things like closing neighborhood schools and cramming more students into fewer buildings. Hess also asserts that the competition prods schools to work harder to "attract families, improve instruction and control costs." I'll repeat my old line-- the free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. That's not what's called for. Also, the notion that we are not already trying to improve instruction is a little insulting.

Should NCLB testing requirements be scrapped?

Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes. It does damage and provides zero benefits.

Those are my words. Hess says that "it's good and useful for parents, voters, and policymakers to have regular and comparable information on how students are doing" and that's a conflation of several ideas. Parents just want to know how their kid is doing, not how she's doing compared to some other kid a thousand miles away, and as always, parents can best get that information, full, nuanced and granular, from the teachers. I'm not sure why Hess wants voters to have the information because in his choice charter universe voters have no say anyway. Policymakers may benefit from information, but it's completely different information than the parents want. And none of these people will get useful information from a mass-produced, mass-administered standardized test.

Aren't reform-minded Dems on the same page as conservatives?

Well, not exactly, in part because many "reform-minded democrats" like DFER are actually conservatives to begin with. But Hess says reformy Dems are in some sort of weird wrasslin' match with unions which (like DFER) they kind of hate, and so they focus attention on government-imposed reforms, which are uncool with conservatives, unless they are like Scott Walker's and I think Hess's point here is lost in some kind of fuzz.

Aren't unions really the problem?

Hess says it's like the old GM-- unions are certainly part of the issue, but bad management and bad policy are also to blame. Scapegoating unions misses whole chunks of the problems.

What Hess doesn't address

Responding to poverty and racial segregation.

Hess finishes up with some poll results, but I've gone on long enough. There's a lot to digest with and plenty to disagree with, but it's nice to have someone list reformster goals in one handy location. There's plenty to disagree with here, and it's peppered with some references to an alternate timeline where events somehow happened differently from our planet, but at least it's clear and simple and free of accusations that all opponents are some combination of evil and stupid. If you want a better understanding of where the free-market wing of reformsterdom is coming from, this does the trick. If you want to feel better about where they're coming from, it won't help.


  1. Well done, my friend. And they say teachers are too focused on practice (which is lower in the hierarchy of Things People Understand and Can Pontificate About) to do policy analysis. This is as good--and grounded--a chunk of policy analysis as I have ever read. And I've read plenty.

    I agree with you on Hess--sometimes, he bucks the conservative manifesto and espouses interesting stuff (his work on Common Core as failed silver bullet, for example). But mostly, he's a market-forces guy. And you have just destroyed his arguments, without getting the salary, grant-funding and media spotlight that he gets for being Rick Hess.

    Plus some good chuckles. Micro-choice! Flexible staffing! Ha.

  2. I never understand why you say that Hess is one of your favorite writers. There's nothing particularly interesting or good about his writing style-wise, and the cognitive dissonance of the internal contradictions, along with the complete lack of any semblance of logic connecting the disparate points, makes his thought process impossible to follow. It gives me a huge headache to even try.


  3. It’s interesting that Rick Hess re-tweeted — presumably approvingly — an ad hominum, xenophobic, name-calling tweet that reduced John Oliver to being just a “snooty Brit”, and thus not worth listening to. The tweeter, Max Eden, then added that “American parents care about their children’s education”… EXACTLY WHERE in the video did John Oliver say that the American parents did not care about their children’s education?


    Seriously, Rich & Max? Childish name-calling? Xenophobia? This is what qualifies as reasoned and civil discourse among corporate ed. reformers? Sheesh!

    Against here’s the John Oliver video: