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News from Peabody

Frederick Hess, American Enterprise Institute scholar, offers insights about school reform

Published April 21, 2017
by Kurt Brobeck


Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, spoke at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development on April 13.

Hess writes the popular blog, “Rick Hess Straight Up,” for Education Week and is the editor of Education Next. The author of many books on school reform, his work has appeared in scholarly publications as well as mainstream outlets like The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Hess’s newest book is Letters to a Young Education Reformer (Harvard Education Press, 2017). In the book as well as during his talk, Hess sought to distill some of what he has learned over several decades studying and writing about efforts to improve U.S. schools.

Speaking of past national reform efforts, Hess said he has observed that, “Good and sensible ideas play out in ways I didn’t expect and were unproductive.” The narrative of education reform, he said, has been one of people getting excited about big ideas only to move on to a new idea before coming to terms with the often unimpressive results of the prior reform. He cited Comprehensive School Reform, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and federal School Improvement Grants as examples.


Part of the problem, he argued, is the gulf between reformers and the personnel in schools who are charged with implementing a succession of big ideas and who have become distrustful over time. Just as in health we now have antibiotic resistant superbugs, “we have created reform resistant schools,” he said.



The instinctive response of reformers to failure is to want to go bigger, but Hess argued that proponents need to distinguish between “big R” reform and “little r” reform. He advocated for more of the latter.

Hess shared several insights with the audience of education policy students and Peabody faculty, first noting that, “We have forgotten the proper relationship between talkers and doers.” Reformers, he said, should get out of the habit of viewing school personnel as inconvenient. They should also realize that policy is more limited in its scope and effects than reformers tend to acknowledge.

Successful reformers should become more adept at applying the appropriate kinds of expertise to specific situations and should be mindful of the ways that the past history of school reform can condition current attitudes about the desirability of change. Citing teacher licensure as an example, he noted why nearly a century ago it was considered important to create professional standards for teachers. That history is one reason why many educators are leery of attempts to loosen licensure requirements.

In closing his prepared remarks, Hess acknowledged that a passion for reform can be helpful. But he cautioned that, “Good intentions count for infinitely less than we would like them to.”

Policy, he said, is “inherently arrogant.” Would-be education reformers should own their arrogance and approach their targets with greater humility to be successful.


Matthew Springer, assistant professor of public policy and education, convened the gathering and said of Hess, “No education-related topic is out of bounds for Rick. He provided a thought-provoking examination of school reform from his more than 25 years on the front lines.  I was particularly struck by the fact that Rick simultaneously challenged researchers to be more understanding and engaged with teachers and school leaders, and practitioners to take a step back and ground their vision in evidence and history. Linking the research, practice, and policy communities will positively influence the future of education structures and practices in the United States.”


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