I’m No Contrarian

Last week, RiShawn Biddle penned an energetic critique of “Our Achievement Gap Mania” for his e-newsletter Dropout Nation. The impassioned attack echoed some of the more visceral reactions that the article has generated. I’m a fan of robust debate, but I do want to make sure that critics understand what I’m arguing and why I’m arguing it. In that light, it seemed useful to elaborate on three particular counts.

First, Biddle claims that I argue in National Affairs that “the achievement gap is a matter not worthy of addressing.” That’s simply false. Any reader of the piece knows I never say anything like that. I say that an emphasis on gap-closing is sensible, admirable, and laudable, but that it’s been short-sighted, politically tone-deaf, and educationally destructive to ignore the implications of focusing monomaniacally on gap-closing. As I argued last week, and as Andy Rotherham and I argued in Phi Delta Kappan back in 2007, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make achievement gaps a priority–but it does mean that they shouldn’t consume the whole of our attention.

Second, Biddle asserts, “Here’s the thing: When we improve instruction and curricula for our students who have been the most ill-served by American public education–including for young black, white and Latino men–we are improving education for our high-performing students as well.” Again, those who’ve read the essay know that I didn’t dodge this “fact,” but take pains to make the case that it’s a fiction–a soothing claim that gap-closers have peddled. Doing better by the most challenged children does not necessarily help us better serve high-performers. Indeed, many times these aims are in tension. As I note in National Affairs, “The kinds of teaching and support that can help disadvantaged students acquire the skills and knowledge that they did not receive at home are often superfluous or inappropriate for more advantaged children. In this way, gap-closing can transform from a strategy that lifts up the least proficient students into one that slows up the most proficient.” We need to start facing up to this frustrating fact, and not ducking it by hiding behind banalities.

Finally, Biddle marries kind words about some of my past work (such as Tough Love for Schools) with accusations that I’ve become a showboating “contrarian” who has “lost [my] taste for strong systemic reform.” He pleads, “Can the real Rick Hess please come back?” His critique makes me think that there’s some confusion as to how I think about school reform. For starters, I see the writings that RiShawn decries, whether the National Affairs piece or my critiques of Brill and Guggenheim, not as critiques of “reform” but of simple-minded, chest-thumping certitude.

As I’ve observed before, I embrace measures like school vouchers, accountability, or rethinking teacher pay not because they are solutions, but because they open the door for problem-solving. These things are tools, not solutions–and how they’re used matters as much as whether they’re used.

Earlier in the decade, when the armies of reform were fewer and less organized, I did my best to help sound the trumpet. (And I sound it still, in works like Education Unbound and The Same Thing Over and Over, in which my aim is not to celebrate the past decade’s policy victories but to make clear that they are only modest, tentative steps along a much longer path.)

Today, there are growing ranks of would-be reformers. That’s terrific. The danger in such moments is that groupthink and political gamesmanship can turn promising directions into troubling orthodoxies. That’s what can too easily happen, I’ve argued, with “merit pay” or value-added testing, and what happened with gap-closing and NCLB. I’m all for tough-minded attention to incentives and performance, but schools and school systems are complex organizations and it’s crucial that policies intended to reshape the landscape not devolve into stifling orthodoxies.

By the way, that’s why I’m so hard on Guggenheim and Brill. It’s not because they’re outsiders (I’ve spent much of the past decade making the case for the value of nontraditional educators) but because they enthusiastically spin sensible notions into dogma (not incidentally, helping to make it so that anything other than blind obeisance to the party line can be dismissed as “school reform denial”).

I believe “Our Achievement Gap Mania” is wholly consistent with what I’ve been writing since the 1990s. There’s an obvious difference in emphasis from what I penned in a different edu-landscape, but many of the key points are implicit in pieces like 2000’s American School Board Journal article “None of the Above: The Promise and Peril of High-Stakes Testing” or 2004’s Common Sense School Reform. In Common Sense, for instance, I noted that test-based accountability is an invaluable tool but also cautioned that it’s “a crude instrument that can unduly narrow the scope of teaching and squeeze valuable material from the curriculum…[and] is a poor device for pushing schools to excel at teaching advanced material, content outside of the core disciplines, or the performing arts” (pp. 69-70).

If anyone thinks I’ve changed my tune, perhaps it’s because they’ve only been hearing what they’ve wanted to hear. Indeed, if anyone thinks I’ve “flipped” on achievement gaps, I’d encourage them to take another look. Unless I somewhere succumbed and made an isolated concession to convention, I believe the discerning readers can comb through all of my books, research, articles, and commentary without ever once finding the suggestion that gap-closing ought to be our organizing educational aim.

Schooling is important enough to demand tough love. And tough love isn’t a sometime thing. It applies to one’s friends and allies as well as to those with whom one has more fundamental disagreements. It’s why I frequently angered my friends in the Bush administration, why I frustrate my friends in the Obama administration, and why I wind up here accused by RiShawn of being a “contrarian.” It’s why I argued back in 2002’s Revolution at the Margins that school choice wasn’t enough to create meaningful competition, getting hammered for it at the time by many friends who accused me of being “anti-choice.” Nearly a decade later, many of those same friends now concede the argument was a useful and prescient caution.

I’m no contrarian. Trust me, it’s more fun to be with the team, especially when you know that speaking up is going to tick off your friends. But I’ve been doing this for a while now and have learned something about the dangers of groupthink, unintended consequences, and the limits of good intentions. When I see overly exuberant reformers mishandling good ideas or stretching them into troubling fads, I feel obliged to speak up. I wrote some hard things about prevailing orthodoxies when I first achieved notice for Spinning Wheels. It’s what I continue to try to do today. And it’s what I hope I’ll be doing for years to come. For better or worse, I’d like to think that is the “real Rick Hess.”

-Frederick Hess

This post also appears in Rick Hess Straight Up.

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