Reform is a State of Mind

In an excerpt from his new book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer, Frederick M. Hess describes how his own experiences as a student and a teacher, often in a challenging policy environment, inspired his commitment to opening up outdated education systems so that educators, entrepreneurs, parents, and communities can reinvent schooling to better serve every child.

What do I mean by “reform”?

“School reform” has taken on a very particular meaning in the past decade: reformers are those who support things like charter schooling, accountability, test-based teacher evaluation, and the Common Core.

In earlier eras, other reform orthodoxies have prevailed. A century ago, the list would have included “scientific management,” regular testing, sorting students by IQ, and depoliticizing school boards. In the 1980s, it would have included a more demanding high school curriculum, career ladders for teachers, a longer school year, and tougher teacher certification tests.

The problem is that, whatever one thinks of today’s reform catalogue, this kind of list isn’t how I define reform. For me, reform is more a matter of how one thinks about school improvement than a recital of programs and policy proposals.

Given that, I think my take will make more sense if I first say a bit about why I became a “reformer” in the first place.

It’s partly because, as a student, a teacher, and a trainer of teachers, I found too many classrooms and schools to be spirit-eroding and mind-numbing. Bells rang, students took their seats, and minutes ticked by. And it’s also because I experienced and saw classrooms that were wholly different places where students felt valued, inspired, and challenged. Most of us picture a particular classroom when we say that. For me, it was sixth grade with Selma Ziff at Pine Ridge Elementary. That year was a whirlwind of math drills, Shakespearean plays, schemes to colonize Mars, and probability learned by gambling with M&Ms. It was a relentless, joyous voyage of discovery and learning. It was what school should be. Hell, it was what childhood should be.

For me, reform has never been about anything as high-flown as “social justice” or as prosaic as “workforce readiness.” It’s been about wanting more classrooms to resemble the ones I loved, and frustration that we weren’t making that happen.

It’s long seemed clear to me that we could do much better. Better at igniting imagination. At helping students master world languages. At teaching science and history. At instilling a sense of civic responsibility. At ensuring that all students are literate and numerate. At cultivating interest in the arts. At raising kids who are kind and curious. But it’s seemed equally clear that doing this will require allowing ourselves to reimagine and rethink schooling.

My own relationship with schools was bittersweet. Ziff’s class was the exception, not the rule. I was raised by educated parents, loved reading from an early age, and attended perfectly adequate public schools in New Jersey and terrific ones in Virginia. You’d think that I would’ve been a safe bet academically. Not so much.

In elementary school, I skipped second grade—a quick fix intended to address my boredom and attendant misbehavior. It didn’t take. By high school, I was a consistently lousy student. I was undisciplined, unmotivated, and unconcerned about my prospects. I avoided organized activities, didn’t do much homework, studied sporadically, and floundered in any class I didn’t like.

Yet I was intrigued by the world around me. I read avidly and broadly. And there were occasions—in a history, government, or English class with the right teacher, or in the three periods of journalism I took in twelfth grade—when flashes of talent or interest would surface. Even at that age, this disconnect struck me as strange.

That sense only deepened when I entered college and found that I had magically morphed into a “good” student. The explanation? I was suddenly free to study only what interested me. Despite some bumps along the way—I missed a couple weeks of class during my sophomore year when I discovered Kurt Vonnegut—it worked out.

That same year, I started substitute teaching for beer money. When I did, I couldn’t help noticing how many kids also regarded their school day as time spent in a moderate security prison. High schooler Nikhil Goyal captured things pretty pithily in One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School: “I was bored as hell in class and absolutely nothing I was taught was relevant to real life.” Given the human mind’s innate curiosity and the natural human instinct to teach and mentor, I’ve always found it puzzling that so many of our schools are so at odds with our best natures.

In their avid focus on performance metrics and achievement gaps, contemporary reformers can sometimes seem unbothered that so many students find school so mind-numbing. In my experience, tedium and boredom are rarely front and center except when they’re linked to issues of poverty or race. That’s nuts. These broad-based frustrations ought to be at the beating heart of reform.

When I entered teaching, I’d catch glimpses of why schools might be so stultifying. I remember applying for my first teaching job in January 1990. I’d graduated summa cum laude and was earning a teaching credential from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. I felt pretty good about my prospects… until I sent letters of inquiry to 130 school districts nationwide and got no responses. I might as well have set the whole sack of letters on fire and tossed them off Boston’s Tobin Bridge. I later learned that school districts didn’t reply to inquiries until the spring. Why? Because contract provisions and administrative routines dictated that this was how things were done.

I ultimately landed a job in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, on the basis of a hurried conversation at a cattle call of a recruiting fair. The recruiter had already filled her interview sheet, but she spied my “Harvard” name tag and said, “Sugar, talk to me.” Five minutes later, I had my first teaching job. I was hired to teach high school, then assigned to a middle school—and then, days before school started, reassigned to an open position at Scotlandville High School. So much for careful lesson planning.

I’d been hired, in part, to launch what would have been the third Advanced Placement economics program in the state (that would have been a neat trick to pull off in a middle school). It never happened. By the time I was assigned to Scotlandville, it was judged too late to bother. The following year, when I offered to teach AP economics as an extra class during my prep period, I got reprimanded for being a troublemaker. When I offered to pick up a classroom set of intro econ textbooks for thirty bucks at a Louisiana State University used book sale, I was admonished for asking before I’d submitted the requisite paperwork. I found the school and system to be populated by well-meaning people who spent an extraordinary amount of energy trying not to get in trouble. With time, I learned that my experience was all too typical.

When I left teaching to pursue my doctorate, I returned to Harvard, this time to the political science department. In graduate school, I spent a lot of time thinking about educational politics, policy, and bureaucracy. My dissertation examined when and why districts pursued various reforms. As I studied fifty-seven urban systems, I ran into a serious problem: everyone was doing everything. Over the three years I studied, the average district launched eleven significant reforms—that’s one every three months.

Reform was a ceaseless whirlwind that exhausted educators and bred cynicism. Teachers learned to shut their doors while muttering, “This too shall pass.” I concluded that reform done poorly is often worse than no reform at all, and that the real challenge is more often one of execution than of action. This was noteworthy in an era when many prominent voices were insisting that what we really needed was to “shake up” urban education.

My thinking proved to be a poor fit for the prevailing orthodoxy in education. When I fretted about things like bureaucracy, perverse incentives, and inept HR systems, I got bemused looks. When I suggested that professional development or differentiated instruction weren’t going to make much difference unless we first addressed those organizational problems, I found few who thought similarly.

The search for those who shared my concerns was what led me into the school reform orbit. As I searched, my earlier experiences shaped my views in crucial ways. I was convinced that schools could be soul-deadening for far too many children, and not just for those in poverty. I suspected that what ailed education was as much about bureaucracy as pedagogy, and that many well-intended reforms actually made things worse. I was skeptical that just making education “a priority” would solve any of this, and eager to find people who might see things similarly. That is how I found my way into the world of school reform.

At that time, today’s familiar constellation of advocacy groups and charter school operators didn’t yet exist.

It was also a very different policy environment. Charter schooling was still new, with advocates scrambling just to convince states to make it legal. Alternative teacher licensure was novel. When it came to K–12 schooling, Washington played a modest role and drew limited attention. And there was less division between reform’s “talkers” and “doers,” due to a paucity of full-time advocates and the fact that many reformers had day jobs.

But there were fewer studies and opinion pieces flying around. This all made for a slower pace, with less noise and a less combative environment.

I tell you this not to bore you with recollections of yesteryear but to give some context for how the world of reform has evolved. In the past two decades, reformers have enjoyed some remarkable success. Along the way, they have acquired some new habits, good and bad.

For me, an early lesson about those bad habits came courtesy of a conference on NCLB that my friend Checker Finn and I hosted in 2006. The day was devoted to new research examining NCLB’s required remedies for schools “in need of improvement.” Two moments stood out.

One was a brief exchange regarding schools in need of “corrective action.” Researchers had presented glum accounts of how school restructuring was faring. Then two respected officials—California’s secretary of education and Florida’s commissioner of education—discussed their experiences. California’s secretary had been a hard-charging, nontraditional superintendent in San Diego before agreeing to serve under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nobody ever accused this guy of being soft. Yet he noted resignedly that, for all the law’s assurances, all his state’s resources, and all the experts he’d consulted, he wasn’t sure we actually knew how to turn around troubled schools.

His counterpart was asked, “How many turnarounds can you handle in Florida?” Florida’s chief was a no-nonsense, veteran leader, helming a state then widely regarded as a national school reform exemplar. He said, “Keep in mind that we’ve got several thousand schools.” He paused. “You’re just talking about the state department? I’d say we can manage about seven schools.” The room’s audible shock and disappointment would’ve been funny in other circumstances.

Policies like choice and accountability can help, but they can also hurt. They’re not elixirs. They can help to empower parents and educators and to foster coherent school communities, but they can also have much less salutary effects. In any event, they don’t make kids learn. They are not instructional interventions, like reading programs or pedagogical techniques. What they can do is help create the conditions for improvement. Unfortunately, reformers have long treated the complexities of change as less interesting or important than the battles to win that change.

All of this is to say that reform isn’t just the having of good ideas. It’s figuring out how to make those ideas actually work. This can be a hard lesson to learn. It means reformers need to sweat things like perverse incentives and whether a policy is likely to actually, you know, work as intended, even when they’d rather focus on moral exhortation or larger causes. It means thinking about how reforms will affect the day-to-day lives of students, families, and educators. It means grasping why teacher recruitment strategies that work great in highly educated coastal cities may not work as well in struggling Midwestern towns. It can seem like good ideas and good intentions should count for more. They don’t. Sorry.

To return to the question with which I started: What do I mean by “reform”?

To me, reform is mostly a matter of opening up outdated systems so that educators, entrepreneurs, parents, and communities can reinvent schooling to better educate every child. I’m more interested in stripping away outdated policies and empowering educators than in imposing my preferred practices and programs. That’s because I think the best-designed and most promising solutions will come from educators and entrepreneurs on the ground, and not from reformers ensconced in office buildings in state capitals or Washington, DC. I see reform less as a roster of fixes to be imposed and more as a dynamic process of reinvention, evolution, and support for those doing the work.

My kind of reform embraces a set of broad principles. Here are the major ones: Those making decisions should be responsible for making them work and also for the consequences. This means that more authority should rest with accountable educators and less with state and federal officials. Bureaucratic routine is a lousy way to cultivate great schools. Policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well—and when it comes to schooling, as I’ve said, what usually matters is how things are done rather than whether they’re done.

And, perhaps most crucially, each of these principles can be brought to life in a lot of different ways. These principles don’t amount to a specific agenda; and to my mind, that’s a feature, not a flaw. It invites lots of possible solutions and healthy discussion.

I choose to regard those who share my frustrations, aspirations, and beliefs as fellow reformers, whether or not they agree with me on charter schooling, teacher licensure, school discipline, or accountability. This has allowed me to connect with and learn from those who might agree in spirit but disagree on important particulars. I think that’s healthy.

I hope the letters ahead just might help you inform your own aims and assumptions as you and your colleagues set out to write the next chapter of education reform.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Adapted with permission from Letters to a Young Education Reformer, by Frederick M. Hess, 2017, published by Harvard Education Press. For more information, please visit

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