An Interview with Frederick Hess

A former public high school social studies teacher, Rick Hess previously taught education and politics at the University of Virginia. He is a faculty associate at the Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance and serves on the Review Board for the Broad Prize in Urban Education. At American Enterprise Institute, Hess works on a diverse range of K-12 and higher education issues including accountability, charter schooling and school choice, educational politics, collective bargaining, No Child Left Behind, teacher and administrative preparation and licensure, school governance, college affordability, and entrepreneurship

In this interview, he responds to questions about A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind and the relationship between the two.

1) Twenty five years have passed since A Nation At Risk, and we have had a "half decade of NCLB". What do you see as the relationship between these two events?

A Nation at Risk led to a dramatic increase in concern about the quality of K-12 schooling. The report focused attention on critical skills, including reading, math, and science, and on concerns about reported declines in student performance in reading and math. A Nation at Risk also called for dramatically improved efforts to measure and track student performance and to ensure teacher quality. These measures, of course, ultimately proved to be core principles of NCLB.

2) In your mind, how has A Nation At Risk brought about NCLB--or do you view them as two separate entities with no connection?

It would be far too much to suggest that A Nation at Risk "brought about" NCLB in any direct fashion. For one thing, let's remember that the two were separated by 18 years and that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was twice reauthorized between the release of A Nation at Risk and the enactment of NCLB. However, it is fair to suggest that NCLB represented the most significant and aggressive federal response to the issues that ANAR raised.

3) In my mind, teachers were really never trained to deal with the massive influx of mainstreaming and inclusion, and in my mind, teachers trained five years ago, were probably not trained to deal with the demands of No Child Left Behind--your thoughts?

I think that's a reasonable concern. In most fields, progress proceeds hand in hand with specialization. Professionals are allowed to use their skills in a more disciplined, more focused, and more targeted manner. In the case of mainstreaming and "differentiated instruction," what we've instead seen is a multiplication of demands on teachers who have not been provided with new tools commensurate with the demands. Meanwhile, there has been little beyond exhortation and some recommended practices to help teachers answer the challenge.

Similarly, in NCLB, we have altered our expectations, but it has become clear that neither states, school systems, nor schools of education have had the expertise or tools to help teachers answer the challenge. Meeting that challenge will require new tools, new research, rethinking the way we organize teaching and learning, and the support and preparation that teachers need. Progress on these counts has been incremental and grudging in the years since 2001.

4) Is "Annual Yearly Progress" a "fair" construct or concept? Has it changed over the last five years?

It's a reasonable concept. But I think we've been measuring it in a problematic fashion. It is appropriate for Uncle Sam to demand that every state provide a fine-grained image of student achievement and press states to track performance levels, but "adequate progress" should be based primarily on the academic value that schools add (i.e., the achievement gains their pupils make), not merely on the aggregate level at which students perform.

To my mind, AYP hasn't changed in any significant way since 2002. The guidance issued by the Department of Education over the past five years has tweaked the definition and helped at the margins but, because the definition is enshrined in statute and must be changed by Congress, none of this guidance has addressed the central conceptual problem of judging school or district effectiveness based on whether they are achieving arbitrary aims rather than on whether enrolled students are learning a reasonable amount in the course of an academic year.

5) It seems to me the Federal government seems to neglect the ever increasing growing number of children with exceptionalities and special needs and health impairments. Are our children with special needs being left behind--either intentionally or unintentionally?

If anything, I'd suggest that NCLB and modern accountability efforts have turned a spotlight on these children. Meanwhile mainstreaming efforts promoted by advocates for children with special needs have dramatically expanded their numbers in conventional classrooms.

It is true that they remain, in too many cases, poorly served--but that is a problem endemic to large swaths of students, and not uniquely to this population. Indeed, enormous resources are being devoted to this population and the protections provided by IDEA and the courts routinely press school systems to fund the needs of special needs populations with dollars that are therefore no longer available for general programs or advanced instruction. It is undoubtedly true that some children with special needs are being left behind, but I think that would be a mistake to chalk this up to the current policy environment.

6) We have a presidential election coming up, but I have heard nil from any candidate about NCLB. Are they all deliberately ignoring NCLB? Have you heard about NLCB from any candidate?

The candidates have discussed NCLB, but only in the broadest strokes. The reality is that NCLB is perceived more negatively than positively today across the country and in Congress. Despite its backing from Senator Kennedy and Congressman Miller, and despite its sweeping bipartisan backing in 2001, it is today viewed as a "Bush bill." Therefore, it should be no surprise that Senators Clinton and Obama have both voiced concerns about NCLB, suggesting that it has placed unreasonable demands on schools and teachers, is poorly designed, and is underfunded.

At the same time, both have expressed support for educational accountability and for federal leadership in education--suggesting that their criticism of NCLB coexists with support for its aims and many of its elements.

Senator McCain has been more explicit about his support for NCLB, but he has mostly spoken in generalities and has coupled that support with strong declarations for the need to expand various forms of school choice. Generally speaking, education has not been a central point of debate in this campaign and is not likely to be--meaning that the stances candidates adopt and the claims they make will not be subjected to much scrutiny, and may or may not provide much insight into how candidates will ultimately govern.

7) I can only discuss "informal data" and my own experiences but it seems that many, many teachers are retiring early and leaving the field. Is anyone keeping track of such data and is the message being interpreted correctly in Washington?

For decades, there have been concerns that high rates of teacher departure make it more difficult to hire the teachers we need. On the other hand, Richard Ingersoll and other scholars have shown that teacher attrition rates do not look much different from those in a variety of other professions. I think the short answer is that these are data which we know are important and which interested policymakers ask about, but which we have had trouble collecting in useful ways.

8) Over the past five years, it seems that the entire realm of education is becoming increasingly politicized. The entire issue about Reading First and the concerns regarding "evidence based instruction". Is this a trend that we need to be examining more closely?

It's certainly true that NCLB marked a highwater in terms of educational bipartisanship. Throughout the 1990s, in fact, we saw growing bipartisan support for measures like standards, charter schooling, and educational accountability. The last decade has been marked by heated partisanship in D.C. more generally, and some of that has entered the education debate. It is now the case that NCLB has become something of a political football, as have other programs like Reading First. I don't think Reading First itself has become a partisan issue to any great extent--at least not beyond the Beltway--but it is likely that giving the federal government a more prominent role in K-12 schooling has certainly made the sector more prone to the broad disputes that characterize national policy debates.

9) We're once again in the midst of a heated political season. Looking backward from the distance of several years, how did education politics affect its passage and construction?

NCLB began with the resounding promise that every U.S. schoolchild will attain "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014.Noble, yes, but also naïve and misleading. While nobody doubts that the number of "proficient" students in America can and should increase dramatically from today's woeful level, no educator believes that universal proficiency in 2014 is attainable. Only politicians promise such things.

The inevitable result is weary cynicism among school practitioners and a "compliance" mentality among state and local officials.

Further complicating the law's construction, embedded within its accountability system are three distinct, discernible models of educational change that have been awkwardly welded together. Model one would make transparent the performance of students across the nation, providing an X-ray to show parents, educators, and policymakers how different schools and groups are performing in key subjects. Model two would deploy "behavior modification" accountability methods, refined through decades of public sector reform, to force low performing schools and districts to set goals, assess effectiveness, and do better. And model three would set "shoot-the-moon" targets and use the federal bully pulpit to exhort leaders in states and districts to improve.

10) Looking forward, what are your thoughts for the next 5 years of NCLB? Short of scrapping it and starting over, what advice would you offer to the next administration to improve upon the law?

It is valuable for Washington to set ambitious goals and exhort everyone to attain them. But the constructive way to do this is by promoting transparency, setting benchmarks, rewarding high achievers, pointing fingers at laggards, and clearing political obstacles. With a consistent metric, call it a national standard, accompanied by national tests, everyone's performance can be fairly tracked and compared. If the Jefferson School lags behind the Franklin School; if Hispanic youngsters in Tucson fall behind Hispanic pupils in San Antonio; if Ohio is making gains but Kentucky isn't, all these and more should be readily visible.

Comparisons should be easy and swift. Washington can competently see to this. But it cannot competently micromanage what state, districts, or schools do. And it shouldn't try.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

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