Catalyst Q and A with Frederick M. Hess

Catalyst Ohio: So, tell us about the new book.

Hess: The general critique I start from is that we spend a lot of time worrying about what's the right best practice. We’ve got lots of models that work here and there over the years, but they never seem to scale very well. So we figure, OK, that means we need more data-driven decision making. The purpose here is to say, wait a minute. What if that’s not the problem? It's not like nobody had ever told General Motors what their problems were. They had consultant reports coming down for 30 years or more saying look, you've got an overextended dealer network, etc. The problem is, it’s not always a matter of knowing what to do. It’s whether or not you can actually build organizations that are faithful to executing these things.

Catalyst Ohio: What does that have to do with schools?

Hess: The problem with school systems is that we're always grafting things on. You have a faculty who may or may not believe in the instructional approach, you've got data systems that are bulky, you've got contracts that may not necessarily support what you want to do, you’ve got cultures, you've got statutes, you've got all of this stuff. So maybe the problem is that it’s really, really, really hard--even occasionally--to change these things in meaningful ways. We’re just happy when we can graft something on top of everything else--like we get a new reading program on top, or a new mentoring program on top--and then it rolls out to sea when the superintendent leaves.

Catalyst Ohio: Is that problem unique to education?

Hess: In fact, when you look around the world, I would argue it’s not unique to education at all. It’s not an indictment of education. It’s just that we're really bad at changing organizations. When Southwest Airlines came along it’s not like TWA and Pan Am said oh, that's a good model. They had a lot more money and a lot more expertise and they still are no longer with us. They were built around jets and gates and pilots that were once state of the art, but in a changing world no longer fit. I argue that's what schools are like. We’ve got teacher contracts that were perfectly reasonable 40 or 50 years ago. Step-pay scale was adopted in 1921. It’s not that these were bad ideas. It’s that they were built around a labor market that no longer exists. We’ve got school-funding systems and delivery mechanisms that aren't built around new technologies.

Catalyst Ohio: Is school choice the answer?

Hess: People hear me talk like this and they say, uh-ha, well school choice is the answer! That’s the second mistake. If by choice you mean we're going to let parents pick stuff, then I don't know how that solves any of this. So we stand-up charters, but we stand-up half-baked charter with poorly trained staffs who aren't sure exactly what they're doing, inadequately funded, lousy facilities, and the people who stand these things up don't much time to focus on instruction because they're trying to solve facilities issues, transportation and everything else. So it’s not like choice is in and of itself a solution.

Catalyst Ohio: But you still support charter schools, correct?

Hess: I like charters because they are ways for us to create room to solve problems. You've created conditions where it's possible to get coherence and focus. It doesn't mean you do. It just means it’s possible. That’s really the guts of this book. How do you then create those conditions? How do we give people the tools and talent and the resources and the kinds of quality controls where they can build smart, coherent focused, successful organizations?

Catalyst Ohio: Is there a model for what you’re suggesting?

Hess: Well, the second piece of all this is that when Jeff Bezos launched, investors didn’t say hey, you’re going into the book business, so we'll invest in you as long as you build a national chain of book stores. They said you’re going to help people who want to buy books online do so more easily and cheaply. So if I’ve got someone with a great eighth-grade algebra model, the charter model is actually a really stupid one to use to put that forward. The last thing I want that person to do is spend the next two years of their life doing facilities, recruiting faculty, fundraising, doing everything except teaching eighth-grade algebra! What I want is a model like that Amazon model. I want a model where they hire people, train them, and then those people are teaching eighth-grade algebra and those people are being held accountable not for overall school-level reading and math scores, but for whether their kids mastering algebra.

Catalyst Ohio: But are charter schools a vehicle in which that can happen?

Hess: Kind of. But what I'm really talking about is getting away from that whole school model. How do we think not only not just laterally, but vertically. How do we open up schools so that if you've got a way to teach English-language learners reading more effectively or if you've got a way to help engage parents, that we create room in our system where you can provide that service?

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

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