A Conversation with the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess (Part 1 of 2)

The education scholar speaks with Michael E. Hartmann about teaching, his early career, public-sector reform, and private-sector philanthropy.

A Conversation with Rich Hess: Part 1 | Part 2

Rick Hess is a resident scholar and director of the Education Policy Studies program at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He is executive editor of Education Next and blogs, often with humor but always straightforwardly, at Education Week’s “Rick Hess Straight Up.”

A onetime high-school social-studies teacher, the decidedly unpretentious Hess has also taught or teaches at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard University. He is a prolific author, in both the academic and popular press.

The influential works Hess has written or edited need a sturdy bookcase. They cover numerous aspects of education policy and practice, including education philanthropy.

Some books authored or edited by Rick Hess.

“It would be easy to confuse Hess’ friendly demeanor and casual manner for a lack of seriousness. It would also be a mistake,” Mike Unger correctly wrote in a Summer 2015 Harvard Ed. Magazine profile of Hess.

He is quite fun to talk to, and fun to read, too. Fun to learn from, actually.

Below is the first of two parts of an edited transcript of a discussion that Hess was kind enough to have with me in December. The second part, in which he talks about “big-R” and “little-r” reform, “big-P” and “little-p” philanthropy, school choice, and an “ivory tower of our own” in higher ed, is here.


Hartmann: Where is home for you?

Hess: Home is Northern Virginia, in Clarendon, but I was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, once upon a time.

Hartmann: Where’d you first go to school?

Hess: I went to public elementary school for a while in New Jersey, where I kept getting beat up. They wound up testing me and their solution was to jump me a grade, so then I got beat up by bigger kids. After fourth grade we moved to northern Virginia, and I attended Fairfax County’s terrific public schools the rest of the way.

Hartmann: Where’d you go to college?

Hess: Brandeis University. I got turned down by most of the schools I applied to, but Brandeis was kind enough to let me in. So that was a plus.

Hartmann: Did you go into teaching right after your undergraduate degree?

Hess: Kind of. I started substitute teaching for beer money in college, and I liked it. People told me that if I liked substitute teaching, I’d love actual teaching. This was back when alternative routes were few and far between. So, I wound up going to Harvard to get my teaching credential, my master’s in teaching and curriculum. And from there, I got hired to teach down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

I taught high school, and got increasingly frustrated by the bureaucracy, the pay, and the B.S.—the same things that frustrate a lot of educators. I decided I needed a chance to make sense out of all of this, so I eventually went back to Harvard to study school reform. There, I did my Ph.D. with Paul Peterson in the government department.

Hartmann: What kind of beer were you purchasing? I’m speaking to you from Milwaukee.

Hess: Good question. But, Mike, this was 30 years ago. I want to say Pabst or Budweiser, but I’m afraid I can’t recall brands too clearly. Fact is, we were cash-strapped college kids, which meant we mostly bought whatever was on special.

Hartmann: What was your Ph.D. thesis on?

Hess: I was curious why school districts do the reforms they do. My thesis wound up looking at reform efforts across 57 urban districts, with an eye to asking which reforms districts choose to do, and how they go about doing them.

The interesting finding was that every district was doing pretty much everything. I concluded that district leaders feel pressed to reassure their constituents and boards by constantly launching appealing new reforms, and one consequence is that few reforms ever get a chance to work. The book wound up coming out as my first book with Brookings. It was called Spinning Wheels. It wound up being relatively influential back in the late ’90s.

Hartmann: Do the reforms have trouble working because they’re mostly sort of merely “artificial” responses to demands or pressure from the elected boards?

Hess: It’s not even that. The dynamic is natural. Urban school systems are big, and complicated, and have a lot of challenges. If you’re a new superintendent, it’s hard to credibly promise that things will get demonstrably better in the next 18 months or 24 months. But board members and community heavyweights don’t want to hear that they’ll have to wait five years to see if anything is actually changing.

Plus, the reality is that most big-district superintendents are off to the next job within three or four years, before the results are really clear. So, you get this weird, distorted pay-off where the rewards and professional success for dynamic leaders who look active can dwarf those for superintendents who roll their sleeves up, put their heads down, and get dismissed as unimaginative.

So, you wind up with this Darwinian dynamic in which successful big-district superintendents promise action and then launch lots of reform. This all creates a reassuring sense of activity—whether it actually pays off or not.

One of the consequences, of course, for people in the schools, is that the only sensible recourse is to close their doors and tell each other, “This too shall pass.” Here’s the thing. Even if the individual reforms are good ideas, this learned cynicism means that school personnel tend to tune them out—making it unlikely that anything actually works as intended. And the more complex the change, the more severe the resulting problems.

Public- and private-sector pressure and impatience

Hartmann: You are describing in Spinning Wheels a public-sector challenge. Would a similar critique apply to private-sector philanthropy as it tries to reform education?

Hess: It certainly can. When a philanthropy is partnering with a large public school district, then all these same challenges kick in. Meanwhile, big, complicated philanthropies can encounter similar problems on their own.

A large foundation with a lot of money and big ambitions frequently winds up partnering with big districts, gets into policy advocacy and research, and has a web of grantees. In that case, it can be hard for program officers or foundation staff to show that they have changed outcomes for real children in two or three or four years. So there’s the same kind of temptation to generate a sense of momentum via PR, media hits, and frenetic activity.

It’s almost inevitable that the hype is going to outrun any real change. That’s one of the reasons you tend to see these four-, five-, six-year cycles of turnover at these big foundations—where you see significant changes in strategic direction and in the leadership team. It’s partly a by-product of that divergence between the aspiration and the reality.

On the other hand, a smaller philanthropy which is just trying to fund a couple hundred local scholarships a year or to beautify local schools and hospitals can control outcomes and judge effectiveness much more readily. That makes it a lot easier to get away from the “spinning wheels” problem.

Hartmann: Why would philanthropists, philanthropy leaders, and philanthropy professionals feel as under pressure and be as impatient as school-district boards and administrators?

Hess: Great question. I don’t think they feel as pressured or are as impatient. But they are under some pressure and feel some natural impatience. Look, the reason superintendents are impatient is because board members and community leaders are looking for them to make something happen sooner rather than later, and because their job is to make schools get better. Professional pride kicks in; this is how superintendents get recognized as great leaders.

Foundations have the capacity to be more patient. We’ve seen some foundations—Walton, for instance, or Bradley—where for decades, they hewed to a fairly consistent strategy. But that’s unusual.

After all, foundation staff have professional goals, are encouraged to demonstrate that they’re making a difference, and want to know that their work matters. That tends to undercut discipline and patience. The bigger a foundation and the more ambitious its agenda, the more likely this plays out. A new executive director sees a chance to make their mark—they usually understand their job as being an agent of change. And the parallels to those urban school superintendents can start to be apparent.

Hartmann: But the pressure of democracy, where there’s an election cycle and there’s going to be a vote, that should be higher than the pressure that is felt by the foundation executive director, or am I wrong about that?

Hess: No, no, no. You’re right. Look, one of the interesting things about education is the democratic impulse. One consequence is the pressure of leaders in public education to reassure the voters that something is changing for the better. That doesn’t necessarily play out the same way in philanthropy.

But there’s also the ambiguity of the educational process. The bigger and more ambitious the change, the more complicated it is, the harder it is to be confident that something will work.

That part applies to foundations just like it does to school systems. For foundations doing discrete, manageable things—trying to give away some number of scholarships, trying to make sure schools have laptops—the end-of-year scorecard can be simple. Those may or may not be good investments, but they’re easy to judge in this way. When ambitions are larger, that’s when it can be hard for a foundation officer to confidently say, “We were successful.” Thus the temptation to demonstrate action.

Things can play out differently at foundations which explicitly focus on supporting research. If you look at a place like W.T. Grant or Smith Richardson, the emphasis on underwriting research makes it easier for staff to be patient. Their job is to build knowledge rather than change outcomes, which provides a kind of stabilizing influence.

Outsized and “muscular” philanthropy 

Hartmann: With your co-author Jeff Henig of Columbia University in The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform in 2015, you write, “Contemporary philanthropy plays an outsized role in schooling and school reform.” That was only about years ago. Is that still true?

Hess: Yes, absolutely. And that book followed on a book I edited 15 years ago called With the Best of Intentions: How Philanthropy is Reshaping K-12 EducationI’d argue that the outsized role as we’ve come to know it in contemporary schooling was first really emerging in 2004, and has continued to evolve over the past decade and a half.  

Hartmann: That’s the book in which you write about “muscular philanthropy” in ed reform.

Hess: Yes. I had done some writing about the Annenberg challenge. As your readers may recall, Ambassador Walter Annenberg gave $500 million to school improvement in 1994. It was a huge deal. He did the announcement in a Rose Garden ceremony with President Clinton. With matching funds, it amounted to $1.1 billion in mid-’90s dollars.

It was this bottom-up effort across a lot of cities and a number of rural areas. The general consensus was that it was a mess. As Mike Casserly, head of the Council of Great City Schools, put it, the big lesson was: “Don’t do that again.”

Partially in response to that, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, you saw emerging givers—the Walton family, the Gates Foundation, Eli Broad was getting involved—turn away from this bottom-up approach of sprinkling dollars and letting communities try to figure it out. They embraced a more-muscular vision of reform and policy change.

At the time, we hadn’t seen a lot like that, certainly on that scale. You’d have to go back to the Ford Foundation in education adequacy and the advocacy in the ’70s to find something similar. And we’d never seen so many funders working so closely with a particular community of school reformers.

These foundations had an enormous impact, some of it enormously healthy. There was a push on transparency and accountability, big support for charter schooling, and a lot of activity to open up the space and support entrepreneurs. We also saw issues arise relating to insularity, arrogance, the stifling of dissenting voices, and the temptation to make big, premature bets on reforms that were practically or politically problematic.

Even given the changing politics on the left and with the turn away from school reform on the right, funders continue to play an outsized role. But it is certainly much more defensive than at any previous point in 21st Century school reform.

Hartmann: In general, is all “muscular philanthropy” outsized? It’s possible to be muscular without being outsized, isn’t it? What would that mean? How do you be muscular and properly sized? How do you be a bodybuilder, I guess, and still be able to get through the cardio?

Hess: Let me answer the question in two ways. One, at least for me, is that being “outsized” usually speaks to the scope of ambition. In a sector with more than 100,000 schools, the realities vary dramatically across different places. To imagine that someone has stumbled upon the solution for children and schools everywhere is a remarkable assertion.

On the other hand, if a funder is anchored in a community or has a more-constrained vision, it doesn’t mean they’re right and it doesn’t mean they can’t do harm, but it’s much easier for them to operate with an appreciation for context and community. When working in a community they know well, donors have relationships and ties that often can be conduits for feedback and honest appraisal.

A second way to answer the question is to note that funders can be muscular without being outsized if there is a healthy mix of donors with competing views and competing values. Historically, you tend see a fair bit of that in some policy areas.

In education, though, we’ve not seen a lot of that, especially in 21st Century school reform. Most of the major funders have tended to work from a shared playbook. A consequence is that it’s been easier for muscular giving to tip over into groupthink. That’s the point at which it’s very easy for to become outsized.

Hartmann: Was Annenberg muscular and outsized, or just outsized?

Hess: Exactly. It was just outsized. It wasn’t muscular.

Hartmann: Is that worse?

Hess: I think it’s probably worse if it’s your $500 million dollars. It’s an open question whether it’s better or worse for the communities that are involved.

Hartmann: And then there’s an opportunity cost, of course?

Hess: The opportunity costs for the communities and for someone like Annenberg can be huge. There’s a lot of money spent, a lot of time spent and energy spent, and little to show for it. It can all feel like a tremendous distraction and a big waste. On the other hand, one might posit that there are fewer negative externalities from that than from ambitious efforts to change laws and impose large new superstructures for teacher evaluation, school improvement, or academic standards. It very much depends, I think, on where you stand and how successful you judge these efforts to be.

The conversation continues in Part 2 of 2 here.


This article first appeared in the Giving Review on January 13, 2020.

Tags:  Rick Hess

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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