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Hess: Don’t trust ‘I’m for the kids’

People seeking a dose of iconoclastic thinking and blunt talk about education reform might want to seek out Rick Hess.

A resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank, Hess has made a career of questioning the most cherished assumptions of everyone associated with public education. It is impossible to pigeonhole him on education issues. To paraphrase Hess, he makes a good living offending those on all sides of the debate.

While his philosophical sympathies might rest more with so-called education reformers than with people aligned against the current wave of reforms, Hess directs his fire at reformers as frequently as their opponents.

Hess visited Denver last week and was the inaugural speaker for the 2011-12 Hot Lunch series, sponsored by the Donnell-Kay and Piton foundations (both funders of Education News Colorado). After his 30-minute talk, Hess answered questions for another half hour. Here are a few samples of his thoughts:

On education platitudes: I don’t trust anyone who tells me they’re for the kids. As soon as (even) people I really respect go for that line, I start reaching for my wallet. If you’ve got good arguments and good ideas, I don’t care who you claim to be arguing for.

On charter schools for low-income kids as “randomized field trials”: We’re incredibly picky about who gets to get into randomized drug trials. You don’t go around saying ‘who are the sickest people? Let’s go ahead and give them the drug and see how it works out.’ But that’s more or less our innovation strategy in education.

On urban legends: There is lots of stuff I keep getting told by superintendents and deputy supes and school board members that ‘we’re not allowed to do’ that you actually are allowed to do. We are ruled by urban legend … a huge and very practical part of solving this problem is for those of us engaged in the districts … to start to change the expectations. To say not ‘are we allowed to do this’ but ‘this is what we need to do, how do we make this happen?’

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