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November 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 3

Book Review / The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas by Frederick M. Hess

    Hess's new book leaves this reviewer wondering, "In criticizing everything, does Hess in fact stand for nothing at all?"

      Any educator picking up this book needs to know immediately that it is a big-picture work—its intention is not to help you manage your classroom, achieve higher test scores, or determine research-based practice. Frederick M. Hess tells us up front that he actually rejects any approach that merely "adjusts" our current system of schooling.
      In fact, rejection could be the one-word summary of The Same Thing Over and Over. No policy, no platform is sacred to Hess. Look up any concept in the book's index—charter schools, constructivism, international schooling models, teacher tenure—and you can be sure it comes under heavy fire.
      Such rhetorical carpet bombing naturally leads to the questions, Where does Hess stand, then? By what yardstick does he measure education success?
      It's difficult to say. Hess's rejections, although often well-reasoned and provocative, are also confusing. For example, he belittles all attempts to reform education in the past century as "tinkering" and states that "real improvement will require dramatic or painful change." In the next breath, however, he confusingly characterizes progressive reform during that same time period as "radical"—the Common School movement, for example, in which education was first envisioned as the province of the entire public, regardless of money or social status.
      Hess then turns around and berates current reformers, invested in such bustling, "more and better" solutions as accountability and mandated interventions for low-performing schools, for thinking too radically. Only fools, he implies, do not understand that it may well take another century to get things right.
      Such arguments—knotty at best, and contradictory at worst—lace the book. Hess criticizes reformers' "worship" of education research, but these criticisms appear alongside his many citations of that same research. His endorsement of school systems in other countries that subsidize both private and public schools is followed by his censure of "enthusiasts…who look abroad for pat fixes" (p. 195). He describes "boutique" school reforms as impossible to bring to scale but later asserts that certain other reforms he endorses, such as the "Starbucks model" of schooling, can easily be scaled up. This scaling up requires only "adequate accountability systems, a re imagined teaching profession, and retooled systems of government and student funding" (p. 183)—ignoring the obvious fact that any reform would succeed under such sweepingly utopian conditions. Finally, Hess defends other reforms of his choosing, such as merit pay, with little more than such saucy statements as, "While there is little or no scientific proof [for merit pay], that's probably the way to bet" (p. 149).
      The book's yardstick for judging which reforms will lead to success, therefore, boils down to "what Rick Hess likes." And although the author is clearly perspicacious, caring, and well-read, I'd still like a metric with a little more heft.
      All that being said, though, the book strikes me as a standout in several ways. Its unrelenting criticism of the infrastructure of U.S. schooling, both physical and chronological, is long overdue. This argument resonates with my own classroom experience, in which the constraints of our physical building and our unyielding, compartmentalized schedule daily act as barriers to teaching and learning. Hess's related argument that our education system is a fossilized remnant of the U.S. industrial era is tough, well-developed, and spot on. His emphasis on diversity of systems of delivery, curriculum, and pedagogy is sensible. Such an approach would be far better tooled to meet the multifaceted needs of school children than my one-size-fits-all middle school.
      Last, although the reader might wish for more transparent and well-supported reasoning, Hess's recognition of the complexity of the education conversation is admirable. We need people willing to pick apart the pet philosophies of all sides of the often pernicious and bitter education debate. It seems to me that the more voices we have who are willing to do this, the more likely we will be to find ways to get beyond the current stalemate.
      This brings us back to the book's theme of rejection, which, as it turns out, is also its central problem. Hess's writing has a postmodern, deconstructionist feel that leaves a concerned reader hungry for solid ground to stand on, at least in terms of concrete policy suggestions. Any time Hess seems to be heading toward one, he immediately brackets it with (you guessed it) a rejection—verbal hedges of the "Of course, I am not suggesting this is the answer" variety. This does a nice job of preserving a comfortable intellectual distance for Hess, but it also leaves me wondering: In criticizing everything, does Hess in fact stand for nothing at all?.

      Dina Strasser teaches 7th grade English at Roth Middle School in Henrietta, New York.

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