WebExtra: A conversation with Fred Hess

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G. Alfred Hess Jr.

G. Alfred Hess Jr.

The late G. Alfred Hess Jr. studied Chicago schools for

more than 25 years, first as a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern University,

then as executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and

Finance and, for the last 10 years, as director of Northwestern’s Center on

Urban School Policy. Before his death on Jan. 27, he shared his insights on

school reform under Mayor Richard M. Daley with Catalyst Publisher Linda Lenz.

Mr. Hess praised the mayor for bringing a sense of accountability to the school

system but says he needs to put more pressure on the current administration.

“He [needs to] continue to be the spur under the saddle, saying that what

we’ve done is good, but it isn’t good enough, and we’ve got to be more rigorous

in finding out what to do.”

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation. The links connect

to the appropriate section of the interview.

Accountability

Lessons learned

Local school councils’ value

Principal quality

Mayor’s role

Funding inequity

Teacher quality

Small schools strategy

Opening new schools

Race and racism

School choice

Personal contribution

As you look back over the past 10 years, what do you see as some of the

positive developments?

We’ve seen a remarkable change, not only in Chicago but across the country:

The idea that schools are accountable for the performance of low-income minority

children. These are large changes in the culture of schooling. Part of their

genesis was the mayor’s takeover of the school system.

Didn’t the “decentralizers” have that same belief?

They did, but not with sanctions and incentives. The first phase of school

reform [was] about capacity-building and a chance for people to be free from

systemwide, singular responses that are not always appropriate to all schools.

Now clearly there was accountability for principals. The initial School Reform

Act started with a local school council that hired or fired the principal on

a performance based contract — with the idea that the principal would be hired

if students learned more and would be fired if they didn’t learn more. As it

turned out, that wasn’t always the basis on which local school councils [decided].

Was that a step forward?

I think it was a very crucial step forward. We moved from a system with an

average principal tenure of somewhere close to 20 years to a principal tenure

of close to seven or eight years. Prior to the passage of the School Reform

Act in 1988, the principalship in many schools had become a place of dead wood.

Principal accountability was very important. But it was only the principal

who was accountable. Teachers weren’t accountable. Students weren’t accountable

– in any significant ways.

Are teachers accountable now?

Probably not as much as people had hoped. [But] putting schools on probation

got the attention of teachers. And reconstitution was the threat at the end

of a year of probation.

They abandoned reconstitution.

Our report to Mr. Vallas at the end of the first year was, well Paul, this

didn’t work very well. But it wasn’t because it didn’t get teachers attention.

It didn’t work very well because it was a strategy of teacher replacement. The

key to a teacher replacement strategy is having quality teachers available to

replace the non-quality teachers we’re firing. This system didn’t have an adequate

supply of replacement teachers.

Or replacement teachers that would go to work under those conditions?

Exactly. Without an adequate supply of replacement teachers, reconstitution

did not work. In part that was because the schools that fired large numbers

of teachers ended up hiring the fired teachers from other reconstituted schools.

It became a teacher swap rather than a teacher replacement.

Would you give the administration a very good grade for how they did reconstitution?

No. I don’t think you would give the Vallas administration a good grade for

this. It was a failed strategy. San Francisco did it much better, though San

Francisco did it for desegregation purposes.

What about the first round and even subsequent rounds of probation, with

schools getting external partners? Did the external partners know what they

were doing?

External partners grew into their tasks, and the schools grew into knowledge

of an adequate match between the improvement they needed and the external partners

they hired. External partners worked much better at the elementary school level

than they did at the high school level.

[Back to Top]

You talked about the things we had learned. One is that high schools are harder

than elementary schools. What else have we learned in the last 10 years?

Can I go back 15?

Yes, 15.

The reformers in the mid-1980’s were relatively naïve about how hard it

is to change, and in many ways we over simplified the task. We thought that

if we could get restrictive bureaucracy off the top of the local schools, school

people would know what to do and would, in fact, do the things necessary to

help students learn a great deal.

Our design was removing the sanctioning capacity of the central office in order

to encourage innovation by teachers and principals. The encouraging thing was

that after the reforms were enacted, as many as a third of the schools in the

city took up that challenge and really did make significant improvement.

After a couple of years it became clear that, well yes, a third were doing

it, but only a third were doing it. That’s when we began to realize the other

two problems we had.

There was another group of schools where the teachers were certainly willing

to improve but didn’t know how to improve, so that led us to the question of

teacher capacity. Then we saw that beyond that second group of schools was a

third where the adults simply didn’t have the will to change.

Now we’ve got a hard core of the poorest performing schools and a set of schools

that are offsetting each other — schools that make dramatic improvement over

time and then begin to lose the improvement. I looked at a set of schools the

other day that had made significant improvement in a five-year period and then

over the next five years had deteriorated.

[Back to Top]

Are local school councils worth keeping?

Local school councils play an important role for people who think that democracy

in schools is a critical value. That’s a value that dates back 100 years to

John Dewey, and it certainly was part of the underlying milieu of school reform

in the 1980’s, that kids who go to school in democratic organizations will grow

up to be better citizens in a democratic society.

Part of the school reform movement saw local school councils more as a functional

element [in getting change] to happen at local schools, and so they became symbols

of decision making at the school level. Whether the decisions the councils make

are the most critical decisions that get made at the school level is another

question.

Councils select principals. That’s very important.

The decision making about principals is critical, but what’s less clear is

whether councils have been tremendously effective in that role. I think we’ve

got a mixed record. Councils have made some very good decisions in moving out

some bad principals and replacing them with really good principals, but they’ve

also replaced really good principals with some not-so-good principals, frequently

because the really good principal has gone on to something else and their next

choice is not as good.

[Back to Top]

What’s your sense about the supply of good principals?

At Northwestern, we directed one of the early efforts with the Chicago Principals

Association to prepare principals. I was somewhat discouraged by the quality

of candidates, so it may be that we’re facing a scant supply of really highly

qualified principals.

What do you do about that?

We may need to go back to thinking about national recruiting of principals.

Most suburbs are recruiting principals much more broadly than from their own

school district

[Back to Top]

Back to the mayor. What should he be doing now?

He should make sure that the district has the resources it needs, and that

he continues to be the spur under the saddle, saying that what we’ve done is

good, but it isn’t good enough, and we’ve got to be more rigorous in finding

out what to do. I don’t hear that from the mayor today the way I did in the

latter years of the Vallas administration.

[Back to Top]

You worked long and hard on school finance equity. Do you think we’ll ever

achieve that?

I got very cynical in the mid-1990s after the constitutional amendment to

make education a fundamental right was defeated. I have come to the position

that the people of Illinois have very little tolerance for equity and that political

power brokers like the current arrangement, in which affluent families receive

a powerful education and less affluent areas of the state do not. That keeps

the competition down for children of the affluent.

We get very small incremental increases in funding, which the advocates for

more funding mislabel as reform. That makes it sound like we have won something

on education funding reform when in fact we have not.

Can you think of anything the mayor should have done that he didn’t do?

It’s pretty clear that in the Vallas administration, there was a huge amount

of effort spent in changing the culture of the school system. [But] the work

that happened under Vallas came to a plateau, and there hasn’t been much movement

since then. The big gap is in not taking advantage of what we learned about

high schools in the latter years of the Vallas administration. That has not

been incorporated into rethinking how teachers get trained in high schools,

how we might create exemplary high schools in the inner city in the way we have

developed exemplary elementary schools.

What recommendations haven’t been followed up on?

One was to refine the CASE exams (Chicago Academic Standards Exams) as part

of the movement toward better accountability. The second was to create model

high schools. A third was to find and attract better teachers at the high school

level.

[Back to Top]

In the latter Vallas years, many were saying “Enough with all these

new programs, let’s invest in the skills of the work force.” That is the

direction that the Arne Duncan administration is taking.

The strategy of developing the current work force is absolutely correct. I just

don’t see that what they’re doing is very effective. I think it’s because the

current administration undervalues accountability. Without the leverage of the

CASE exams and accountability for students’ achievement, it’s very difficult

to get teachers who are stuck in their ways to agree that they need to change.

The teachers we observed in 800 [high school] classrooms in the late 1990s

had years and years of non-success. So while everybody in the school system

did get on the page of saying it’s not the children’s fault, many teachers didn’t

believe it.

So the problem for staff development is to get teachers who have been unsuccessful

to see the same kinds of kids being successful. We don’t have much evidence

of that at the high school level. In fact, we ambush our high school kids. They

come through 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grades getting better and better, and then

they get into high schools, where they get lost and don’t get the same quality

of instruction.

Are there some cities out there that are doing a good job with their high

school kids?

No. I don’t think this is a specific Chicago problem.

[Back to Top]

You focus on instruction. Some would argue that it’s at least as much an

issue of school structure.

The movement toward small schools should be pursued, but our experience with

small schools in the late 1990s was that taking teachers who were minimally

effective in large-school structures and putting them in small-school structures

did not make them more effective. You’re really raising the other half of the

question: Are kids more responsive in smaller structures? They probably are.

If the teachers are convinced the kids can’t learn this stuff, then that lessens

the connection between teachers and kids. If the teachers don’t trust that the

kids are going to work hard and have the capacity to learn, then they don’t

invest in the relationships. Without the investment, the small school function

may not work as well as it could.

[Back to Top]

One solution that this administration is vigorously pursuing at the high

school level is to start over, creating new schools. What are the chances of

that succeeding?

I think that’s not a bad idea. I pushed in the late 90’s and the early years

of this century to have the system try to create a couple of model high schools

by bringing together some of the better teachers into schools like Manley or

Phillips or Tilden.

Teachers are not going to change their beliefs because you tell them they should.

They’re going to change their beliefs only when they see kids actually learning

more.

[Back to Top]

You’ve looked a lot at issues of race in school reform. What are your conclusions

about issues of race and Chicago school reform?

Racism is a major issue in the Chicago Public Schools. The district is primarily

a minority district, and it’s still got a huge controlling factor that comes

out of the white community. But I think that race is a primary issue in what

we believe about the kids and their capacity.

A few years ago we did a study looking at five pairs of predominantly African

American elementary schools. [Five schools had made gains while five had not.]

We matched them to see what was different about the schools making large gains.

Most of the differences were things we’ve known for a long time: a good principal,

a clear vision for the school, clear discipline, belief that the kids can learn

the material.

One of the things we found that had not been reported in previous research

was that the schools that were making the largest gains were also the schools

that were asking the students to wrestle most deeply with the material. That

is to say, the questioning they did was at a much deeper level than the questioning

at schools that were not making gains.

Let me give you an example. In schools that were making gains the teachers

would ask students why things were happening. They would ask how what was happening

in one setting was different from what was happening in another setting.

In schools where kids were not making great gains teachers frequently limited

their questions to who, what and when. Who was the main character in “Tom

Sawyer?” Where did Huck Finn go on his journey? Who was on the raft with

Huck? The teachers who didn’t teach just the facts but asked kids to think much

more deeply got much better achievement gains than the teachers who only taught

the facts.

We also were looking for whether were there things that the successful African

American schools were doing that the non-successful schools were not doing that

specifically had to do with race. Two of the schools had been organized around

an Afrocentric curriculum. They basically changed the culture and language of

the school. Authority relationships were familial, so it was aunt and uncle

and mother and father and older brother. But two other successful schools totally

rejected that approach, saying we’re going to teach them just like any other

kids. So it may be that an Afrocentric curriculum is very beneficial, at least

to a certain group of kids, but you can’t say it’s essential.

Did you find differences in any arena between African Americans and Latinos?

There were pretty clear differences between predominantly Hispanic and African

American schools, and they have to do with the culture of the school. There’s

not the same degree of skepticism about kids’ ability to learn in the predominantly

Hispanic community, and I think there is a closer identity between Hispanic

teachers and Hispanic students. In predominantly African-American schools, we

get this bifurcation between schools that want to treat all the kids as a family

and schools that want to largely ignore race. We also have far more schools

where large aggregates of teachers are more discouraged about the possibilities

of African-American kids than of Hispanic-American kids.

And you’re talking in part about African-American teachers?

I’m talking equally about white and black teachers. In many ways, it’s a class

issue every bit as much as it is a race issue.

[Back to Top]

What do you think about the role that school choice plays?

I think we’re going to see more and more choice. It is unjustifiable to force

some kids to go to schools that are really bad for them. But choice will not,

by itself, be the spur to school improvement that some believe it will be.

You were talking earlier about progress.

It’s important for us to note that we’re a long way ahead of where we were.

We still have major problems in disconnecting race and class from student achievement

in our nation, and certainly we still have those problems in Chicago. But the

quality of opportunity that kids are starting out with in Chicago today is significantly

higher than it was 15 years ago.

[Back to Top]

Looking at your own career with school reform, what do you feel most proud

of?

I think my role has been kind of a nudger, to push people back from the edges.

School reform has gone like a pendulum, and there are points where it needs

to be pushed back away from the precipice.

It’s very easy in school reform to slip into ideological positions. So a second

function I think I’ve played is to push back against the empirical. It’s fine

to say, “Great that sounds wonderful, like small schools.” Strategically

and ideologically it sounds like exactly the right thing to do. But do we have

the evidence that kids are learning more? That’s what I want to keep coming

back to. Do we have evidence that kids are learning more, and can we connect

that evidence to specific causes in ways that are justifiable rather an ideological?

Too frequently we’ve wanted to claim things for our ideology more than we’ve

been willing to say, “Well, it’s not real clear which of the possible causes

is in fact leading to this outcome.”

Good things are happening, so why are we fighting each other over claims as

to who’s responsible for this good thing? Why aren’t we just celebrating the

fact that we’re benefiting? Well in part because we’re still arguing over things

that need to be done. We’re also now in a national milieu where ideology has

become rigidified on the right and the left, that has certainly influenced the

local discussion about school reform.

I want to help people see beyond ideologies and see, what are the actual effects

of doing some of these things?

The School of Education and Social Policy has launched an undergraduate research support fund in Mr. Hess’s memory. Contributions may be sent to: G. Alfred Hess Jr. Undergraduate Research Fund, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, 2120 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208