EdFix Episode 24: The Ecology of Think Tanks

RICK HESS:

If we ask these questions and have these debates in the right way, the fact that we disagree on the ultimate issue doesn't necessarily have to get in the way of an enormous amount of productive, responsible truth-seeking.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

Welcome to EdFix, your source for insights about the promise and practice of education. I'm Michael Feuer, I'm your host. I'm the Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development here at GW. And it's a big pleasure for me and an honor to introduce a friend of longstanding and one of the most prolific contributors to the debates about American and for that matter global education. With me is Dr. Frederick Hess, we know him as Rick.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

And Rick, thank you so much for being here. Rick is the senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, AEI. His domain is of course K12 and also higher education. He is the author of education weeks blog called "Rick Hess Straight Up," and the executive editor of a very interesting magazine/journal called Education Next.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

Rick is also the founder and chairman of AEI's Conservative Education Reform Network, contributor to Forbes, The Hill, and many, many other publications. And I understand that Rick even co-hosts his own podcast. Rick, welcome to EdFix and to GW.

RICK HESS:

Hey, thanks for having me on pal. Good to be with you, man.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

It's great. I want to get right to it, and I know what's on the mind of a lot of people these days is first of all, what have we learned about American education through this ordeal of the pandemic? And to what extent would you say that some of the ideas that are now in the popular discourse about what to do in the next chapter of American education, hopefully the post-COVID chapter, what's happening in that discourse? Where are people's minds concentrating and what can you enlighten us about with respect to all of that?

RICK HESS:

Yeah, if any of us knew it would be a nice thing. Look, I think the biggest thing that has come out of the pandemic for me is a reminder how massively everybody in education underestimated the importance of the custodial function -- the families.

RICK HESS:

We've talked a lot in the last 20 years, heck the last 40 years, as a Nation at Risk, about reading and math scores, about high school completion. What got lost frequently in there was that for a lot of parents, the most important thing schools do is give their kids a safe, friendly, humanizing place to go to each day. To make friends, to find mentors. And that got squeezed out of the conversation in massive ways, during accountability, during teacher evaluation fights, during common core. And I think it has been rudely shoved back in in powerful ways. I think the second biggest thing we learned is just how completely disengaged so many parents felt from what was happening in schools.

RICK HESS:

They just didn't see it. They didn't see how hard teachers worked or they didn't see how little work kids were doing, or they didn't see what was actually happening in classrooms. And just like during the height of the common core fights, when parents suddenly seeing math worksheets on YouTube triggered a conversation that suddenly escaped all the assumptions about hypothetical demands and rigor, and suddenly it was very real and concrete. I think that's what we've seen.

RICK HESS:

We've seen suddenly parents watching Zooms on their kitchen table, engage with kids' schools and classrooms in ways that left the parents feeling good or feeling frustrated, but in ways that people had just stopped thinking about.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

You hear the idea of this is an opportunity to do a grand reset and we're not going to just go back to an untenable status quo. And I've always wondered a little bit about that because my own impression is that a lot of parents, if they wanted one thing, it was to be able to get their kids back into something that they believe with its imperfections is a whole lot better than not being able to access what was going on in their schools.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

Help me with the balancing here between what was lousy and we have to fix versus how much we want to get back.

RICK HESS:

No, and I think you put your finger right on it. Look, there's a lot that I think is lousy that I'd like to fix, that you and those of us who drink coffee while arguing in DC salons would like to fix. But I think one of the lessons of the last few decades is that what we think the problems are and the solutions we like often don't feel very grounded or useful to lots of the people whose lives we think we're trying to make better.

RICK HESS:

There's a conundrum here. You mentioned that I'm one of the executive editors of Education Next. We came out with our annual survey this year, and remarkably we found that support for every kind of reform under the sun fell over the last 12 months. Left-leaning reforms, right-leaning reforms, people are just tired of this.

RICK HESS:

What they want is I think is they want a sense of normalcy, but at the same time, you see enormous appetite for choices. 70% of parents now say they'd like to be able to do some form of blended homeschooling with sending their kid to school. For some families this means they'd like to have the kid home one day a week. For other families it means that their work routines means some flexibility.

RICK HESS:

So I think what's happened is we've often talked about reform in terms of what we're going to do to schools to make people's lives better with not a whole lot of interest in what kinds of options real people find useful. And I think for me, the thing that strikes me is I don't think a lot of people are eager for our giant reset conversation. I think there's actually a lot of, oh man, that's not what we need. What we would like is more options. If I want my kid masked and my school doesn't have a mask mandate, I want an option to get my kid into an environment I feel safe.

RICK HESS:

If I don't want my kid masked and there is a mask mandate... So I think what happens when we look at homeschooling, learning pod, fights about vaccination and masking, is there's a lot of parental demand for something that reflects their concerns. And I'm not sure that that's what they're getting from those of us who tend to put ourselves forth as professional school fixers.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

To what extent does the organization specifically, a place such as the American Enterprise Institute, in addition to being the home of a lot of independent entrepreneurial thinkers and shall we say pundits and researchers such as yourself, to what extent does a place like AEI try to promote a vision definition of the conservative ideology?

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

And then second, to what extent does this whole ecology of think tanks give us any hope that we can get some of this balancing going on?

RICK HESS:

AEI has a philosophical orientation. I would argue that it's... The same is true of almost any elite university, the difference is that AEI is actually honest about it and transparent about it, that we believe in liberty. We believe in markets, we believe in opportunity. These are big, fuzzy words, and what those words mean is different things to different scholars at AEI.

RICK HESS:

But there is a broad, intellectual trajectory out of which AEI emerged 80 plus years ago now. One way to think about the role AEI play, different think tanks play, is I always say when I teach this stuff, there's three kinds of think tanks. And basically you can understand it by how they raise their money. There's think tanks which are basically in the job of evaluating public policies and various programs.

RICK HESS:

So Mathematica, Rand, MDRC, all these... AIR, what they do is you write them a check and they have lots of really smart people, and they will do, to the best of their ability, they will try to figure out what worked or didn't work.

RICK HESS:

So in that sense, they're not really a gauge in this raucous political debate, they're trying to bring some degree of scientific clarity to our policy debates. Second kind of think tank is a place like the Heritage Foundation on the right or Center for American Progress (CAP) on the left, where if you go on their website, they will tell you what they fight for. This is our stance on education, on higher ed, this is our stance on K12. And they raise money from people who are glad they're in there swinging away and trying to get their legislative priorities written into law.

RICK HESS:

And then the third kind of think tank, a place like Brookings or AEI, is that we have a general intellectual trajectory. And what you do is you go out and look for scholars who are broadly aligned with that, and then you cut them loose and you raise money in the hope that these folks will over time have an outsized impact on the shape of the national discourse, on the policy directions we go, on what reporters are writing about and how they're covering it.

RICK HESS:

The advantage at AEI is there's lots of folks... Brookings has to compete against all kinds of elite universities for the same kinds of people. If you lean right, frequently universities are not, particularly in 2021, especially hospitable environments. So we get a lot of people who might otherwise be accomplished scholars, universities, who find that AEIs the place that gives them the intellectual freedom to pursue the work the way they see fit.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

And just to get back to the point about understand both the role and the goals of these various think tanks slash research shops, and also to understand the nature of what they are producing. One has to look at who's funding.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

Now to what extent does the self-perpetuation of the funding and the think tank enable or prevent the more open-minded, rational discourse?

RICK HESS:

One way to think about it is if you are funding... You're letting your people put a roof over their kids' heads and put food on the table because you're getting paid either by the federal government or state governments or by clients. You're super circumscribed. You're going to stay very narrowly in your lane, which is why you don't find a lot of efforts to change the shape of the discourse coming out of these evaluation think tanks.

RICK HESS:

Places like Heritage or Center for American Progress, or the folks who occupy that same space at the state level, their job is to carry the policy torch for people who really think like they do. That's why people write checks. That's why people support them. When they do their work well what they do is they raise the level of the partisan debate, because what they can try to do is throw elbows that crowd out the crazy in order to say, "If you're a Reagan Republican, here's what you should fight for. Or if you're a solutions-oriented progressive, here's what you should do instead of trying to pack the court."

RICK HESS:

So there's I think a real role here, but by the very nature of what attracts their funding, their job is not to try to cross the chasm. The more they start getting into crossing the chasm, the more they start to get attacked as squishes, and the more they risk getting displaced by somebody who will rally the base.

RICK HESS:

There really is a role for folks who don't have to depend on partisan money in the same way, or public money to try to figure out how do we change the tenor of the debate? So that's places with a big endowment like Brookings, it's places like AEI that have some deep-pocketed foundations or donors who believe in the work that our individual scholars are doing. It's certainly universities where folks are able to rely on endowments in particular to do work.

RICK HESS:

And so one of the things that frustrates me is when I see folks at a university or at Brookings or at an AEI who are not trying to unpack complicated questions, who are not articulating principle in a way that is at least interested in common ground, but who are racing to a partisan banner. I think that is a profound, lost opportunity. But it's an easy temptation, because look, we know that especially in our education space funders... They rotate their tires every five years.

RICK HESS:

First we're doing small schools, then we're doing teacher evaluation, then we're doing social emotional learning. And there's a huge temptation to just keep up with... Make sure that you renew your support. You're keeping up with whatever the new priorities are, that you're commissioning and writing stuff that aligns what they want you to say. And it doesn't actually do anything to point the way towards creative solutions.

RICK HESS:

It certainly doesn't build trust. I think it does a lot to promote cynicism for understandable reasons, but it's also a huge temptation of what it takes to try to be professionally successful in this world. And I think it's true at foundations. I think it's true at advocacy groups. I think it's true for academics. And I don't think we've done nearly as good a job negotiating it as we need to going forward.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

I'm very glad to hear you argue the case for the importance of some cacophony in this, within the bounds of some reasonable standards. I think that's what I'm hearing, that a place like AEI has very rigorous standards of evidence and standards of inquiry. So does Brookings, so does Rand, and then you have other organizations where I think there is, you can correct me if I'm wrong, a little bit more of a tilt in the direction of advocacy first and then we'll find the right evidence. And I know you've thought about this, so just advance that a little bit for us today.

RICK HESS:

Yeah, no, no. I think that's right. And I think it's an enormously healthy cacophony. It's interesting, we talk about diversity. This is one of the kinds of diversity that I really appreciate, diversity of intent, diversity of incentives, that I love the idea that we have organizations who are really worried about safeguarding their brand as objective and disinterested. I think that's healthy.

RICK HESS:

I don't think it means they necessarily are objective and disinterested. Even if it's not about picking sides, I think there's often emotional investment and something you've been studying for years. But I think that's an important piece. I also think it's important that scholars be honest. Many of these questions we come at with priors, with strong assumptions.

RICK HESS:

I have long assumed that most school is really boring. When I think about what makes educational improvement work, for me, it almost always starts with what's going to actually make... Light kids imagination? What's going to engage them?

RICK HESS:

Doesn't mean I'm right, I'm sure there's schools and classrooms that are not boring. But it's good to be honest about our priors.

RICK HESS:

There are also places, and you can do that work and you can try to discipline yourself by being more reliant on different caliber research methods, whether randomized control trials or Quasi experiment design, or all of these things that we lovingly throw around in graduate school seminars.

RICK HESS:

And then there's folks who are much more worried about, well, what can I give a school board or a legislator that'll work? And yeah, they're not doing ground level empirical research like we think about it, they're synthesizing stuff. And this is when Heritage and CAP and those guys are really on their game. I think this is a lot of what they're doing. And they're totally doing it like you say, with a point of view. And they're not at all pretending to be neutral, which is probably good. Because if they showed up at a legislator's office pretending to be neutral, person would be like, "Well, I don't know whether to trust you or not. You're not on my team."

RICK HESS:

CAP and Heritage can move policy because legislators trust them. And they think, okay, we have a shared objective.

RICK HESS:

So I think this kind of unruly mix of folks doing different kinds of work from different perspectives with different purposes is actually all to the good, and where I get most nervous is when I hear folks trying to start pushing back against a cacophony. Famously when we had the Investing in Innovation Fund during Race to the Top era, and there was this talk of... There was this element in the program that federal funds were supposed to be invested in concert with private funds. That kind of thing scares the living hell out of me, because that's where not only do you have to make sure that the philanthropic money's supporting the same folks as the federal money, but if you dare to speak up and criticize it, you're now not only making the secretary of the education angry you're now ticking off a whole bunch of major funders.

RICK HESS:

This tends to be terrible for a robust democratic debate, and I think we got to be careful about that.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

As you said, AEI for example does have a certain kind of coherent intellectual framework or set of ideals. To what extent does some of that ideology either outweigh or influence the nature of the evidence about specific reforms or specific instructional strategies with respect to whether they actually work or not?

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

In other words, AEI I think, without getting into all of the intricacies, on balance is more open and more encouraging of choice models and of some market type solutions to American education. To what extent would you say that that's largely ideologically driven? And to what extent is it empirically verifiable with the data and with the analysis that you are familiar with?

RICK HESS:

I think first off, look, different scholars see the world in different ways, based on our experiences, based on how we read the research. And AEI is generally going to be a place that's more appealing if you think there's some evidence of choice works, just like Harvard or Columbia or Yale or Berkeley or Vanderbilt, or any number of major universities are more attractive if you don't think choice works.

RICK HESS:

There's a reason that you go down those ed school faculties and you see very few folks who are excited about something like school vouchers. So look, partly it's at AEI because of the larger intellectual environment attracts certain folks. And then how much of this is values driven versus data driven?

RICK HESS:

Look, I think one of the things I wrote about years ago in Letters to a Young Ed Reformer, is we all care more about research when we don't care about the issue.

RICK HESS:

So for instance, every six months it seems like the medical community is coming out with new advice on whether your infant should sleep on his tummy or his back. And we all pretty much, as soon as we find out, we say, "Okay, we'll do that," because we don't actually have any strong priors.

RICK HESS:

I don't care if the kid sleeps on his tummy or the back, so you tell me what the experts think. On the other hand, there are other things like say the abortion debate or say euthanasia, or say any number of areas where we don't actually give one hoot what the research shows because we all have deeply held convictions. And those are not going to move because some pediatrician or some scholar somewhere published something in New En JAMA.

RICK HESS:

So with school choice, I think look, there's very little evidence that I've seen that professors at Berkeley or Harvard or scholars at AEI are going to suddenly decide that school choice is good or bad based on some evaluation.

RICK HESS:

I've seen a lot of evidence that how much we need to think about transportation availability, that how we need to think about how choice plays out in urban and dense urban communities versus sparsely populated rural communities. That we need to think about what happens when different kinds of choices are offered online versus brick and mortar.

RICK HESS:

I think on those how do you do it questions, there's actually a lot of room for people on either side of the divide to move based on new findings and research. And one of the problems is that in a polarized click bait culture, we keep wanting to own the other side and get them to say, "I'm wrong, you were right all along," instead of figuring out that you know what, it turns out if we don't worry, if Pedro and I don't... Pedro Noguera and I don't worry about where we stand on choice, but we're talking about if you want to give family access to good schools, how do you think about how many effective schools are close by?

RICK HESS:

How do you think about online availability? How do you think about work days and what families need? How do you think about transportation? Doesn't matter whether we agree on choice or not, you can actually wind up agreeing on half the stuff even while you continue to disagree about the ultimate category element.

RICK HESS:

So I would say that AEI scholars generally wind up at AEI because we don't want to work in universities. One of the reasons we don't work at universities is I used to be at the University of Virginia, and people were really displeased with what I used to write about like the problems with teacher licensure or the benefits of competition and educational systems. And so I went and found a place where I could pursue the questions I found interesting in nuanced ways.

RICK HESS:

And AEI's going to appeal to folks like that. But if we ask these questions and have these debates in the right way, the fact that we disagree on the ultimate issue doesn't necessarily have to get in the way of an enormous amount of productive, responsible truth-seeking.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

In your career, Rick, you have covered a lot of ground. You've been at this for quite some time. Say a little bit about your own... Well, first of all, say a little bit about your background, but also about how your own thinking might have evolved over this time.

RICK HESS:

I came to this, I was a terrible student when I was a kid. I was bored all the time, which is why I think I assume school's boring for most people. I got into one college, while I was there I started substitute teaching for beer money and found that I really liked substitute teaching. And I was really curious because college seemed so fun. I remember I spent three weeks sophomore year reading Vonnegut. I'd never read Vonnegut and I didn't go to class, and I just read Vonnegut for three weeks.

RICK HESS:

And I was like, "This is actually awesome. How come school's not like this?" And people told me, "If you like substitute teaching, you're going to like teaching." So I went on, wound up teaching high school in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and got really frustrated with everything.

RICK HESS:

I went back to do my PhD and my dissertation was my first book, Spinning Wheels. Like how all of these school reforms that always come down the pike wind up not making any difference, but destroying the culture of schools by making it so teachers don't take anything seriously.

RICK HESS:

The thing I learned most through all this, remember I did this for a book of Dick Elmore's about 10 years ago, I Used to Think -- and Now I Think. And it was funny, my whole life as a kid who was terrible in school, as a kid who just always felt like I didn't get it. I always really believed in expertise. I thought like, wow, you'd hear those guys talking about... The announcers on an NFL game, and I thought they were seeing things that were just really clever. Or you read about financial advisors and you'd be like, "Wow."

RICK HESS:

Or you'd read about books getting turned down dozens of time by publishing houses. And I was like, "How do you know which book is going to succeed or not succeed?"

RICK HESS:

And then as I went on, especially as I went to grad school and kept doing stuff and kept meeting people who were supposed experts, and coming away underwhelmed by the expertise, I eventually came to this point that usually we have this whole imposter syndrome problem that we all realize we're worried we're going to get found out. I had that. I was like, "Oh man, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about."

RICK HESS:

But I also kept thinking, but everybody else is an imposter too. And then as I read about this and I realized that publishing houses don't know what's going to sell, nobody wanted to publish Harry Potter. And nobody wanted to publish Atlas Shrugged, and it turns out that most money managers lose money.

RICK HESS:

And I was like, "Wow, okay. Nobody knows what the hell's going on." And so one of the problems, one of the things I've wrestled with is that I used to really believe that the reason you would get a PhD and become a professor of education is that you could help people figure out what works and what they need to do in schools, and how to make schools less boring.

RICK HESS:

And over time I've learned that I have vastly less confidence, that any of us, any of our expertise, any of our research, should be treated in any way as definitive. It can inform our judgment. It's a useful tool for thinking about what we see or don't see. But when I meet these people, policymakers or practitioners who say, "Give me the answer."

RICK HESS:

And especially when I see these researchers who show up with their coefficients and say, "Boy, do I have an answer for you," scares the living heck out of me.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

I want to thank Rick Hess very, very much for being my guest today, for being my friend for many, many years. This has been fascinating. Rick and I know that we agree to disagree on many things, and in a funny sort of way, that's partly what I aspire to. Not just with the podcast, but with a lot of my work, is being able to have honest arguments with people who approach this stuff with as big a brain and as big a heart as you do.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

So thank you very much, Rick. If you have enjoyed this episode, I have to say we have more, and you can subscribe to EdFix on Apple Podcast, Spotify, iHeart radio. We also have a website, EdFixpodcast.com.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

Rick Hess, thank you again from all of us.

RICK HESS:

Good to be with you, Mike. Thanks for having me.