Education on a Handshake: What Hess and McShane Get Right And What They Left Out

Rick Hess and Mike McShane have a new book out called Getting Education Right: A Conservative Vision for Improving Early Childhood, K-12, and College

When Dale and Chad found out they were both reading the book at the same time, they decided to make a book club discussion out of it. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation. 

Chad Aldeman: So let’s dive in. What did you like about the book?

Dale Chu: It was a short, easy read of only 140 pages. It comes off as very conversational, without much jargon, and I found it hard to object to anything in it. 

That said, it’s definitely not a policy manual. Putting on my former hat as a state policymaker, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up this book, and go to Tony (former Indiana state superintendent) and say, “Okay, we have to do A, B and C.” And to be fair to the authors, I don’t think that was necessarily the design of the book. 

I also appreciated how Rick and Mike focused on both rights and responsibilities. Those two go hand in hand. It’s not just about what you as a parent have a right to do, what you as a teacher have a right to do, what you as a kid have a right to do. Today’s climate is so focused on rights. And there’s nothing wrong with rights! But I appreciated that they underscored how every stakeholder has responsibilities (which at times includes exercising restraint) too. 

Chad: I agree that the book was very conversational and easy to pick up and read. I also appreciated how Rick and Mike did a good job acknowledging multiple sides to a debate. 

And that’s a good point about the responsibilities of all parties. They talk about education as a handshake, of the partnership between school and family and between teacher and student. And that everyone must do his or her part. Were there key responsibilities that you really liked that they called out?

Dale: I think one of their criticisms of reform efforts over the last 20-30 years is we’ve been overly focused on one hand in the shake. But again, I kept reading this with my policymaker hat, and trying to figure out what it would mean from that angle. I would sit back and pause, and I would very quickly leave the education sphere in terms of some of the stuff that they were talking about. 

I imagine if Rick and Mike were listening to us, they would say, yeah, that’s sort of our point. If we’re talking about improving the education of kids, you can’t just confine it to schools. It has to go to families, and probably even broader than that. But if you’re a policymaker, you don’t have the luxury of taking that wide of an aperture and I feel like that was sort of a tension for me as I was reading the book. 

I also want to say one thing about the book billing itself as a conservative’s guide to education. Depending on where you’re coming from, you’re likely to bring a set of assumptions in reading that. For example, if you use the word “equity,” ten different people will hear that word and apply ten different definitions. It’s the same thing with “innovation.” “Conservative” is another one of those words. 

I went into the book thinking “conservative” meant a certain thing, but their definition seemed more like a common-sensical approach to education. 

Chad: Ha, yes. I appreciated their ambition in trying to outline a conservative vision for education, partly because I would not call myself a conservative. They are careful to note that they are trying to outline a conversative vision for education as opposed to a Republican version. They acknowledge there’s an overlap between these two things but they are not the same. 

And from my vantage point, the Republican vision for education over the last few last 5-10 years has been reactionary, against whatever Democrats are for. There are times when that does sneak into this book—which we can discuss more when we get into what we didn’t like. But Rick and Mike are trying to build up an affirmative argument for what conservatives should stand for. 

As a result they put a lot of emphasis on values and core principles, and I thought the articulation of those was really interesting and helpful. And honestly, I agreed with maybe 60-80% of it because of that core focus on academics and fundamentals like teaching kids how to read well, and the partnership between schools and families. 

The other thing I really liked about the book was their support for families. They had a lot of stuff about supporting families, in school choice decisions, yes, but also other things. They talk about child tax care credits and other supports that would help kids and families; I appreciated that. 

Dale: Along those lines like I appreciated that they weren’t necessarily dogmatic in terms of being anti-taxes across the board, things you might normally associate with the Republican perspective on education (or any other issue). They were much more nuanced. I found this to be a very serious adult book, which is saying something in these hyperbolically, unserious times. 

Chad: One of my other takeaways is that someone should write the progressive vision for education. As I said, I didn’t disagree with all that much of what’s in their version, but there are differences at the margins and of how things might be prioritized. 

Dale: That’s really interesting. I would guess, based on what Rick and Mike wrote, that their perspective on what a progressive version of this might be would essentially boil down to increased spending. They note that progressives—or Democrats at least—are beholden to a lot of interest groups for the status quo. So what might they be missing? 

Chad: They talk a lot about the sort of interest groups that are protecting the existing status quo of public education. But I think that gets into the tension I mentioned earlier of Republicans versus conservatives. And “Democrat” does not necessarily mean the same thing as “progressive.” There’s probably, again, a lot of overlap in the Venn diagrams here, but the terms do not mean the same thing. 

The other thing is, I think many Democrats would probably disagree with the push in here against the what they call “scientism,” which is basically thinking, “We know what works. We’ve done the research on best practices, and so we should just do more of that thing.” I see this a lot in education where everyone’s a champion of a particular cause, whether that’s professional development or early childhood or charter schools, and they just think we should do that thing and do it times 100. 

Sometimes they’ll also add the phrase “high quality” to the beginning of that to say, “We support high-quality X or high-quality Y.” But once you start adding those qualifiers, then you start getting down into, well, we don’t actually know exactly how to define or replicate this thing. And that’s where I would probably agree with Rick and Mike that national experts may not always know better than people closer to the ground. 

Dale: You know, that was one of my “ahas” as well. To me, whenever I hear the term “high quality,” my mind tends to go to how does the implementation actually look like for children. Whereas what they’re describing in the book, for example, was that “high quality” is often used synonymously with certification and other inputs. 

Chad: Let’s talk a little about what you didn’t like in the book. You’ve already talked a little bit about the lack of attention to policy. I do think that is a big thing that I flagged as well. There were times in the book where they talked about things that they would like to see happen, but they didn’t get into how those things could or would happen. 

For example, in the book they call for schools to change the teacher compensation package to focus more on base salaries rather than benefits. As someone who’s worked on teacher benefits for a while now, it’s not that simple of just wishing that it were so. There was a lot of finger-snapping / hand-waving going on for a vision of a future that doesn’t exist right now. 

Dale: For me, this is a part where I put on my hat as former school principal. As an example, when they were talking about the balance between joy and rigor, they talked about recess. They seemed to chide school officials who didn’t include recess as part of the school day. But as a former leader of a school that initially didn’t have a traditional recess, we had our reasons for it, and it’s not always so neat and clear-cut. 

Chad: I would like to build off that point. I noticed a tension in the book when they talk about deferring to families and leaders to make different decisions in their local contexts, but they also talk about school choice and how that can be freeing and give parents, families, and teachers different options. 

The authors try to argue that X should happen, but that creates a tension when schools are choosing not to do X. Who’s right? I don’t think they draw that line clearly or make a distinction about when we should draw that line. 

As one example, they talk about the need for advanced math, a rich arts program, and academically rigorous public magnet schools, and they talked about breaking the single salary schedule and having more differentiated compensation for math and science teachers. I’m in favor of all those things, but in many cases schools have chosen not to do them. And so at the end of the day, if you’d want to get to a point where schools do those things, we would have to have some policymaker making an affirmative decision to make them. That’s a tension that I don’t think the book fully grappled with, of experts from on high versus local control. 

Dale: One other thing I’d note is that although this book isn’t a policy manual, I could still see it being of use as part of the sausage making of creating laws. When you’re in the room where it happens, behind closed doors, and you’re doing some horse trading, sometimes you kind of regret giving up certain priorities. Anyone who’s been in that room has had this feeling. And so having this book in your back pocket could be helpful in a situation like that as a reminder of first principles.  

But on the flip side, and to your point Chad, how do you get from what we currently have to the vision that Rick and Mike map out? In some respects, maybe you never do. Maybe it’s like the pursuit of happiness.  

This is tied into the way they set up the book. They take the reader through this tour of the monuments in DC, and they cite these lofty aspirational (and inspirational) quotes from Jefferson and Lincoln. And it got me thinking about how the original idea was for Congress to be the most powerful branch of government. But if you look at our politics right now, Congress couldn’t be any weaker. And people are looking for workarounds, like ranked choice voting or expanding the size of the legislature, that could be something that helps address some of the issues that we’re seeing with our government. 

Are there similar workarounds for K-12 education? That’s what I found myself wondering. 

Chad: One of the principles of the book is that they call for “confident pluralism.” For those who aren’t familiar, pluralism in this context means that there should be lots of different options for families to choose from. A family who wants a Montessori elementary school can get it and the family who wants rigorous academic focused on math and reading can get it and there’s a science magnet school, etc. 

That is my answer to your question about how we go forward. If we can’t agree on much as a society, then maybe can agree to let people choose their own educational path. 

And this is one of my other criticisms of the book: I don’t think they are fully confident in their pluralism, because, to my point earlier, I think they want to put a stamp down on certain things that they want to see out of schools. And I agree with that! 

Pluralism with conditions would help strike that balance. I’m open to reconceptualizing what “public education” means, from traditional districts and charters to education savings accounts with real accountability attached to them. I’ve written a piece attempting to articulate a progressive vision for school choice, and that’s where my head goes to solving some of these tensions.

Dale: That’s interesting, that maybe pluralism is the solution or part of the solution. 

In my mind, I was also reading this in terms of what Uncle Sam should do and should not do with respect to K-12 education. They didn’t come out and say it in the book, but Rick and Mike are not enthusiastic cheerleaders of the Bush-Obama era of reform. 

To wit, Rick and Mike’s critique of No Child Left Behind came up a few times. Their criticism is that it was myopically focused on low-income kids, and the rest of the population had no skin in the game in terms of driving education, and that ended up causing the whole edifice to collapse upon itself. I’m not saying there isn’t some validity to that. But when I reflect on that era, there’s something that felt really right about it. 

When you write a book that’s aiming for broad-based appeal, as Rick and Mike have done, you need to write it in terms of values and principles, because once you start getting down into the policy weeds, things get messy pretty quickly. 

Looking ahead, I’m worried that we’re on a trajectory where states will have diverging education policies depending on whether it’s red or blue. But Rick and Mike offer me some hope that a “conservative vision” might transcend the tired, traditional divides. What do you think, Chad? 

Chad: Oh, I think we’re well on the way to that. I wrote a piece last year showing that states have very different approaches around school funding, staffing ratios, and teacher certification. And I think that’s a good thing! It allows for more experimentation and more learning about what policies actually matter for students. 

Where I worry, though, is the nationalization of education politics. We have 50 different states, 13,000 school districts, and 100,000 schools. Surely some of those localities are doing things that I don’t like. A “confident pluralist” has to be willing to tolerate different approaches, and we’re not in a particularly tolerant mood at the moment. 

What do you think? Am I being too pessimistic here, or do you have any final thoughts? 

Dale: Nah, I think your pessimism is warranted. At the same time, I like to think that today’s political turbulence is all part of the greater project that is the formation of a more perfect union. There are tradeoffs to be sure, but I find it encouraging to see parents and other stakeholders engaged on our issue in ways that we might not have fathomed just a decade ago. 

Because you’re such a good book club partner, Chad, I could go on, but I’ll spare anyone who’s made it this far into our conversation. I had a lot of fun. Let’s do it again soon!

About Chad Aldeman



Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.

About the Author

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.

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