Overhauling a Broken Educational System

Published July 1, 2006

Tough Love for Schools : Essays on Competition, Accountability, and Excellence
Written by Frederick M. Hess
Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2006
280 pages, hardcover, ISBN 0844742112, $15.75
Available through Amazon.com

From the first paragraph of his book’s introduction, Frederick Hess sets forth a contrarian view of today’s American public schools that suggests significant reform is needed.

Hess, director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and executive editor of the quarterly journal Education Next, says the system needs “tough love” in which students, parents, and all taxpayers demand more from our public schools. He points out the United States already spends 27 percent more money per student on average than Japan, 66 percent more than Germany, and 122 percent more than South Korea.

Hess has created a collection of essays that might seem radical given the current, hierarchical structure of the nation’s public school systems. He argues for school reform that enables both private and public entrepreneurs to create new schools, giving them the freedom to reward excellence, introduce technology, and devise new educational strategies practical for today’s global business climate.

Recreating the System

Such terms as “accountability,” “competition,” “excellence,” and “public good” are used commonly throughout the book. Hess makes no apologies for his wide-scale dissatisfaction with many of today’s educational institutions, from teacher unions and school administrations to the elected officials who run school boards. But he refrains from casting a despairing eye over individuals, instead emphasizing that the system needs to be fixed immediately.

Throughout the book, Hess challenges the basic structure of the public school system. Several times, he blames politics for a disproportionate number of the ills affecting today’s public schools.

Hess is proposing a significant system overhaul, calling the current system “lethargic.” He asks that the term “public” be redefined. “Our federalized system of government allows for localized decisions to be made on private school vouchers, charter schools and home schooling but recently more decisions have been [nationally centralized],” he writes.

Drafting Subversive Ideas

Hess outlines a “case for being mean” so that students are graded accurately. This leads into his demand for accountability. Students and teachers, he argues, should be adequately rewarded only when they have earned it–not out of a belief in some innate right or sense of entitlement.

With accountability comes the need for competition. Hess compares today’s public schools with some of the most successful businesses in the United States, and laments that by those standards, public schools have failed miserably. He is clearly a proponent of choice, and he even introduces in some detail the notion of for-profit schools as a way to scare the current system into increasing productivity.

Hess goes into significant detail about the need for a higher level of expectations in our schools–demanding excellence from teachers, administrators, students, and even parents. He believes the impact of the current approach to school certification is insignificant and proposes instead that principals be required to manage schools as a bottom-line business that relies on empirical data (not standardized testing) to guide performance and to manage school staff with a demanding and goal-oriented approach.

Making the Point

Throughout Tough Love for Schools, Hess never hides his strong opinions, which some would term radical. He provides detailed essays on accountability, competition, initiative, entrepreneurship, and excellence. He proposes more attention be paid to education investment rather than simply spending money blindly on new technologies. And throughout the book, Hess proposes steps that would, in his estimation, dramatically increase the measurable performance of the American public school system.

Little is held back. Readers probably won’t agree with everything Hess proposes, but this is an engaging, thought-provoking, and well-researched book that gives a view of public schools some Americans have suspected is true but few are willing to discuss. Perhaps more than any other, that is the point Hess wants to get across.

Mike Scott ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in White Lake, Michigan.