Ep. 249: Big Ideas – “A Search for Common Ground” with Pedro Noguera and Frederick Hess

April 6, 2021

In this episode, we are joined by the co-authors of a new book, A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education. We discuss the purpose of education, school choice and more.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I’m very grateful to be joined by two excellent guests. Dr. Frederick Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Professor Pedro Noguera is the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. They are the co-authors of a new book titled, A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education, which will be the subject of today’s conversation. Gentlemen, welcome to the podcast.

Frederick Hess: Hey, good to be with you, bud.

Pedro Noguera: Great to be with you, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: Your book is unusual in that it’s written not… There’s a lot of books that are co-authored that sort of share one voice. Yours is actually a series of letters back and forth on a variety of contentious topics in education policy, such as the achievement gap, testing, and accountability, teacher pay, even how schools and the policy-makers should handle COVID-19. So, Rick, I think you came up with the idea for the book. Why did you decide to write the book this way?

Frederick Hess: Yeah. It’s a great question. First off, can I say, just Pedro’s title sounds so much more impressive than mine? I got to admit that.

Pedro Noguera: Not really.

Frederick Hess: It sounds good. Stoops and… I think, Jason, I know I’ve had this conversation with you too. I think all of us have grown frustrated in recent years, increasingly so, that like so much of popular political and cultural life, education conversations feel more about spouting stylized points than actually about trying to understand why we disagree, get to root causes, actually find where we agree or persuade one another. So, I think my thinking on this was that we don’t have a lot of models in education today where people are actually disagreeing in a respectful, articulate way. Usually, there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, depending what room you’re in, and it proceeds from there. And so, it seemed to me that it might be just incredibly useful to show people what it looks like when two informed folks have a respectful conversation because I don’t think we see very much of it in education.

Jason Bedrick: I certainly agree, and I mean, this as a compliment: You’re both highly credentialed academics, but this is not written in an academic voice. It is very readable. I highly recommend. I’ll just say this. It was very refreshing for me to read this book because you do get past the talking points right away and you actually are having a conversation, not just trying to score points. You consider what the other person said. You respond to it. Sometimes you even seem to change your thinking a little bit over time. So, it’s very refreshing these days. Pedro, I’ll ask you this one. You obviously both have very different worldviews. In some ways, you’re quite similar. You do provide some biographical information. You both grew up in sort of a hardscrabble environment and went on to be in the Ivy League, and very impressive careers in academia and education reform generally. But you do have very, very different worldviews. And so, your book explores a number of areas where you disagree, but you title it A Search for Common Ground. So, were you surprised, Pedro, at how much common ground you actually found?

Pedro Noguera: I’m not sure if I was surprised. What I appreciated about the exchange as it evolved, right, because going into it, I didn’t really… I mean, I was open to it. That’s why I responded immediately and said, “Yeah, I’m game. I’m in.” But I didn’t know how it would evolve. I didn’t know if it was going to be we would just take rigid positions and kind of debate, or if there would be some areas where we would agree. And I think what I appreciated about the exchanges with Rick is his willingness to respond to what I was saying, and I tried to do the same, that is that not just to use talking points. And what ends up happening more often is people take positions and then try to characterize or mischaracterized those that they disagree with, and that didn’t happen in our exchanges. We really did acknowledge the complexity of issues and try to understand both where we agreed and where we didn’t agree. And I think that beyond education, that’s so important and it actually happens a lot more than people realize, but outside of politics. In communities, people, especially on issues like education, people realize these issues, we’re not as divided as sometimes it seems.

Frederick Hess: Jason, one of the things that folks should remember is we see this all the time. Even in school systems, you see people actually who deal with thorny questions and try to work them out in a practical way, but that’s never what gets covered. You don’t write op-eds about it. You don’t go on talk radio about it. So, people who follow this stuff from more than arm’s length only see the stuff where we’re screaming at each other.

Jason Bedrick: Now, you open your correspondence I think at exactly the right spot, which is the foundational question: What is the purpose of schooling? And you found actually quite a bit of common ground there and you both agree that it serves academic and social purposes, but you do disagree over some of the particulars. So, Pedro, in practice, how should schools try to balance these goals of providing high-quality academic services, but at the same time, socializing their students?

Pedro Noguera: I’m a sociologist. That’s my academic background, and I’m always aware of the way in which our society is shaping our schools and the education experiences of kids. What we know is that because of inequality, based on race and socioeconomic status, that where you live has profound influence on the kind of education you get and how you’re being prepared. And so, if you’re in an affluent community, it’s almost like the sky’s the limit. Right? You’re getting lots of enrichment. You’re getting lots of exposure to hopefully good ideas that are preparing you for the world, although we can’t be sure if you’re really prepared to understand the diverse nature of our society. But nonetheless, I would say that kids in affluent communities get what they need and more, sometimes too much because I think a lot of times they don’t come away with an appreciation for others and with appreciation for the need to work hard. I think that there’s a lot of coddling that goes on, especially in affluent communities of kids.

Can I just share a funny aside to reflect that? My daughter’s in a learning pod right now with five other kids. My wife set it up early on in the pandemic. And the teacher’s about to give a math test and one of the girls said, “I can’t do the test. I’m depressed. I have anxiety, and I’m allergic to raisins. I can’t do the test.” And the teacher’s like, “What do I do with this?” But this is what I mean about entitlement. This was a girl who was, although she’s only 8, very comfortable with advocating for herself, even in ways that made no sense to an adult, but she would do it. You don’t see low-income kids do that typically because they don’t have the same kind of sense of entitlement that they can do whatever they want. And I think that speaks to a different way in which they get educated. They get educated to be prepared to fit into society as it is. And that’s a problem because usually, it means they’re being fitted into low-income jobs and not have the same sense of possibility, and education should expand possibilities for all kids.

Frederick Hess: And again, Jason, you touched before how did the book come out. Honestly, Pedro and I have known each other for 20 years, more than that maybe. When he tried to recruit me up to Harvard once upon a time, and as soon as I was back on the plane, I think a whole bunch of people asked him, “You think we’re bringing that joker back to the joint?” But I think one of the nice things about engaging with Pedro is he has a point of view, but he’s open to hearing these things refracted from other perspectives. And look, there’s nothing that Pedro just said that I would take issue. I think all of us who work in education believe that this has got to be both about creating opportunities for the success for every child, for them to pursue their gifts, to cultivate whatever God blessed them with, and also to take their role as responsible citizens. So, it was always this dual purpose. And I think Pedro’s obviously right. I mean, EdChoice, you guys have been fighting this battle for decades, that we know that some children aren’t given the same opportunities as others.

Where I would push back a little or a lot on what Pedro just said is I think he’s right, but I think too many people take that as dogma and say, “Therefore, every child who lives in an affluent community is fine, and every child who was born into a high-poverty community needs a lot.” And I think that vastly oversimplifies. I think we’ve got to remember that children are unique individuals, that Pedro’s larger point is true, but that at the same time, we need to make sure that we don’t caricature or stereotype children out of our sense of rightness, that we are always aware of the need to work with every child to make sure every child is challenged. There are, I think, children who live in high-poverty communities who behave like they are entitled, whose educators want them to feel entitled. And I think that is exactly as problematic as when we see those behaviors in affluent communities.

So, I think like with so much of the book, it’s not that Pedro and I don’t flatly disagree. I think he’s right. But I think there are layers to this that sometimes get lost when we translate this to the real world.

Jason Bedrick: Well, again, I encourage readers to get the book because it covers a lot of topics that we won’t be able to get to on today’s podcast, but obviously, we’d be remiss on the EdChoice Chats podcast if we didn’t get into your chapter on school choice. Rick, I’ll let you kick this one off since you opened the chapter, which again, I should say, this is one of the most thoughtful exchanges I’ve ever encountered over school choice. You eschew the talking points. You get right to the meat of the subject. And Rick, you don’t claim that school choice is a panacea. You don’t focus too much on things like the effects on test scores. Very often, we focus on these things because it’s what you can measure, right? And we’re sort of a man looking for his keys under the light because that’s where the light is. So, Rick, we’ll start with this. Why do you support school choice?

Frederick Hess: Sure. For a couple of reasons, really probably for three. One is look, choice is part of the American tapestry. Going back to the dawn of the republic, we’ve had lots of choice about lots of things. And to this day, families with means, folks like Pedro and myself, when we buy a house, we’re making a choice about where our kids will be educated. If we’re not satisfied with where we live, we will choose a school. It seems to me a fundamental right for everybody. The second thing is, look, I believe that a lot of these bureaucracies that govern local public school districts are lethargic and ineffectual. And I believe that families, whether or not they have means, also deserve avenues to make choices and that it will be healthy for the entire fabric.

But the real reason, the big reason personally that I support choice is that I think it’s about creativity. I think so much of what passes under the umbrella of school reform, certainly for the quarter-century I’ve been doing this, is people trying to figure out how do you prod big bureaucratic systems to do things a little differently through legislation or policy, and I think it’s incredibly difficult. I think you frequently wind up with unintended consequences. And I think because schools are such fundamentally human places, driven so much by the relationships between children, and adults, and the school, and the community that it shouldn’t be about just trying to prod bureaucracies. It should be about creating new schools, new learning environments—whether we call them learning pods, or private schools, or online, or course choice, or whatever we call these mechanisms. And I think school choice is a way to empower educators, and families, and communities to develop the new arrangements that work better for them.

Jason Bedrick: Pedro, you had some concerns about Rick’s support for school choice.

Pedro Noguera: Yeah, I’ll say where I agree and where I disagree with Rick. One of the things I’ve always found problematic and hypocritical is that many of the opponents of choice exercise choice themselves, that they’re choosing to put their kids in elite public or private schools, but they see choice as being something for that they want to keep from low-income people. I find that awfully problematic… I won’t name them, but I could name several of the outspoken opponents of choice who have done that for their own kids. And so, it really is unfair to say that only those with means should have choice and those without should not.

At the same time, I think choice is an illusion. I’ll just borrow from Malcolm Gladwell here. We go into our supermarket and we can choose between 20 different kinds of mustard, 50 different kinds of detergent. That choice is manipulated. What is influencing our choices of mustard or detergent? It’s advertising, and the same thing is happening now with the schools. When you look at these cities and the way they market to parents, they’ll be engaging in false advertising. You’ll get a free laptop if you come here, a free… It’s manipulation. And I worry about that because, in fact, when you talk to most parents, what really matters to them? They want easy access. Right? Because if you’re in a city, you don’t want to drive all the way across town to get your kid to school. You want a school right in your neighborhood. You want safety. You want quality. And unless choice delivers those things for people, it actually exacerbates inequities.

And that’s what we’re seeing over and over again, who gets chosen and who doesn’t get chosen. Because we like to think it’s parents who choose, but the fact is that if you come to school and you’ve got a kid with special needs, a kid with behavior problems, a lot of schools don’t want to choose that kid. And in fact, they will often be pushed out back into public schools that will now serve a disproportionate number of high-need kids. And that should concern all of us because if we’re concerned about choice for equity purposes when there’s clear evidence that it’s exacerbating inequities, we have a problem.

Jason Bedrick: Rick, are you concerned about inequities and the way that private schools, especially, let’s say for-profit players might be manipulating through advertising?

Frederick Hess: Sure. But I think there’s a lot of things to be concerned about in the world, and we’ve got to weigh them out. To Pedro’s point, these are all absolutely legitimate concerns, but there also legitimate concerns about existing district bureaucracies. District schools will absolutely say, “Hey, we’re not going to be able to meet all of the needs of all of these children at every campus. So, we are going to stick some kids on a bus and drive them over because we will have a campus that will be able to serve them.” Heck, Washington, D.C., was in court for years and years spending a fortune because it couldn’t figure out anywhere in the district how to deal with students with special needs. So, it was spending $80,000 – $100,000 a year for individual student placements into private schools.

So, Pedro’s concerns are absolutely valid ones, but I don’t think we want to compare the reality of systems of choice against a mythical option in district operations. What we need to do is compare apples and apples. And I think in that case, there are absolutely cases in places where I think Pedro’s critiques are on point, but I think if we hold that way, I think there’s absolutely places where the choice community has done far better by empowering and serving families that have been left out than traditional districts. And I think Pedro, to his credit, has generally been very open to acknowledging that and talking about it. I think too many choice opponents aren’t.

On the for-profit question, I’ll just say, look, I think for-profits are treated in an unhelpful way in most of the education conversation. For-profits tend to be really good at two things. They tend to try to grow to serve a lot of people faster than nonprofits or public entities because they’re trying to make money, and they tend to try to squeeze costs because they’re trying to make money. Now, these to me, generally being more cost-effective and serving more people are really good things, especially when you look at how slowly say charter management organizations have grown over time or how the costs of say so many nonprofit providers keep going up and up and up rather than getting squeezed. Now, the flip side of for-profits is because they want to make money, they will also try to cut corners and they will also try to market under false pretenses like Pedro is concerned about. But that strikes me not as a reason to think, “Oh, for-profits are bad,” but this is an argument where we need sensible transparency and regulation around for-profits, really around all providers in this space.

Pedro Noguera: Can I just add one thing? So, where I agree with Rick. When it’s clear that the district is unable to provide quality education to kids, if a charter organization comes along and can serve those kids better, I can’t oppose that. I mean, I’ve seen that happen in many cities where the local public school is under-enrolled. Suddenly, a charter school opens up and now they’re serving kids and they’re serving them better. To me, it would be cruel to say they shouldn’t have a better school. How could you possibly rationalize that. And the district has had years of opportunity to do it itself.

The real question to me is how does policy extract lessons from those better schools that we can now make available and say, “Okay, it’s shown we can under these circumstances provide a good education to these kids. Why can’t we do it in other communities, either through the public system or other ways?” Because that should be our focus, how to get good education to more kids, not how to ration a few good schools. And there are public systems that do that, and there are choices systems that do that.

Jason Bedrick: Right. I would just add, I think one of the promises of broad school choice programs is the idea that it’s not just about rationing. It’s about incentivizing the creation and expansion of more options that serve kids. We don’t talk enough, I think, about Arizona and Florida where I think these things are happening. I think the policy community tends to focus more on the failures I think of the charter sector to live up to a lot of its promises. But there’s I think a lot of room for exploration in these other states that have not only robust charter sectors but also education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, but fruitful exploration for another day. One question for each of you before we get going. What’s one area where your thinking really changed after writing the book and conversing with each other, came in one way, and came out with a fresh perspective? Maybe, Pedro, I’ll start with you.

Pedro Noguera: You know, I think I had to on a number of occasions acknowledge a point that Rick was making. So, for example, a lot of anti-choice people would say, “What’s going on is the privatization of public education.” And I’ve said that myself. And then Rick has pointed out, guess what? Schools are already being privatized. He gave the example of the ways in which public school systems rely on private schools to serve special-ed kids that they can’t serve. And that’s been happening for how long? A long time, and no one has called that privatization. What they’ve called that is meeting the needs of kids that public schools can’t serve. So, I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy and I had to acknowledge when Rick makes a valid point, that it’s a legitimate point, and we need to reframe the way we’re talking about the issue.

Jason Bedrick: Rick, where’d you change?

Frederick Hess: Yeah. I think one of the funny things is Pedro and I have been doing this so long. We’ve been doing this more than half a century between us, and we’ve read all the same studies and books. So, one of the things is Pedro at the beginning said, “Well, we’re just going to argue.” We didn’t know. We never thought we were going to really necessarily change each other’s mind because we’ve been through this. But it’s really, I think, more that, like Pedro just said, he was aware of these things, but in our conversation, we focused on things that aren’t usually what you focus on.

For me, I think one of the biggest examples was a lot of the conversation around civics and equity and anti-racism. Pedro started us off by talking about some of just structural inequities. Kids grow up in low-income communities. We know they’re much less likely to have the availability of gifted classes or advanced placement courses, whether or not. Even those students who are perfectly equipped for them are less likely to have those options in front of them. We know they’re less likely to go to college. We know all of these structural things are in play, and I find these hugely troubling. The whole reason that I’m passionate about education is because when you look at any little child, I’m like… Right? I mean, we’re in this work because we believe they each have that opportunity with the blessings of liberty.

But one of my great frustrations is all of that has been wrapped in the current environment by a bunch of people, slogan “work hard, be nice” because it decided that this was a vestige of white supremacy, which for the life of me, I can’t begin to fathom. The Smithsonian Institute Museum of African-American History said that things like linear thinking were vestiges of white supremacy on the Smithsonian website. I find this hugely destructive. I find this an assault on core values that are broadly shared by Americans. I find much of this caught up in an attack on things that I think is foundational to liberty.

And so, for me, I’ve been enormously frustrated, especially over say the last 12 months because I want to be supportive of efforts that I think address real challenges, but I don’t want to give a pass to things which I think spread poisonous malicious notions. For me, Pedro, it’s so refreshing to have these conversations with him and have Pedro not feel like he had to defend stuff which strikes me as crazy. To see Pedro distinguish between things which address real structural inequities and problems versus stuff which he was perfectly comfortable to say, “Yeah, I’m not behind that. That doesn’t make sense.” And so, I think it’s easy, especially when we’re all locked up and doing stuff virtually by pandemic to imagine that when we disagree with somebody that they become a proxy for an entire side. And so, for me, it was just so powerful to have Pedro reminding me the fact that these folks say that they’re on one side of the issue doesn’t mean they are speaking for all kinds of thoughtful people of goodwill on that side of the issue.

Jason Bedrick: Well, closing question. What advice do you have… I mean, first of all, at the very beginning of the book, you highlight some really troubling statistics about, I don’t remember them exactly, but it was definitely high numbers of both Republicans and Democrats that wished that members of the other party would simply disappear and that the country would be better off without them. So, what advice do you have for policymakers and academics and education reform advocates, and just other citizens who want to see more civil and productive dialogue about education policy and policy generally?

Pedro Noguera: So, I think we start to make progress when we don’t just have this exchange with each other, but even within our camp, we challenge kind of the orthodoxy. I’ll give an example. I was on a panel several years ago where people were making the claim that there was a style of learning that corresponded to race. Right? And these were people that I might think of as people that I’m allied to in certain ways, but I thought it was a ridiculous idea, and I totally challenged them. So, I would say that we make progress when we’re willing to challenge even those we agree with on another issues, to speak truth to power, to speak truth to even those in our camps. That’s what we don’t see happening in policy. In our political arena, we get these hardened camps, and it becomes very difficult to solve the problems facing the country when people are trying to win points and when we’re looking at everything through an ideological lens.

So, my hope is that for those who have the courage because it does take some courage to speak, to challenge those that you normally agree with in your camp to be willing to do so, so that we can start to open up a dialogue about a range of issues, but especially in education that can get us closer to the ideal Rick spoke about serving all kids while making sure that all kids, regardless of where they live, get a good education.

Frederick Hess: I think Pedro’s response here perfectly tees it up. So, for me, there’s a couple takeaways here. One is Pedro just said it takes some courage, which I think is right. And frankly, right now, to this question of what do we take away from this exercise… Right now, our politics reward people who stake out extreme claims. The studies show they’re more likely to wind up on CNN and MSNBC and Fox. They’re more likely to get radio airplay. They’re more likely to get contributions. But this stuff has also, I think, bled over into the work of those of us in education who aren’t politicians. But when you’re trying to compete for foundation dollars, when you’re thinking about who gets invited or who gets listened to, there’s a real pressure to make sure that you’re speaking as one with your team. There can be professional consequences for not being aligned.

And part of the trick here is if you’re more junior, if you’re 20-something and you’re just trying to find your way in this work, those pressures can be suffocating. For people like Pedro and me who’ve had the privilege of doing this long enough that we’ve been able to write a lot of books and we’ve wound up in pretty secure jobs, I think we have a moral obligation to speak up, to give people a model of what it looks like to speak for your principles without feeling like you have to be a member of a team at all times on every issue, and to kind of let people see what it looks like to challenge your teammates in a way that’s respectful and constructive, just like how we should challenge our opponents.

The final thought to this question is look, these data points that you mentioned, Jason, from the more uncommon stuff are hugely concerning, but it’s also the case that I’m pretty confident that 70 to 80% of Americans don’t buy into this stuff. You’re more likely to wind up on TV if you’re extreme. The extremists are the ones who dominate Facebook and Twitter. But the reality is 70 to 80% of Americans I think aren’t actually caught up in this. They’re trying to live their lives. They’re trying to raise their kids. They’re trying to live in communities and be good people. And part of the problem is they don’t know what the heck to do about it. And so, for those people who are involved in PTAs, or serving on school boards, or training teachers because I think part of the purpose of this book was both to give these folks the vocabulary and a model of how they can actually speak up and push back against the lunatics on both sides, and to reassure them that they’re not as alone as it sometimes can seem.

Jason Bedrick: Our guests today have been Dr. Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and Professor Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Again, their book is A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education. Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming on.

Pedro Noguera: Thanks for having us, Jason.

Frederick Hess: Hey, thanks, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at EdChoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.