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.
As you look back over the past 10 years, what do you see as some of the
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
You worked long and hard on school finance equity. Do you think we’ll ever
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
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
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
Are there some cities out there that are doing a good job with their high
No. I don’t think this is a specific Chicago problem.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Looking at your own career with school reform, what do you feel most proud
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