Paul Hill: Reinventing Our Ideas About Public Education

March 2010

In a field full of ideologues and demagogues, we have been profoundly influenced by an unassuming, quiet intellect who has challenged us to think differently about the meaning of public education: Paul Hill has been a passionate advocate for improving our schools, particularly for the neediest children in our country, for more than four decades.

Paul isn’t afraid to challenge existing institutions (be they powerful monopoly unions or voucher zealots) when they fail to serve kids. He respects evidence, no matter what it says, and focuses on how to make things better rather than drag them down. He is honest, accessible, and pragmatic. We strive to emulate these characteristics in our own work.

Paul’s writing on urban school reform has had a profound impact on the debate over the future of public education. His firm belief that “public education is an idea, not an institution” is reflected in the unique ways he approaches research and has led to many innovative and influential works. His central theory of change can be traced back to High Schools with Character (with Foster and Gendler), a RAND study that asked why Catholic schools in New York City were more effective than public schools serving similar students. Hill reasoned from the findings that public schools could have the same central attributes if school boards became managers of portfolios of school contracts and if each school had responsibility for its own future (in Reinventing Public Education with Guthrie and Pierce). The book has had a significant impact—one only has to look around major U.S. cities (Chicago, New York, Denver, Washington, DC, and New Orleans) to see this “portfolio” idea now fully embraced as the reform strategy to renew urban school systems.

Parent and teacher choice, charter-like governance, and outcome-based oversight were all central to the “reinventing” idea, but Paul has never considered himself an advocate. In Fixing Urban Schools and It Takes a City he argued that all of the major reform strategies of the recent decades—even those he sees as most promising—are incomplete, all with their own “zones of wishful thinking,” and he proposed that everyone would benefit from looking across strategies to form complementary alliances.

One of us (Brewer) first met Paul as a young researcher at the RAND Corporation, the austere think tank that has produced some of the most innovative education policy scholars of the past two generations (e.g., Rich Shavelson, Milbrey McLaughlin and Lorraine McDonnell to name just three). Paul had a long and distinguished career at RAND, and although he left the year before I arrived, he would visit often. I always remember he and the late Tom Glennan chatting, around 1994–1995, with me, a young, naïve scholar, about some of the ideas they were thinking about, many of which ultimately ended up in Reinventing. It was one of those unique, thrilling intellectual experiences that are all too rare. For Paul to give his time to a newly minted PhD meant a great deal.

The other of us (Lake) was hired in 1994 as one of Paul’s first employees at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Though I had only a bachelor’s degree and a bit of legislative experience, Paul always took my advice and insights as seriously as any seasoned PhD. I often found myself sitting at a table with nationally renowned researchers and policymakers and wondering how I ever lucked into working with Paul. Through Paul’s patient mentorship over the years, I developed skills that no doctoral program could ever offer. I learned the “Hill way” of proposing innovative solutions to sticky problems: presenting complex information in a way that is understandable, compelling, and clear, following the evidence wherever it goes, and pushing findings to their logical conclusions so that research can come alive in policy debates.

Paul Hill’s intellectual contributions to the field are many, and through his selfless mentorship of many young researchers at RAND, CRPE, and elsewhere, they extend well beyond what he has produced directly. We expect that Paul’s influence on research and policy will be evident for decades, much for the better of students served by U.S. public education.

This is a pre-print of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in the Journal of School Choice, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2010, by Taylor & Francis.

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