Fred Hess Led the Way in School Reform

By Marilyn Sherman

Fred Hess with Sarah Purdy (BS05), who was one of his undergraduate thesis advisees, at the School of Education and Social Policy Convocation in 2005
Fred Hess with Sarah Purdy (BS05), who was one of his undergraduate thesis advisees, at the School of Education and Social Policy Convocation in 2005
When the path toward school reform was rockiest, professor G. Alfred Hess Jr. led the way, educational leaders say. Hess, a faculty member at the School of Education and Social Policy for nine years who retired in December, died on January 27.

An expert on educational policy and school reform, Hess led research on the Chicago Public Schools and area suburban schools for more than 25 years, first as the founding director of the nonprofit Chicago Panel on School Policy and then for the last nine years as director of the School of Education and Social Policy's Center for Urban School Policy. After coming to Northwestern in 1996, Hess directed several major evaluation projects for the Chicago Public Schools and coordinated the University's Lighthouse Partnership with the Evanston School District 65.

When Hess retired in December 2005, the School of Education and Social Policy instituted the G. Alfred Hess Jr. Undergraduate Research Fund to support undergraduate research. The fund honors Hess's outstanding service to SESP and his commitment to mentoring students, according to Dean Penelope Peterson.

Hess is widely admired as a pioneer of Chicago school reform. "He was courageous and persistent in working on that battle when few others were and no one thought the schools could be improved," says professor James Rosenbaum. "It was his idea that research can matter. That's a really valuable lesson for all of us."

SESP research faculty member Jody Kretzmann adds that the people who worked with Hess admire "how straightforward and honest his research was. He was never driven by a preconceived position but was always looking for the truth." In addition, his "on-the-ground anthropological research in classrooms had a human face to it and a depth to it that was persuasive," says Kretzmann.

Education leaders speak of Hess as being at the center of both of the major points of Chicago school reform in the last two decades — the development of the Chicago School Reform Act in 1988 and Paul Vallas's institution of school accountability in 1995. Don Moore, director of Designs for Change, says Hess's early work on the dropout rate in Chicago was "a critical piece of evidence ... justifying the need for basic change." Later Hess helped shape the agenda of the Consortium of Chicago School Research. "He's consistently remained active on this set of issues related to improving education for the most vulnerable students in Chicago," notes Moore.

For young school reformers, Hess served as an inspiration and a guide. Jobi Peterson (BS93), executive director of Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, says, "I'm in a generation of people on whom Fred had a huge impact as a mentor ... He was a hero."

Praising Hess as a "spectacular human being," she says, "It's not possible for me to look at positive things happening for kids and not see that Fred had a hand in it."

Students echo these sentiments. Sarah Purdy (BS05), a former undergraduate thesis advisee, says, "I feel privileged to have worked so closely with a phenomenal researcher, a passionate social activist and a genuinely kind-hearted individual. "He was and will continue to be an inspirational force in my life." Former advisee and student Sara Krakauer (BS00) says, "We will continue his important work, and I hope that we can do justice to his immense vision."

Colleagues at SESP confirm Hess's unique influence. Professor Solomon Cytrynbaum says, "There's no question that very early he put Chicago school reform on the national map." Hess's books, including Restructuring Urban Schools: A Chicago Perspective, "are mainstays of the early reform effort," says Cytrynbaum. "He had enormous impact on legitimizing reform as a field of study."

Calling Hess "one of the most ethical and principled people I've ever worked with," Cytrynbaum describes Hess as fitting the model of the School of Education and Social Policy because he was "dedicated to making a difference."


Memorial gifts to the G. Alfred Hess Undergraduate Research Fund may be sent to the School of Education and Social Policy Development Office, 2020 Ridge, Evanston, IL 60208.
By Marilyn Sherman