Commentary Magazine


Troublemaker by Chester E. Finn, Jr.

It’s Educational
Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik
by Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Princeton. 364 pp. $26.95

 

A few months ago, speaking about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, I suggested to a class of undergraduates at an elite university that the unusual geography of Illinois gave Lincoln an advantage in the northern and Douglas an advantage in the southern part of the state. And why was that, I asked? The response was puzzlement. A handful knew that Illinois was located somewhere in the Midwest, but most had no idea of where it lay on the map, let alone that it stretched from the Great Lakes south to Kentucky. Their response, or lack of it, reminded me of a quip by the education reformer E.D. Hirsch: “Subject matter has been so long ignored it’s now barely missed.”

I thought of this again as I read Chester Finn’s Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik. The indefatigable Finn has been at or near the center of school reform since the landmark 1966 Coleman Report, with its wake-up finding that educational “inputs”—like the amount of money expended per student, or the number of certified teachers on staff—has little bearing on educational outcomes. Over the intervening decades, Finn has served on countless panels and committees, put in his share of time in state and federal government, including at the Department of Education, and written or co-written over a dozen books and innumerable articles. For the last ten years he has been the president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, an editor of the magazine Education Next, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the chairman of Hoover’s Koret task force on K–12 education.

Troublemaker is part-memoir, part-memo. Both the memoir and the memo begin in earnest with Finn’s graduate studies at Harvard. There, as a member of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seminar devoted to re-examining Coleman’s evidence, he absorbed the lesson that, in Moynihan’s succinct formulation, “There is only one important question to be asked about education: what do the children learn?” The subsequent 40 years of Finn’s very active life would be spent striving, often against the implacable opposition of the education establishment itself, to implement this fundamental insight.

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In the mid-1960’s, President Lyndon Johnson had declared America’s schools to be “our primary weapon in the war on poverty.” But Finn, although initially sympathetic to LBJ’s Great Society, grew increasingly disillusioned by its programs. By the 1970’s, and despite the presence of fewer students and much higher rates of spending per pupil,  student performance was continuing to decline. It was in those years that the disaster of bilingualism was imposed on schools, that students were given the “right” to be abusive to their teachers, that teachers, buffeted by the difficulties of forced racial integration and increasing school violence, became more unionized and more militant, and that the core function of the public schools—educating future citizens—was lost amid a welter of competing social and political agendas.

Looking back, Finn concludes that he had been “wrong in believing that ignorance about education itself was the central problem in need of solution.” Educators, he discovered, “were primarily concerned with themselves, the politicians they depended on, and the dogmas of what Hirsch called their ‘thoughtworlds.’”

The subsequent era in school reform began in 1983, with the publication of A Nation at Risk, a bombshell report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The report, which garnered widespread attention, contained a famously ominous warning:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

But, public pressure notwithstanding, the education lobby fended off every attempt to compel teachers’ colleges and graduate schools of education to instruct future teachers not just in the “process” of education but in specific subject matters like math and history. What was needed, the lobby maintained, was more money for programs about how to learn, not what to learn, and for encouraging “multicultural” ways of learning. In the name of “critical thinking,” the country had become caught up in a self-inflicted and self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance and political attitudinizing.

In the early 1980’s, Finn worked with Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee on an initiative to “unleash America’s creative genius to invent . . . the best schools in the world.” Unfortunately, this, too, had scant effect. Finn describes here the “familiar blend of inertia, incapacity, and overregulation” that inevitably insures a “rubber-band-like” effect whereby education policy “snaps back into its previous shape as soon as the external pressure eases.”

On a much larger scale, he would observe the same process at work during his years as Assistant Secretary of Education in the mid- to late 80’s, when, working with a “dream team” under the irrepressible leadership of William J. Bennett, he helped turn the encrusted National Assessment of Educational Progress into a true measure of educational achievement, only to see its effectiveness as a standard-setting tool undermined by the federal bureaucracy and the “Blob” (Bennett’s caustic phrase for the education establishment).  

The 1990’s found Finn taking fresh encouragement from a new set of possibilities held out by the movement for school choice. This was based on the conviction, elaborated by John Chubb and Terry Moe in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (1990), that educational standards could be improved nationwide by a movement threatening the monopoly of the public schools and thus forcing them to compete on grounds of excellence. The book appeared at a propitious moment, Finn writes. “It was getting harder—and more nakedly self-interested—to explain why needy students shouldn’t be helped to attend schools that would do them more good.” Alas, disappointment followed once again. Whatever benefits school-choice programs were able to bring to the relatively few students who had access to them, they had “no effect in forcing the school system to improve overall.”

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By this point in Troublemaker, as one new school-improvement program succeeds another, each with its own acronym—of which enough accumulate to require a five-page glossary at the end of the book—and each one producing minimal results, even the dynamic and congenitally hopeful Finn comes to seem worn down and resigned. By the mid-1990’s we read that he has joined the Edison Project, an effort to deploy the profit motive to create successful schools; it, too, goes aground, compelling Finn to give up on all such attempts to “effect education reform one school at a time.” Sooner of later, he explains, any such entrepreneurial venture

finds itself pulling its punches, modifying its plans, or otherwise compromising with the public-school establishment that turns out to be its main client and/or regulator.

Not even President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative has managed to raise standards or materially fulfill Moynihan’s dictum about seeing to it that children actually learn. In Finn’s judgment, the Bush administration got things right by imposing more testing, but got things wrong by leaving it up to the states to decide what the testing showed, thus allowing them to game the results. Instead, he argues, “the law should have set national standards for achievement and left it up to the states as to how to achieve them” (emphasis added). This is in line with an earlier proposal of his in COMMENTARY, where he urged a core “curriculum of national unity” that would return to the schools “their vital role in fostering, reinforcing, and transmitting the sense of a common civic culture.” One cannot help wondering, though, whether such a proposal would have met a better fate than the abortive attempt to create a national history curriculum, defeated when the distance between liberals and conservatives as to what should be included proved too wide to be bridged.

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Having meticulously and fair-mindedly detailed four decades of “staggering inertia” in American education policy, Finn nevertheless tries to end on an upbeat note. “Why then do I remain moderately bullish about the future of K-12,” he asks? Because, he answers, “our schools still do a decent job with their top students.” But do they? As I discovered a few months ago, of the same top students who knew not where Illinois was on the map, not a single one could say what a grand jury was.

Each successive generation since the mid-1960’s has read less, mastered a smaller body of knowledge, and possessed a more meager vocabulary than its predecessors. What makes the members of the current generation different is that they appear unembarrassed by their ignorance. The products of a school system devised and maintained by the process-oriented professors of the education schools, they are all, in effect, postmodernists: for them, everything is a matter of opinion, and no one’s opinion is better than anyone else’s.

The decline in students’ knowledge base and in their ability to read and analyze is an expression of changes that began to take root in the 1960’s and that left all authority—legitimate and illegitimate—in dramatic desuetude. The collapse of, in this case, intellectual authority underlies the ongoing failure both of our schools and of virtually every effort at school reform. Like the United Nations, another institution with once-splendid goals, the American education industry is a gigantic self-serving bureaucracy that now does more harm than good but can be neither reformed nor eliminated. Troublemaker, a book devoted to Chester Finn’s thoughtful and deeply felt, but ultimately Sisyphean quest, deals with this terrible fact only briefly and in passing; one hopes he will yet address it at the length it deserves.

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