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A Real Education Reformer Troublemaker by Chester Finn

Fall 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 4
Troublemaker: A Personal History ofSchool Reform Since Sputnik by ChesterE. Finn, Jr. (Princeton University Press,
2008). 364 pp.

M. D. AESCHLIMAN is Professor of Education atBoston University, Adjunct Professor of English atthe University of Italian Switzerland, and author ofThe Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the CaseAgainst Scientism.

Chester Finn has written an absorbingbook of great importance about AmericanK-12 education over the last fifty years,drawing on and depicting his lifetime commitmentsand activities as one of our mostimportant educational policy specialists—innational government, state government, theuniversity, the research institute, the advocacygroup, and the world of publications.His autobiographical account should be puton that small shelf of books indispensable forspecialists and citizens alike in their capacityto inform, illuminate, and motivate: CharlesL. Glenn's The Myth of the Common School(1988), for the theory, history, trajectory, andproblems of the public school movementover the last two centuries in France, Holland,Germany, and the USA; E.D. Hirsch'sThe Schools We Need and Why We Don't HaveThem (1996), for a profound analysis of theterrible inadequacy and ineffectiveness ofAmerican K-12 schooling, and a practicalprogram for its improvement that is nowbeing used in over 800 schools; and DianeRavitch's Left Back: A Century of Failed SchoolReforms (2000), a magisterial survey of AmericanK-12 educational policies since 1900with a haunting and damning subtitle that waschanged for the paperback edition.

The U.S. Constitution created a decentralizedrepublican democracy in which therights of individual citizens and states weresafeguarded against national encroachmentand domination. Given the brutalities andcatastrophes of top-down, statist educationalpolicies since the French Revolution, thisarrangement, rooted in the Bill of Rights, hasserved us well politically, restricting or preventinglarge-scale statist indoctrination. Butsince the victories of the educational"Progressives" from the 1920s on—JohnDewey, William Heard Kilpatrick, and theirmany contemporary successors in the teachers'colleges and educational schools, whichconsolidated and institutionalized those victoriesin a worldview and matching educationalpolicies—American public educationhas become increasingly ineffective in conveyingknowledge, skill, and even elementarycivic and ethical understanding. Thebooks by Glenn, Hirsch, and Ravitch providevital narrative and exposition as to whythis has taken place, and Hirsch's 1996 bookand his subsequent The Knowledge Deficit(2006) have also drawn attention to his "CoreKnowledge" curriculum, a movement of K-8 curricular reform that shows strong promiseof doing something substantial to counteractand ameliorate an otherwise deterioratingsituation characterized by an overwhelmingirony: vastly increased American educationalexpenditures over the last half-century havebeen accompanied by declines in educationaloutcomes, giving us one of the weakest andmost unfair public education systems in thedeveloped world.

Chester Finn's autobiographical accountof his involvement in alternately critiquingand shaping American K-12 educational policysince the 1960s is an ideal and detailed complementto Glenn's, Hirsch's, and Ravitch'sbooks, and in fact he has been steadily alliedwith Ravitch for many years in a partnershipthat has shed much light and done muchgood.

Finn started out in the 1960s as an idealisticliberal Democrat concerned particularly withinner-city poverty. His first mentor, andperhaps the most lasting influence on him,was that maverick Democrat Daniel PatrickMoynihan, on whose staff he served in theNixon Cabinet and also when Moynihan wasDemocratic senator from New York. Finn'saccount of American political history as itaffected educational policy over the last halfcenturyis unusually revealing due to his rolesas a participant at high levels of policy-making.In addition to serving on Moynihan'sstaffs, he was a chief associate of Secretary ofEducation William Bennett in Washingtonand of Tennessee governor (now senator)Lamar Alexander in Nashville. A professor ofeducational policy, a major figure in researchinstitutes and advocacy groups, he is also theauthor of important books and an editor andfrequent writer for what are now two of thenation's most important magazines on educationalpolicy, Education Next (published quarterlyby Stanford's Hoover Institution and theProgram on Educational Policy and Governance(PEPG) at the Kennedy School ofGovernment at Harvard—not the HarvardGraduate School of Education, a bastion ofProgressivism) and The Education Gadfly (publishedweekly by the Thomas B. FordhamInstitute of Dayton, Ohio, and Washington,DC).

Finn has informed, detailed, seasoned, andreasoned opinions on the whole horizon ofK-12 educational issues, but his particularinterests are in parents' rights to school choice,the charter school movement, voucher programs,and educational assessment and accountability.His life work should be seen inthe light of two large, tragic contemporaryironies. The increased educational expendituresvs. diminished educational outcomesanomaly referred to above is the first of these.The second irony is one that also haunts thework of Glenn and Hirsch: the great victoryof 1960s civil rights legislation in destroyingde jure segregation in the public schools hasnot been followed, as was expected, by adiminution in de facto racial segregation andby an overall improvement in American educationaloutcomes. In fact, our urban schoolsare more segregated than ever, with "theexodus of many white families for private andsuburban alternatives. Today," Finn continues,"Boston's public school enrollment is86% minority, compared with 35%" in 1974,and it "is less than half its 1970 size." Inaddition, the collapse of the Black familysince the 1960s—which Moynihan predictedforty years ago—has intensified the miseryand vulnerability of our poorest fellow-citizens,increasingly including whites as well(European countries are experiencing thesame breakdowns, with illegitimacy ratesamong British whites particularly worrying).

Yet as Paul T. Hill of the University ofWashington has said, commenting on Finn'sbook,these developments are the "productnot of impersonal forces but of people withideas and motivations." Finn describes anddiscusses these people, ideas, and motivationsin illuminating narrative detail, starting withthe post-World War II "Progressive" institutionalconsolidation of Dewey's andKilpatrick's ideas and practices and their lonelyand isolated critics in the 1950s, RobertMaynard Hutchins, Mortimer Smith, ArthurBestor, and the Catholic-school sector. Heshares E.D. Hirsch's pessimism about dislodgingthis establishment in the educationalschools and teachers'colleges and the larger ofthe two teachers' unions, the National EducationalAssociation (NEA), but has highpraise for the late Albert Shanker's leadershipof the smaller one, the American Federationof Teachers (AFT).

Like Charles Glenn and John E. Coons,Finn argues that in a republican democracywith tax-supported public schools at whichchildren's attendance is mandatory and enforcedby law, the rights of parents to chooseand help shape their children's educationalopportunities and formation must be respected.As Coons has memorably put it, "theright to form families and to determine thescope of their children's practical liberty is formost men and women the primary occasionfor choice and responsibility. One does nothave to be rich or well-placed to experiencethe family. The opportunity over a span offifteen to twenty years to attempt the transmissionof one's deepest values to a belovedchild provides a unique arena for the creativeimpulse. Here is the communication of ideasin its most elemental mode. Parental expression,for all its invisibility to the media, is anactivity with profound First Amendmentimplications." Wealthy parents express thischoice by moving to well-off communitieswith schools they like or by placing theirchildren in private or parochial schools. Increasingnumbers of people school their children at home. But poor working parents, andeven most middle-income parents, have nosuch choices and are coerced by a system forwhich adjectives such as "free" and "public"and "adequate" have become increasinglyequivocal.

Like Charles Glenn, Finn lauds the fundamentalprecedent set by the U.S. SupremeCourt with Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925),which unanimously overturned an Oregonlaw that attempted to close all private schools,with Catholic schools the main target of thisnativist, majoritarian measure. The decision isall the more noble in light of the authoritarian,statist policies then so glamorously institutionalizedin republican France, fascist Italy, andcommunist Russia (for the last of which JohnDewey expressed great sympathy in the late1920s). "The fundamental theory of libertyupon which all governments in this Unionrepose," Justice McReynolds wrote for a unanimousCourt, "excludes any general power ofthe State to standardize its children by forcingthem to accept instruction from public teachersonly. The child is not the mere creature ofthe State."

The primary practical methods by whichFinn sees an opportunity to safeguard andrenew parents' right to school choice and toincrease student morale and academic effectivenessinclude charter schools (purposelydistinctive and autonomous public schoolsfree from some union regulations) and vouchers,especially for students trapped in chronicallyunder-performing, incompetent, or dangerousschools. Though not a Catholic, Finnfollows the Catholic Moynihan in emphasizingthe desirability of giving vouchers thatcan be used in parochial and private as well asin alternative public schools. The voucherprograms for poor and poorly served citizensin Milwaukee and Cleveland, most of whomchoose Catholic or other Christian schoolsfor their children, have been ruled constitutional,with the Cleveland program importantly confirmed as constitutional in the SupremeCourt's 2002 Zelman v. Simmons Harrisdecision. Finn argues that "the most enduringvalue conflict in American K-12 education isbetween partisans of the public school systemand advocates of pluralism, competition, andchoice."

But in addition to parental choice, Finninsists on both the indispensability, and thedifficulty, of establishing real academic accountability,discerned and guided by solidstatistics about student competencies and theeffectiveness of schools and encouraged bystate and federal carrots and sticks. His discussionof standards and accountability from thepublication of the sobering report A Nation atRisk under Reagan (1983) onward is detailedand illuminating, rightly focusing on the finestate-level initiatives of Republican andDemocratic governors, but particularly ofLamar Alexander, Bill Clinton, and GeorgeW. Bush as governors. His discussion of "NoChild Left Behind" (NCLB) is judicious,rightly crediting George W. Bush's bipartisaninitiative and seeing it as growing out ofprevious efforts at the state level and his ownfather's Charlottesville education summit in1989. However, unsympathetic Democratsnow control the U.S. Congress, and theNational Education Association is a largefactor in their coalition and in their presidentialelection campaign. In addition, de-centralizationprovisions in the original NCLBlegislation have come back to haunt its proponents:voluntary state standards and tests asguidelines by which to evaluate yearly progressin individual districts and schools, and bywhich to award or deny federal money, varywidely and have been unscrupulously playedand tainted by state bureaucrats and districtadministrators eager to escape exposure andsanctions but eager to acquire federal financialbenefits.

An alliance of extremes has probablydoomed the NCLB legislation, corruptingand betraying its hopes. Liberal Democratsand their supporters in the NEA and theteachers' colleges hate external accountabilityand state-government (or even indirect national)dictation of their curriculum and academicstandards, which are more specific,content-based, and common-sensical thanthey like. Conservative Republicans dislikethe federal role in education generally, resentBush's educational expenditures, and arepained when the mandatory National Associationof Educational Progress (NAEP) testsshow that even students who are getting goodgrades in many schools in their districts actuallyknow very little, as discerned by nationaland international comparisons and as comparedto American students forty, fifty, andseventy-five years ago.

Grade inflation and "social promotion"—"the soft bigotry of low expectations"—havebecome endemic in our schools, with a lowegalitarianism of outcome gradually establishingitself at the expense of the noble ideaof equality of opportunity for access to anaggregated public good: decently organized,competent schooling. The National Centerfor Educational Statistics, Finn notes, "reportedthat twelfth graders' reading performancein 2005 was worse than in 1992—andflat since 2002." As for disparities betweenethnic and racial groups, Sam Dillon of theNew York Times wrote in 2006 that "the testscoregaps are so large that, on average,African-American and Hispanic students inhigh school can read and do arithmetic at onlythe average level of whites in junior highschool." The recent Democratic congressionalattack on the successful "Reading First"literacy initiative within NCLB succeeded indrastically cutting this effective feature of theeducational act.

One of the most dismal but revealingfeatures of Finn's book is his documentationof the trendy "Progressive" neophilia that hasincreasingly dominated our teachers' collegesand schools of education since the 1920s."Progressivism" won the day at ColumbiaTeachers' College by the 1920s, drowningout and marginalizing judicious moderatessuch as William C. Bagley and Isaac Kandel,while more recently both relativizing "valuesclarification" education (Lawrence Kohlberg)and the seductive, flattering theory of "multipleintelligences" (Howard Gardner) havecome to us courtesy of the Harvard GraduateSchool of Education. In the university atlarge, left-Nietzschean, postmodern skepticismabout reason and virtue is an idealstimulant to increasing vice, foolishness, cynicism,and irrationality. (A prominent ed schoolprofessor in the Midwest has deplored thedistinguished literary theorist, literary historian,and educational reformer E.D. Hirsch's"privileging" of the denotative dimension oflanguage itself as authoritarian!) Former BostonUniversity President John Silber's commitmenttwo decades ago of Boston Universityto run the poor, dysfunctional schools ofthe nearby, bankrupt, immigrant entry-pointcity of Chelsea, Massachusetts, has been anoble, sustained initiative that no other teachers'college or school of education (or university)has chosen to imitate and for which his(private) university has gotten little credit,even in its local newspaper, the Boston Globe.

Though some progress has been madeunder President Bush's NCLB at the elementarylevel, the bipartisan consensus that createdit is gone, and the future of K-12 educationalreform probably lies again with thestates and with courageous, grass-roots initiativessuch as Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum.

For a republic traditionally aspiring to personalliberty and equality of access to publicgoods worth having—of which decent schoolingat public expense is among the mostimportant—Chester Finn's book is an indispensableguide and an inspiring portrait ofwhat individuals and groups with commonsense, civic commitment, and perseverancecan accomplish in realizing the battered butnoble promise of modern education—but alsoa sobering picture of what they are up against.