Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik
- Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and senior editor of Education Next.
Lynn Olson (Moderator):
Welcome to today's chat with Chester E. Finn Jr., the author of Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik, published by Princeton University Press.
Much is made of American students' academic disadvantage when compared to Europe, China and India, and its potential economic impact on the United States. What is your perspective on this?
The international testing data, and economic data, and OECD education-attainment data, that I find most compelling suggest that U.S. achievement has been essentially flat over the past three decades (both qualitatively and quantitatively) while a number of other countries, including but not limited to China and India, have been rising. All by itself, that begins to explain much of the "outsourcing" of U.S. jobs that has occurred. America's long term economic health depends more than ever on having a highly educated workforce. Today's education performance just doesn't cut it.
You said standardized tests were "OK at gauging the overall performance of populations and institutions (OK, that is, if the tests are well grounded in solid standards), but they’re risky when it comes to judging individuals." I agree whole-heartily! What, then, is your solution for measuring student achievement?
It's not a "solution" sort of problem. There are innumerable ways of appraising individual student achievement. Good tests is one (e.g. Advanced Placement exams, which are generally first rate), particularly if students are allowed to re-take them. Teacher judgments are obviously another. External examining by OTHER teachers--which could be oral, written, essay, portfolio, you name it--is another. Good schools use a blend of these and more. The bigger challenge is something like a state exit requirement, where we have trouble getting beyond "standardized" testing because the other forms of assessment tend to be more variable, less reliable, costlier, more subjective. Most states with exit exams have come up with a reasonable accommodation, though, which is both multiple opportunities to take their test AND some sort of alternative arrangement whereby kids who apparently can't pass the test are able in other ways to demonstrate their readiness for a diploma.
After about 25 years as a corporate executive, I recently returned to school for a master's degree in Special Education. In my studies, I quickly became fascinated with educational reform. It is interesting that something so large never goes anywhere. In spite of the research and tenacity of the brave men and women who work hard to effect change, progress is nowhere in sight. The progress made is quickly squashed or forgotten. The question I have is tough and complicated, but I ask it at any opportunity I get, as I have never received an answer that makes sense. Why can’t we manage to bring our educational system into the 21st century?
Truthfully, that's what my book is all about and why I wrote it, so allow me, with respect, to suggest that you might want to have a look at it. I do end up somewhat more optimistic than you seem to be, however, feeling that both standards-based and choice-based reform are getting important traction in the U.S., and that these hold considerable promise for boosting U.S. performance at the K-12 level.
The recent study released by the American Enterprise Institute reveals again how historically ignorant our students seem to be. When I grew up there was (or at least I think there was) greater emphasis placed upon memorization of facts and dates. Isn't it just good sense that basic facts like, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, serve as the building blocks for our educational system. If so, shouldn't we go back to enforcing memorization in the early grades?
Actually the study came from the new organization Common Core, written by AEI's Rick Hess. I think there's some merit in memorization per se--I can still recite the opening few lines of The Aeneid, dating back to my high school days--but what we mostly want is a combination of knowledge, understanding and cognitive skills. Ravitch and I wrote twenty years ago in "What Do Our 17 Year Olds Know?" that "knowledge" vs. "skills" is a phony choice; everybody needs both. But the real master of this topic is E. D. Hirsch. I heartily commend to you any/all of his three major books on K-12 education.
When did standards-based education become standards-and-accountability-based education? In other words, in your opinion, was there a particular conference, piece of legislation, or other event which solidified high-stakes tests and accountability as the prevalent type of incentive used in standards-reform, rather than "rewards-based" or other types of incentives?
Great question. There was no one moment in time when this happened but certainly in the days after the 1989 "summit" it began to dawn on governors and others that it didn't do much good to set standards if there was no way of "enforcing" them. (An early version of the same thing happened in the 70's when state legislatures set "minimum competency" tests for high school graduation.) You might check pp 34-6 and 246-60 of my book.
Mr. Finn, The political polemic, A Nation at Risk, claimed that America faced a "rising tide of mediocrity" and linked public school education with economic competitiveness (even while the Sandia Report largely refuted thal claim with a host of data). Now, after more than 20 years of standards-based reform, the claim continues that public schools in America just don't measure up. But the World Economic Forum just ranked the U.S. first in economic competitiveness, again! Isn't the "school reform" mantra just a conservative ruse – with No Child Left Behind being the prime example – to undermine public education and legislate vouchers?
Wrong, through and through. Total canard. You have been brainwashed by the establishment.
Would you engage Teacher unions as interested partners in improving America's public education system, or would you ignore them as obstacles to successful reform?
There are so few earnestly reform-minded teacher union locals, and so many that block just about everything I regard as needed changes, that my main thought is to circumnavigate (or, if needed, overpower) teacher unions in order to do right by kids. (Kids are the point of all this, after all, not adults.) There are a tiny number of examples (Denver comes to mind, and in a very limited sense the UFT in NYC) of unions joining with "management" to bring about worthy reforms. If there was more evidence of this sort of thing, I'd be more willing to try it.
Why no mention of the role of school boards, including whether you think they are a block to reform, whether they are politically unassailable, and your views about what to do to improve or get rid of them.
Hi, Jack. Check out pp 276-282 of my book. I DO talk a bit about school boards. Mostly I think they're archaic and incurable, at least in urban America, and we need new governance arrangements for public education. The 19th Century version is simply obsolete. Maybe it works in small towns and suburbs but not in any city that I can name. There are all sorts of reasons for this but the bottom line is we need a better way of organizing and governing public education. My own core thought is that if the state did its part right (setting standards, measuring and report progress, funding fairly, holding schools accountable for results) that just about everything else--budget, personnel, curriculum, you name it--could and should be decided at the building level. In other words, a vast portfolio of charter-like schools.
Checker, What is the one big idea that Republicans got right in your 57 years in education and what is the one big idea that Democrats got right?
Like so much in education, that's a great question for which there's no simple answer. But I will venture one. Republicans have been basically right about school choice--not that it's enough, but that it's essential--and Democrats have basically been right about equality of opportunity: that no kid should be denied a full and fair shot at a quality education because of race, religion, etc.
Dear Mr. Finn, Education is witnessing an increasing number of secondary schools that have done away with valedictorians, salutatorians, and class rankings. Whereas, laws such as No Child Left Behind strive to do just as the title suggests, what would you say to those who suggest that the elimination of saluting and honoring outstanding students is "leaving greatness and healthy competitiveness behind." Thanks, Brian
I would say "You're absolutely right". We need to pay as much attention to our superstars as to our kids who need to get over the proficiency bar. Schools (and federal programs) that neglect the former in pursuit of the latter--or in pursuit of some addled sense of fairness, self-esteem building or collegiality--are making an enormous mistake. This one, though, cannot fairly be laid at NCLB's doorstep. What's going on here is another example of the daffiness that so often afflicts the education profession, progressivist notions about competition being bad for kids and that there should be no "winners" or "losers". Trying telling that to the basketball coach. Or any candidate for office. Or any corporate leader. Or any admissions officer at a selective college.
Chester- I am just a few years into (hopefully), a long career in education reform. I believe many of the things you write about (charters and school choice; battling the entrenched systems in public education). I have also seen some great school models in KIPP, Uncommon Schools, etc.) In reading your commentary on Feb 27, there seems to be an undertone of frustration in the constant slug fest with opponents of real "thoughtful reforms." I also experience those same frustrations, which makes for a number of bad days in this business. I already have grown restless and resentful of the silly political compromises that constantly happen in ed reform - very surface level changes that don't make a difference. What is your career advice (drawing from your own experiences) for people like me who want to lead change that will have some lasting, meaningful impact in education?
Welcome to the fray and allow me to encourage you to have a look at the book-length version of the EdWeek commentary. I take hope both from some real signs of progress, from the increasing traction of both standards-based and choice-based reform, from my certainty that there are few lines of effort that are more important to the country, and from my confidence that what I'm trying to get done is motivated by the interests of kids--and that most of the resistance and forced compromising comes from people and groups that are more interested in the welfare of adults! Hang in there. Think of it as a vocation, not just a job or career.
Why did the discourse change from focusing on the gap in math and science between U.S. and other countries to a hyper focus on the gap between white and black within U.S., with most emphasis on so called "black under achievement." Sounds like scapegoating and racial profiling.
Today's emphasis on "achievement gaps" (and they're plural, definitely not just white-black)has many origins, most fundamentally the same concern that fed the civil rights movement and the equity movement. Ask Bill Cosby or Oprah Winfrey or Rod Paige if it's "racial profiling". They'll be flabbergasted, as am I. Moreover, our concern with international competitiveness is alive and well. And should be. Witness the current enthusiasm for initiatives like STEM.
As a teacher in a very small remote school district, I am very concerned with the looming energy crisis and the ability of schools to transport students long-distance. I would like your comments on the future of distance education in educational reform. I think it is a good solution to many problems, particularly for rural communities.
I completely concur and respectfully refer you to pp. 273-6 of my book.
What can motivated parents do when they come up against provincial thinking by the school board, superintendent, and some teachers, (but not necessarily their principal)in their school district?
One of the reasons I believe in school choice and the right of parents to change their kids' schools is so that they have options and aren't trapped by such "provincial thinking". They can vote with their feet--and put their kid in school in another district, a charter school, a virtual school,a private school, etc. The only real alternative is to muster a bunch more like-minded parents and "throw the bums out" at the next school board election.
Don't you believe that education's tendency to discard a particular reform as its successor reform comes along keeps us from incorporating best practices into the practice of education? Most of the reforms I experienced had more than a grain of truth to them.
The reforms tend not to get discarded but, rather, to layer atop one another, or at least to leave a residue. Tyack and Cuban are right about this (and I acknowledge it in my book). Of course that can also lead to highly confusing multi-layered endeavors with no real clear focus and a surfeit of checks-and-balances, categorical funding constraints, over-specialized people and more.
If we were to assume that A) No Child Left Behind is not reauthorized this year and B) Our next president is a Democrat, what do you foresee as the likely path for federal involvement in education and for reform overall?
I heard a prominent Democratic education policy thinker say the other day at an AEI forum that if January brings what he called a "unified government", i.e. both White House and Senate/House in Democratic hands, NCLB will be reauthorized next year but in severely attenuated fashion. Put more simply, the focus on goals and standards and transparency will remain, nominally, but all the action-forcing behavior-changing elements of the law will be diluted, weakened, softened or erased. I hope he's wrong.
What advice can you give concerning breaking the monopoly held by textbook publishers in K-12 education? I am especially concerned about lack of quality control in science and math textbooks, which are fraught with errors, including numerous typographical errors, poor sequencing of concepts, and just plain mistaken facts.
Fordham issued a hard hitting report on this very topic a few years back--The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption--see http://www.edexcellence.net/foundation/publication/publication.cfm?id=335. Unfortunately, the only true sources of quality control in a market driven business are the customers (or else government regulators, but I doubt you want that--the adoption business is trouble enough). Why aren't more school systems fussier about what they buy? And why are so many teachers so textbook-dependent?
Do you see a day when data trumps values; when the results of a study will be accepted even though it is underwritten by some "evil conservative" think tank.
Hah! No conservative, I. I regard myself as a radical (or at least a "troublemaker".) Unfortunately, education research is widely disbelieved no matter who pays for it or where it comes from. Even more unfortunately, there's ample reason for that mistrust. Much that passes for education research is shoddy, subjective stuff. If "peer reviewed" at all it's reviewed by like minded folks who can't bring themselves to ding it. Russ Whitehurst has done some good with IES-funded research in recent years (tho he's too single minded about random assignment) but the problem endures. I tend to have greater faith in pure data (e.g. most NCES products) than in "analyses". The numbers themselves tend to be powerful, politically neutral things. Trouble arises when people begin to analyze and interpret them!
Do you think that NCLB has made teachers become less creative and teachers of "the test" so the scores will be good for the school, district, and their state?
Some of that is surely going on, and it's a pity, but it's also fixable. Those who devise "the test" need to do a far better job of making sure that it spans (or at least conscientiously samples) the range of knowledge and skills that it's actually important for kids to learn--and thus for teachers to teach. And of course the test must be kept secure so that nobody can just drill kids on the "right answers". I also think it would help if our accountability systems went beyond reading and math skills and gave "equal time" to history, literature, science, etc. Then more of those things would be taught.
In successful charter and/or traditional schools, would you speak to the following: 1. types of competencies found in principals 2. the role of professional development for teachers and administrators? Is there an average amount of prof. develop provided in the more successful schools?
Quantitative is probably the wrong way to appraise prof development. You can have lots of it but not accomplish anything if it's ill conceived. Mostly I think professional development, as conceived and delivered in U.S. K-12 education, is a waste of time and money. As for the competencies of highly effective principals, besides competencies they also need running room. You may be well advised to check out recent Fordham studies of constraints on principals (by Steve Adamowski et al--which does some distinguishing of charter from district schools) and of constraints posed by collective bargaining agreements--recent study called The Leadership Limbo by Loup and Hess. Both findable on our website, www.edexcellence.net.
Our foundation's mission is to improve education in Idaho. We have invested a significant amount of money into achieving our mission, yet in a very few instances can we say that we have helped make a lasting difference. Like the tone I sensed in your article, we are frustrated. What is your advice to foundations like our's that would like to make a measurable (both qualitative and quantitative) difference? Thanks
Kelly Amis and I authored a Fordham report a few years back on effective education-reform philanthropy, which you might want to check; and the Philanthropy Roundtable has published several (and will soon publish more) useful reports for education-reform minded philanthropists. I'm acquainted with Albertson's frustrations (Tom Wilford and I were on a board together for several years), which are shared by counterpart Foundations (and individual philanthropists) in any number of places. My basic advice: don't give money to "the system". Give money to responsible efforts to circumnavigate and create alternatives to the system. These might be charter schools, alt cert programs for teachers,alternative licensure schemes, non-ed-school ways of training principals (e.g. New Leaders), Teach for America and so forth. And pay for critical analyses and evalations and think-tanky stuff that continues to stir the policy pot.
How well do you see contructivism (social and cognitive) and "Neo-progressive" ideals working to "prepare the 21st Century workforce"?
In the implementation of the NCLB Act, after 5 years, the least focused on part has been parent involvement. With the re-authorization of this act, what has been put in to assist in school reform that will support parent involvement, along with the comprehensive initiatives that involve school districts, instruction, community iinvolvement, rigor for students and parents?
It's premature to ask "what has been put in". NCLB reauthorization is still a crap shoot or, if you prefer, an untilled field. It hasn't happened yet and likely won't til after the election. So you, like others, can and should offer the White House and Congress your best input. I don't happen to agree with you that "parent involvement" is the key missing ingredient. Better and more involved parents would surely be a plus but the most effective schools in America today are making big differences in the lives of kids with remarkably little parent involvement.
How do you motivate students so low on the the character scale that they don't buy into society in general. Police, parents, social workers, teachers - are all the enemy. No positive support from parents, broken homes, drugs + alcohol. How do we stop these young people from sliding slowly to prison?
I don't know how to solve the "worst case" problems, where absolutely everything in a kid's life is awry. I don't think anyone does--at least not in a free society where we don't believe in forcibly taking kids away from their parents for adoption by others. I am confident, though, that really effective schools can make a very big difference with an awful lot of kids from "disadvantaged" backgrounds. Those schools, however, are hard to operate and somewhat expensive and need freedoms that typically come "outside the system", not within the confines of bureacuratic sameness rules and collective bargaining agreements.
Do you believe that the charter school movement has had a lasting effect on school reform, and do you see any continued progress due to the movement?
Too soon to be sure about "lasting" but charters and other forms of school choice are slowly transforming American education for the better. (That's not to say there aren't some real lemons among today's charter schools.) Please check out Chapter 25 of my book.
On you Gadfly blog, you defended Chris Doherty, who was fired from his job as Reading First's director in the wake of congressional hearings into the scandal around the program. You even criticized Ed. Secretary Spellings over the firing and admitted that when you were an asst. sec. of education, you would also stack various panels with political favorites. Why do you think that your and Doherty's behavior were ethical and that Doherty should have kept his job?
Rubbish and horsefeathers. I didn't "stack" panels. I diversified them so that more was going on in the peer review process than log-rolling about education professors! And boy did the AERA hate it. Check out pp. 143-5 of my book if you're so inclined. As for Chris and Reading First, Fordham will have an important new report on that very topic (by Sol Stern) out in a matter of days. Watch for it. It reveals scandals--but not of Chris D's making!
Based on the current situation of high schools in the U.S., do you believe that more states will adopt school reform efforts and develop small learning communities? If so, how can these changes be sustained over a long period of time?
"Small learning communities" are no slam dunk, as early evaluations of Gates expenditures in this realm make plain, and as Tom Toch's nice little book explains. Small per se doesn't get you very far if the curriculum is goofy, the pedagogy slack, and the teachers ignorant. Do we need "high school reform" in this country? You bet. Are more states headed in that direction? Absolutely (look at the spreading tentacles of the American Diploma Project for example). But it's a complex undertaking. Small learning units are just one part and probabably not the most important.
Einstein is credited with saying something like: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results." Decoding was a popular instructional strategy in the 60s and "reborn" as an integral part of phonemic awareness and phonics-based reading in the late 1990s. Millions of children are now being Dibeled ad nauseum only to reach the 4th through 6th grades with significant reading problems. What do you think about "school reform" and the reading fiasco that continues?
Unfortunately it's not absolutely clear which "fiasco" you're referring to. Your letter is heated but doesn't shed a lot of light. The fiasco that most concerns ME in reading is the failing of thousands of schools (and the ed schools that prepare their teachers) to deploy the methods of early reading instruction that have been validated by science in a long line of studies beginning with Jeanne Chall and consummating in the National Reading Panel.
I've been trying to locate a good comprehensive book on the history of education. Do you have a suggestion that would go along with the recent history in "Troublemaker?" Thanks!
The education historian I trust most is Diane Ravitch. Seek her counsel on this question (and read her own books while you're at it!) "History of education" is as big a topic as "history of health" or "history of war". You may want to narrow your field a bit, too.
Reform intiatives come and go in public school education without much fanfare and, unfortunately, much sustained success, what are the critical components to sustaining systemic school reform beyond the artificial measurements of standarized test scores?
There's a lot on this in my book. I really do see today's two big reform thrusts (standards-based and choice-based) as having considerable traction and staying power. We'll continue to argue over their specific manifestations but overall they're not going away anytime soon.
My decades of experience in public schools have convinced me that a bunch of bureaucrats cannot come up with one-size-fits-all solutions to the differing problems that face local schools. President Regan’s original plan was to abolish the U S Department of Education. Too bad he didn’t get it done! If we can’t get rid of it, let’s take those high paid educators out of their Washington offices and send them out into our troubled schools so they can try repairing them with local deeds rather than federal rules. What’s your opinion?
Speaking as a former fed (!)--though not all that highly paid--I think what needs to happen (and this, too, is in my book, Chapter 23) is turning right-side-up what the framers of NCLB 1.0 turned upside down. Washington's proper role is to see that good standards are set, good assessments given and results made ubiquitous and transparent--then get out of the way. It's the proper work of states, districts, schools and educators to figure out how best to help their pupils attain those standards--and what to do about schools that fail to.
Do you think we should move towards central government control of education as many other nations have done?
Hello again, Jack. No, I don't think the central government should "control" education in the U.S. It hasn't the competence. But it should see that sound standards get set for everyone (including some form of national standards, as far as I'm concerned) and performance assessed and results reported to one and all. As I mentioned in replying to another question, NCLB 1.0 got this backward: micromanaging the means while being laid back as to the ends.
Mr. Finn The organization has spent quality time and effort exploring a national standards based reform movement and has ranked states for standards in the academic content areas, will there be a similar effort to rank state English language proficiency standards and the alignment to state academic content standards as defined by Title III Section 3113? Thank you.
Not in our current plans or budget, sorry.
What do you remember about the tests you've taken in your life?
I learned a lot from TAKING the really good tests--the AP exams at the end of high school and the three-hour "blue book" exams given by some of my best professors. In other words, I came out of the exam knowing more than when I went in. But I didn't learn much from the multiple choice kind except, frankly, that I'm reasonably good at taking them!
Since the No Child Left Behind law,why are so many children being left behind? Why are so many children not receiving the help they need to be successful?
A fair question, but one to ask your schools, local district and state. NCLB isn't, frankly, about "helping" kids directly. It's about sunlight being shone on how good a job states (and districts and schools) are doing of getting kids--all kids--to the "proficient" level. It doesn't say they have to. It just says they have to tell the world whether they are or not. Washington is not the place to look for actual "help" for 50 million-plus school kids.
How do you view the Smaller Learning Communities program as a reform strategy?
I answered a version of this question in responding to another one about high school reform.
Hi. I'm hoping you might be able to address why it seems that the educational enterprise seems to be lacking an imperative, a critical mission view, that would mandate creating processes that would facilitate speedier evaluations of programs to determine their effectiveness. It seems that it's taking longer and longer to conclude that the standards, programs or approaches are not working, leaving entire generations (K-8/12) of students to pay the price for our inabilities to move reform forward. Thank you.
Before you can evaluate the effectiveness of a "treatment" you have to give it time to work. An education intervention (except at the most micro scale) isn't like giving someone a new antibiotic. You can't tell in a matter of hours or days whether it works. Kids don't change that fast and, Lord knows, schools don't. Years usually have to pass.
I have been assigned to read a dozen books on leadership over the last six years of my career. Not one superintendent has mentioned your book and it specifically relates to school reform. What is the facination with these pop culture leadership models and their supposed impact on schools?
I'm flattered, of course, but (a) my book is brand new and only beginning (I hope) to get noticed and (b) who said (most) superintendents know anything about leadership or school reform? If they did, we wouldn't be in the pickle we're in.
What are the really BIG new ideas in education that are shaping innovation in schools today? Are there any innovative public schools that could be models for other schools?
Great cosmic question but not one that lends itself to a short answer. The two most important ideas in education today are the same two that were becoming important a decade ago: (1) judge schools and education systems by their results (vis a vis high quality standards) not by their intentions, efforts, inputs or beliefs; and (2) give every child a multiplicity of high-quality education options rather than tethering him/her to a district-operated neighborhood school. As for innovation, there are plenty of models (several named in my book, such as KIPP, Amistad, Academy of the Pacific Rim) but the "other schools" tend not to emulate them. Our problem isn't invention or implementation; it's replication.
It has been said that today's student is receiving "more education than in the past, but knows less". Do you think this is true?
Quantitatively, yes, more Americans are spending more years in school if you include colleges. (There hasn't been much change in ages in the high school completion rate or in the length of most school days and years.) As for whether they know "less", my own reading of the available (and less than adequate) evidence is they may not know less but they don't know more and they really need to, given the changing world in which other countries are accelerating their education progress and America's future depends more on brains than muscles.
How do you think Charter schools or empowerment type education systems should be used (if at all) to improve student achievement?
There are multiple chapters on this in my book. It's an important question but not one that lends itself to a short answer. Sorry.
What will be the next sputnik for education? When will it happen and to what effect?
Hi, Jim. I assume your organization will know the answer to at least the first part of that question long before I do. As to the latter part, my crystal ball is cloudy. But I really do think that various forms of "virtual education" and "distance learning" are going to have a transformative effect, over time, in just about ever aspect of education in the U.S. and worldwide.
This is my 40th year in education. I continue to marvel at the "progress" we have made regarding when we make educational services available to students. For the most part, we are still on a calendar that is driven by "planting and harvesting," determine "credits" by seat hours in a year and the legitimacy of a "school day" by the number of seat hours in a day. I would appreciate your thoughts.
Yup. A whole lot of archaic practices still pervade our K-12 system. It's full of inertia and loath to change. Slowly, though, it's turning from an inputs-and-services-driven model to a results-based model. That's a very important shift--and a considerable part of what my book is about.
That's a great note on which to end this chat. Thanks for joining us for today's discussion. And Checker, thanks for being pithy, pointed, and provocative. A transcript of this discussion will be posted later today on edweek.org.
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