Education Opinion

Chester Finn: Mugged by Reality

By Susan Graham — April 20, 2008 7 min read
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It'll be interesting to see if she actually reads the book or is content to pontificate based on the EdWeek capsule. I wonder if she reads books or just pontificates. Posted by Chester Finn on A Place at the Table, March 5, 2008 6:02

Chester Finn was pretty miffed back in March when, after reading an Education Week commentary based on his new book Troublemaker, I suggested he might not have learned as much as he thought during his years as a student (long), teacher (short), and policy wonk (interminable). If I hadn’t promised my readers, I wouldn’t take the time and space to review Finn’s book now. But look at it this way —I can save you the aggravation and the price of the book.

In all fairness, Finn did choose these words for his subtitle: “A personal history of school reform.” I expected to find a personal perspective, but this is really personal—as in, “if school reform didn’t involve me, then it really didn’t much matter.”

“Checker,” as his friends and enemies call him, finds constructivism, a flawed educational approach. After reading his book, I understand why. A basic tenet of constructivism is that the learner builds knowledge based on what he does and experiences. The problem is that, without guidance, human egocentrism may result in false knowledge developed on nothing but personal experience. Thus the child who falls off his tricycle onto the sidewalk may falsely conclude that the tricycle and the sidewalk have conspired to hurt him.

Checker, bless his heart (as we say down here in the South), seems to have constructed some really faulty knowledge. After a fine education at Phillips Exeter and Harvard, he attempted teaching and failed. It wasn’t his fault--he was only twenty-one and anyway, most of his students were “eighteen-year-olds from the wrong side of the (Newton) tracks.” He fell off his tricycle, and he’s been blaming the trike and the rough concrete for his teaching shortcomings ever since. His bad experience led Checker to conclude that he didn’t belong at the “retail level” of schooling; so he decided to pursue a career as a wholesaler with his own line of educational nostrums. An equivalent might be Paris Hilton deciding that if she failed selling shoes at Macy’s, the logical next step would be for her to design her own line of shoes, because the customers and the store just don’t get it.

This is sort of what Checker did. He went back to Harvard and designed his own course of studies for a doctorate in Education Policy. With the encouragement of a faculty member, he and fellow graduate students applied for a federal grant and attempted to lead an Upward Bound college preparation program, which, Finn acknowledges, was not successful. Once again, his quick mind, good intentions, and sincere effort didn’t immediately transform public education. He skinned another knee. This “mugging by reality,” as he describes it, “accelerated my transformation from idealist to troublemaker.” For some an encounter with “reality” after twenty something years of being the coddled child of privilege might be a wake up call to what the rest of the world experiences. But Checker decided the trike of education and the sidewalk of the real world were picking on him and he was a victim. He’s been getting even ever since.

As the book recounts, Checker turned out to have quite a knack for troublemaking. He is good at finding fault, always willing to offer his idealized but untested solutions, and quick to blame others when his solutions don’t work. As he tells his story, he wants to make sure his reader understands that he is a “somebody” who has been a guest in important homes, dined with the powerful, and rubbed elbows with the insiders and other Harvard grads who are now “on the board of...” or “holding an endowed chair at…”. For a journeyman pundit, he’s done pretty good for himself in the reflected glory department.

He flitted from job to job (he boasts that he stayed nowhere more than four years). He started projects and walked away from them, justifying their failure based on the interference of others or the poor implementation of practitioners. You know the rap: Teachers are all a bunch of self protective unionists. The higher education community is self serving and lazy (this coming from a man who inflated grades and says he was glad to be “rid” of students even as he collected a Vanderbilt University paycheck). The standards-based National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) -- which he straightened out during his tenure as assistant secretary of education in the Reagan years -- was a pristine measurement of learning until Congress, governors, state legislatures, boards of education, universities and teachers sabotaged and compromised the purity of his vision.

If standards were a good idea, why not have them for teacher prep programs and teachers? But NCATE was “a veritable Noah’s ark of special interests.” And since the board of NBPTS is “dominated by teachers, which in practice means their unions,” what possible credibility could we hope for there? He writes off the National Board’s intense assessments because “it would need to to focus on classroom effectiveness as gauged by student results.” (I guess he missed that part about impact on student learning that dominates the NBPTS process.) Despite his opposition, Checker writes, Congress and “many of the country’s premier foundations and Fortune 500 companies” invested in NBPTS. “I never stood a chance.”

In 2001, Checker got even. He dreamed up the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. Pass a 60-question bubble test and you too will be qualified to teach. It wasn’t his fault that in the spring of 2006 the $50 million of taxpayer money invested in ABCTE had produced less than 100 teachers. (NBPTS reached 64,000 this year.)

As a private sector adventurer, Finn was a member of the original design team for the Edison Project, remembered for its questionable financial practices in the 1990s. He exonerates himself, even though he acknowledges that he and his cronies never really questioned the cost of the private jets and “posh” accommodations they enjoyed. After all, they were figuring out how to reform schools for profit, and it takes money to make money by eliminating the waste in public education. The fact that Edison foundered on the rocks of mismanagement and left children stranded without operating schools doesn’t seem to trouble Finn. By that time, he’d gotten “itchy” and moved on. Edison, of course, was later resurrected on the back of the charter school movement. And speaking of charters...

When family connections gave Finn control of the Fordham Foundation, he decided to dabble in charter schools in Dayton. It didn’t work out quite as well as expected, but that was the fault of politics, fiscal issues and other things he really couldn’t control. When school gets messy, Finn tends to wash his hands and walk away, leaving lesser mortals to straighten things up.

By the end of his book, Finn acknowledges that perhaps this education thing isn’t quite as easy in practice as it is in theory. But please don’t assume he’s begun to reflect much on his own role in policy failure—or to express any regret that he’s always been better at making trouble than solving problems. His closing chapter is pretty strong, but I can’t help but wonder if the 10 points in his carefully honed solutions framework are mostly Powerpoint slides for public speaking engagements. They’re the kind of obvious “insights” that aren’t likely to stir much disagreement, and they’re general enough to support almost any agenda. Since Finn acknowledges that he consults with clients like Michael Milken to determine whether they’d prefer his paid speech to take a pro or con position on NCLB, these unsharpened points must certainly come in handy.

Here’s the thing. I find Chester Finn likable, honest and very human when he talks about the education journey of his own two children. He loves them, appreciates their struggle, and he certainly seems to be a careful and patient parent. Clearly he loves his granddaughter, Emma. He seems to be sincerely impressed by the educational struggle of his illegal immigrant friend, relating with compassion his friend’s worries about whether his little girl, Ana, will have a chance at a decent education in Los Angeles. In Finn’s world, up-close education is about people, but when he can’t see the faces, education policy seems to be something like a sport, where schools are the playing fields, and the teachers and students who occupy them are hazards to be overcome.

A young teacher friend, Ariel Sacks, writes in her blog that her father taught her “What doesn’t help, hurts.” So I wonder about Chester Finn:

Why did he decide to trade making a difference for just making noise? What causes him to hold the teachers who do what he couldn’t in contempt? Where is his compassion for the children who suffer collateral damage from his failed experiments? When will he be mature enough to stop laying blame and start taking responsibility?

And finally, on behalf of our children and the people who have the courage to go into our nation’s schools each day and do the best they can to help kids learn:

What on earth makes Chester Finn think that being a troublemaker is something to be proud of?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.