Education Opinion

Lessons Not Learned

By Susan Graham — March 04, 2008 4 min read
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Education Week, sister publication of Teacher Magazine, featured Chester Finn ‘s “Lessons Learned” on the Commentary page last week. Mr. Finn, known to his fellow alums of Phillips Exeter Academy (and most of the world) as “Checker,” is usually styled as an “education guru” because he is a Hoover Institute Fellow and President of The Fordham Foundation where he contributes regularly to The Education Gadfly. For something like three decades, he has been more than willing to explain to people in positions of power exactly what is wrong with public education. It’s nice to know that he has learned some lessons along the way. Here are some examples:

Lesson 2. People are good at different things--and plenty of human traits matter besides academics.

Lesson 11. Don’t read too much into test scores.

According to David Hoff’s blog, in his new book Troublemaker Finn offers, as examples, his own children, who drank powdered milk to help with the financial strain of private schools, where their educational future didn’t balance on a single test -- a test that might include a question like this:

The Finns want to pay for their two children to attend a private high school in suburban Maryland. Tuition at the median private high school for day students is $10,000. The Finn family recoups the cost of private school over public school by drinking powdered skim milk rather than fresh skim milk. If the cost differential between powdered and fresh skim milk is $2 per gallon, how much milk does the Finn family drink per school year to save enough to pay for tuition? (You may use scratch paper to determine your answer.)

Anyway, while I would agree with Lessons 2 and 11, I wonder why Finn still promotes the National Assessment of Educational Progress (he served as first chair of NAEP’s governing board), which is at best a very limited, and at worst, a deeply flawed method of determining the abilities of America’s young people.

Lesson 3. Even the biggest-name schools have kids “left behind,” victimized by an inferior education.

Lesson 5. By the time kids with tough lives have been further scarred by bad schooling, traditional “intervention” programs aren’t apt to yield lasting success for many.

Lesson 8. School choice without quality doesn’t do enough.

Lesson 9. I also erred in thinking that competition per se would trigger great changes in traditional schools.

Lesson 10. Hard as it is to make government reforms succeed, private ventures also face trouble sustaining their edge and not slipping into wary, bureaucratized, status-quo-ism.

I guess these really were lessons learned the hard way. NCLB doesn’t seem to be fixing things. The Edison Project Schools (where Finn was a “co-visioner” at the start-up) proved to be a disaster of private enterprise in public education. It is a lot easier to write a business plan for effective schooling than it is to actually make it work. Since Finn has learned these lessons, I wonder why he and his colleagues at the Fordham Foundation continue to support school privatization schemes?

Lesson 4. Teaching is truly hard, and being smart and well educated doesn’t make one good at it.

From the sound of it, Checker really did learn this lesson most painfully. After attending Phillips Exeter Academy ( pricey now, pricey then) and earning bachelor and master degrees from Harvard (ditto), it must have been pretty traumatic to discover he couldn’t cut it in a public high school classroom. I give him credit for publicly confessing that he showed poor judgment when he brought to class a pig’s head obtained from the local butcher and used it as a visual aid for Lord of the Flies. Perhaps he should have thought about running that idea by someone with a little more experience teaching teenagers, even if they didn’t have quite as fine an educational pedigree. In any event, Finn says he “came to realize that, if I were going to make a difference in American education, it wouldn’t be at the retail level.”

Lesson 6. Persistence counts, even in the nation’s capital.

Lesson 7. Character counts, too, along with leadership and courage


Yes, these things do count. And I wonder, if Finn has learned these lessons, why he derives such pleasure in styling himself as a gadfly (meddler, busybody, pest, nuisance) and a troublemaker. I spend my day with people of persistence, character, leadership and courage. (Many, Finn might be surprised to learn, are also smart and well-educated.) They are classroom teachers. They didn’t give up after a year. They come back to the classroom every day to try to improve the lives of their students. Some of them are amazing. Some of them struggle. But they are sticking around and putting in the time it takes to become accomplished teachers. Finn went back to Harvard and got a doctorate in Education Administration and Policy. And while I may not be qualified to question the screening process for the doctoral program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I wonder about it. If a new CPA fails to survive an entry level job at an accounting firm, is the obvious path to skip the “retail” level and go back for a PhD. in Economics? Perhaps so. Perhaps this explains something about the quality and practicality of education policy today.

12. Nothing in education reform is easy.

No, it’s not. And quite frankly, those of us out here on the front lines could do without professional Troublemakers who leverage their privileged backgrounds, elitist education, and the contacts that go with them into careers directing the campaign from the rear. Public education is serious business. The future of our economy, government, and people depend on it. If Finn is serious about determining what works and what doesn’t, perhaps he should spend less time posturing in the plush chairs of non-profit think tanks, or the marble halls of government, and a little more time in quiet contemplation, observing and listening to the teachers, school administrators, and students who spend their days in our public schools. There are lessons yet to be learned there.

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.