To the Editor:
In his recent Commentary (“Lessons Learned,” Feb. 27, 2008), Chester E. Finn Jr. reminisces about Newton High School, in Newton, Mass., where, just out of college, he taught social studies for one year. He describes his class of recalcitrant 12th graders as “just putting in time for a diploma.” As a fellow first-year intern at Newton High School that year, 1965-66, I taught English to this same group of students and had a different experience with them.
First, let me say that I respect Mr. Finn’s honesty in acknowledging his lack of success with this group of low-track 12th graders. He attributes this failure to several factors, including discipline problems and an “inattentive ‘mentor.’ ” I, too, struggled teaching these students. They were nearly my own age and had different life experiences and aspirations. But I did achieve some success. It came when I engaged them and made what they needed to learn academically relevant.
As we related the characters and conflicts in readings to people and events in their lives, the students listened to each other and to me. They began to form the kind of community John Dewey envisioned schools becoming. And, as Dewey forecast, that experience brought self-discipline. Students were not just marking time to get a diploma. There were not any serious discipline problems, and they learned something.
Why does any of this matter? Mr. Finn has arguably become the most prominent conservative commentator on education policy in this country. As a product (after his elementary years) of private schools, he spent this one impressionable year as a young adult in a public high school. That experience may continue to distort his view of public education.
Perhaps because he has so little direct experience with public schools, Mr. Finn holds the mistaken assumption that they are frozen in time, no different now from Newton High in 1966. I am confident that Newton High is a better school today. Whether or not local improvements have taken place, federal laws—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and others—ensure that fewer kids fall through the cracks than did 40 years ago. As a profession, we know more about effective teaching and learning than we did, and we know how to implement that knowledge in practice. In the schools I served in for 35 years as a teacher and administrator, slow but marked progress has taken place. Some of these would even qualify, in Mr. Finn’s terms, for designation in his category of “today’s super-schools.”
But Mr. Finn ignores garden-variety public school success stories. His exemplars are schools of choice. This selection ignores the fact that parent and student self-selection, if not the schools’ own screening processes, ensures that these schools have human capital in the form of student commitment and social capital in the form of parent support that typical public schools often do not.
His list of the characteristics of these successful schools also ignores the student motivation that both experience and research have identified as crucial to success. Mr. Finn describes students in “super-schools” as working hard because of consequences they face. But the most successful students in the best public schools are motivated by more than fear. They become engaged and interested in learning, just as my 12th graders in Newton High School did.
Murchison Professor and Chair
San Antonio, Texas
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as What I Learned in 1966 That Mr. Finn Did Not