‘Troublemaker’ Finn Recalls Setting ‘Proficiency’ Standard

February 12, 2008 3 min read
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Like him or not, Chester E. “Checker” Finn Jr. has been a major player in the biggest education policy debates of the past 40 years. In roles at the White House, Capitol Hill, academia, and think tanks, Finn has helped push charter schools into the mainstream and has been a stalwart supporter of private school choice. Both have expanded dramatically over the past 15 years. He explains his role in those and other education debates in “Troublemaker,” published this month by Princeton University Press. The book is “a personal history of school reform since Sputnik,” according to the subtitle.(The book’s jacket is at right.)

In the NCLB world, Finn may be the reason why we’re so concerned about “proficiency.” Back in the 1980s, when he was an assistant secretary at the Department of Education, Finn complained that the National Assessment of Educational Progress didn’t deliver meaningful results. The public couldn’t understand, he said, the meaning of an obtuse scale score for the nation. He led the lobbying effort to persuade Congress to create a version of NAEP that delivered results for every state. Once it passed, Finn became the first chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board and served on it for eight years. He was the architect of NAEP’s performance levels (“advanced,” “proficient,” and “basic”). When Congress was looking to set a goal for student achievement, it chose proficiency. To hold states up to a national standard, it required states to participate in NAEP’s reading and math tests and increased the frequency of those tests to every other year. Today, NAEP is the most cited source for declaring states’ definition of proficiency to be too easy.

Finn covers all of this in “Troublemaker,” and he acknowledges that the achievement levels have been controversial. But he leaves out that their validity has been questioned by the research community. In 1991, NAGB’s own consultants said it “must be viewed as insufficiently tested and validated, politically dominated, and of questionable credibility.” NAGB fired the consultant, according to this Education Week story. In 1999, a National Academy of Sciences report called the process of setting them “fundamentally flawed.” To this day, every NAEP report includes a footnote saying that the achievement levels are “developmental.”

If you keep Finn’s perspective in mind, “Troublemaker” is a good overview of educational policy over the past 50 years. And if you’re interested in finding out more about Checker the person (like the time he brought a pig’s head to illustrate a lesson), keep reading after the jump ...While most of “Troublemaker” deals with policy issues, Checker Finn reveals a lot about himself in the book.

During his first (and only) year as a public school teacher, Finn decided to spice up a lesson about “Lord of the Flies.” He went to a butcher and purchased a pig’s head to re-enact the cult-like ceremony in which a group of boys impale a pig’s head on a spear. The lesson fell flat, though. The kids were too shocked to understand their teacher’s point. The next year, Finn decided to leave teaching and go to graduate school. In this era of cell phone video and YouTube, he might not have be allowed to return the next day.

In 1968, Finn followed his graduate school mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to work in the Nixon White House. Then a Democrat, he used his White House post to learn the ways of Washington—and get out of Vietnam service. After he wrote the Dayton, Ohio, draft board a letter describing his White House job, he never heard from the draft board again."I’m ashamed of having played that card,” he said during a lunch with reporters in Washington last week. “It certainly wasn’t patriotic and it was a little bit of abuse of office.”

When Finn and his wife decided to enroll their children in private schools in suburban Maryland, money was tight. Finn recounts how he would purchase a week’s worth of groceries for $25. “Our kids drank a lot of powdered milk,” he writes. That’s enough to make them supporters of using public funds to pay for private school tuition, I would guess.

In his book, Finn writes about switching his voter registration from Democrat to Republican in the late 1970s. Today, though, he’s leaning toward being an Independent. “I’m not a very happy Republican, on education or much else,” he said at the lunch with reporters. Still, he said he wouldn’t vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., or Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

A version of this news article first appeared in the NCLB: Act II blog.

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