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Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Lessons Learned

By Chester E. Finn Jr. — February 26, 2008 7 min read

Yes, I’ve learned plenty in the 57 years since I entered 1st grade in Dayton, Ohio’s Fairview Elementary School, and the four decades since I taught social studies at Newton High School in Massachusetts. Let me share a dozen of the most profound lessons.

1. Great, committed teacher/adviser/mentors, high standards, a focused curriculum, a culture of achievement, and plenty of hard work by students well aware that real consequences attach to their performance—what more does a successful school need? Yes, I’m talking about the Knowledge Is Power Program and Amistad, the Academy of the Pacific Rim and Stuyvesant, and others of today’s super-schools. But I’m also talking about the Catholic schools of the 1960s and my own time at Phillips Exeter Academy, where by senior year I was awakening at 3 a.m. to study. It paid off, for me and lots of others. (I was able to skip my freshman year at Harvard.) But it was sink or swim—and those who treaded water were sometimes invited not to return for the next semester.

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2. People are good at different things—and plenty of human traits matter besides academics. At the Colorado Outward Bound School in 1962, those who excelled had physical prowess, street (and mountain) smarts, stamina, and the ability to forge and lead a group. Integrity and impulse-control mattered, too, I deduced, when my tent-mate, a youthful auto thief sent to Outward Bound by a Denver judge, ate our four-day food ration on day one—and later broke into an abandoned miner’s cabin to help himself through the wilderness “solo survival” while I plucked watercress from a spring and carefully husbanded my secret roll of Life Savers.

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3. Even the biggest-name schools have kids “left behind,” victimized by an inferior education. Newton High School, circa 1966, was celebrated for its Ivy League-bound graduates and Harvard education school affiliation, but it also had plenty of teenagers just putting in time for a diploma. For most of the 12th graders to whom I attempted to teach a no-curriculum course called Problems of American Democracy, I was the third consecutive intern in three years of high school social studies. They never had an experienced instructor. (They were also bigger and tougher than I was—at least the boys were.)

4. Teaching is truly hard, and being smart and well educated doesn’t make one good at it. At Newton, between my own inexperience, discipline problems, an inattentive “mentor,” and the absence of any expectations, syllabus, or external accountability for the “P.A.D.” course for these “curriculum II” kids, I just plain wasn’t very successful. I also came to realize that, if I were going to make a difference in American education, it wouldn’t be at the retail level.

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. My disillusionment with Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society began in the mid-1960s, when the Harvard-based Upward Bound program that several of us graduate students talked the then-dean of education, Theodore R. Sizer, into applying for yielded a swell summer experience and a handful of continuing friendships, but failed to transform the life prospects of those disadvantaged teenagers. That’s why I’m blown away by the successes—and unsurprised by the rarity—of some of today’s amazing schools. Yet the best of these are starting younger (KIPP now has a preschool) and enveloping their kids close to 24/7 in—let’s be honest—a different culture as well as strong academics. No wonder these are usually “schools of choice” that operate outside the norms of the regular system, often with considerable additional resources.

6. Persistence counts, even in the nation’s capital. My longtime mentor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s steadfast, multidecade pursuit of causes that meant much to him—the renewal of Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, for example, and reforming the welfare system—showed me that it’s sometimes possible to get important things done. But what patience and stamina that requires! If I got hit by a truck tomorrow, I hope that somebody might recall my own efforts to revitalize the National Assessment of Educational Progress, including the launch of state-specific reporting and the “achievement levels” that still constitute the closest thing we have to national standards.

7. Character counts, too, along with leadership and courage. Watching Lamar Alexander’s school reform struggles of the mid-1980s, when he was Tennessee’s governor, I saw how indispensable a shrewd, courageous, goal-driven, and well-disciplined political leader is. Watching William J. Bennett in action as the U.S. secretary of education, I saw what a difference it makes to have clear ideas and forcefully articulate them. But how quickly one gets into hot water when those ideas push against the established wisdom. (How willing one is to resist the force of convention may be the ultimate gauge of character in public life.)

Nothing in education reform is easy. Changing the ground rules doesn’t necessarily make for better teaching and learning.

8. School choice without quality doesn’t do enough. “Structural” reformers err when they disregard what happens inside classrooms. E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Diane Ravitch are right about that. Once upon a time, I expected the market to provide correctives for mediocre schools—or put them out of business. But I’ve learned from long immersion in the choice wars (starting at Moynihan’s side on the Senate floor during the “Packwood-Moynihan tuition-tax-credit bill” debates of 1977, and continuing through today’s charter school struggles) that many American parents are unfussy customers when it comes to academic performance. They care about a safe, nurturing environment and a caring teacher—and about convenience and sports and such. Those are significant considerations, yes, but not enough to boost achievement.

9. I also erred in thinking that competition per se would trigger great changes in traditional schools. Breaking up monopolistic systems and creating options for needy kids remains the right thing to do, but often the former monopoly, instead of truly competing, strives, via political means and dirty tricks, to quash the upstarts. (Spend a month with me in Ohio one day!) Political compromises also lead elected officials to enact Potemkin reforms—that’s as true of standards-based as choice-style reforms—that amount to surface changes unaccompanied by the more wrenching shifts that are needed for those reforms to succeed.

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’ve been part of two ambitious innovations (Edison Schools and K12 Inc.) that show the private sector’s power to devise first-rate education breakthroughs—but in time they, too, had to make painful compromises, driven both by the need to turn a profit and by the power of established interests to rein in and distort the best of entrepreneurial initiatives. All such efforts eventually collide with the reality that the “system” they yearn to reform is either their regulator or their customer (or their political opponent), and they must make their peace with it.

11. Don’t read too much into test scores. They’re 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. Our daughter never tested well, but more than made up for it with pluck, hard work, and determination. For years, our son brought home impressive test scores yet managed to learn very little. Today, both kids are successful professionals, happily married, and deftly raising our two little granddaughters. But that’s after many episodes (and some risky parent interventions) in which test scores concealed more than they showed.

12. Nothing in education reform is easy. Changing the ground rules doesn’t necessarily make for better teaching and learning. As I’ve learned from being a charter school “sponsor” in Ohio, putting a “charter” sign over a schoolhouse door doesn’t make it a good school. (Nor, for that matter, does the label “private”.) At day’s end, a great school is a great school (and, alas, a rare find) no matter what the label says. What changing the ground rules does is create new and perhaps more favorable opportunities for schools to succeed. It’s no guarantee that they will.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Lessons Learned

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