Jack Jennings and a Half-Century of School Reform

Jack Jennings started working on federal education policy in December 1967, about eighteen months before I did. He’s never stopped—and few have wielded greater influence. For the past seventeen years (a history that roughly parallels Fordham’s), he’s led a small but influential Washington-based ed-policy think tank called the Center on Education Policy (CEP). He’s now retiring from that role and, as he exits, the Center has brought out two publications. One is a nicely crafted (and very flattering) profile of CEP itself, as well as Jack and his work there, written by veteran ed-writer Anne Lewis. The other is Jack’s own ten-page reflection on recent education reforms, what has and hasn’t worked, and what, in his view, the future ought to hold, particularly at the federal level.

It’s vintage Jennings, perceptive about both what has happened and why and how it has (and hasn’t) worked, then incurably and relentlessly over-ambitious—in a classic, big-government, big-spending, liberal sort of way—about what federal policy should do tomorrow.

As to the past, and oversimplifying some points that he makes more subtly,

  • Equity-based reform didn’t get very far because it amounted to add-on programs, suffered from limited funding, and failed to “generally improve the broader educational system.”
  • School choice pleases parents but doesn’t raise achievement much, “an interesting case of convictions trumping evidence.”
  • Standards-based reform has had more traction but has “gone astray”: too much testing, too much labeling, not enough real alteration in the quality of what’s taught and learned.

None of that is wrong. But his prescription for the future comes across as wishful thinking even if you’re disposed to agree with it. (I’m not.) Jennings favors a federal law declaring that “no child in the United States will be denied equal educational opportunity in elementary and secondary education through the lack of a challenging curriculum, well-prepared and effective teachers, and the funding to pay for that education.”

This would, of course, have the effect of transferring the responsibility for educating (and financing the education of) 55 million kids to Washington. I guess one might term this a “governance reform” but I don’t think it’s going to happen or that it would work well if it did. (Jack has done just about everything during the course of his long career EXCEPT work in the executive branch. If he had, he might harbor fewer illusions about its capacity in the realm of education.)

It’s notable, too, that he continues after all these years to put his faith in Uncle Sam to fix what ails American education. There’s no mention here of changes in the delivery system (e.g. technology), the system’s efficiency/productivity, or its structures and governance (except as noted above). He also downplays the value of “outsiders” (e.g. governors, mayors) as agents of change in K-12 education.

It is said that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Much as I respect and admire Jack Jennings, in spite of all his experience in this field, his main tool remains federal legislation, which I’ve come to believe is almost always wielded clumsily in pursuit of nails that either won’t budge at all or end up bent.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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