The education of Chester Finn

In February 2008, Princeton University Press will release Troublemaker, the memoir of Education Next senior editor and veteran education reformer Chester E. “Checker” Finn Jr. Currently president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he chairs the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, Finn has served as assistant secretary for research and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, staff assistant to the president of the United States (Richard Nixon), and counsel to the U.S. ambassador to India (Daniel Patrick Moynihan). He has written 15 books and more than 400 articles and serves on numerous boards.

Troublemaker weaves into the chronicle of Finn’s life and career the broader history of education reform, in which he has played a vital and sometimes rambunctious role. We’ve excerpted some highlights here. The first part spans the early education of a “nerdy, unathletic, braces-and-glasses-wearing kid who would sometimes wake up early to read the encyclopedia” through Finn’s memorable stint as a high school social studies teacher. The second part recounts some of his experiences at the Department of Education during the 1980s: working to bring the fruits of education research to America’s classrooms and a professional accomplishment he views among his most important, revamping the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Excerpted and adapted from Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik by Chester E. Finn Jr.

I attended the Dayton public schools from kindergarten through ninth grade, benefiting from “Miss McCleary,” “Miss Reynolds,” and a dozen other competent, decently educated, hardworking, gray-haired women who knew their stuff, taught us well, and brooked little nonsense. They were, in fact, practiced craftspeople and consummate professionals. They commanded respect as honorable practitioners of, even experts at, a vital community responsibility. So far as I could see, they did not dwell overmuch on their own “professionalism.” But neither did they belong to trade unions like the thousands of blue-collar workers in Dayton’s sprawling General Motors and National Cash Register plants.

Jefferson School, into whose district my family moved when I was in second grade, was a sizable K–8 neighborhood school with large classes and unabashed division of reading groups into “blue birds” and “red birds.” For me and many classmates, this yielded effective-enough delivery of basic skills and knowledge without a lot of frills. I had phonics in first grade, memorized the multiplication tables in (as I recall) fourth grade, wrote lots of book reports, and absorbed plenty of history and geography from Miss Reynolds in seventh- and eighth-grade social studies.

Schoolwork was by no means entirely academic. We also took art, music, and gym—and boys and girls alike sampled both home ec and shop. With ample parent help, I made my share of papier-maché dioramas, read hundreds of comic books (that’s how Mrs. Scibilia rewarded kids in her third-grade class who finished their work early), and sang off-key in costumed Christmas pageants and school plays. Everyone lived within a few blocks of school, and nearly everyone walked there twice a day, going home at noon to find Mom waiting with chicken-noodle soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, then back to school for the afternoon.

In September 1958, just turned fourteen, I began to walk a few blocks farther to attend ninth grade at Colonel White High School. A standard-issue “comprehensive high school,” it had something for everyone, including Friday evening football under the lights. Though the culture of the place was rah-rah, there were plenty of decent courses on offer and a smattering of first-rate teachers. You did not have to take those courses, however. One could easily enroll in a nonacademic track, and even the college-prep students could get by without much heavy lifting.

In retrospect, this Mayberry-like upbringing didn’t serve everyone well. I knew that Dayton’s “colored” community lived mainly on the “West Side” but scarcely noticed that the schools I attended were segregated in fact if not by law.

In 1959, I moved from Colonel White to New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy, following in my dad’s footsteps. On a hot September day, my father and grandfather helped me move into a tiny, stuffy, dormered single on the fourth floor of aging Webster Hall. Then, eyes welling, they said good-bye and headed back to Dayton. I didn’t know a soul.

In those days, Exeter remained a boys-only institution in the classic mode of New England (and British) prep schools: jackets and ties in classroom and dining hall, six days of class a week (only till noon on Saturday, however), mandatory sports, movies in the gym on Saturday evenings (after franks and beans in the dining hall) unless there was a stilted, prearranged dance with a girls’ school, bland and repetitive food (Sunday night’s soup we dubbed “the vegetables of the week in review”), unbending discipline, and a sink-or-swim stance toward student performance.

At fifteen, I fancied myself a bold individualist, lapping up Camus, Salinger, and Elie Wiesel and thinking overmuch about the different drummer I imagined that I heard, though in reality that meant little more than heading off to the woods with a book, orange juice, and cookies on warm Saturday afternoons while others played ball.

Intellectually, however, this was the most demanding regimen of my life—and I learned more at Exeter than anywhere else. By senior year, I was awakening at three a.m. most days to study. It may be that a great teacher on one end of the log and a willing student on the other are all that’s needed for a world-class education. But tough standards and hard work also pay off. I was able to skip my freshman year of college thanks to AP credits earned at Exeter. Still, this blend of devoted all-around instructors, rigorous expectations, and a paternalistic education culture was not confined to upper-middle-class kids in elite prep schools. Something like it was standard practice in Catholic schools serving working-class children. And I see it working wonders today with poor and minority youngsters in the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and other all-enveloping schools—provided, that is, that both educators and parents get past modern hang-ups about “changing the kids’ culture.”

College and Beyond

I entered Harvard in September (1962), continuing my privileged, parent-funded education in elite institutions and beginning what turned out to be nearly seven years in Cambridge. Arriving on campus with “sophomore standing,” I had immediately to select my major: U.S. history. Studying, however, was not my top priority. Finally liberated from the discipline of home, boarding school, and (that summer) Outward Bound, I took a liking to gin-and-tonics, dated some Radcliffe and Wellesley students, and had my share of good times. But mostly what I did was volunteer. At eighteen, I was a budding social reformer.

A year earlier, Jane Jacobs had published The Death and Life of Great American Cities. My first year of college brought The Other America, Michael Harrington’s passionate exposé of U.S. poverty, and Herbert J. Gans’s The Urban Villagers, documenting the human damage inflicted by urban renewal efforts in Boston’s West End, just across the river. President Kennedy, after admonishing us to ask what we could do for our country, had launched the Peace Corps to help the needy in other lands. And I was ready to pitch in.

That first year at Harvard, I spent Friday evenings fetching and carrying—and bandaging and occasionally suturing—in Boston City Hospital’s frenetic emergency room. I also led a group of housing-project boys in various activities one afternoon a week at an old-line settlement house in East Cambridge led by the charismatic Elsa Baldwin, a chain-smoking, tireless, compassionate socialist, community organizer, and unbending poverty warrior. The umbrella for this and more was Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), the country’s oldest and largest student-led volunteer organization.

In time, I found myself heading one of the PBHA programs, then—pushing against conventional wisdom for perhaps the first time in my life—asking why we undergraduates couldn’t do on our own at least as well as the professionals were doing. At Roosevelt Towers, a Cambridge housing project largely outside the purview of existing tutoring and recreation programs, a bunch of us persuaded the manager to lend us a cellar room, then went door-to-door recruiting families for an ever-expanding list of activities. We hustled grant dollars from local foundations, hired our own part-time social worker to lead “training groups” for volunteers, devised summer programs, and with all the smug self-assuredness of Ivy League youth were soon running a sizable operation.

Sometimes I even attended class. Harvard had a peerless faculty, of course, and I took some fine lecture courses from the likes of Oscar Handlin, Robert McCloskey, and Paul Freund. One day, Edward Banfield brought in as guest lecturer to his Urban Problems course a young assistant labor secretary from Washington named Moynihan to talk about LBJ’s new War on Poverty—my first glimpse of the man who would become my most important mentor and teacher.

My parents expected me to apply to law school and follow grandfather and father into the family firm in Dayton. Yet that was not to be. I was seized by the passion of education tracts by Jonathan Kozol and others; Kennedy was dead (a stunningly emotional time on the Harvard campus); and Johnson had placed education front and center on the national agenda, insisting that it was the surest and most direct way to end poverty, combat urban blight, and equalize opportunity in America. That sounded like something I needed to be part of.

The summer I graduated from college (1965), I began the Master of Arts in Teaching program at the Harvard Ed School, specializing in social studies, in which field Massachusetts certified me as a secondary teacher. After a hasty summer of practice teaching, I was placed at Newton High School as a full-time intern teacher for the 1965–6 school year. Despite my previous tutoring, camp counseling, and summer classroom gigs, this was my first big solo teaching job. And I wasn’t much good at it.

My four classes were part of Newton’s “curriculum II,” which by twelfth grade meant that my students were mostly putting in time until they could grab their diplomas and head off to work, the army, or the nearby community college. Many of the boys were bigger, and nearly all of them tougher, than I. The girls misbehaved less, but that didn’t mean their minds were focused on the Problems of American Democracy course that I struggled to teach.

Though “P.A.D.” served as the traditional senior-year civics course, I was left to devise my own curriculum and pedagogy. Nobody much cared what, if anything, my students learned. Sometimes my classes went okay. But often as not, between discipline problems and overwrought (or underdeveloped) instructional notions, things slid off track. One memorable day, teaching Lord of the Flies and nearing the part where the marooned boys cut off the pig’s head, place it atop a stake, and engage in a form of primitive worship, I drove to an old-fashioned Italian butcher shop in Boston’s North End and bought an honest-to-God pig’s head—the gnarliest, bristliest one in the store. Then I found a stick somewhere. Alas, the lesson I had planned to impart was quite lost upon these flabbergasted teenagers who couldn’t stop muttering that “Mr. Finn brought a pig’s head to school.”

I came to understand that teaching is hard and that being smart and well educated doesn’t necessarily mean one will be good at it. I also learned vividly that even the most acclaimed schools have “kids left behind,” youngsters getting an inferior education while their age mates get a good one. For most of my students, I was the third consecutive “intern” teacher in their three years of high-school social studies. The education system that had served me well as a student in Dayton just a few years earlier was mistreating these kids in Newton. Someone needed to make more of a fuss about it.

Over the next two decades, Finn finished his education doctorate at Harvard; worked with Pat Moynihan on Nixon’s White House staff, at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, and in the U.S. Senate; became a Brookings fellow and a Vanderbilt professor; advised Massachusetts governor Frank Sargent and Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander; wrote several books; and was joined by a physician wife and two children. He became assistant secretary for research and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education in 1985 (see Figure 1).

Two years after A Nation at Risk (1983), the country was hungry for proven ways of boosting student achievement. At Secretary of Education William Bennett’s insistence and with skilled leadership by OERI (Office of Educational Research and Improvement) staffers Milt Goldberg and Susan Traiman, we set out to distill reams of education research into straightforward lessons that practitioners and parents could apply. The main product was an eighty-five-page booklet titled What Works: Research About Teaching and Learning, the first edition of which (March 1986) contained forty-one “findings.” Each laid out in plain language a robust, actionable conclusion based on multiple studies and vetted by experts in the field. In the “home” section, for example, we reported, “Children who are encouraged to draw and scribble ‘stories’ at an early age will later learn to compose more easily, more effectively, and with greater confidence than children who do not have this encouragement.” In the “classroom” section, we declared: “Students will become more adept at solving math problems if teachers encourage them to think through a problem before they begin working on it, guide them through the thinking process, and give them regular and frequent practice in solving problems.” And in the “school” section, we explained: “A school staff that provides encouragement and personalized attention, and monitors daily attendance can reduce unexcused absences and class-cutting.”

Such conclusions may look obvious, even banal, but in fact it was unprecedented for the federal education research agency to treat teachers, principals, and parents as key clients, rather than targeting its products at academics and policymakers.

Copies flew off the shelf, more than half a million during the first year. We heard a little carping from the research community that we had “oversimplified” and a bit of whining that several findings had a Bennett tilt (such as serious talk about history and character). Mostly, though, those who examined What Works applauded it. The problem was that, despite all the trees and postage sacrificed to its dissemination, it had little impact on its primary audiences.

I figured this out six months later in San Diego, where I was being shown around by then-superintendent Tom Payzant, one of America’s leading urban educators. He organized a lunch discussion with his high-school principals, and there, mainly as a conversation starter, I held up a copy of What Works and asked how many of them were acquainted with it. Only one raised his hand, and it wasn’t clear whether he had actually read it.

Sobering. The lesson was not only that American K–12 education is sprawling, decentralized, and loosely coupled but also that few of its practitioners strive to “keep up with the research” (as my wife’s medical colleagues might put it) and even fewer translate research results into changed classroom practice.

Reinventing the National Assessment

Planning for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had commenced in the mid-1960s, spearheaded by Education Commissioner Frank Keppel and underwritten at first by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Federal funding began in 1968, and by 1972 it was entirely financed by Uncle Sam but administered via the Education Commission of the States (ECS). The assessment itself was first given in 1969, but the underlying political compromises meant that (a) students were tested by age, not grade level; (b) results were reported either as percentages of test takers getting individual questions right or (starting in 1984) on a psychometric scale that included no benchmarks, standards, or “cut points”; and (c) the “units of analysis” were the entire country and four big regions but not individual states, let alone districts or schools. Though nicknamed “The Nation’s Report Card,” in reality NAEP’s reports were none too informative.

By the mid-eighties, the country craved more and better achievement data, and the governors, in particular, wanted comparative performance statistics for their states. So we decided to appoint a blue-ribbon panel of our own to examine NAEP and recommend changes. Lamar Alexander, then in his last year as Tennessee’s governor, agreed to chair it so long as someone else did the heavy lifting. Tom James consented to play that role. The National Academy of Education (NAE) agreed to house the project. Several major private foundations (including Exxon, Ford, Hewlett, and MacArthur) were persuaded to cover the costs, and a terrific cast of twenty-two individuals agreed to serve, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the first lady of Arkansas; Stanford professor Michael Kirst; and California schools chief Bill Honig.

Bennett announced the NAEP “study group” in May 1986, and ten months—and forty-six background papers and nine subgroups—later its report was released. Four of the panel’s recommendations were key to NAEP’s future utility:

• Student achievement should be sampled and reported at key “transition grades,” namely fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades, in addition to age levels.

• More subjects should be assessed, spanning the curricular core.

• A diverse, bipartisan, and independent board should be appointed to oversee NAEP policy, “buffered from manipulation by any individual, level of government, or special-interest group in the field of education.”

• Achievement should be tallied and reported for states (and cities) as well as the whole country.

State-level NAEP reporting elicited mild concern from the NAE reviewers, who fretted that undue attention might be given to an Olympic-style ranking of states on the basis of their scores and insufficient heed paid to the “many factors” that influence such scores. The reviewers also added a suggestion of their own, that in “each content area, NAEP should articulate clear descriptions of performance levels, descriptions that might be analogous to such craft rankings as novice, journeyman, highly competent, and expert. Descriptions of this kind would be extremely useful to educators, parents, legislators, and an informed public.”

Lynne Cheney and Chest PainsIn 1986, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered its first-ever assessments of U.S. history and literature to a nationally representative sample of eleventh graders. This was underwritten by a special one-time grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), made while I was at Vanderbilt and William Bennett was NEH chairman. Diane Ravitch and I had persuaded both the mandarins of NAEP and the Bennett NEH squad that it was crucial to find out just how much high-school juniors did or did not know about these two key subjects and that a NAEP add-on could accomplish this. Diane and I helped design the assessment and recruit the subject experts who assisted the Educational Testing Service in crafting suitable questions. We also hoped to write a book about the findings, though the data themselves would be in the public domain.

By the time the test results rolled in, I was working at the Education Department and Bennett was secretary. His NEH successor was Lynne V. Cheney, a strong-willed woman, author, and humanities booster, as well as Dick Cheney’s wife.

Using the not-yet-released NAEP data, Diane and I wrote What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? which Harper & Row published in 1987. (As a federal employee, I took no royalties from its sales.) Cheney penned the foreword, accurately if mildly noting: “The results…show that while a few students did very well, most did not perform satisfactorily.”

In fact, the assessment results were a devastating indictment of U.S. high schools. A third of test takers failed to identify the Declaration of Independence as the document marking the formal separation of the American colonies from Britain. Presented with a timeline, fewer than three in five placed World War I in the correct fifty-year period. (A majority could not do that with the Civil War.)

As our book publication date neared, Cheney was com pleting her own NEH report, American Memory, a competent critique of the schools’ failure to transmit knowledge of the past to U.S. youngsters. Seeking to maximize its impact, she elected to scoop Diane’s and my book, scheduled for release a few days later, and put some of our major findings and choicest examples into her booklet.

The data, to be sure, had been paid for by the NEH, which Cheney now led, and in time would be available to all. Still, this scramble to get out ahead of us was, if not dirty pool, at least inconsiderate and offensive. Ravitch and I were mightily irked, and a prominent TV journalist dumbfounded Cheney by asking her on a national interview show if she had “plagiarized” from our book.

It was a stressful time for all concerned, the more so since NEH attorneys—possibly to cow me—were also questioning whether it was kosher for me to have used government typewriters and phones for my part of the book writing. And so it happened, one morning at the office, that, for the first time in my life, I felt chest pains. My wife the doctor instructed me to get out to the Walter Reed emergency room ASAP and she would have the cardiology team waiting. Just as assistant Patty Hobbs and I were walking out to my car, however, the phone rang. It was an irate Lynne Cheney, saying we have to talk about this problem and resolve it right now. I was too proud to tell her that I was having chest pains that she might have caused, so I drummed up the hasty excuse that a “family emergency” prevented me from talking with her right then. She didn’t want to hear it, but I promised to call her back shortly.

At the ER, Walter Reed’s top cardiologists quickly determined that whatever had caused my chest to ache was not a heart attack but insisted on following their standard protocol and keeping me overnight for observation. As orderlies wheeled me off on a gurney toward the ward where I would repose till morning, I said “Whoa, I need to make a phone call.” I dialed Cheney’s office and, still loath to tell her what had happened or where I was, made a date with her to talk about it all a day or two later.

Lynne and I have been on a dozen panels and seminars together in the years since. Today we enjoy a proper though tepid relationship, warmed slightly by the fact that our basic education values are similar. And I’ve had no more chest pains.

Secretary Bennett embraced all these recommendations, declaring in March 1987 that he “certainly intend(ed) to move forward with legislation and to seek authorization to put an improved report card into the nation’s hands.”

States would not be required to take part in NAEP, but Bennett predicted that most would. “There is very great public interest,” he remarked, “in this question of ‘How are we doing? What are our children learning?’”

The Alexander-James report, combined with the NAE’s qualified endorsement, Bennett’s zeal, and a parallel proposal from the Council of Chief State School Officers to use NAEP as the vehicle for state comparisons, amounted to a sea change. Its recommendations symbolized both a coming of age for American education—a real readiness to confront and compare school outcomes—and an essential foundation under the standards-based reforms to follow.

Few objections were voiced at first. Albert Shanker commented that while revamping NAEP didn’t top the education lobbies’ agenda for the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) reauthorization cycle then under way, strengthening the assessment system was “one of the most important things we can accomplish in this round” of federal education legislation.

At the end of 1987, both chambers passed their respective ESEA bills. The House version paid scant heed to NAEP, but the Senate incorporated nearly all of the Alexander-James recommendations. How that happened illustrates the kind of backstage bipartisanship and teamwork that’s still occasionally possible in Washington.

Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy chaired the Senate Education and Labor Committee in the 100th Congress. His chief education staffer at the time was an old friend and coauthor of mine, Terry W. Hartle (now senior vice president of the American Council on Education). He and I worked closely and quickly behind the scenes to massage the recommendations into a legislative form that both Kennedy and the Reagan administration could endorse. Kennedy then became Senate champion for the NAEP reforms.

The sledding got a bit rou-gher when Senate and House versions of ESEA met in conference in early 1988. A lobbyist for the National PTA declared, “This bandwagon of testing is getting ridiculous,” and the American Association of School Administrators (the local-superintendents’ group) complained, “The marginal good to educators of comparing data across state lines, compared with the cost, is not much.”

When the ESEA reauthorization was finally signed into law in 1988, near the end of the Reagan administration, its NAEP amendments did much to pave the way for standards-based, results-driven education reform. If I were clobbered by a bus tomorrow, this reinvention of NAEP would be among the very few public-policy accomplishments that I wish someone might think to put in my obituary. It was also proof that even in Washington one can sometimes effect worthwhile change by sticking with a project, winning others over to it, and gradually building momentum behind it.

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