Accountability and Choice: Each Depends on the Other: an exclusive interview with Chester E. Finn Jr.

Published December 1, 2002

“I believe that the standards and accountability strategy for education reform coexists and may even be co-dependent with the freedom and competition strategy. An awful lot of people sign up for one or the other, and actually come to regard the other one as an enemy. I’ve come to believe that the two approaches need each other.”

One thing education reformers quickly find, to their dismay, is that the complexity of today’s K-12 public education system allows its defenders to easily shift discussion away from the reformer’s area of expertise by raising numerous “red herrings.” For example, concerns about teaching styles and low student achievement often are deflected by excuses about the lower quality of incoming students, large class sizes, and lack of technology. Concerns about teacher quality often are sidetracked by complaints about low teacher pay, high teacher turnover, and the use of uncertified teachers.

But don’t try this red herring defense with reformer, scholar, educator, and public servant Chester E. Finn, Jr. The breadth and depth of his knowledge of the K-12 education system are unsurpassed, and he has devoted most of his career to improving public education. From junior policy advisor in the Nixon White House to his present position as senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Finn has become one of the most influential voices for education reform in the United States today.

His interest in education developed at Harvard University, where he earned three degrees, including a doctorate in education policy. His long record of public service includes stints as Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education in the Reagan administration, and as chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board. Finn was a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University from 1981 until 2002. He served as founding partner and senior scholar with the Edison Project from 1992 to 1994, and currently serves on several boards, including K12 and the Philanthropy Roundtable.

The author of 13 books and more than 300 articles, Finn currently writes a weekly column in the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s Education Gadfly. Since taking charge at the Fordham Foundation six years ago, he has made the Foundation an exemplar of applied philanthropy by demonstrating how a budget limited to roughly $2.5 million a year can be applied efficiently to public policy both in theory and in practice–through the regular production of a large number of high-quality research studies and through direct involvement in the reform of education in Dayton, Ohio. Finn spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: Where do we want to get to with education reform, and how do we get there?

Finn: Where we want to get to includes a nearly universal population of knowledgeable and well-skilled people who are ready for citizenship, for productive employment, for further education, and who possess the requisite knowledge, skills, character traits, and behavior patterns to succeed in the world they will inhabit.

We will get there with the help of an education delivery system that includes many forms and vehicles, but that ultimately follows just a few key principles: standards, accountability, freedom, and competition. And if I bring a relatively unusual perspective to bear on this, it’s that I believe that the standards and accountability strategy for education reform coexists and may even be co-dependent with the freedom and competition strategy. An awful lot of people sign up for one or the other, and actually come to regard the other one as an enemy. I’ve come to believe that the two approaches need each other.

Clowes: In what way?

Finn: I don’t think the marketplace works very well in education because schools, like every other vendor, tell fibs and exaggerate their achievements and their virtues, and people are not well-informed consumers.

What education consumers need in order for this marketplace to work successfully is a common metric against which they can compare schools, and I think that the best version of that results from the standards and the tests that most states are trying to impose in the name of standards-based reform. Thus, the marketplace needs the information system that standards-based reform brings to it.

I also think that standards-based reform is turning out to be far better at identifying problem schools than at doing anything about them. Here’s where choice and competition can help.

For example, your state can give you a list of schools that aren’t meeting standards, but then those schools just stay on the list and the children stay stuck in them because standards-based reform is not turning out to be very efficacious when it comes to fixing failed schools or giving children alternatives. Enter: the marketplace.

The perfect example is Florida’s A+ program: Instead of sitting around dithering when the standards and the tests tell us we have a situation that’s not working, we let the students go to some place else and encourage other providers to come in and take over.

The marketplace strengthens the hand of the standards-based reformers by creating alternatives for children otherwise stuck in failed schools. The standards-based reform strategy strengthens the marketplace by identifying the failed schools and helping people make intelligent comparisons among other schools. That’s why I’ve come to see these two reform strategies as mutually reinforcing, or complementary.

Clowes: Could you comment on the findings from the Manhattan Institute’s recent report on “What Do Teachers Teach?”

Finn: That report most vividly illustrates one of the hazards with the standards-based reform strategy, which is, of course, designed to change the present public school system. It turns out from the Manhattan data that a goodly fraction of teachers don’t buy into some central assumptions of standards-based reform, which are that states decide what students should learn, that teachers decide what goes on in the classroom, and that there ought to be a uniform standard against which student performance is judged.

A lot of teachers don’t think state standards are very important; they prefer student-directed learning to teacher-directed learning, and to say that they grade on a curve would be putting it too kindly. They grade in kind of a relativistic way that seems to be child-specific rather than based in any single standard.

This says that some of the assumptions we hold dear about how the standards-based reform strategy is going to work may not, in fact, work very well, because it’s not clear that enough teachers are eagerly doing the things that would cause the standards-based reform strategy to succeed.

There is also here a little bit of a cautionary note for the marketplace and competition crowd, which I’ll illustrate by saying: I’ve been to some pretty daffy private schools and charter schools in my time where very dubious education ideas reign. That can happen just as easily in a competition/choice regimen as in a standards-based regimen, and parents are very easily taken in here. You ask a parent: “Would you rather have your child’s school be child-centered or teacher-centered in its instructional decision?” An enormous number of parents will intuitively, instinctively say “child-centered.”

That’s why I believe in a common metric against which schools’ performance can be measured. And that’s a seriously missing link in a lot of choice and marketplace scenarios.

Clowes: Do you see that common metric being state-based, or will it be a national standard?

Finn: I’m one of those people who busted a few bones trying, once upon a time, to advance the idea of national standards and national testing. That’s simply a non-starter in political terms in the United States today, however, and so whether I think it’s a good idea or not doesn’t much matter; it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon.

That leaves us with states as the place we have to look to, and that’s not a bad thing. They really do have both the constitutional and the fiscal responsibility for education, and the feds don’t.

I also like the fact that we’re in a kind of naturally occurring experiment here, with different states doing different things, because I’m not sure any one of them has got it completely figured out yet and I don’t think we’re so close to perfect knowledge about education reform that we should be trying to clamp a single reform regimen on the whole country.

Clowes: If many teachers aren’t buying into standards-based reform, that presumably comes from what they were taught in college. What can we do about the ed schools?

Finn: We break the monopoly and allow other kinds of people besides ed school products to become public school teachers, just as we already do in private schools and, in some states, in charter schools. We hold individual schools accountable for their results, and then we give them quite a lot more leeway in their personnel decisions, including the freedom to hire whomever they like, whether they’re an ed school product, or a state-certified person, or not. Then the school is on the line for whether its children are learning, and, if the children aren’t learning, one of the things the school might do is change personnel.

I don’t think we can fix ed schools, so I think we must circumnavigate them and give the people who make hiring decisions about teachers the option of hiring people who didn’t go to them. The model here is not medicine, as some of the people in Linda Darling-Hammond’s crowd would have you believe, but journalism or business. You can go to journalism school if you want but, in order to get hired as a journalist, you don’t have to have gone to journalism school. It might make you better at this line of work but there’s no state requirement that says that the editor for the Chicago Tribune, when hiring a new reporter, is limited to products of journalism schools. Similarly, businesses are not limited to hiring people with MBAs.

Clowes: One aspect of education reform the Fordham Foundation has examined is the role of philanthropists, such as the late Walter Annenberg. What were your conclusions in that area?

Finn: Philanthropists–assuming they do want to change something–have to have a theory of action, a theory both of what needs to change and what is likely to bring about that change. Our report basically says, “Don’t trust the system to fix itself. Don’t hand money to the system.”

What Annenberg did, and what a great many education philanthropists do, is either give money to the system, so that it can do more of what it wants to do, or give money to non-profit organizations that hold hands with the system. This, in our experience, only works under rare and rather specialized circumstances.

The two strategies that I was talking about earlier for education reform–namely, the standards, testing, and accountability strategy, and the competition and choice strategy–each is a better use of philanthropic dollars than funding the system or its hangers-on and cheerleaders.

The important thing to keep in mind with these two reform strategies is that they originate outside the system, with laymen, with non-educators, with elected officials, with business leaders, and with parents. They try to change the system from outside, not from inside. I am confident that philanthropists will get farther in education reform if they try to change the system from outside, rather than inside.

Clowes: The Fordham Foundation routinely produces a large number of high-quality policy and research studies, as well as being actively engaged in school reform in Dayton. Since you don’t have a huge budget, what guides those efforts to get such impressive mileage?

Finn: Well, we’ve been inventing this plane while flying it. Without any particularly elaborate strategic plan or master plan, we just set out to see what issues we might add some value to at the national level. But what we really do have is a philosophy of education, a credo, that you can find on our Web site. It’s got six essential principles. Those really do steer our decisions about what is worth pursuing.

What We Believe

The six elements of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s credo guide all its work on education reform:

  • dramatically higher academic standards
  • an education system designed for and responsive to the needs of its users
  • verifiable outcomes and accountabilities
  • equality of opportunity
  • a solid core curriculum taught by knowledgeable, expert instructors
  • educational diversity, competition, and choice.

Further details of the Foundation’s work may be found on its Web site at

We decided early on that about half of our programmatic spending would be in Dayton on real programs serving real schools and real children, and the other half would be on national policy research in the “war of ideas” about education reform. Our tiny little staff is organized that way, and our budget is organized that way, and we do our best on both fronts with, as you indicated, rather modest amounts of money. And with everybody’s endowment shrinking, it’s less money each year, not more.

We’ve recently created a kind of twin organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which is able to receive other people’s money to do projects, and, indeed, has several of those now in the works. So I have some hopes that we won’t be totally dependent on our own endowment indefinitely. But, still, our people work hard, and most people outside think that a lot more people work here than actually do.

Clowes: What is the most important goal for education reformers to aim at over the next one to two years?

Finn: I think there are two.

First, we have to fend off the attack on charter schools, and allow the charter school idea a full and fair test. There’s a major political war on to throttle the charter movement, to strangle it in its crib. It’s getting harder and harder to start a charter school because the state regulatory environment is shifting very rapidly. Charter schools are getting less and less freedom, and so it’s less and less worthwhile to go to all that bother of starting one.

Second, we have to see if we can stick to our guns on standards and tests and accountability in the states where the rubber is beginning to hit the road in terms of the consequences from high-stakes testing. In other words, are we really going to have the gumption to stick with our standards when we start discovering that students aren’t getting promoted or getting their diplomas? This will all amount to nothing if we instantly turn tail and say, “Well, it’s OK. You didn’t pass the test, you didn’t pass the test on fourteen tries, but we’re going to give you your diploma anyway.”

If we allow “the Blob,” as Bill Bennett calls it, to push back the charter movement and dumb down the standards, then we’re in deep trouble.