More Trouble for Establishment Would Be Even Better

Published May 1, 2008

Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008
376 pages, hardcover, ISBN 9780691129907, $26.95

If you’re looking for a real agitator, someone who declares the emperor naked while everyone else insists he’s wearing a robe, T-shirt, turtleneck, and cardigan, you’ll be a little disappointed by Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik.

Author and Thomas B. Fordham Foundation President Chester E. Finn rightly critiques much about American public schooling, insisting the turtleneck and cardigan aren’t there, but he ultimately refuses to acknowledge what all his experience shows: The emperor has no clothes at all.

No Outsider

Troublemaker begins with Finn’s boyhood in Dayton, Ohio–origins different from the elite-breeding Washington-to-Boston corridor that certainly put him in a position to be a troublemaking outsider.

That, however, is the extent of Finn’s non-establishment credentials. At age 15 he traded Dayton for New Hampshire’s elite Phillips Exeter Academy, and the rest of his path is pure insider:

“My expert face can claim forty years in the field, a trifecta of Harvard degrees, a stack of books, tenured professor, think tank fellow. … As policymaker, I’ve worked as a junior White House staffer, assistant secretary of education, legislative director for a high-profile U.S. senator, aide to one governor and kitchen cabinet member for another, member of the President’s Education Policy Advisory council, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, counsel to the U.S. ambassador to India, and more.”

Even with this résumé, one could cause lots of trouble, taking on sacred cow after sacred cow. But that doesn’t happen in Troublemaker.

While special interests such as teacher unions and school administrators have resisted much that Finn has championed, he has rarely gored anyone’s ox. Whether helping Nixon create the National Institute for Education, promoting a focus on “excellence,” or championing charter schools, Finn has pushed for changes, but nothing that would truly quake the earth under plodding, government-dominated, American education.

Ignoring Experience

Finn’s failure to be a full-on troublemaker certainly doesn’t render his book worthless. It’s a very readable rundown of the past four decades of education policymaking by a man who was there. It’s also enlightening to see what Finn has learned over the decades, especially as he’s seen reforms he once thought powerful neutered by politics. As he writes about his time heading the U.S. Office of Educational Research and Improvement:

“After three years, I had made modest headway with my reforms, which of course crumbled soon after I had gone. I had also accumulated a lifetime’s worth of contempt for [the American Educational Research Association], for the labs and centers that were (and remain) the politically nimblest players on the education-research field, for the congressional appropriations process that looked after adult interest groups at the expense of kids, parents, and practitioners, and for those education department bureaucrats who comprised the third side of Washington’s infamous ‘iron triangle.'”

Unfortunately, despite so much experience with a system that regularly defeats his efforts, Finn refuses to accept the most important lesson his experience can offer: Central government planning is no more successful in education than in any other field.

Limiting Reforms

Though to an extent he recognizes parents must have control over their children’s education to counter self-interested policymakers and bureaucrats, Finn refuses to advocate giving them the full power they need. In the end, he cannot part with government control:

“Choice enthusiasts sometimes become so enamored of the market’s invisible hand … that they brush off accountability systems that also demand academic results. Some are sublimely confident that if the statutory structures and policies can be set right, quality will inexorably follow.

“That’s false. They and other ‘structural’ reformers err when they disregard what goes on inside the classroom. Particularly in the NCLB era, academic results count.”

Pacifist Approach

Here Finn’s inner non-troublemaker comes to the fore, asserting government must always be in charge of standards because choice is agnostic about results. But full choice is the key to strong standards and accountability, as a vast body of international evidence and Finn’s own experiences make clear.

When government controls the system, the system’s employees usually control the government–and it’s in their interest to set standards low. But when parents have full choice, as in the tutoring industry and the growing private education markets of the developing world, schools must respond to families’ demands, setting off the competition and innovation that drive standards ever-higher.

We could enjoy the same quality and progress in education that we take for granted in everything from computers to package delivery, but because some parents might not choose as he would, Finn would leave government in charge.

Chester Finn has tried hard to nudge Leviathan in a positive direction, but he has refused to accept what his experience proves: The system won’t budge, and we must go over or around it. Because of this refusal, he has never made the real trouble that American children need.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.