“I’ve Got a Lot More Questions Than Answers”: An Interview with Chester Finn

Chester FinnChecker Finn has been a player in American public education for a long time.  To many liberals, he’s been a burr under the saddle–or worse–but no one can deny that he’s thoughtful, articulate, productive and tireless. Checker, the president of the Fordham Institute, has written a zillion articles and books, most recently the aptly-titled “Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform” and another mentioned below.

In the first of a series of interviews and guest blogs on Taking Note, I asked my friend Checker a few questions.


The Obama Administration has now endorsed national or common standards, something you have supported longer than most. Now nearly every state has come out in favor as well. Are you feeling vindicated? Or is now the time to get worried, the logic being that, “When everyone is for something, watch out!”?

Within days, maybe even hours, I’m told I’ll get a first glimpse of the first draft of the proposed “common standards” for English/reading, and then we shall begin to see what this option actually looks like. Will it re-ignite the “culture wars”? Will it sacrifice the ideal of broadly, liberally educated Americans on the altar of college-and-career-ready-skills? Will it go overboard on so-called 20th century skills?

Supposing those rapids are navigated successfully, we get to the next set of concerns. What about the K-11 standards that must lead up to these end-of-high-school standards? What about the “aligned assessments” that Secretary Duncan recently promised to help pay for with “race to the top” money? And, of course, how will any of this work over time? How many states will actually trade in their own standards and tests for these? Will they do better or worse (on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, which I trust will remain the outside “auditor”) than states that hold onto their own? Who will operate this new system over the long haul?

I’ve got a lot more questions than answers.

But are you optimistic that we are moving in the right direction?

A big modern country like the U.S. on a shrinking planet in the 21st century needs to move in the direction of national standards and tests, yes. Whether the present approach will get us there nobody can yet say. We had a false start or two in the nineties; it’s not beyond imagining that we could have another one now.

If you don’t want NAEP to become our national test, what do you favor?

NAEP should remain the external auditor, covering both those states that opt into the ‘common’ standards (and, presumably one day, tests) and those that don’t and reporting on all. We might, for example, find the common-standards states doing better, or worse, on NAEP than the states that remain outside. This means that the common standards need their own (aligned) tests, which I believe is what Secretary (Arne) Duncan recently said he will pay for.

On balance, has No Child Left Behind done more harm than good? What’s the biggest downside? The greatest benefit?

More good, on balance. It’s made school (and district and state) academic performance far more transparent than ever before. It’s focused the country on the goal of proficiency. It’s made us take achievement gaps seriously. It’s been a plus. But it’s also sorely flawed in half a dozen crucial ways and Congress and the administration really need to focus on these. (I sense that they’re avoiding the entire topic!) The biggest problem (among many) is that, while it’s shown that we’re pretty good at identifying “broken” schools, it’s also shown that we are beginners when it comes to fixing them.

What has all your harsh criticism of NCLB done to your standing in the Republican party?

The Republican party has far larger and more fundamental problems than me (and NCLB). Today, it’s leaderless, rudderless and without ideas. Pat Moynihan used to talk about how for many decades British Tories were known as the “stupid party”. Today’s GOP qualifies for that designation. I wouldn’t be so alarmed if I saw some path out of this thicket but at this moment I cannot spot it. I think I’m retrieving my “Independent” status. (And before you ask, I find the Democrats perfectly appalling but in completely different ways.)

You are now standing on the tracks in the way of the “Early Childhood Education” express train. Why? What on earth could be wrong with early childhood education for all?

Read the book. (“Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut”) It’s short and will only take a smart fellow like you an hour or two. My greatest beef is with the move to develop new “universal” pre-school programs. The great majority of kids don’t need these–their families have already made pre-school arrangements that work pretty well–so it’s just a big middle-class entitlement that I don’t believe taxpayers should be expected to underwrite. At the same time, these “universal” programs provide far less than what the most seriously disadvantaged preschoolers need by way of additional education and services. So it’s a bad idea on both counts. And it sidesteps some more obvious (and arguably less expensive) alternatives, such as transforming Head Start into a proper pre-K program, which it most certainly is not today.

You have, from your Washington vantage point(s), done much as anyone I can think of that has led to greater federal involvement in public education. Do you have any regrets?

Mixed feelings, that’s for sure. The federal government is a very limited and clumsy instrument for moving education reform in the United States, and some of its moves have been detrimental–including giving perverse incentives to states. Left to their own devices, a handful of states (I’d cite Massachusetts, Florida and possibly North Carolina and Texas.) have done pretty well. A lot more states, however, have done miserably at bringing their public education systems into modern times. And some that did good work for a time have backslid.

There’s no simple answer here. It boils down to whom do you trust most to do right by kids. I’ve sometimes quipped that many people tend to vest the greatest trust (or at least hope) in whatever level of government they’ve had the least direct experience with.

5 thoughts on ““I’ve Got a Lot More Questions Than Answers”: An Interview with Chester Finn

  1. One question I wish you would ask Mr. Finn about the new effort on national standards spearheaded by NGA and CCSSO: Why did they choose to exclude practicing educators from either the working or feedback groups (there’s currently one)? Don’t they anticipate difficulty getting their products accepted, much less implemented, by those educators, if this is (rightly) perceived as yet another top-down initiative?


  2. Mr. Merrow, and Mr. Finn:

    I did a little search after reading this piece. Here are the results: you managed to have this conversation without using the words “student” “learn” or “teach.” That is precisely why, as an educator and as a parent, I’ve rarely found Mr. Finn speaks to me or my concerns.

    It seems like people constantly immersed in policy and data and politics only see those types of solutions for schools. I can’t imagine that there’s a single school or district in the country that would say “what we most right now is new standards.” I doubt there are many who would even place new standards in their top ten concerns. This is a solution in search of a crisis.

    And I can’t imagine there’s an educator out there who would say that we need standards designed entirely by non-teachers in a near secret process. Mr. Merrow has touted Mr. Finn as thoughtful and provocative, but I wish I saw something actually relevant to real problems in K-12 education.


  3. There is very good reason for transparency in the development of national standards.

    There is every reason for all points of views to be heard in this effort – including the review and editing after the draft is complete.

    BUT I certainly believe national standards make sense – to guide educational efforts more broadly. National standards are simply a better version of local or state standards.

    My personal concern about such efforts is that they will emphasize factual knowledge beyond core knowledge with little attention to the equally important skills of dialogue, problem solving, intrepretation, etc. that build meaningful linkages or visions among the core knowledge and related information.

    I note the Texas (I know – not part of the national effort) talking about government standards in terms of which people should be included rather than practice of skills helping students develop participation motivation and capabilities the same leaders displayed.


  4. Merrow says of Finn: “no one can deny that he’s thoughtful, articulate, productive and tireless.” Really? Mr. Merrow, your credibility has just hit rock-bottom with me, an educator and parent. While I can agree that Mr. Finn is productive and tireless, I do not find him thoughtful at all. He is worse than a “burr under the saddle” to those of us who are actually in real schools, working with real students. He is a purveyor of misinformation. Quit blaming teachers and excluding us from the policy arena. National standards that are formulated without input from K-12 educators won’t be a magic bullet any more than NCLB was. The problems with education in America are a reflection of our society’s skewed values, exemplified by an overemphasis on celebrity and money. What ever happened to the commitment to a well-educated citizenry?


  5. I urge you all to read this week’s post, my interview with Debbie Meier. She’s one of my heroes, but that doesn’t mean she cuts me any slack, as you will see.


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