Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik

Chester E. Finn
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 376
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Few people have been more involved in shaping postwar U.S. education reforms--or dissented from some of them more effectively--than Chester Finn. Assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, and an aide to politicians as different as Richard Nixon and Daniel Moynihan, Finn has also been a high school teacher, an education professor, a prolific and best-selling writer, a think-tank analyst, a nonprofit foundation president, and both a Democrat and Republican. This remarkably varied career has given him an extraordinary insider's view of every significant school-reform movement of the past four decades, from racial integration to No Child Left Behind. InTroublemaker, Finn has written a vivid history of postwar education reform that is also the personal story of one of the foremost players--and mavericks--in American education.

    Finn tells how his experiences have shaped his changing views of the three major strands of postwar school reform: standards-driven, choice-driven, and profession-driven. Of the three, Finn now believes that a combination of choice and standards has the greatest potential, but he favors this approach more on pragmatic than ideological grounds, arguing that parents should be given more options at the same time that schools are allowed more flexibility and held to higher performance norms. He also explains why education reforms of all kinds are so difficult to implement, and he draws valuable lessons from their frequent failure.

    Clear-eyed yet optimistic, Finn ultimately gives grounds for hope that the best of today's bold initiatives--from charter schools to technology to makeovers of school-system governance--are finally beginning to make a difference.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2821-0
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)

    The education system that my much-adored granddaughter Emma entered in 2006 and will exit around 2025 is different from the one I began in 1950 and light-years from those commenced by my father in 1923 and my grandfather around 1896. Worse in some ways, better in others, it’s undeniably an object of greater angst and agitation.

    American schools have changed from within as educators introduced new ideas and nostrums and altered their priorities and practices, but they’ve changed far more from without, as a more demanding (and more egalitarian) society and quickening international economy placed new stresses on them and...

  4. Part I Early Days

    • [Part I Introduction]
      (pp. 1-6)

      Before World War II, education in the United States was far from universal, and “equality of opportunity” was unimagined. Though public schooling had been invented in Massachusetts a century earlier and state universities arose after the Civil War, the American education system circa 1900–1940 consisted of several paths that seldom crossed—and the one you took depended mainly on your family circumstances.

      The upper class, prosperous and mainly Protestant, enrolled its sons and daughters in private schools like Groton and Miss Porter’s or in a handful of elite public schools such as Boston Latin. Thence to Princeton and Amherst,...

    • 1 Schoolkid in the Fifties
      (pp. 7-13)

      Through pastel lenses, many recall the Eisenhower era as the good old days of American education, when things were less complicated, frenetic, fractious, and fraught. Others, donning different spectacles, deplore the injustices and complacency of that era.

      Both are partly correct.

      U.S. schools bulged in the 1950s as the postwar baby boom hit. K–12 enrollments soared from 25 to 36 million. Just building enough classrooms and hiring teachers to staff them was ample challenge.

      America was also beginning to expect all its children to attend high school—and to scorn as “dropouts” those who failed to complete it. During...

    • 2 Into the Sixties
      (pp. 14-25)

      This chockablock decade spanned two eras in education and American life. It opened as an extension of the placid fifties, but JFK’s death and the country’s deepening involvement in Vietnam triggered huge changes that, as 1970 neared, racked college campuses with protests and radical ideas that percolated into high schools and beyond. The effects linger today, indeed are so pervasive that we’ve pretty much stopped noticing them. Above all, an enormous fraction of the senior teachers and professors of 2007, as well as those who train them and lead their schools and colleges, are men and women who came of...

    • 3 Becoming an Educator
      (pp. 26-32)

      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.

      I had just turned twenty-one. My students were all seniors, mostly eighteen-year-olds from the wrong...

  5. Part II The Seventies

    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 33-40)

      This was American education’s most painful decade. Perhaps it was fated to be, considering how the whole country ached from Watergate, the wrenching end of the Vietnam War, stagflation, gas lines, Jimmy Carter’s malaise, and Soviet conquests hither and yon around the globe.

      “To be blunt,”U.S. Newseducation correspondent Thomas Toch wrote in a perceptive 1991 book, “the 1970’s left public education in a shambles.”¹

      School performance was deteriorating. Even before the College Board revealed the long-term sag in SAT scores in 1975, the customers were complaining.² Employers grumped that the high-school graduates they were hiring lacked basic skills....

    • 4 White House Days
      (pp. 41-55)

      I presented myself at the iron gates of the White House on a chilly March day in 1969, eager to start my heady new job as staff assistant to the president of the United States. This was a big deal for a twenty-four-year-old graduate student—and at $10,000 per year I was also going to earn considerably more than before.

      My balloon wrinkled a bit when it turned out that nobody had told the Secret Service to let me in—and nobody had readied the payroll paperwork, either. The frenetic Moynihan office reacted along the lines of “Oh, it’s you,...

    • 5 Out of Washington
      (pp. 56-65)

      With a loan from my folks and a few contacts and rest stops in faraway lands arranged with the help of White House friends, I spent the first half of 1971 circling the globe solo. Travel has always been a personal passion, and I feared such an opportunity might not recur. Though education was not my focus on this expedition, I managed to visit schools in such remote locales as the New Guinea highlands, Ethiopia, Malawi, and rural Afghanistan, as well as slightly more conventional spots like Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, and Bombay. I took a bus through the Khyber Pass,...

    • 6 The Politics of Aiding Private Schools
      (pp. 66-76)

      Having taken a two-week leave from Brookings to help Pat with his Senate campaign in 1976, I returned to his orbit in early 1977, beginning four years on Capitol Hill that culminated as his legislative director. I also began, for the first time, to take an interest in the twenty-somethings who reported to me, resolving to work them hard, set high standards, teach them all I could, set an example, and, for those who rose to the challenge, attend to their subsequent careers. Thus started an alumni/ae club that has grown for three decades and of which I’m exceptionally proud....

    • 7 A Federal Department of Education?
      (pp. 77-86)

      Breaking education out of HEW and giving it a seat of its own at the cabinet table was an old idea with many supporters. Almost every session of Congress saw bills introduced to elevate education’s status on the federal organization chart, but before 1976 none was taken seriously. Indeed, between 1953 and 1976, none even reached the stage of formal committee hearings.

      Carter’s election changed all that. After its contentious 1968 Chicago convention and Humphrey’s loss to Nixon, the Democratic Party revamped its nominating process to place less weight on party bosses and more on grassroots participation. Changing campaign-finance laws...

    • 8 Becoming a Republican
      (pp. 87-94)

      Despite serving the Nixon administration twice and occasionally voting Republican (more often votingagainstunspeakable Democratic candidates), I had long viewed myself as some sort of Democrat. I entered the 1960s a youthful but earnest Kennedy-Johnson liberal, fired by JFK’s vision for America and LBJ’s commitment to vanquish the poverty that Michael Harrington and Oscar Lewis wrote about so movingly and that I saw up close in the housing projects of East Cambridge. Indeed, that’s what drew me into the field of education. When President Johnson declared schools to be “our primary weapon in the war on poverty,” I took...

  6. Part III The Eighties

    • [Part III Introduction]
      (pp. 95-100)

      Early in this decade, American education nervously began to turn a sharp corner. The big, symbolic event wasA Nation at Risk, the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education and chief catalyst of the “excellence movement” that still rocks us. This momentous shift from a fixation on equity and services to an obsession with student achievement and school performance followed logically from the Coleman-sparked realization that, if what you seek is better results, you cannot depend on fiddling with inputs to produce them. That this understanding took the better part of two decades to reach the...

    • 9 Quality Gains Traction
      (pp. 101-107)

      Widening awareness that College Board scores were drooping and many high-school graduates were ill prepared for what followed had already triggered multiple efforts to trace the source of these ailments and suggest possible cures.

      I had penned several sharply worded articles on the imperative of placing quality atop U.S. education priorities and the obsolescence of education’s reigning “liberal consensus” (more on this below). By 1982, Diane Ravitch and I had formed the Educational Excellence Network (on which more below, also).

      In 1981, the Southern Regional Education Board, a consortium of fifteen states mostly in the Old Confederacy, released a hard-hitting...

    • 10 Educators Awaken
      (pp. 108-117)

      Consistent though it was with the shelf of reform reports that emerged in the early eighties, the governors’ view of education—utilitarian, instrumental, practical—collided with the dogmas that ruled the ed schools and the adult-interest-driven priorities of the national associations. These institutions clung to permissive, child-centered, and equity-focused ideas and to pedagogies that trusted students to construct their own knowledge. Professors charged with preparing the next generation of classroom practitioners admonished them that their proper classroom role was to be a “guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” In other words, the teacher’s job was not...

    • 11 Professing in Tennessee
      (pp. 118-124)

      We lived in Nashville from mid-1981 to mid-1985, while Arti and Aloke turned into teenagers and Renu became a major-league researcher in cardiac disease. Our lives were different in that smaller and relatively laid-back city, with its blend of southern charm and ambivalence toward newcomers—and just a trace of leftover race-consciousness. Our spacious house was minutes from campus, and getting around was easy. As a state capital, airline hub, and economic boomtown in the “new South,” Nashville was also beginning to accumulate metropolitan amenities. There was a good bagel shop not far from our house, and I smiled hungrily...

    • 12 Inside the Beast
      (pp. 125-133)

      By 1985, the message ofA Nation at Riskwas more audible, even if many education groups still wore earplugs. Governors were on the march. The economy was again humming. Except in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, the Cold War was fairly cool. Reagan had been overwhelmingly reelected, and the GOP clung to a slim Senate majority. SREB member states were preparing to have their academic achievement compared. Ted Bell had, rather bitterly, returned to Utah. And the brainy, irrepressible Bill Bennett was beginning his three-plus years as U.S. secretary of education.

      Unlike Bell, he enjoyed considerable running room within the executive...

    • 13 The Quest for Better Information
      (pp. 134-148)

      Bennett’s foremost goal for OERI was to produce credible, accurate, usable research that would help teachers and principals do a better job. Two years afterA Nation at Risk, the country was hungry for proven ways of boosting student achievement.

      My own priorities were to beef up the statistics operation and turn the National Assessment of Educational Progress into a more useful tool by which to monitor and benchmark school performance.

      We plugged away on both fronts. With the important exception of NAEP, Congress was allergic to everything we proposed that required legislation—and was bent on advancing a number...

    • 14 Goals, Standards, and Markets
      (pp. 149-164)

      With the 1988 election looming and Republicans courting the Latino vote, the White House, prodded by presidential nominee George H. W. Bush, announced that Bennett’s successor would be Lauro Cavazos, a Democrat and friend of Bush’s who then presided over Texas Technical University in Lubbock.

      Save for the precedent of placing on the cabinet a person of Hispanic descent, this was not a felicitous choice. His background was in higher education, yet Bush wanted to focus on elementary-secondary. Cavazos was gentle, courtly, and respectful, which was not only a vivid contrast to Bennett’s temperament but a questionable asset in a...

  7. Part IV The Nineties

    • [Part IV Introduction]
      (pp. 165-168)

      The 1990s brought dramatic movement toward standards-based reform and added plenty of helium to the school-choice balloon while also advancing the teacher-professionalism and new-schools agendas. States began to accept the trinity of “standards, testing, and accountability,” and George H. W. Bush, then Bill Clinton, applied some federal pressure, including enactment of the Goals 2000 and Improving America’s Schools statutes of 1994, which nudged the states while paving the way for Bush 43’s more forceful No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

      There was resistance and backsliding, too, from both the education establishment and the political world, and plenty of ambitious schemes...

    • 15 Bipartisan Reform in Action—and Inaction
      (pp. 169-180)

      In early 1990, President George H. W. Bush and the governors set their six ambitious national goals for the year 2000, but how to attain them, how even to track the country’s progress toward them, was a puzzlement. America had no framework for this sort of partnership between state house and White House in the education field. Scrambling for usable mechanisms, political leaders cobbled together a quartet of novel panels and commissions.

      In July 1990, they agreed to form the National Education Goals Panel (NEGP) with representation from governors, the executive branch, and Congress. Its charge was to monitor movement...

    • 16 Charters and Vouchers
      (pp. 181-186)

      Usually defined as an “independent public school of choice,” a charter school exists via a license or contract (its “charter”) that allows its operator (usually a nonprofit organization) to run a public school for a limited period of time, typically five years, at the end of which it is evaluated to see if it deserves to continue. The school operator is supposed to deliver the results spelled out in the charter, normally denominated in student academic performance gauged by state tests, plus other measures, and is also obligated to follow applicable laws and properly tend the public dollars that support...

    • 17 International Alarums, Contentious Responses
      (pp. 187-193)

      More insistently than before, prominent economists and management experts cautioned that future U.S. prosperity would hinge on people’s education levels and skills. In 1992, for example, Lester Thurow predicted that competing successfully in the internationalizing economy of the twenty-first century would depend on “the education and skills of the workforce.” The following year, Peter Drucker wrote that “the only long-term policy which promises success is for developed countries to convert manufacturing from being labor based into being knowledge based.”²⁵

      At the same time, accumulating international data periodically shocked Americans with the message that their children were not learning as much...

    • 18 Whittling and Think-tanking
      (pp. 194-203)

      Following my Education Department exit in late 1988, I rejoined the Vanderbilt faculty in the university’s downtown D.C. office, which housed the Educational Excellence Network and its four-person staff. Every few weeks, I traveled to Nashville to co-teach a graduate seminar, and one summer I led a Washington internship-and-seminar program for undergraduates. These were pleasant, earnest, half-educated young people whose simplistic and ill-written summer research papers, by my norms, warranted Ds and Cs. Thinking myself incredibly kind and generous, I added a full letter grade to each, handing them back with Cs and Bs. Belatedly, I learned that their “human...

    • 19 Clinton, Goals, and Testing
      (pp. 204-210)

      Bill Clinton did not really need to prove himself an “education president.” It was in his blood. Though Arkansans say that his and Hillary’s reform efforts of the 1980s left few lasting marks—his boldest move as governor was a teacher-testing plan that was eventually softened to the point that nearly everyone passed—he arrived in Washington with a strong reputation as an education change agent. He had helped lead his fellow governors through sundry school-related ventures. He had burned the midnight oil in Charlottesville. Though his candidacy for the White House enjoyed the backing of both teachers’ unions and...

    • 20 Priests, Professionals, and Politicians
      (pp. 211-215)

      The education profession continued to react to external pressure for change by revising the problem definition and expanding the solution. Even as Clinton boosted standards-based reform and others pressed for greater school choice, the third reformist strand was also strengthening. In 1994, Carnegie and Rockefeller teamed up to create the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), now a permanent organization. Its keystone report,What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future, appeared in 1996. Chaired by North Carolina governor Jim Hunt and led by prominent education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, then at Teachers College, it was the progeny of the...

    • 21 Choices and Summits
      (pp. 216-223)

      In 1995, pressed by GOP governor George Voinovich, Ohio’s General Assembly enacted a voucher program for Cleveland children. It was confined to poor kids in grades K–3, with voucher amounts not to exceed $2,250 each. The vouchers could be taken either to private and parochial schools within Cleveland or to public schools in surrounding communities.

      That something needed to be done for young Clevelanders was unarguable. The city’s public school system was a disaster. While spending more per pupil than the state average, its dropout rate was twice the state average. Its passing rate on Ohio’s ninth-grade proficiency test...

    • 22 Back to Dayton
      (pp. 224-230)

      I held no full-time post in government in the 1990s, though I stayed active on its fringes via boards and panels such as NAGB, PEPAC, and NCEST and kitchen-cabinet work with Secretary Alexander. My day-job employers—Vanderbilt, the Edison Project, Hudson Institute, later the Manhattan Institute—were amenable, even grateful for the access and visibility that sometimes followed.

      Since college, my jobs have cycled between “inside-action-participant” and “outside-analyst-writer.” I crave both the excitement of doing and running things and the intellectual stimulus of trying to make sense of them. I need to write—books, articles, op-eds, testimony—but I also...

  8. Part V Today and Tomorrow

    • [Part V Introduction]
      (pp. 231-236)

      The 2000 presidential election took education seriously. Al Gore ran on his and Bill Clinton’s two-term record while George W. Bush highlighted his Texas gubernatorial performance. Both spoke often of education reform.

      Yet campaign watchers had some difficulty distinguishing between them. Both platforms called for higher standards, greater accountability, better teachers, stronger discipline, more attention to character, and expanded choice among schools. The GOP took pains this time not to espouse formulaic right-wing positions or to urge cutbacks in federal programs. That stance hadn’t served them well after 1994, and this presidential candidate styled himself a “compassionate conservative” bent on...

    • 23 Leaving No Child Behind
      (pp. 237-245)

      The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is the tallest and shakiest tree in today’s education-reform jungle, the one most apt to bend and sway in coming months as the 2008 presidential contenders (several of whom voted for it) find that disputes surrounding it occupy the heart of contemporary federal education policy and politics.

      President Bush signed NCLB into law on January 8, 2002, a year after an elaborate White House debut where he unveiled the four principles of his pathbreaking plan:

      First, children must be tested every year in reading and math. . . . Without yearly testing, we...

    • 24 Shaky Tripods
      (pp. 246-260)

      No Child Left Behind is not the whole of standards-based reform in the new millennium, nor is Uncle Sam the sole—even the primary—tiller of this field. Though fertilized and watered from Washington, the concept has taken root across most of the land that statesshouldset standards for schools and students,shouldmonitor performance in relation to those standards, andshoulddeploy incentives, rewards, and interventions to effect greater achievement gains than would naturally occur.

      That’s the steady message when governors and business leaders gather. (Two more summits have been held, one in 2001 and a Gates-assisted one...

    • 25 The Burden of Choice
      (pp. 261-272)

      Easily 30% of U.S. children donotattend the district-operated public school in their neighborhood. Instead, they and their parents exercise their right to attend schools of their choice, public, private, and in between. As the Supreme Court held in 1925, “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State.”³⁵

      Tax dollars increasingly pay for the exercise of these rights as the United States gradually...

    • 26 Technology and Governance
      (pp. 273-282)

      For years I scoffed at technology’s potential to transform education. I recalled the late Ralph Tyler, one of the twentieth century’s grandees of education psychology, then in his eighties, remarking that he had witnessed at least ten technological innovations touted as education breakthroughs but that the only one with staying power was the overhead projector, “because it doesn’t require any special skill to operate and the teacher doesn’t have to turn her back on her students to use it.”

      Since then, lots of computers and software have been installed in lots of schools. Billions of dollars have changed hands. Most...

    • 27 Teachers, Time, and Money
      (pp. 283-295)

      Besides the obligations that NCLB laid on schools and students to make “adequate yearly progress,” the federal statute insisted that every teacher of a core academic subject—it flagged ten of these—be “highly qualified” by 2006. In Washington’s eyes, that meant a teacher must be fully certified by his/her state and also demonstrate that he/she knows the relevant subject(s).

      This provision, which states are responsible for enforcing and which has proven exceedingly difficult to honor, is having mixed effects. On the plus side, it underscores the importance of subject mastery by teachers. But it also vests even greater authority...

    • 28 Still Learning
      (pp. 296-306)

      Some initiatives work better than others. Some flame out. Besides the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, I worked to launch the National Council on Teacher Quality, which keeps contrarian views and data on teacher quality in public view. In 1995, I assisted several dissident state superintendents (including Arizona’s Lisa Keegan, Pennsylvania’s Eugene Hickok, Colorado’s Bill Moloney, Florida’s Frank Brogan) to form the Education Leaders Council (ELC), an in-your-face alternative to the mainstream Council of Chief State School Officers. A decade later, I helped Howard Fuller craft the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools out of the wreckage of...

  9. EPILOGUE Two Little Girls
    (pp. 307-312)

    Emma Finn is now three, the cutest little girl in the known universe. I’ve always liked kids, usually more than I like their parents, but becoming Emma’s “papa” is the best thing that’s happened to me in ages.

    She recently entered nursery school, an upscale, Upper West Side preschool with competitive admissions and inflated tuition. I don’t much care for the education craziness that overcomes yuppie parents in places like New York, questing after viable alternatives to decrepit public schools while also clawing their kids’ way into classrooms that they view as the beginning of a conveyor belt to Brown...

    (pp. 313-318)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 319-346)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 347-364)