Chester Finn

Chester Finn

Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and chairman of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. Finn is also president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Thomas B. Fordham Institute and senior editor EducationNext. His primary focus is the reform of primary and secondary schooling. Finn is the author of eighteen books, the latest of which is Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut.

Is there a racist behind every tree in the American education forest? That’s the spin a lot of people have given to last week’s massive trove of federal data on school discipline and sundry other topics. “Black students face more harsh discipline” headlined the New York Times. “Minority students face harsher punishments,” quoth the Associated Press. “An educational caste system”stormed the head of the country’s largest coalition of civil-rights groups. The federal data (from 2009-10) cover a multitude of issues but what caught most eyes was the finding that black and Latino students are suspended or expelled from school in numbers greater than their shares of the overall pupil population. “The undeniable truth,” declared Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.” Declaring that the new data paint “a very disturbing picture,” Assistant Secretary (for Civil Rights) Russlynn Ali proudly informed the media that her office has “launched 14 large-scale investigations into disparate discipline rates across the country.” Ponder the phrase: disparate discipline rates. This arises from the doctrine of “disparate impact,” a sly phrase coined as a means of boosting civil rights in the realm of employment law. It means, in effect, that discrimination may be afoot—and enforcement called for—whenever a seemingly neutral or universal policy gives rise to disparities (by race, gender, etc.) in whatever benefit or harm that policy leads to. But it’s by no means limited to employment any longer. At the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the enforcers hunt for disparities in sundry realms of education from college admissions to Advanced Placement course access, as well as discipline and more. If they find that something good or bad isn’t getting bestowed across the entire eligible population in proportion to the basic demographics of that population, they sense “disparate impact” at work, which is invariably accompanied by at least a hint that discrimination must be the cause of it. Continue reading Chester Finn…

(photo credit: alex yosifov)

Writing last about the “war against the Common Core,” I suggested that those English language arts and math standards arrived with four main assets. (In case you’re disinclined to look, they boil down to rigor, voluntariness, portability, and comparability.)

Let me now revisit a fifth potential asset, which is also the main reason that small-government conservatives should favor the Common Core or other high-quality “national standards”: This is the best path toward getting Uncle Sam and heavy-handed state governments to back off from micro-managing how schools are run and to return that authority to communities, individual schools, teachers, and parents.

It’s the path to getting “tight-loose” right in American K-12 education, unlike NCLB, which has it backward. (I refer to the well-known management doctrine that large organizations with many parts should be “tight about ends, loose about means.”) The proper work of conservatives going forward is to stop doing battle with the Common Core and instead do their utmost to ensure that the “loose” part gets done right. This could also be the path toward a viable political compromise on NCLB/ESEA reauthorization.

Some on the Right don’t yet see any need for compromise because they expect to be in the driver’s seat in both houses of Congress and the Oval Office after November. Maybe that will happen. Maybe John Kline will have his way in the 113th Congress and at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., meaning that future federal K-12 dollars will be turned over to states with essentially no strings attached.

But I wouldn’t stake our kids’ future on the election working out that way. And even if it were to, there’s never yet been an ESEA reauthorization that wasn’t bipartisan to some extent. Which suggests to me that compromise is going to be needed and “tight-loose” is the right basis for it.

Continue reading Chester Finn…

The War Against the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards Initiative landed in our midst with four great assets:

  • Its content-and-skill expectations for grades K-12 in English and math are, by almost everyone’s reckoning, about as rigorous as the best state-specific academic standards and superior to most.
  • It was developed outside the federal government, voluntarily by states, using private dollars. (The related assessments are another matter.) And both standards and assessments remain voluntary for states.
  • It opens the way, for the first time, to comparing student, school and district performance across the land on a credible, common metric—and gauging their achievement against that of youngsters in other countries on our shrinking and ever-more-competitive planet.
  • Besides comparability, it brings the possibility that families moving around our highly mobile society will be able to enroll their kids seamlessly in schools that are teaching the same things at the same grade levels.

Ever since it landed, however, the Common Core has been the object of ceaseless attacks from multiple directions. The number of zealous assailants is small and, for a time, it all looked like a tempest in a highly visible teapot. That may yet turn out to be the case. But the attacks are growing fiercer; some recent recruits to the attack squad are people who tend to get taken seriously; and anything can happen in an election year. Remember the classic Peter Sellers movie, The Mouse That Roared? The Duchy of Grand Fenwick ended up triumphing over the United States of America. As you may recall, that happened in large part because the U.S. government contributed to its own defeat. In the present case, something similar could well transpire. Please read on.

Continue reading Chester Finn…

I’m a huge fan of high-quality liberal-arts education for everybody and really do think it would go far to prepare better citizens, neighbors, and consumer/transmitters of America’s cultural heritage and democratic underpinnings. I’m also an acolyte of E.D. Hirsch and his core point that everyone—especially poor kids—needs to be culturally literate as well as equipped with the 3 R’s (though he emphasizes that his focus is K-8, not high school).

That said, I’m also becoming convinced that the future of our economy and the acquisition of good jobs will hinge as much on well-developed technical prowess as on Aristotle, Shakespeare, Darwin, Rembrandt, and Mozart.

Recent weeks have brought multiple reports of U.S. jobs going unfilled, or being outsourced to distant lands, because too few American workers have the requisite skills to perform them well.

Continue reading Chester Finn…

The Accountability Plateau,” by Mark Schneider,  just published by Education Next and the Fordham Institute, makes a big point: that “consequential accountability,” à la No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes state testing systems that preceded it, corresponded with a significant one-time boost in student achievement, particularly in primary and middle school math. Like the meteor that led to the decline of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals, results-based accountability appears to have shocked the education system. But its effect seems to be fading now, as earlier gains are maintained but not built upon. If we are to get another big jump in academic achievement, we’re going to need another shock to the system—another meteor from somewhere beyond our familiar solar system.

So argues Mark Schneider, a scholar, analyst, and friend whom we once affectionately (and appropriately) named “Statstud.” Schneider, a political scientist, served as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005 to 2008, and is now affiliated with the American Institutes for Research and the American Enterprise Institute. In his new analysis, he digs into twenty years of trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Continue reading Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli…

(photo credit: Phil Jern)

The Euro and the Common Core

If you hope the Euro crashes, that this week’s Brussels summit fails, and that European commerce returns to francs, marks, lira, drachma, and pesetas, you may be one of those rare Americans who also seeks the demise of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in U.S. education. Crazy analogy? Please read on.

To be sure, the Euro already exists in the real world—you can hold one in your hands and buy things with it—and its demise would likely trigger a worldwide economic crisis, whereas the Common Core so far exists only on paper and all of its implementation challenges lie ahead. If it fails to gain traction, the sky won’t fall; we’ll simply stick with the status quo.

If you find the status quo in American K-12 education acceptable, bully for you. I find it akin to the condition of Europe and its economy after World War II: weak, battered, and fragmented, in need of a major tune-up and tone-up. It needs more focus, too—and greater capacity to help states pull in the same direction instead of pulling apart.

Continue reading Chester Finn…

Too Many Cooks, Too Many Kitchens

By Chester Finn & Michael Petrilli

Despite America’s romantic attachment to “local control of public education,” the reality is that the way it works today offers a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. On the one hand, district-level power constrains individual schools; its standardizing, bureaucratic, and political force ties the hands of principals, stopping them from doing what’s best for their pupils with regard to budget, staffing, and curriculum. On the other, local control isn’t strong enough to clear the obstacles that state and federal governments place before reform-minded board members and superintendents in the relatively few locales where these can even be observed.

Sure, remarkable individuals can sometimes make it work, at least for a while: Michelle Rhee (backed by Adrian Fenty) in the District of Columbia; Joel Klein (backed by Michael Bloomberg) in New York City; Arne Duncan (backed by Richard Daley) in Chicago; Jerry Weast (abetted by a rising budget) in Montgomery County, Maryland. Readers can surely cite additional examples. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The rule is that education-policy decisions are made in so many places—each with some capacity to initiate change but with even greater capacity to block it—that there’s really nobody “in charge.” Some will say that’s a tribute to our traditions of democratic control, checks and balances, pluralism, and federalism. Others will say it’s just a mighty wasteful and ineffectual way to run a system that is widely believed to need a thorough makeover.

Continue reading Chester Finn & Michael Petrilli…

The Obama administration’s new waiver plan (officially here, and covered extensively here, here, and here– and elsewhere, I’m sure) doesn’t officially repeal the No Child Left Behind Act, but it istantamount to making large-scale amendments to it. Which it does unilaterally, without even a thumbs-up from Congress.

Though the specific conditions that the White House and Secretary Duncan are attaching to statewide “flexibility waivers” are consistent with the administration’s long-standing “blueprint” for reauthorizing NCLB, and also happen to be conditions that I think generally have merit, they amount to changing the law, not just waiving it. This raises constitutional as well as statutory issues — though the administration’s response, not surprisingly or implausibly, is that “if a do-nothing Congress won’t act to solve problems, we’ll solve them ourselves as best we can.”

Yet the changes themselves — at least their timing and high-profile release — are motivated at least as much by election-year political considerations as by policy. This is not the first example, and surely won’t be the last, of appealing to key constituencies by undoing, suspending, or waiving government practices that they find onerous and unpleasant. Consider the non-deportation of illegal aliens who haven’t committed crimes. Hispanic (and other immigrant) voters will surely applaud this move and likely thank the administration in November 2012.

Continue reading Chester Finn…

Beyond the School District

To anyone concerned  with the state of America’s schools, one of the more alarming experiences of the past few decades has been the sight of waves of innovative reforms crashing upon the rocks of our education system. Charter schools have popped up all over the landscape; vouchers are being implemented in more and more places; massive federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have invested billions of dollars in fixing our schools. And yet the results remain dismal: Millions of children still cannot read satisfactorily, do math at an acceptable level, or perform the other skills needed for jobs in the modern economy.

Why this persistent failure? One major cause is clearly our deeply flawed system for organizing and operating public schools. Currently, our approach to school management is a confused and tangled web, involving the federal government, the states, and local school districts—each with ill-defined responsibilities and often conflicting interests. As a result, over the past 50 years, obsolescence, clumsiness, and misalignment have come to define the governance of public education. This development is not anyone’s fault, per se: It is simply what happens when opportunities and needs change, but structures don’t. The system of schooling we have today is the legacy of the 19th century—and hopelessly outmoded in the 21st.

Continue reading Chester Finn…