Schooling Is in Tempestuous Times. Troublemaker Checker Finn Weighs In

Chester E. Finn Jr. — or, as I’ve always known him, Checker — has been a force in American education for more than four decades. (Full disclosure: He’s also a longtime friend, collaborator, and mentor.) The longtime president of the Fordham Institute (now in an active/emeritus role), he’s served in the White House and the U.S. Department of Education, chaired the National Assessment Governing Board, co-chaired the Maryland state board of education, and done much else. He’s also penned influential books on topics ranging from school choice to gifted education. (My favorite, if you’re in the mood for a wonderful, wide-ranging yarn, is the autobiographical Troublemaker.) Given that many of the issues on which Checker has spent years observing, advising, and leading are front and center in this tempestuous time, I thought it worth asking what he makes of recent developments. Here’s what he had to say.

— Rick

Rick: Forty years ago, in the wake of A Nation at Risk, you were a leader of the two-pronged push for school choice and accountability. Today, it seems like we’re in the middle of an explosion of school choice and an unraveling of accountability. Is that accurate? What do you make of it?

Checker: Damn, you’re being perceptive again. I’ve long said that education reform in the U.S. has had two energy sources: the dynamism and empowerment of school choice and the “tripod” of academic standards/assessments/results-based school accountability. What’s more, I see them as co-dependent. The marketplace alone doesn’t produce school quality or higher achievement — sorry Milton Friedman — but the accountability system is far better at labeling schools than at fixing them, meaning that kids and families need exit options when they’re otherwise stuck in dismal schools. So yeah, today the choice engine is revving while the accountability engine is stalling. This isn’t going to work well in the long run if the goal is to transform achievement and close gaps in what was fairly termed a “nation at risk” back in ’83. That said, let’s do acknowledge that states are differing quite a lot on both fronts. Some are sluggish on choice, others are more or less sticking with the program on accountability. ESSA — and the COVID-induced testing-and-accountability holidays — has encouraged these differences.

Rick: You’ve long been an outspoken champion of “excellence.” Today, you’ve sounded the alarm about things like attacks on gifted programs and the potential pitfalls of social and emotional learning. Can you say a bit more about what you’re seeing that gives you pause?

Checker: I generally view “excellence” in education as a relentless push to maximize student learning — for all kids, including the very bright and those who move at a slower pace, certainly including kids from every sort of background. There’s a meritocratic element to it, but there’s also a strong push for accelerating everyone to the max. Today’s push for “equity” is surely at war with meritocracy, especially if it leads to things like eliminating “gifted education” in the name of equality rather than augmenting the scope of gifted ed. to serve many more kids. The “war on testing” is ultimately a “shoot the messenger” project that would blind us to the failings, gaps, and shortfalls that beset both equity and excellence. And the distraction of nonacademic mandates for schools, such as SEL and other “softer” school qualities and pupil attributes, can only deflect us from the pursuit of excellence. Do please bear in mind that “Excellence in Education” was the name of the commission that issued A Nation at Risk!

Rick: The National Assessment Governing Board has been unusually visible of late, after its long and public fight over a new literacy framework — a fight in which you were actively engaged. As a former chair of NAGB, can you say a bit about the role of NAGB and what’s ahead for the National Assessment of Educational Progress?

Checker: Just finished writing a “biography” of NAEP over half a century and look forward to its publication in the spring! It delves into all that, including a bunch of current issues and challenges that NAEP faces and some alternate scenarios for its future. Two issues are front and center in my mind. First, will the National Assessment Governing Board — like just about everything else in the public-policy world — lose the capacity for consensus and find itself deteriorating into factions with different agendas, as recently almost happened over the new reading framework for NAEP? So much of NAEP’s credibility and authority hinges on NAGB’s own credibility, which in turn owes much to its capacity to reach agreement that transcends the priorities and preferences — and politics — of individual members. Second, can NAEP — and its budget — fill in some big data gaps, such as the dearth of state-level 12th grade results in key subjects? NAEP is relatively expensive today for what it’s actually delivering, and a huge fraction of its budget goes to testing reading and math every two years, which is more often, say I, than necessary.

Rick: Can you say a bit more about the reading-framework controversy. What was the issue exactly and how did it turn out?

Checker: It came out more or less OK thanks to valiant efforts by a handful of NAGB members to bridge wide differences within the board. The controversy had multiple parts and changed some over time, but essentially it was about how radically to alter NAEP’s longtime approach to reading and the threat that major alterations would kill a multi-decade trend line. Perhaps the stickiest wicket is the extent to which the actual NAEP testing instrument should supply various assists to kids who may not possess certain vocabulary or background knowledge needed for comprehension. My own contention is that the “real world” doesn’t provide this kind of help, and if NAEP does so, it’s apt to result in generally misleading cheery data, maybe masking bona fide issues that educators should be obliged to confront. In the end, the new framework will almost certainly enable the trend line to endure. As for the assists to test-takers, there will be some. We’re told they’ll be few and won’t alter outcomes — but I continue to fret that cracking this door open invites much future mischief to enter.

Rick: On a different note, I’m curious about your general take as to how schools and systems are responding to COVID-19?

Checker: Mostly it’s been a catastrophe, with huge learning losses, widening gaps, and an inability to rectify the situation. And that’s without even getting to the overly politicized issues of masks and vaccinations. For Pete’s sake, states have for decades required schoolchildren to get vaccinated against all manner of childhood diseases. . . One other thing that’s been underscored by the schools’ failure — in most places — to meet kids’ learning needs during the pandemic: Schools are ruled by adult interests!

Rick: Meanwhile, back here in Washington, the Biden administration has proposed a sweeping education agenda as part of its “Build Back Better” bill. What do you make of the Biden proposals and, more generally, the job Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has done?

Checker: Secretary Cardona so far has been almost invisible — sort of the opposite of Secretary DeVos — and it’s been evident since day one that he’s inexperienced in Washington. The administration and Senate have also been extremely sluggish in supplying him with capable lieutenants. As for the Biden education agenda, I couldn’t be more disappointed by their emphasis on “inputs” reminiscent of a pre-Coleman era, when schools were judged by their resources and promises rather than by whether kids learned anything in them. This follows from the administration’s seeming lack of interest in school outcomes and results-based accountability. I never expected them to support school choice. Their education agenda is pretty much that of the teacher unions which, sadly, is no big surprise.

Rick: In my 2012 book with Andrew Kelly, Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, you wrote a marvelous chapter reflecting on why some federal education initiatives are agenda-setters while others are duds. With that in mind, which of the Biden proposals strikes you as the best bet to wind up as one or the other?

Checker: The biggest duds are universal pre-K and universal/free community college, both beloved of the teacher unions but neither calculated to equalize opportunity and boost achievement in serious ways. I don’t see anything that should qualify as “promising,” but maybe I’m missing something. Please let me know when you spot one!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.