A ‘troublemaker’ who wants to reform schools

Maybe it’s a little bit hype, the marketing surrounding Chester E. Finn Jr.’s new book, “Troublemaker, A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik.” Then again, looking at what he’s done, maybe not.

For 35 years, Finn, 63, has been a significant voice in America’s school reform movement, from racial integration to No Child Left Behind, moving from the classroom to high levels of government. Now, as president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C., he reflects, writes and advocates.

You might say when Finn talks, people listen, at least anybody interested in education, so we’re giving him that opportunity.

When we learned he’s in Minneapolis today for a luncheon sponsored by the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, we tracked him down. He’ll read from his book — an “amalgam of history and memoir,” he says — and answer questions about the state of education, so we thought we’d ask a few. (Find event details at the center’s website.)

As for the book, he revels in the title. It seems Finn’s long been seen as a maverick or a player in matters of education reform, depending on whose side he was on. He was assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, worked with Richard Nixon and Daniel Moynihan as well as governors and school districts around the country.

“The point isn’t trouble for its own sake,” Finn said. “It’s being willing to swim against the tide and suggest new institutional arrangements and to challenge the conventional wisdom. I think I have probably done all those things.”

Finn can talk long on most any education topic, so we posed a challenge. Pretend you’re the only player on some education game show. We give you a phrase; you respond in a sentence or so. He agreed, with the proviso more info is available here.

So here are the phrases and Finn’s responses:

No Child Left Behind Act: “It’s upside down.” What the federal government should have done is be very explicit about what kids needed to learn and then rely on states and districts to achieve those standards, he said.

High school reform movement: “Largely underdeveloped. We are doing not badly at fixing the early grades, but we are doing a dismal job with our high schools.”

Universal pre-kindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds:
“It’s gathering steam. Several states have it, more will.” He’s for pre-kindergarten programs with three conditions: it’s voluntary; there have to be public, private and church-related school choices, and it’s not daycare but has a real curriculum with a cognitive component that gets kids ready to read.

Global competition:
Across the board, U.S. students do only “middling” compared to most other nations. That “used to be OK” when manufacturing and agriculture were huge industries in the U.S. economy but the United States is outsourcing many jobs. “We more and more need a highly educated population.” Though U.S. schools do well with the top 20 percent of students, the rest, including the 30 percent who drop out of high school, need our attention, he said.

Charter schools:
“I’ve learned a lot about charter schools. I and a lot of other people were naive in thinking hanging the label ‘charter school’ on the school would assure a good school.” Some were and are fantastic; some dreadful, as with public and private schools, he added. “In retrospect, we were naive in supposing anyone with good intentions could open and run an effective school. We should have been fussier in deciding who gets to do it and what kind of results they have to produce.” He said progress is being made at determining what is a good school and who can run it well, but we’re not much better at closing the poor charter schools.

Charter schools and their tendency to attract populations of children segregated along ethnic and religious lines: “Most segregated schools in America today are district-operated public schools in elite, white, rich suburbs, which you have to be rich to attend because otherwise you cannot afford to live there.” Some states, like Minnesota, have open enrollment. “That’s a terrific policy,” he said.

English language learners:
“The goal has to be to learn English ASAP. We know how to do that. The issues in this field are largely political — people not wanting their kids to forsake their native language or culture. If we can get over that hurdle, teaching them, especially when young is not hard.” Teaching teenagers is more difficult, he said.

Finn speaks today at noon at the Hilton Minneapolis, 1001 Marquette Ave. S. The audio of Finn’s talk is expected to be posted on the center’s website midday Friday.

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