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Fighting Against ‘The Blob’

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Chester E. Finn Jr.’s new book chronicles his lifelong battle to reform the American education system.

“Troublemaker” may be the nicest epithet ever applied to Chester E. Finn Jr. Though genial and in possession of legions of friends and admirers, Finn, the head of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, has many critics. Leftist academics have nothing but spite for him. Henry A. Giroux, a professor of communications, has called Finn “slimy,” and a fair number of other members of the education establishment, a.k.a. “the blob,” deride Finn as part of a conservative, neoconservative, or capitalist (take your pick) cabal that is hell-bent on privatizing public schools. 

In part, this enmity is due to Finn’s brutal candor, which I witnessed firsthand at an education conference in 2001. Early in the program, a sharp reporter of some renown lobbed a half-baked question at Finn. With a few words, “Checker” (as everyone calls him) blew the question from the sky like a clay pigeon. I thought, “Doesn’t he know who she is? He’s going to get hammered in her next article.” Of course, he knew who the reporter was; he just did not care.  

Mostly, though, Checker has earned enemies because he is a tireless advocate of school reform—and has been one for four decades now. His relentless questioning of popular shibboleths (“Fewer children in a classroom makes for higher achievement! Charter schools take money from public schools!”) has made him a pariah among many academics and activists.

Checker’s passion for improving student learning comes through clearly in Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik (Princeton, $26.95). His family story is classically American. The Finns arrived from Russia in 1891 and settled in Dayton, Ohio. Checker’s great-grandfather started a “bag and burlap” company. One of his sons, Samuel, Checker’s grandfather, completed high school and sold soap door-to-door while studying law. By age 30, Samuel Finn had passed the bar and started a law firm. The Finn family was ascending. As Checker puts it, “Just three decades after my Yiddish-speaking great-grandmother peddled produce from a wagon, my father matriculated at Yale.”

Finn has teamed up with a disparate collection of reformers, including university researchers, philanthropic activists, and big fish from the business community.

Checker had a “Leave It to Beaver”-type youth. He was a “nerdy, unathletic, braces-and-glasses-wearing” boy who read the encyclopedia, raised hamsters, and spent his nights monkeying around with a ham radio and listening to “The Lone Ranger.” He was a cub scout, a dutiful boy who walked to his neighborhood school and obeyed the “gray-haired” ladies who taught in Dayton’s public education system. 

Following in his father’s footsteps, Finn headed to Exeter at age 15, and then on to Harvard in 1962. That’s when the troublemaking started. Finn fancied himself a social reformer, and took up community activism. Like many others, Checker had a life-changing experience in the class of Edward C. Banfield, a political scientist and über-troublemaker himself who often outraged campus liberals. Banfield had invited Daniel Patrick Moynihan to guest lecture. Checker was captivated.

Finn wound up spending 15 years with Moynihan: first studying under him and then following him to the Nixon White House, India (where Moynihan served as ambassador), and the U.S. Senate (Moynihan was elected as a New York Democrat). 

After he concluded his heady Moynihan days in 1981, Finn bounced from one place to the next—including Vanderbilt University, the Reagan administration, and the Manhattan Institute—before landing finally at the Fordham Foundation, named for the famous Dayton business mogul. Along the way, Checker authored and coauthored more than a dozen books, hundreds of reports and articles on education, and had a hand in the crafting of numerous school reform policies.  

As Troublemaker details, Finn’s life has been a ceaseless struggle against the education status quo. In search of allies, Checker has teamed up with a disparate collection of reformers, including university researchers, philanthropic activists, and big fish from the business community (such as Xerox’s David Kearns and IBM’s Lou Gerstner). He has taken the battle to “the blob.” Sometimes Checker’s reform ideas have taken hold, but often they have not. Sometimes his ideas were persuasive, and sometimes they were dubious. Yet Finn’s ultimate goal has remained the same: to improve student learning.  

Checker’s long campaign has helped change the face of American schooling in two big ways. First, it used to be that parents of limited means had to send their kids to a government-assigned public school, no matter how lousy it was. Now, federal, state, and local policies empower many parents to choose among magnet schools, charter schools, and even private academies, with the public footing the bill. Second, the days of unaccountability in America’s public schools are ending. Thanks to the standards-based assessment movement—of which Finn has been a prominent champion—today’s schools are required to show how well their students are learning, and the schools face consequences when their efforts fall short. 

Though in his early 60s, Finn has the energy of a man one-third his age, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Which is good, because somebody has to keep pushing for change. Over the years, Finn has won many victories; but despite these gains, “the blob” remains strong—and adamantly opposed to fundamental education reforms. 

Kevin R. Kosar is the author of “Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards."

Image by The Bergman Group/Dianna Ingram.

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