Head of the Class


We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future, by Chester E. Finn Jr., New York: The Free Press, 365 pages, $22.95

Last year's publication of Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, written by John Chubb of the Brookings Institution and Terry Moe of Stanford University, had more impact on the education reform debate in the United States than virtually any other event or publication in recent memory. It was an important book, not only because of its intrinsic worth—its tightly reasoned arguments in support of parental choice and its distillation of dry academic research into an understandable form—but also because of an extrinsic fact: Its publisher was the Brookings Institution, Washington's venerable liberal think tank, which in a stroke transformed the choice cause into a bipartisan, ideologically neutral one.

In the same way, Chester Finn's We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future offers the possibility of advancing the reform debate to a higher level. It's also an important book. First, both intrinsic and extrinsic factors make Finn's book invaluable in understanding the Reagan and Bush administrations' education reform agendas. "Checker" Finn, who served in the U.S. Education Department under Secretary William Bennett, provides an insightful (if perhaps excessively glowing) account of Bennett's tenure and of the policy-making team that so angered Democrats and the education establishment in the 1980s.

Indeed, Finn's history of education reform since World War II, starting with school desegregation and the rise of the Sputnik-era "education essentialists" and ending in the "excellence" movement of the 1980s, provides a critical backdrop for understanding education policy today. Furthermore, the book provides supporters, opponents, and casual observers (if there are any) of federal education policy the opportunity to dissect the opinions of a major official of the Reagan administration and a chief adviser to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander.

Second, the book is important for reporters, candidates, and debaters of education reform everywhere. In a masterful chapter titled "'How About a Marshall Plan for the Schools?' and Other Talk-Show Explanations of Educational Meltdown," Finn trudges through the all-too-familiar terrain of popular education mythology, successfully debunking nostrums and summarizing education research.

He provides evidence for the propositions that more spending on education won't necessarily make any difference, that class size isn't a significant determinant of educational success (except at sizes of five students or fewer), that expanding Head Start isn't a magic bullet, that all American students—not just those "at risk"—are performing poorly, and that equalizing school spending among districts won't necessarily reduce gaps between rich and poor, since some of the worst school systems, especially those in urban areas, already receive more funding per pupil than their rural counterparts.

Third, the book is important for those already part of the "conservative" movement or who support, as does Finn, market-oriented reforms such as parental choice. Finn repeats education writer Lawrence Uzzell's insight that conservatives can be divided into "neocentralists" and "neopluralists" according to their views on education.

Neocentralists (who, by the way, are often neoconservatives) believe that public schools serve to transmit culture, integrate society, and facilitate democracy. They want to prepare people to be good voters and parents. They support a nationwide core curriculum as well as nationwide and uniform testing of students (and perhaps teachers).

Neopluralists (who are often libertarians), on the other hand, tend to emphasize the primacy of parents, the benefits of competition, and the inefficacy of government regulations. They focus on preparing people for the workplace. They support vouchers, deregulation, and curricular (in addition to operational) diversity among even publicly funded schools. Finn argues that neither of these two positions, each ideologically consistent internally and therefore comfortable, will suffice. His plan combines elements of both, which he says is more difficult to do but ultimately more productive. But in fact, Finn is at heart a neocentralist, albeit a moderate one. His arguments for and discussion of a national, comprehensive testing program dominate the book.

As a moderate neopluralist, I can't resist challenging a couple of his major points on testing. First, Finn argues that efficiency as well as probity dictates a single, national test. Certainly his critique of existing standardized tests, with their skewed results and incomparability, is right on target. And in a chapter entitled "Rational Fools: What's In It for Me," Finn convincingly demonstrates that only by making student achievement matter in the adult world, by making tests ubiquitous and necessary for college admission or employment, will education reform really change students' attitudes about their own schooling.

But these arguments don't prove the need for a federally administered test. Competing tests and testing companies would seem to be able to achieve what Finn desires, with the added advantage of creating a competitive rather than monopolistic situation. Neocentralists might respond that competing tests won't drive the system toward the unified core curriculum we really need. But the general requirements of a core curriculum—excellence in math, science, history, literature, and writing—would be shared by competing tests. What isn't so amenable to easy standardization is the choice of facts to be included or methods employed to teach them.

To employ Finn's practicality paradigm, it's relatively easy to come up with a serviceable test of math, science, and communication skills for use by employers, since test designers have a clear feedback loop from employers about what is important and what is not. But how do we decide whether a potential parent or voter needs to know more about Whitman or Longfellow, the battle of Saratoga or the battle of Cowpens, quantum mechanics or biochemistry?

Both in the construction of test questions and in the development of school curricula, it is necessary to make tradeoffs. After all, there are only so many minutes in the school day (something else Finn as neocentralist would change). Short of requiring a certain score on the national test for people to become voters or parents, neocentralists lack an easy guide for constructing curricula and tests to achieve their lofty objectives. That doesn't mean one can't aim to achieve those objectives, but what it suggests is that different educators might design different ways to do it. Why not let schools and parents choose between them?

A second point, related to the first, concerns Finn's contention that reformers need to abandon the old commitment to "local control." Reform in the '80s and '90s, he insists, will move education decisions either up to the state level (where the action has been in the last decade) or down to the school level, leaving local authorities such as school boards with little to do.

This is certainly true in theory, but unfortunately in practice parents and reform-minded educators still need a safety valve. It's all too easy, as Finn himself reports throughout his book, for the education establishment to seize control of state or national initiatives. If local systems can still chart their own course, they can end-run recalcitrant or downright villainous state officials, union leaders, or legislators.

Let's put it this way: If Checker Finn were drawing up a state test or a state curriculum, there would be no need for "local control"—in fact, it would be counterproductive if it thwarted the implementation of his program. Unfortunately, the prospects for sensible state or federal school governance aren't so rosy. Maybe Finn's book will change that by making established interests in education and politics rethink their own faulty and squishy views about knowledge and learning. Maybe. That would make it an even more important book.

Contributing Editor John Hood is editor of Carolina Journal, published by the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina.