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'Troublemaker' Finn Recalls Setting 'Proficiency' Standard


Like him or not, Chester E. "Checker" Finn Jr. has been a major player in the biggest education policy debates of the past 40 years. In roles at the White House, Capitol Hill, academia, and think tanks, Finn has helped push charter schools into the mainstream and has been a stalwart supporter of private school choice. Both have expanded dramatically over the past 15 years. He explains his role in those and other education debates in "Troublemaker," published this month by Princeton University Press. The book is "a personal history of school reform since Sputnik," according to the subtitle.(The book's jacket is at right.)

In the NCLB world, Finn may be the reason why we're so concerned about "proficiency." Back in the 1980s, when he was an assistant secretary at the Department of Education, Finn complained that the National Assessment of Educational Progress didn't deliver meaningful results. The public couldn't understand, he said, the meaning of an obtuse scale score for the nation. He led the lobbying effort to persuade Congress to create a version of NAEP that delivered results for every state. Once it passed, Finn became the first chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board and served on it for eight years. He was the architect of NAEP's performance levels ("advanced," "proficient," and "basic"). When Congress was looking to set a goal for student achievement, it chose proficiency. To hold states up to a national standard, it required states to participate in NAEP's reading and math tests and increased the frequency of those tests to every other year. Today, NAEP is the most cited source for declaring states' definition of proficiency to be too easy.

Finn covers all of this in "Troublemaker," and he acknowledges that the achievement levels have been controversial. But he leaves out that their validity has been questioned by the research community. In 1991, NAGB's own consultants said it "must be viewed as insufficiently tested and validated, politically dominated, and of questionable credibility." NAGB fired the consultant, according to this Education Week story. In 1999, a National Academy of Sciences report called the process of setting them "fundamentally flawed." To this day, every NAEP report includes a footnote saying that the achievement levels are "developmental."

If you keep Finn's perspective in mind, "Troublemaker" is a good overview of educational policy over the past 50 years. And if you're interested in finding out more about Checker the person (like the time he brought a pig's head to illustrate a lesson), keep reading after the jump ...

While most of "Troublemaker" deals with policy issues, Checker Finn reveals a lot about himself in the book.

During his first (and only) year as a public school teacher, Finn decided to spice up a lesson about "Lord of the Flies." He went to a butcher and purchased a pig's head to re-enact the cult-like ceremony in which a group of boys impale a pig's head on a spear. The lesson fell flat, though. The kids were too shocked to understand their teacher's point. The next year, Finn decided to leave teaching and go to graduate school. In this era of cell phone video and YouTube, he might not have be allowed to return the next day.

In 1968, Finn followed his graduate school mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to work in the Nixon White House. Then a Democrat, he used his White House post to learn the ways of Washington—and get out of Vietnam service. After he wrote the Dayton, Ohio, draft board a letter describing his White House job, he never heard from the draft board again."I'm ashamed of having played that card," he said during a lunch with reporters in Washington last week. "It certainly wasn't patriotic and it was a little bit of abuse of office."

When Finn and his wife decided to enroll their children in private schools in suburban Maryland, money was tight. Finn recounts how he would purchase a week's worth of groceries for $25. "Our kids drank a lot of powdered milk," he writes. That's enough to make them supporters of using public funds to pay for private school tuition, I would guess.

In his book, Finn writes about switching his voter registration from Democrat to Republican in the late 1970s. Today, though, he's leaning toward being an Independent. "I'm not a very happy Republican, on education or much else," he said at the lunch with reporters. Still, he said he wouldn't vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., or Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.


David Hoff has once again revealed his perspicacity, his reservoir of education history and lore, and his gift for the revealing detail. Just one tiny response: I do allude in the book (p. 180) to the fuss over NAEP/NAGB achievement levels when I say that "Controversy has since dogged [them], part of it technical, part political." I meant "technical" to cover the endless expert dust-ups over the levels and the process by which they're set. But I've never lost much sleep over those controversies. Most card-carrying testing experts have never met a test (or standard, or standard-setting process, for that matter) that they like. It's infinitely easier in this domain, as in so many, to find fault with an action than actually to take one. While while the experts grumped, as I also write in the book, "over the past fifteen years those levels have gained acceptance as the closest thing Ameria has to national education standards and reliable measures of performance."

Controversial is not an accurate description; rigged is more like it.

Finn et. al. make a ton of money when public schools look bad, what better way than to rig achievement levels, than spread the word to journalist who are too lazy to do any research on their own?

Interesting that so much of the media considers Finn an education expert when he couldn't hack it as a teacher.

My advice for the author is to start talking to some REAL educators.

Re: Finn's single year in the classroom--how much legitimacy would you extend to someone who practiced medicine for one year, withdrew from the field, and became a self-declared expert on medical practice reform?

I've only been in the classroom 17 years. I have colleagues who have been responsible for bringing miraculous transformations to kids. All our hard work has come to naught however. Today, my colleagues and I are being micromanaged by the likes of Finn. This puts me in mind of my doc who frequently finds himself justifying procedures to secretaries at insurance companies who continue to refuse coverage for treatment prescribed by my physician.

The reformation that needs to take place in public education and medicine has nothing to do with innate practices in the fields. Rather, the reformation we need is to rid ourselves of the likes of Finn (Spellings, et al.).

Finn and his ilk fill me with despair.

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  • Vicki Whitaker: Re: Finn's single year in the classroom--how much legitimacy would read more
  • Mike in Texas: Controversial is not an accurate description; rigged is more like read more
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