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Lessons Not Learned

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Education Week, sister publication of Teacher Magazine, featured Chester Finn 's "Lessons Learned" on the Commentary page last week. Mr. Finn, known to his fellow alums of Phillips Exeter Academy (and most of the world) as "Checker," is usually styled as an “education guru” because he is a Hoover Institute Fellow and President of The Fordham Foundation where he contributes regularly to The Education Gadfly. For something like three decades, he has been more than willing to explain to people in positions of power exactly what is wrong with public education. It’s nice to know that he has learned some lessons along the way. Here are some examples:

Lesson 2. People are good at different things--and plenty of human traits matter besides academics.

Lesson 11. Don't read too much into test scores.

According to David Hoff’s blog, in his new book Troublemaker Finn offers, as examples, his own children, who drank powdered milk to help with the financial strain of private schools, where their educational future didn’t balance on a single test -- a test that might include a question like this:

The Finns want to pay for their two children to attend a private high school in suburban Maryland. Tuition at the median private high school for day students is $10,000. The Finn family recoups the cost of private school over public school by drinking powdered skim milk rather than fresh skim milk. If the cost differential between powdered and fresh skim milk is $2 per gallon, how much milk does the Finn family drink per school year to save enough to pay for tuition? (You may use scratch paper to determine your answer.)

Anyway, while I would agree with Lessons 2 and 11, I wonder why Finn still promotes the National Assessment of Educational Progress (he served as first chair of NAEP's governing board), which is at best a very limited, and at worst, a deeply flawed method of determining the abilities of America’s young people.

Lesson 3. Even the biggest-name schools have kids "left behind," victimized by an inferior education.

Lesson 5. By the time kids with tough lives have been further scarred by bad schooling, traditional "intervention" programs aren't apt to yield lasting success for many.

Lesson 8. School choice without quality doesn't do enough.

Lesson 9. I also erred in thinking that competition per se would trigger great changes in traditional schools.

Lesson 10. Hard as it is to make government reforms succeed, private ventures also face trouble sustaining their edge and not slipping into wary, bureaucratized, status-quo-ism.

I guess these really were lessons learned the hard way. NCLB doesn't seem to be fixing things. The Edison Project Schools (where Finn was a "co-visioner" at the start-up) proved to be a disaster of private enterprise in public education. It is a lot easier to write a business plan for effective schooling than it is to actually make it work. Since Finn has learned these lessons, I wonder why he and his colleagues at the Fordham Foundation continue to support school privatization schemes?

Lesson 4. Teaching is truly hard, and being smart and well educated doesn't make one good at it.

From the sound of it, Checker really did learn this lesson most painfully. After attending Phillips Exeter Academy ( pricey now, pricey then) and earning bachelor and master degrees from Harvard (ditto), it must have been pretty traumatic to discover he couldn’t cut it in a public high school classroom. I give him credit for publicly confessing that he showed poor judgment when he brought to class a pig's head obtained from the local butcher and used it as a visual aid for Lord of the Flies. Perhaps he should have thought about running that idea by someone with a little more experience teaching teenagers, even if they didn’t have quite as fine an educational pedigree. In any event, Finn says he "came to realize that, if I were going to make a difference in American education, it wouldn’t be at the retail level."

Lesson 6. Persistence counts, even in the nation’s capital.

Lesson 7. Character counts, too, along with leadership and courage.

Yes, these things do count. And I wonder, if Finn has learned these lessons, why he derives such pleasure in styling himself as a gadfly (meddler, busybody, pest, nuisance) and a troublemaker. I spend my day with people of persistence, character, leadership and courage. (Many, Finn might be surprised to learn, are also smart and well-educated.) They are classroom teachers. They didn’t give up after a year. They come back to the classroom every day to try to improve the lives of their students. Some of them are amazing. Some of them struggle. But they are sticking around and putting in the time it takes to become accomplished teachers. Finn went back to Harvard and got a doctorate in Education Administration and Policy. And while I may not be qualified to question the screening process for the doctoral program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I wonder about it. If a new CPA fails to survive an entry level job at an accounting firm, is the obvious path to skip the “retail” level and go back for a PhD. in Economics? Perhaps so. Perhaps this explains something about the quality and practicality of education policy today.

12. Nothing in education reform is easy.

No, it’s not. And quite frankly, those of us out here on the front lines could do without professional Troublemakers who leverage their privileged backgrounds, elitist education, and the contacts that go with them into careers directing the campaign from the rear. Public education is serious business. The future of our economy, government, and people depend on it. If Finn is serious about determining what works and what doesn’t, perhaps he should spend less time posturing in the plush chairs of non-profit think tanks, or the marble halls of government, and a little more time in quiet contemplation, observing and listening to the teachers, school administrators, and students who spend their days in our public schools. There are lessons yet to be learned there.

18 Comments

Right on, Susan. If we held the opinions and ideas of the seasoned classroom veteran in a little better esteem, perhaps we would be a bit further in moving public education forward.

It'll be interesting to see if she actually reads the book or is content to pontificate based on the EdWeek capsule. I wonder if she reads books or just pontificates.

Fabulous essay, Susan! You must have touched some raw nerves, given the snide comment posted by "The Great Gadfly" himself. Quite amusing that HE accuses YOU of pontificating--isn't that the pot calling the kettle black?

Go, Susan! I have been appalled at the number of education policymakers and wonks who are, in fact, failed classroom teachers. That's not counting the ones who quit teaching to become "educational consultants." I think you should read Finn's entire book and write a full review.

Well, Checker, you read books AND pontificate, but you manage to get things wrong so often that it's hard to imagine that the book-reading has helped you all that much. Your conservative and elitist friends and colleagues have been telling you how clever and brilliant you are for so long, no matter how badly you screw up (see NCLB, which you supported before you opposed it) and no matter what price the nation's kids and real educators pay for your abject stupidity.

Susan Moore clearly has a sharper perspective on the reality of classroom teaching than you'll ever have. It's to be hoped that your horrid track record is catching up with you, not merely as a failed classroom teacher, but as a blatantly biased right-wing pundit who is useful only as a reverse weather-vane.

Susan Moore points out the sad fact that those who most influence the curriculum in this country are often quite removed from the classroom.

Even more tragic is that many of these "experts" see public schools through mental models that convince them that their destructive policies are in the best interest of children (e.g. NCLB). Though many of these pundits may change their views about NCLB and other interventions, their erroneous belief systems will continue to produce new counter-productive, undemocratic practices. I would love to see a presidential debate in which both Mr. Finn and Susan Moore were the moderators.

Susan Graham's TLN colleague, Nancy Flanagan, also wrote about Finn's "lessons learned" in her blog Teacher in a Strange Land. Here's the link:

http://snipurl.com/nf_checkerandme

Dr. Finn,
I am disappointed that your comments above reveal how little of your #4 lesson (Teaching is truly hard, and being smart and well educated doesn't make one good at it) you truly learned. But I am not surprised. Nor am I surprised by numerous education "scholars" who claim to revere teaching as complicated and intellectual work, but when faced with the experienced insights of actual teachers - who, shock!, do not always agree with them - revert to the launching of middle school-level slings and arrows. Thank you, Susan, for your years of "retail" excellence and persistence in imparting your countless lessons learned to actual students who profit from them daily.

Great post Susan. This is the wonder and the glory of the internet. Before web 2.0 nobody would even know that we teachers actually care about the decisions made in the rear. Now, you can publish and stand next to Checker and probably have a louder voice because the field is leveler. He is not on high and we are not in the trenches. We are on the policy playing field.

It's ironic that so many of the best teachers - those who truly understand the kids and manage to teach well in spite of a flawed system - are subjected to the whims and criticisms of those who think they know better when the "knowing" isn't based on years of experience in the the real world. Susan, thanks for having the courage to share your thoughts! I don't believe it's really "pontificating" if you are actually practicing what you preach!

Re "And while I may not be qualified to question the screening process for the doctoral program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I wonder about it. If a new CPA fails to survive an entry level job at an accounting firm, is the obvious path to skip the “retail” level and go back for a PhD. in Economics?"

The worst part of my grad school education was sharing the place with classmates who had 2 years teaching experience now becoming teacher ed and policy PhDs.

Signed, a PhD with 20 years K-12 experience, still in the K-12 classroom.

I have another math problem for you, Mr. Finn: If Mr. Finn devoted one hour a day volunteering in an inner city school instead of "bashing" our public school programs, how many days would it take to impact the learning of both our students and our Mr. Finn? I admire your willingness to speak the truth, Susan. We, who entered the classroom with our Mr. Finn 30+ years ago......but chose to stay with our public schools.... have much to add to this conversation. Dewey had it right when he said,"Learning by doing." What say you, Mr. Finn?
Are you afraid to give it a second chance?

Why is that those who can't teach believe they can become administrators, consultants, and policy makers? There should be some rule that says you have to return to the classroom for a year every five years for a reality check. Those that have the most credibility actually do return to the classroom or... never leave. If you want to know what is wrong with education, look at those making policy that haven't been in the classroom in years.

Why is that those who can't teach believe they can become administrators, consultants, and policy makers? There should be some rule that says you have to return to the classroom for a year every five years for a reality check. Those that have the most credibility actually do return to the classroom or... never leave. If you want to know what is wrong with education, look at those making policy that haven't been in the classroom in years.

Having retired from business 7 years ago, I had read many articles about "how bad our nation's schools are", etc. So rather than joining the throng in education bashing, I decided to try to be part of the solution and became a middle school classroom science teacher. After substituting for a year and taking the required graduate courses and Praxis II exams in my endorsement areas, I became a certified science/math teacher 6 years ago. I can honestly tell you that I have never met more dedicated and professional people than those fellow teachers I work with on a daily basis. At 60 years of age, I can proudly say that I am a career teacher and love it. Even with all the challenges that face the American teacher, the reward is seeing former students come back a few years later and and say "thanks". Educational pundits please spend necessary time face-to-face with actual students.

Susan, you eloquently outline the importance of valuing the voice and experience of effective teachers. I’m proud to be in the professional ranks with you.

I read Finn’s comment to your post. Frankly, I expected a more sophisticated response but then realized that perhaps he remains traumatized by his failure to be successful as a classroom teacher. That failure, no matter how much formal education undertaken, translates into a weak, at best, understanding of what it takes to develop and implement sound educational reform.

In a previous post, Jon asked Finn if he would like to return to the classroom. If he did, Finn would be fortunate to have you--Susan-- as his mentor.

Bravo, bravo Susan Graham!

Thank you.


In boxing parlance Susan Graham delivers a knock-out blow to Mr. Finn. Using a less violent metaphor maybe Checker just got triple-jumped with Susan’s thoughtful commentary and the ensuing comments posted by so many of her teaching colleagues. Susan’s voice frames the power of our Teacher Leaders Network and the critical importance of teacher experts not just having a seat at the table but also planning the menu. Too bad Mr. Finn's smug comments about her reveal that he does not deserve the honor of dining with this terrific group of expert teachers.

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