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Famous School Choice Pundit vs. Ordinary Teacher

Looks like Chester Finn emerged from retirement, and just in time for January's School Choice Week, which has been kind of overlooked this year what with the inauguration, the Women's March and the general chaos of living in this new America.

I have been fascinated by "Checker" Finn since the early 1990s, when he was the role model for elite edu-pundits in the emerging reform debates, writing books and anchoring panels and working in various government roles. For a time, I clipped articles he'd written, wondering: How is it that this guy, with a year in the classroom, got to be the go-to mouthpiece for All Things Education?

Here's a response to one of Checker's many confident pronouncements on the state of education, Lessons Learned (from Education Week nine years ago):

Oh, Checker, Checker. You and I have led such different lives. I appreciated your summative verdicts on the worrisome state of education, which seems to be a chronic condition, in your view. Because the piece was all about your "57 years in education" (going back to 1st grade), it was a ripe opportunity for me to compare myself (a small-potatoes education blogger and 30-year veteran of the classroom) to you (an internationally famous education reformer).

While I toiled away at what you termed the retail level, you studied the research, analyzed the data, and made pronouncements impacting education across the nation. It's interesting to think that you have, in many ways, shaped the work that I actually did. For decades.

I love the first sentence of your mini-memoir: "Great, committed teacher/adviser/mentors, high standards, a focused curriculum, a culture of achievement, and plenty of hard work by students well aware that real consequences attached to their performance—what more does a successful school need?"

What more, indeed? You then proceed to suggest that only a handful of schools today provide this strong, thoughtfully tailored academic program, and toss in a bit of nostalgia about exclusive, expensive private academies and Catholic schools in the 60s being the pinnacle of exemplary scholarship.

You make the pitch that kids who are not willing to demonstrate effort, early on, are not entitled to the intellectual and pedagogical goodies. This argument suggests that educational meritocracy might be the morally correct thing. Being a "democratic equality" kind of gal myself, my perspectives on education in America are a little different.

Those young delinquents in your Outward Bound group? I went to high school with them. At my 35-year high school reunion, we honored dozens of boys in my class—many now grandfathers—who fought in Vietnam (and a couple who didn't come back).   

Lots of students in my school were leading what I'm sure you would see as "tough lives"—especially if you define a tough life as zero family connections or prospects for a lucrative professional career. Most of my classmates were aiming for a good job at the bowling-pin factory, but a handful of us went on to state universities. I was one of the lucky ones, attending college on scholarship, and finishing with a teaching degree

Blue Collar Public High prepared me surprisingly well for the rigors of college; nearly all my high school teachers were thrilled to provide extra challenges, extended assignments and encouragement for those of us willing to take a stab at moving out of the working class, albeit into pedestrian occupations like teaching. 

I will never win any smarter-than-thou contests, Checker, but I made good use of my free and low-cost public education. In the post-war decades there were millions of teachers like me: upwardly mobile, hard-working, intellectually curious, dedicated to the idea that education is the ticket out of poverty, and committed to kids who are less than interested in a classic, liberal-arts college-prep curriculum, getting up at 3:00 a.m. to read Beowulf.

Sorry that your first teaching job didn't work out, what with all those discipline problems, probably resulting from kids already irreparably scarred by their dreadful public school system. I'm not so sure that a strong syllabus or demanding accountability measures would have made a difference in your sense of accomplishment—although a good mentor may have helped.

One of the lessons I've absorbed is that nobody learns how to teach well in a single year. I am always mystified by pundits who suggest that putting graduates from our most prestigious colleges into our toughest schools with little training or on-site assistance is a good idea.

My first year of teaching wasn't all that I hoped for, either, but I stayed with it, because (as you yourself noted) persistence counts.  I came to love teaching, and was very good at it, for more than 30 years. I stuck with it, because I had tangible evidence, every day, of my impact on real children in a real school.

Later in my career, I worked for four years at two education nonprofits. I attended lots of conferences and meetings, saving the world one white paper at a time, but discovered that the real juice in education reform comes from the work with kids. So I went back to the classroom.

As for American parents being "unfussy" consumers of scholarship, once offered a market-based option to choose, you and I both understand as parents that what matters most are smart teachers who are committed to our unique children, and push them to learn, whether they're skilled test-takers or good at other things. 

For parents in my neighborhood, what you sneeringly label "convenience" was the only factor in where (or if) we went to school, since transporting children to/from school or paying tuition were not options. Features judged unimportant in your programming hierarchy (sports, for example) are considered essential character-builders, even scholarship opportunities, in mine. And character counts.

I'm not willing to relinquish my belief in a free, high-quality public education as the thing that sets America apart from other countries around the globe. Yes, I am aware of all our failed national educational experiments—I lived with them, daily, for 30 years—but don't we have an obligation to keep trying?

Like you, I have made many errors in judgment, over the past four decades, but most of my "mistakes" graduated, went on to colleges and jobs, and live productive lives. Can you say that?

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