Saturday, March 15, 2008

Jumping Checker

Susan Graham blogging at A Place at the Table at this link with a post called "Lessons Not Learned"and Nancy Flanagan at Teacher in a Strange Land lay some big ones on Chester Finn (known affectionately as "Checker") who recently came out with a book called Troublemaker.

For those who are not aware, Finn is one of the ideological gurus of the corporate takeover and marketization of public schools. We dumped Rothstein on him at the Manhattan Institute Luncheon a few weeks ago. Read the piece at this link which included our parody of The Band's The Weight:

Crazy Chester went on and on, and he made me see through the fog.
He said, "If you accept KIPP, you’ll be allowed to eat your hot dog."

I said, "Wait a minute, Chester, you know KIPP can’t educate em all."
He said, "That's okay, boy, we’ll take 70% and public ed will take a fall"

Unlike me, Susan is serious and goes after Checker where it hurts. Read the entire piece at this link and the comments, but here are some excerpts:

He "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."

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 [Finn taught one year and couldn't hack it] .... 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."

I wonder...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.

...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.

In this excerpt, Nancy Flanagan hits Checker with this right cross:

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 have been millions of teachers like me: upwardly mobile, hard-working, intellectually curious, still dedicated to the idea that education is the ticket out of poverty, and still committed to kids who are less than intrigued by a classic, liberal-arts college preparatory curriculum or 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 efficacy—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 persisted because I had tangible evidence, every day, of my impact on real children and a real school. Later in my career, I worked for two years at a national education non-profit. 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, and went back to the classroom.

The NY Sun's Elizabeth Green has written a review of Finn's book, giving just a little bit too much credit.

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