Over the past three decades I have admired the clarity of Checker Finn’s writing, the wry sense of humor he injects into his prose, and the willingness to challenge whatever is the mainstream wisdom of the moment. Although I have differed with Finn on key education policies (e.g., vouchers, standards and testing), he is a thoughtful, reflective writer who knows well the history of school reform. And that in of itself is a boon. Although I do not agree with all that he says here, it is, in my opinion, worth reading.
Chester Finn is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
This commentary appeared December 16, 2016 on Flypaper .
Every once in a while, American K–12 education is overwhelmed by the conviction that its basic design is obsolete and that it needs somehow to reinvent schooling. One hears statements such as “If Rip Van Winkle were to awaken today from a century-long slumber, the only institutions he’d recognize would be schools and cemeteries.” We hear of education being stuck in an “industrial model.” And we observe educators, policymakers, and philanthropists scurrying to replace the schools of their childhoods with something different for their children and grandchildren to attend. We always seem to be, in the memorable phrase of Larry Cuban and the late David Tyack, “Tinkering Toward Utopia”—although those engaged in what generally ends up resembling tinkering actually fancy themselves to be bold revolutionaries.
We went through a phase of this a century ago when educators and policymakers sought to apply Frederick Taylor’s principles of “scientific management” to our disorderly collection of locally devised schools.
We went through a further round in the 1920s and ‘30s as notions of child-centered education and “social efficiency” permeated the schools.
We went through another round in the 1960s and 70s as “open classrooms” proliferated, schools were desegregated and detracked, and sundry curricular innovations (e.g., “whole language” reading and “new” math) kicked in.
We went through another round in the early 90s with “New American Schools”—a purposeful effort by Bush 41, Secretary Lamar Alexander, and former Xerox head David Kearns to “reinvent” the school—and a parallel effort led by Chris Whittle in the private sector (the “Edison Project”).