Tag Archives: Chester Finn

More on Chester Finn and school reform

Chester Finn, no less than Arne Duncan and his “Race to the Top,” labors under the (mis-)conception that student achievement levels depend primarily on what the educators, – the teachers, administrators, and politicians — do, and that downward or flat, as at the present time, achievement levels call for additional reforms.

Maybe, but so far a long series of public school education reforms  beginning in this country in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik into orbit 4 October 1957, have done little or nothing to raise the achievement levels of all our students, and have done particularly little for our most vulnerable, most impoverished and most often minority, Latino, Black and other, students, those for the most part living and attending school in our largest inner cities.

Why is this? The answer is obvious but so far educators have not been paying attention. What have we ever learned ourselves that has not come primarily from our own efforts, from our own active involvement in the learning process?

Why would it be any different for kids? For what students learn, translated into measurable achievement levels, depends most of all (as for the rest of us) on what they do for themselves, not on what we do for them.

What reforms, if any, have sought to make the students primarily responsible for their own education, for their own learning? The three reform movements of which Chester Finn speaks, national standards, data driven instruction (testing), and school choice, have little or nothing to say about the role of the students in all that.

As it is now, even the best students, the so called “good students,” are probably doing what they do in school to please their parents or teachers rather than themselves. Although they may be learning the lessons of the school and classroom, what they’re really learning, what’s becoming an integral part of their makeup, and most important for their future lives, is probably not what they’re doing in school.

When and if learning does take place, if progress is made and achievement gaps are narrowed or closed, it will be most of all thanks to the efforts of the learners, of the kids themselves.

I thought of all this while reading David Brooks writing about the devastation brought about by the earthquake in Haiti. The extent of the devastation, he says, is much more to be blamed on poverty, that which had made for a totally inadequate infrastructure of support systems, as well as permitting contractors to build without meeting proper building code requirements.

Brooks reminds us that an earthquake in the Bay Area of Northern California, on October 17, 1989, just as powerful, 7.0 on the Richter scale, did a tiny fraction of the horrendous people and property damage that we are now witnessing via the Media’s constant coverage of the aftermath of the quake in Haiti. The poverty of Haiti and affluence of Northern California are the explanation of the hugely differing quake damages in the two places.

Then Brooks goes on to say that all the development aid of the past several decades has done little or nothing to reduce, let alone dispel the poverty not only in Haiti, but in the under developed world generally. He concludes with the simple admission that “we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty.”

Brooks then quotes the economist Abhijit Banerjee who has this to say about the effectiveness of aid to the undeveloped world: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.”

And it was here that I thought to myself that similarly, or analogously the best way to raise our students’ achievement levels was not to go on tinkering with the public school environments and curricula, for perhaps making real progress in reducing ignorance and raising achievement may also not be within our power or control.

And in fact the real growth and development, that is taking place in countries like India and China, is not to be attributed to international aid efforts, such as those of the World Bank and others, but to the efforts of the Indians and the Chinese themselves. Similarly perhaps real student achievement will only take place when the students themselves assume the major responsibility for their learning.

This clearly has not yet happened.

School Ramblings brought on by reading Chester Finn

Chester E. Finn, Jr., in an article in the most recent issue of National Affairs, no less than the educational reformers of whom he speaks, has it all wrong. It’s not so much that the reforms have been misdirected, gone after the wrong targets, not been basic enough.

It’s rather that the reforms and the reformers, no less than the protectors of the public school status quo, have not, like the blind men, seen the whole of the elephant they would describe.

“Blind monks examining an elephant”, an 1888 ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō.

The whole elephant, well what is that in the educational context? What is the beast out there that one ought to see in its entirety?

We need first of all to agree on a number of assumptions, not so much concerning educational goals or aims, as the nature of the reality out there, the reality that confronts not only the kids every day of their lives, but us too, especially those of us, probably most of us, who are vitally concerned with the education of kids.

Not so much educational goals because there can be any number of these, as you will readily agree if you’re just a bit familiar with all that’s been written about education during the past several hundred years or more — goals such as making kids into life long learners, imparting to them all the necessary skills and knowledge, turning them into good citizens and good people, good fathers and mothers, and now especially turning them into the skilled workforce that will enable us to better compete in the global economy, and so on.

Rather we need to start, not with these abstract goals that have little to do with the kids, but with the kids themselves, and with the world in which they are living.

In regard to the kids no two of them are alike. They are all different, with different interests, abilities, talents, different backgrounds, family situations. And they live in different ethnic and class communities, experience different walks and rides to school, and so on.

And then in regard to the world out there in which they are living. you’d be hard pressed to find much out there that corresponds or relates in any way to what the kids are doing in school. For example, if you’re an adult living, as I am in Tampa, Florida, how many times during the past year have you encountered out there in the life of the city an algebraic or geometric  expression, let alone problem?

And how many times in your everyday lives have you even looked up at the moon and the sun in the sky let alone looked beyond these two objects and with the help of the stupendous findings of the astronomers looked all the way back to the big bang?

How many times have you been taken up with a consideration of your own biological make-up, shared, as we have learned since Charles Darwin (that which you ought to have learned in biology class in school) to a greater or lesser extent by all life on the planet?

In other words what is going on out there in the world where the children, where all of us are living, that at all reflects, or relates to in any way, let alone supports the academic programs of our schools?

I’ve never encountered anyone out there in Tampa either writing an essay, or reading a great book. What is going on in the world, and what the kids are witnessing and being a part of in that world, when they’re not in school, is something else entirely.

Do our professional educators ever ask themselves how many people, let alone kids, outside of the classroom are writing? or even, in the world of the computer and television screen, reading books? Yet reading and writing, we’re told, by these same educators, is what school is or should be mostly all about, two activities that are pretty much absent from people’s daily lives. The kids know this.

This is why, as Finn points out, the achievement levels in our schools have remained flat for a generation. We’re asking of our kids things that are not going on anywhere else. This is why kids never seem to learn a foreign language in a classroom. This is why our reforms have not made a difference. What we have the kids do in our schools is totally out of sync with what is going on out there in the world.

And there is not only the world out there, out of sync with the schools. We are not helping the kids to be in sync with themselves. No two kids, no two of anything alive, are exactly alike.

And when, perhaps because of our concern for providing if not equality, equality of opportunity, we treat the kids as if they were all alike, we naturally fail to reach more than a few of them. And if we do reach that few, it’s only because the few by chance happen to fit the description of the student we have imagined.

As I write I realize I’m not saying anything new. There are those I’m sure who said at the time of Horace Mann’s Common School that school was not the only, or perhaps the best way to prepare kids for life.

And there are those still terrifically alive and interesting, what I would call the “no school” people of the sixties and seventies, the Paul Goodmans, the John Holts, the Ivan Illichs and many more, who valiantly although in vain tried to convince us that school was dead while giving birth to a creation of their own.

If the “no school,” the school is dead people did not succeed it was not because they were wrong. Actually, I think they were right in most of what they said about how kids learn (and for the most part not in school).

It was rather that society, in the form of the educational establishment couldn’t change its spots. Didn’t even try, and instead went on pretending to change by one endless series of reforms after another. Finn does make clear that following all these reforms nothing of real substance did change.

Kids continue to go to school. We continue to pretend to teach them, and they continue to pretend to learn. Not too different from totalitarian states where people pretend to be citizens with rights, where the country’s leaders pretend to recognize those rights, such as the right to vote, but where the real life, the people’s lives, all of that is confined to private spaces, such as about the kitchen table in the former Soviet Union.

What would it take to change things, to do away with the pretense that presently engulfs our public, and probably also, although to a lesser extent, our public charter and private school environments?

It would take two things:
1) A recognition of the world for what it is and of people for what they are, and
2) The abandonment of the principle, now current in our schools, that one size fits all.

And we need to accept and admit that the schools are not going to change the world. They don’t have that power. Virtue can’t be taught. The schools are just not going to shape the kids, let alone the world, in the ways we would like them to.

But somehow kids will become what they are, what they’re suppose to be, at least when they are successful and happy, and they will do this in spite of the obstacles placed in their way by the schools. The best schools, and among the enormous variety of such places in the country there are those that are “best”, will help their kids to become what they are, not place obstacles in their way.

The irony is that we do know much about kids and the world, enough to improve our “schools,” or whatever other means we employ to prepare our kids for adulthood, but we act as if we didn’t have that knowledge. We know, for example, what adults spend their time doing, doing things that have little connection with what these same adults (and now their children) did and do in school.

And we know that kids are different and need quite different paths to follow. The traditional academic and college preparatory path is, at best, only one among many, only appropriate for a minority of kids. That in itself, the fact that only the needs of a minority are being met, ought to make us reconsider what we are doing, or rather not doing, for the majority of them.

Here, taken from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics I list the jobs that the adults in the country are now doing. The total civilian labor force as of December, 2009, was 153 million, 144 million of whom were employed.

Of those employed 22 million were farm or farm related workers, 19 million were in goods producing industries, mostly construction and manufacturing.

The remaining 113 million were in the services, 22 million in government, 19 million in education and health (the fastest growing sectors at the moment), 17 million in professional and business services, 15 million in the retail trades, 13 million in leisure and hospitality, leaving the remaining 27 million jobs in other miscellaneous services.

Now have our politicians and educational establishment figures, who have so much to say about the responsibility of our schools to turn out graduates who are ready and able to compete in the global economy, have they at all considered what our own economy consists of in the way of occupations, have they considered the actual jobs that are being done by our adult population, and what sorts of preparation would be needed to get and hold these jobs?

I don’t think so. For they most of all speak as if we needed to get our kids ready to outperform the hundreds of thousands of Chinese engineers who are graduating from engineering schools in China every year. Where are the jobs to be found in this country that would employ these desired graduates?

No they can’t have thought much about the kinds of jobs adults are doing and the kind schooling, if any, that would be most appropriate to insure that the jobs out there are being filled adequately as they open up and become available. For the kind of educational goals our professional educators like to talk about have little or no relevance to the actual job prospects that the kids will eventually encounter.

Our country’s jobs, by and large, need at the most only basic literacy and numeracy skills. The sorts of things that kids ought to be able to obtain with 8 or fewer years of schooling. Most of the jobs out there are not helped, probably hurt by what we would do in the schools, or at least pretend to do — that is, teach higher forms of literacy, higher mathematics, advanced placement courses etc. Hurt, because of what we might have done instead.

We need most of all in our thinking about schools to stop believing that kids need to be highly skilled and highly knowledgeable to enter the job market. For the vast majority of positions out there they need only two things — the basic 8th. grade or less education I have mentioned, and something I have not mentioned, but that is probably even more important, good work habits.

These would be such things as the ability get up in the mornings after a good night’s sleep, to be on time, have ready for the job whatever one might need, know how to listen and to learn while  on the job, and other such things. The acquisition of these kinds of skills and habits could and ought to be stressed in the schools. It’s not, not nearly enough, and here lies perhaps the greatest failure of the schools in respect to what they might have done.

Not that preparation for the job market, which means now preparation for the service industries, should be the primary function of school. It shouldn’t. For as long as school makes up such a huge part of the kids’ growing up it should have as its primary function helping kids to find out about themselves, to discover their own gifts and interests, find out who they are. Know oneself is still relevant.

For many kids, probably the majority of them, a selection from elective subjects and activities such as music, theater, art, athletics, vocational training, including courses in computer hardware and software, public service and work internships, debating etc., and not required academic classes, would be much more appropriate and desirable for their time in school. But more and more we seem afraid to go in this direction. Afraid of the “chaos” it might bring?

It is from these sorts of electives, once having achieved a basic level of literacy and numeracy, that the kids should be allowed to choose. This is the meaning of choice. And these activities would get their attention, and then, if they were ready and interested, they would learn.

In fact, what does one ever learn without being ready and interested? It is here that lies the greatest explanation of the failure of our schools and of the reforms of which Finn speaks

Finally, and in spite of the fact that the ideal for many of us is still an academic education, meaning by that the acquisition the skills and knowledge stemming from the study of history and literature, math and science, foreign languages, et al. these skills and knowledge are not now, and probably never have been within the power and possession of more than a tiny minority of the now 7 billion people on the earth.

Why continue to force kids to believe that an academic education, suitable perhaps for a minority, is what’s most important for all? It’s not.

If the teachers were in fact capable of making kids life long learners and more reliable and responsible citizens of the Republic, those kinds of educational goals that Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann and others assumed were desirable and possible some 200 years ago, then what we are trying to do would make some sense, but they are not.

In fact, we have learned, over and over again, that the acquisition of the habits of good citizenship as  well as becoming a life time learner have never had much to do with what goes on in the school and classroom. Once again the most helpful “reform” would be to accept that these sorts of educational goals are simply not within the school’s power to realize.

To accept that and to go on to do what is within our power. That would be reform, probably even for Chester Finn, reform you could believe in.

On Rothstein’s Response to Finn

Sunday, September 03, 2006
On Rothstein’s Response to Finn

[Richard Rothstein has written a response to Chester Finn’s August 17 posting in the Gadfly, “March of the Pessimists.”
Here follows directly the first portion of Rothstein’s response (a second portion to follow), interspersed in italics with my own running commentary on his text. For the complete text of his response, go to Rothstein.]

Chester Finn, in his August 17 “Gadfly” posting, responding to a New York Times article by Diana Jean Schemo and a Wall Street Journal essay by Charles Murray, expresses puzzlement that “the likes of Schemo and Murray” can’t see that good schools can overcome the disadvantages of poverty, racism, troubled families, crime-infested neighborhoods, and harmful peer influences.
These are complex issues, not elucidated by labeling these writers, as Mr. Finn does, ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘pessimist,’ or ‘defeatist.’ But I take Mr. Finn at his word that he genuinely does not understand why Schemo, Murray and others do not share his belief in the power of good schools to offset all other social and economic influences. I will attempt, as respectfully as I can, to explain why, for my part, I do not share his belief.

[The first, and perhaps most interesting, question that Rothstein raises is whether or not schools, good schools, have the power to “offset” all other social and economic influences. “Offset” may be a poor choice of words, as it’s not clear what the word means. Or what Rothstein may have meant in using that word. If it means “do away with” well the schools probably don’t have that power. But if it means “set off to the side,” that seems exactly what is in the power, and the mission of good schools. A good school will set aside one’s ignorance, one’s coarseness, one’s inarticulateness, and replace them in the foreground with articulateness, new found sensitivity, knowledge and other such positive attainments.
What Finn actually said was this: “Backward reeled my mind upon discovering that the New York Times’s liberal education writer Diana Jean Schemo and conservative icon Charles Murray share essentially the same defeatist view of education: that schools aren’t powerful enough instruments to boost poor kids’ achievement to an appreciably higher academic plane due to the many other forces (family, neighborhood, poverty, heredity, etc.) tugging them downward.” All he is saying, or implying, here is that schools can “boost achievement,” not that they can entirely offset “all other social and economic influences.”]

In short, given that, as Mr. Finn asserts, children’s time influenced by families and communities exceeds the time they are influenced by schools “by a multiple of four or five,” I am puzzled that he fails to agree that serious and successful efforts to substantially narrow the achievement gap must include social and economic policies to improve the circumstances of family and community life, as well as policies to improve the quality of schooling.

[Nowhere does Finn say that reform efforts may not include “social and economic policies to improve the circumstances of family and community life…”. In fact he clearly states that, “It’s obvious that schools can do lots more when the 91 percent—the time not in school–cooperates, when non-school influences (family, peer group, neighborhood, church, you name it) tug in the same direction as school.”
Also what Rothstein implies doesn’t necessarily follow from the fact that children spend much less time in school than without. One can speak Chinese during most of one’s waking hours, but in just a few hours a day given to an excellent English immersion program one can also become a fluent English speaker. It’s less the number of hours that one spends in school (although with improved student motivation and work habits and better teachers more time in school will prove valuable and profitable) than what the teacher and the student are doing with the time they have. Improvement in the student’s social (the removal of abusive, bullying, and coarse individuals in one’s environment) and the bettering of one’s economic condition (a good paying job, the arrival of a wealthy uncle, more government handouts) do not necessarily contribute to stronger achievement in the school. The latter will still depend primarily on the student himself, what he or she does with her time in class or without, and on the teacher, and also on classroom peers. How many children of the rich, how many children of kings and queens, have failed to learn even while experiencing the “best” of social and economic environments?]

First, let’s clarify some common imprecisions in the discussion. Mr. Finn asserts that good schools are “powerful enough instruments to boost poor kids’ achievement to an appreciably higher academic plane.” Nobody – not I, nor anyone with whom I am familiar – disagrees with this assertion. But what is commonly argued (and the notion that I dispute) is not that good schools can boost the achievement of disadvantaged children to “an appreciably higher plane” but rather that such schools can “close the achievement gap;” i.e., produce achievement from lower class children that is approximately equal to the achievement of middle class children.

[It may be “commonly argued,” but not by Finn in this piece, that good schools can “close the achievement gap.” In his piece Finn doesn’t even mention the “gap.” Whereas Rothstein in his rebuttal mentions the achievement gap a total of 9 times! He is at pains to point out that these schools cannot close the gap for all their students. But the proponents of so-called “no excuses” schools are not saying this, rather something much more restrained and modest, that good schools, and good teachers, and hard working students, can significantly raise achievement, if not closing the achievement gap in every case. Why isn’t this in itself remarkable enough? Why should these schools that achieve so much with their students be put down for not achieving more? Why isn’t it enough that these schools are doing much more than the schools from which their students have come? One wonders what’s really on Rothstein’s mind. Is it the biais of a point of view he brings with him from the Economic Policy Institute? that only government funded anti-poverty programs can ever significantly lessen and eventually close the achievement gap?]

More specifically, the claim is that if all disadvantaged children could attend such schools, their average achievement would not be appreciably different from the average achievement of middle class children – they would be as likely to attend good colleges, be no more likely to end up in prison or as teen parents, be as qualified for good-paying jobs, etc. Another way of thinking about the claim that good schools can “close the achievement gap” is that if all disadvantaged children attended good schools, and graduated, on average, with average middle class levels of achievement, the vast social inequalities that now pervade American society would disappear. Or, as New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it, if his New York City school reform program succeeded, “a lot of what Dr. Martin Luther King wanted to accomplish in our society will take care of itself.”

[It almost seems that Rothstein is here saying that children by themselves cannot change the world. I would say rather that it’s only by means of the children, stepping out of and over what ever it was they were born into, overcoming whatever obstacles they’ve had to face, that real progress can ever come about. But here again Rothstein is belaboring his point. For he would still speak of “all disadvantaged children.” And again, need I say it, Finn is not talking about all disadvantaged children. He is talking about what can be achieved by some disadvantaged children in the right school environment. Why fault him for not proving that all disadvantaged children will join the ranks of the “advantaged,” no more than all those who lose their welfare payments will eventually get a job and buy a home, pay income taxes. Should we not have done our welfare reform for those who could when there were those who couldn’t?
It seems to me that Rothstein’s argument is faulty. If I knew more about faulty arguments I’m sure I’d find the right name for his. Finn is most of all talking about what these “no excuses” schools have achieved, and about the validity and legitimacy of this achievement. He is not, certainly not in the brief commentary below which is the object of Rothstein’s response, trying to say that nothing more is needed, that even if battles have been won that the war is over. I’ts not. Again, why does Rothstein not stay with the principal question, which is can these schools of which Finn is speaking significantly improve the life chances of disadvantaged children. Rothstein concentrates on the relatively trivial point that these schools don’t do it for “all,” rather than giving them well deserved credit for their successess and then using his own persuasive powers to extend the model to other inner city schools that are failing, and failing their students.]

A puzzling aspect of Mr. Finn’s confidence that good schools can overcome all or most of the negative influences of deprived social and economic environments is that he himself, in other contexts, wisely endorses “value-added” as a preferred way to evaluate school quality, and as the appropriate way to compare average school-type (charter/non-charter, private/public) performance. Examining value-added trends makes sense only if you understand that social class greatly influences the level of student achievement. Granting that, on average, disadvantaged children (for example, those living in poverty) cannot reasonably be expected to achieve at the same level as middle class children (also, on average), a school serving disadvantaged children can be considered successful if it raises their achievement to levels significantly higher than it was previously, even if these higher levels remain, on average, considerably below those of typical middle class children. Advocacy of value-added comparisons as a preferred alternative to comparing raw achievement levels for accountability purposes makes sense because it recognizes that most children from poor families start their educations at a significant educational disadvantage to most middle class children, and that during their schooling, middle class children continue to enjoy extra-school educational benefits that children living in poverty do not possess. Advocacy of value-added comparisons makes no sense if you believe that good schools can fully overcome the social and economic influences that depress low-income children’s achievement.

[More of the same. Rothstein hammers away at the same point. “Overcome all of the negative influences…fully ovecome the social and economic influences…” Once again not the issue. Why doesn’t he talk about the main point that Finn is making, that schools, even given the negative social and economic influences, can make a significant difference in the lives of disadvantaged kids, differences that were not being made in the failing inner city schools from which these kids have come. Rothstein seems to have his “mantra,” that no single educational institution can overcome all the negative influences in the lives of the children attending that institution. Does that mean that one does nothing much while waiting for the government to change the social and economic conditions of the kids’ lives? Well, that’s what seems to be the rule within the inner city schools at the present time. Waiting for what? A new war on poverty? That is not going to come. And in any case we know the results of the last one. Does Rothstein?
Now a few comments about “value-added comparisons.” Why don’t value added trends make sense period? Why in order to make sense of them do you have to understand that social class greatly influences the level of student achievement”? Won’t everything about the student will more or less greatly influence the level of his achievement? Why is it, according to Rothstein, that “advocacy of value-added comparisons makes no sense if you believe that good schools can fully overcome the social and economic influences that depress low-income children’s achievement?” How does one’s belief about the relative effectiveness of good schools in impoverished inner cities at all affect the validity of our using value added comparisons? Am I missing something here?….]
To be continued.