Few people have been more involved in shaping postwar U.S. education reforms--or dissented from some of them more effectively--than Chester Finn. Assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, and an aide to politicians as different as Richard Nixon and Daniel Moynihan, Finn has also been a high school teacher, an education professor, a prolific and best-selling writer, a think-tank analyst, a nonprofit foundation president, and both a Democrat and Republican. This remarkably varied career has given him an extraordinary insider's view of every significant school-reform movement of the past four decades, from racial integration to No Child Left Behind. In Troublemaker, Finn has written a vivid history of postwar education reform that is also the personal story of one of the foremost players--and mavericks--in American education.
Finn tells how his experiences have shaped his changing views of the three major strands of postwar school reform: standards-driven, choice-driven, and profession-driven. Of the three, Finn now believes that a combination of choice and standards has the greatest potential, but he favors this approach more on pragmatic than ideological grounds, arguing that parents should be given more options at the same time that schools are allowed more flexibility and held to higher performance norms. He also explains why education reforms of all kinds are so difficult to implement, and he draws valuable lessons from their frequent failure.
Clear-eyed yet optimistic, Finn ultimately gives grounds for hope that the best of today's bold initiatives--from charter schools to technology to makeovers of school-system governance--are finally beginning tomake a difference.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
Princeton University Press
February 23, 2008
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Troublemaker by Chester E. Finn
Schoolkid in the Fifties
Through pastel lenses, many recall the Eisenhower era as the good old days of American education, when things were less complicated, frenetic, fractious, and fraught. Others, donning diff erent spectacles, deplore the injustices and complacency of that era.
Both are partly correct.
U.S. schools bulged in the 1950s as the postwar baby boom hit. K-12 enrollments soared from 25 to 36 million. Just building enough classrooms and hiring teachers to staff them was ample challenge.
America was also beginning to expect all its children to attend high school--and to scorn as "dropouts" those who failed to complete it. During the fifties, the ratio of high-school graduates to seventeen-year-olds in the U.S. population rose from .59 to .69, close to where it is today. College, too, was more widely sought and, thanks to the GI Bill and similar financial aid schemes, more widely aff ordable. Postsecondary enrollments ballooned from 2.3 million to more than 4 million, and upward of half a million degrees were awarded in 1960. (When my father graduated twenty years earlier, the number was 220,000.) In 1948, a presidential commission urged creation of an entirely new institutional form, the "community college," to offer more tertiary options to Americans, and hundreds of them opened in the fifties and sixties, alongside dozens more of full-fledged colleges (including former "normal schools") and state universities.
The public schools of the day were old-fashioned in many respects, not yet jarred by desegregation, big federal and state programs, or technology (though they had mimeograph machines, overhead projectors, and public address systems). Their classrooms were ruled by no- nonsense teachers, many of them fi fty-something Depression-era single women possessed of great ability and a solid education for whom this had been the best available career opportunity.
Once the classroom door was closed, it didn't much matter to the teacher what experts and critics were fussing about on the outside. Overhead, however, a philosophical air war raged between devotees of "progressive" or "pragmatic" ideas about curriculum and pedagogy, many of them followers of William Heard Kilpatrick, whose views held sway in colleges of education, and "essentialists" such as Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mortimer Smith, and Arthur Bestor, who founded the Council for Basic Education in 1956 to reclaim what Bestor termed America's "educational wastelands."4
On the ground below, most people attended neighborhood public schools. The biggest exception was Catholics, who were likely (and, said the Church, supposed) to attend parochial schools, staff ed primarily by unpaid members of religious orders and thus tuition-free or nearly so to parishioners. At their apogee in 1960, Catholic schools enrolled one youngster for every seven in the public schools. Today's ratio is about one to twenty.
Many wealthy families still pursued private (mainly "in de pendent") schooling for their daughters and sons, though this was more common in the older cities of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic than in the South or West. Burgeoning suburbs--Levittown dates to 1947--added options within the public sector. Towns like Bryn Mawr, Brookline, Winnetka, and Shaker Heights had long boasted "good" public schools, but when the population surge of the 1950s intersected with the increasing metropolitanization of American society, suburban school systems boomed as their communities offered green grass, fresh air, new housing, safety, and amenities.
Many Americans, however, still spent their lives in the towns where they were born, not infrequently working in their father's trade, often at a job--assembly line, agriculture, heavy labor--that didn't demand a great deal of formal education or elaborate training. Yet demographic upheavals were palpable--and not only the return of World War II veterans and the tsunami of babies. Family farms were starting their long fade, and rural America was losing population as opportunities centered in the city. Mobility crept into U.S. society as never before. Not least was the continuing movement of rural southern blacks northward to Detroit, Chicago, and other mighty municipalities of the industrial heartland-- and into their public schools, which were segregated by neighborhood if not by law.
The growth-oriented education scene of the 1950s was jarred by two major-league surprises. The more profound was the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision, outlawing de jure segregation in public schooling. Second was the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that signaled to Americans that the country's scientifi c edge was dulling.
Both events drew Washington deeper into education. As the federal judiciary reshaped the racial and institutional contours of public schooling in the aftermath of Brown, federal funds, federal attorneys, federal laws and policies, even federal troops made their way into K-12 education, and America's long-standing if not always honorable tradition of "local control" was threatened.
Though the first U.S. satellite went into space just four months later, Sputnik angst fostered the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, which sought via federal funds to strengthen training in math, science, and foreign languages. Most of the money went to universities, but some dollars sluiced into the K-12 system to purchase equipment, renovate classrooms, train teachers, and develop tests and guidance programs. With that revenue came new rules and restrictions.
For a while, America fretted that it had an education quality problem. The Pursuit of Excellence, an influential 1958 Rockefeller Brothers Fund report spearheaded by John W. Gardner, argued that the nation must earnestly strive to develop its human capital and that it could pursue excellence without forfeiting equality.
Even pre-Sputnik, Gardner's own Carnegie Corporation of New York had engaged former Harvard president James B. Conant to undertake a series of studies of K-12 education. The first of those, The American High School Today, appeared in 1959, urging wider propagation of "comprehensive" high schools featuring distinct "tracks" (college prep, vocational, etc.) for different types of students, who would be steered toward particu lar tracks according to their "aptitudes" and life plans. Far from equipping every young person with a broad, general education and thus spurring social mobility and equalizing opportunity, this view of the high school's mission would help boys and girls "adjust" to whatever hand fate had dealt them-- and keep them off the streets.
Historian Jeffrey Mirel explains that Depression-era joblessness and the accompanying influx of young people into school had fostered
a profoundly important shift in the nature and function of high schools. Increasingly, their task was custodial, to keep students out of the adult world (that is, out of the labor market) instead of preparing them for it. As a result, educators channeled increasing numbers of students into undemanding, nonacademic courses, while lowering standards in the academic courses that were required for graduation. . . . In 1928, nonacademic courses accounted for about 33 percent of the classes taken by U.S. high-school students; by 1961 that number had increased to 43 percent. . . . Despite the sharp decline in the share of academic course taking, indeed, because of this decline, education leaders in the 1940s and 1950s declared that signifi cant progress was being made toward equal opportunity for education. Pointing to growing high-school enrollments and graduation rates as evidence of the success of their policies, education leaders reiterated that getting diplomas in the hands of more students was far more egalitarian than having all students educated in discipline-based subject matter.5
A few Cassandras warned of catastrophe ahead. Perhaps the most articulate was Bestor, who said U.S. schools lacked serious content and rigor and neglected the core disciplines.6 Yet such criticism cut little ice with practitioners and policymakers. Their student numbers and graduation rates were soaring, and Conant's much-discussed report reassured them that their school models were working fine. His book, Mirel asserts, "eff ectively ended the debate about the quality of American high schools for the next two de cades."
Meanwhile, the country fared well enough. Despite the deepening Cold War (and, in Korea, a hot war), the economy was robust. The streets were peaceful. Eisenhower presided calmly. The education system seemed to be meeting the nation's needs.