Chester Finn, Jr. has been a “troublemaker” all his life, so much so that he chose the term as the title for his own memoir.
Finn is still making trouble as a supporter of Common Core.
Called “Checker” by those who know him, Finn has been an indefatigable warrior for education reform for some 50 years. Working on both sides of the political divide, Finn began his career as a lieutenant to Democratic sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom he followed to the Nixon White House, to India during Moynihan’s ambassadorship there, and finally to the U.S. Senate where he worked as a legislative director.
After departing from Moynihan’s service, and distressed at an increased leftward tilt in the Democratic Party, Finn began to work primarily on the political right, serving as an Assistant Secretary of Education to Ronald Reagan and taking up posts at the right-leaning Hudson Institute and Hoover Institution think tanks.
Today, Finn is the president of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute, a think tank focused in particular on education reform.
Despite the shift, Finn prefers to avoid the label “conservative,” in part because there is little he seeks to conserve in America’s schools.
“Conservatives by definition are supposed to want to keep things the way they are, or were…and I don’t want any of those things in education,” Finn told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I think the whole enterprise needs a thorough shake-up, and I think that’s a radical idea, not a conservative one.”
Finn has spent decades working to battle what he dubs “the blob,” the mass of entrenched interests such as teachers unions and school administrators who work to block most aggressive reform efforts in education. Finn was among the earliest and strongest advocates for charter schools, vouchers, and other means for increasing school choice while undermining “the blob.”
Another success in Finn’s career, and the one he regards as his paramount achievement, has been a major increase in the use of standardized assessments to compare the progress of students across the country.
Decades ago, Finn says, schools could smugly rest on their laurels while concealing widespread failure among the student body. During eight years on the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the multi-state NAEP tests, Finn worked to both broaden the scope of the tests while increasing their data granularity, allowing state educational results to be directly compared for the first time.
NAEP’s exposure of persistent mediocrity or outright failure throughout the United States has helped to drive further reform pushes up to the present day.
Despite his sterling credentials as a reformer who is the bane of entrenched interests such as teachers unions, Finn has recently opened a rift with many on the right on an issue that has grabbed all the headlines in K-12 policy for the last year: Common Core.
These new standards aspire to create common expectations for what every American schoolchild will learn in math and English for each grade, with the goal of having high school graduates ready to immediately begin college without requiring remedial coursework.
While Common Core was created through the combined efforts of several non-profits as well as the National Governors Association, its national aspirations have led critics to describe Common Core as an effort to centralize and nationalize education, at the expense of local control.
Finn, however, is a confessed “cheerleader” for Common Core who views it as a natural outgrowth of the reforms he has pushed for so long. Shared goals for each particular grade, he says, are a natural step towards the goal of greater accountability for schools that could otherwise use distinct standards to conceal poor performance.
“There is just no reason at all, even while states are in charge of education, why a sixth grade math class in Portland, Maine, and a sixth grade math class in Portland, Oregon should be following fundamentally different curricula,” Finn argued. Accountability is further increased by the fact that Common Core represents a robust set of standards in its own right.
“States mostly, on their own, set lousy standards,” Finn said, citing ratings the Fordham Institute has given state standards in the past. While his organization doesn’t rate Common Core perfectly (math standards score an A-, English standards a B+), Finn says they are better than the vast majority of state standards and not significantly behind those of any particular state.
“Nobody is saying it’s perfect…but would you rather use B-plus standards or D-minus standards for your schools?” he said, adding that nothing prevents states from tweaking the standards to shore up any holes that are observed. “These are not the Ten Commandments. You can have an Eleventh Commandment of your own devising.”
While critics assert that Common Core represents an insidious effort to nationalize education, Finn also maintains that common national standards are a “liberating” development that actually allow for greater decentralization and local control. Currently, he says, state and federal government heavily regulate inputs (teacher certification, textbooks, etc.) while not seeking any explicit end results, such as mastery of certain skills by the end of certain grades. This approach is precisely backwards, he says, and embracing standard outputs in the form of Common Core will enable far more liberty on the input end.
“You, the school, can pick your own staff, you can pick your own textbooks, you can pick your own hours of the day, you can tailor yourself in whatever way you think is best to get your students to the destination,” he said. Similarly, the use of common metrics would empower school choice by providing parents with the most accurate possible metrics for comparing different education options.
“[Common standards] foster local control of everything that’s important.”
Despite his support, Finn is also quick to say that he views mere standards such as Common Core as a rather small piece of the education puzzle.
“Standards don’t matter very much,” Finn said. “I could say ‘Gosh, I’d love to go to Rome this summer.’ That’s a lovely aspiration, but if I don’t have a plane ticket and few nickels to rub together…it’s just a pipe dream. The standards just describe a destination.” While the destination is valuable, it takes years if not decades of sustained improvement efforts to translate high standards into genuine success.
Finn says that the snowballing backlash to Common Core is at least as much about pure politics as it is about education policy. He accuses President Obama of trying to “take credit” for Common Core after having the Department of Education link billions of dollars in Race to the Top grants with the adoption of the Core. What was once a quiet reform effort has ballooned into a grassroots cause célèbre for conservatives who fear government overreach.
“It’s a mountain out of a molehill,” Finn said. “If the Obama administration had not put money on the table, this would have been treated as a quiet experiment that some states were gonna do, and some states weren’t, and we’d see whether the ones that did it did better.”
While he says much of the backlash does amount to “knee-jerk anti-Obamaism,” Finn isn’t particularly upset that Obama’s association is leading some states to back out of Common Core, and he expresses little alarm that the standards might fall apart now that several states such as Indiana and Oklahoma have begun to pull out. If anything, he says, their departure could improve the Core by preventing it from being sullied by states not fully committed to reform.
“I’m much more worried about fake adherence to the Common Core, lip service, than I am about political pushback,” he said. “I would far rather go back to the 20-some states that I think would have done it anyway, because they wanted to, rather than have 45 that were bribed into this with Race to the Top money.”
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