Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik

Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik

Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik

Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik


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 to make a difference.


The education system that my much-adored granddaughter Emma entered in 2006 and will exit around 2025 is different from the one I began in 1950 and light-years from those commenced by my father in 1923 and my grandfather around 1896. Worse in some ways, better in others, it's undeniably an object of greater angst and agitation.

American schools have changed from within as educators introduced new ideas and nostrums and altered their priorities and practices, but they've changed far more from without, as a more demanding (and more egalitarian) society and quickening international economy placed new stresses on them and as parents, community leaders, public officials, philanthropists, and innumerable experts and blue-ribbon panels sought to reshape them. They also bear the imprint of shifting demographics and wider cultural and technological developments. The schools that Emma will attend, for example, will likely import some of their instruction electronically from curriculum providers across the country and teachers on the other side of the planet. She'll be able to log on to her lessons from home or the beach. She could live in Rome or Bangkok and “attend” the same school. I had no such options. Neither did my kids.

Yet technology is only the most obvious transformation. Two subtler but momentous developments in the policy sphere have also reverberated through U.S. education since I entered kindergarten at Fairview Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio.

First, Americans no longer take for granted that they will attend a district-operated public school in their neighborhood—and that their only real alternative is a private school that's hard to access if you aren't rich or Catholic. That's how it worked when I was a kid. Mostly you went where the system assigned you according to where you lived. For Emma's generation, however, K–12 education is a cornucopia of school options, and about one-third of U.S. children already study somewhere other than their local district school.

Second, while parents still tend to judge schools on obvious grounds— How big are the classes? How spiffy the building? How close to my commute? How many games did the basketball team win last season?—and educators are wont to gauge them by budgets, salaries, programs, and services . . .

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