Jack Jennings and a half-century of school reform

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Federal legislation rarely gets the desired result in education. Photo by Justin Baeder.

Jack Jennings started working on federal education policy in
December 1967, about eighteen months before I did. He's never stopped—and few
have wielded greater influence. For the past seventeen years (a history that
roughly parallels Fordham's), he's led a small but influential Washington-based
ed-policy think tank called the Center on Education Policy (CEP). He's now
retiring from that role and, as he exits, the Center has brought out two
publications. One is a nicely crafted (and very flattering) profile of CEP
, as well as Jack and his work there, written by veteran ed-writer
Anne Lewis. The other is Jack's own ten-page
on recent education reforms, what has and hasn't worked, and
what, in his view, the future ought to hold, particularly at the federal level.

It's vintage Jennings, perceptive about both what has
happened and why and how it has (and hasn’t) worked, then incurably and
relentlessly over-ambitious—in a classic, big-government, big-spending, liberal
sort of way—about what federal policy should do tomorrow.

As to the past, and oversimplifying some points that he
makes more subtly,

  • Equity-based reform didn't get very far because
    it amounted to add-on programs, suffered from limited funding, and failed to
    "generally improve the broader educational system."
  • School choice pleases parents but doesn't raise
    achievement much, "an interesting case of convictions trumping
  • Standards-based reform has had more traction but
    has "gone astray": too much testing, too much labeling, not enough
    real alteration in the quality of what's taught and learned.

None of that is wrong. But his prescription for the future
comes across as wishful thinking even if you’re disposed to agree with it. (I’m
not.) Jennings favors a federal law declaring that "no child in the United
States will be denied equal educational opportunity in elementary and secondary
education through the lack of a challenging curriculum, well-prepared and
effective teachers, and the funding to pay for that education."

This would, of course, have the effect of transferring the
responsibility for educating (and financing the education of) 55 million kids
to Washington. I guess one might term this a "governance reform" but
I don't think it's going to happen or that it would work well if it did. (Jack
has done just about everything during the course of his long career EXCEPT work
in the executive branch. If he had, he might harbor fewer illusions about its
capacity in the realm of education.)

It's notable, too, that he continues after all these years
to put his faith in Uncle Sam to fix what ails American education. There's no
mention here of changes in the delivery system (e.g. technology), the system’s efficiency/productivity,
or its structures and governance (except as noted above). He also downplays the
value of "outsiders" (e.g. governors, mayors) as agents of change in
K-12 education.

It is said that if your only tool is a
hammer, everything looks like a nail. Much as I respect and admire Jack
Jennings, in spite of all his experience in this field his main tool remains
federal legislation, which I've come to believe is almost always wielded
clumsily in pursuit of nails that either won’t budge at all or end up bent.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute