Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik
February 12, 2008
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Princeton University Press
Chester E. Finn, Jr. found he didn't want to make a career out of teaching when he left Harvard. A year teaching at Newton High School in Massachusetts was enough to reveal teaching just wasn't for him, so Finn did the next best thing and became an education policy expert.
Finn, the president-and the original gadfly-of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has been out and about in Washington, D.C.'s political and education circles for more than 40 years, rubbing elbows both the right way and often the wrong but always educating.
He pours some of that acquired insight and reflection into his new book, Troublemaker: a Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik, describing not only the history of American education policy over the last 50 years but quite a bit of his own education.
Newton High, Finn said, convinced him that teaching was tough, underappreciated, and that there were serious things going wrong with American education since his days in the public schools of Dayton, Ohio. He also learned that, to make a difference, he would have to get out of the classroom, a move that pushed him into graduate school at Harvard and into the arms of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Moynihan helped shape Finn's early ideas on education and social policy and also was responsible for getting him to the nation's capital, where he began his intimate view of every national education endeavor America has launched from racial integration through testing and standards to charters and choice.
What makes this book different and much more interesting than most policy retrospectives is its autobiographical nature. Insights from Finn's personal history help illuminate his years as a Moynihan aide and as a presidential assistant to Richard Nixon. As an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration he saw the possibilities for change and also a desire by administration officials not to rock the boat. He also shares insights into his gradual shift from Democrat to Neocon before most people really knew what one was, although these days he's not real excited about the Republican Party.
Each turn in the road brought new views and Finn shares them. There's enough Checker Finn in this book for both his friends and his foes. But despite his crankiness at times, Finn's tour of the last half century serves up hope, of which America and its education system are in dire need.
For Checker Finn's own reflections on his book, see here.