FAREWELL--AND HELLO AGAIN
(Finn's Last Stand)


By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Network News & Views
December 1996

As readers know, this is the final issue of Network News & Views. It also marks the Phoenix-like rebirth of the Educational Excellence Network under a very different arrangement. Let me try to explain, and along the way perhaps shed a bit of light on our history, too.

Fifteen years ago this autumn, Diane Ravitch and I found ourselves on the faculties of education of two major universities: Diane at Columbia's Teachers College, I at Vanderbilt's George Peabody College. And we found these lonely places indeed for people who believed in things like standards, content, basics, accountability and choices.

We knew one another only moderately well at the time, mostly through mutual ties with Senator Pat Moynihan, but recognized that we shared a similar diagnosis of what ailed American education and what principles should guide its renewal--and that few of our faculty colleagues agreed with us. (This, mind you, was still two years before the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared the nation to be "at risk.")

Surely, we said, there must be at least a few other scholars and analysts who see the education world as we do and might benefit from some sort of loose-knit "network" that would foster communications, exchange information, ideas and research findings, and also offer a touch of what psychologists might term a "support group."

So Diane hosted a meeting at Teachers College and the dozen or so people who assembled there judged that this was indeed worth trying to put together. A couple of private foundations--notably John M. Olin and Andrew Mellon--wrote modest checks to help launch our somewhat vaguely-defined venture, and off we went.

The Network was never a corporate entity. It always functioned under the roof of an existing non-profit organization, over the years including Vanderbilt, Teachers College and--recently--Hudson Institute.

At its heart, the Network was a group of individuals--scholars, practitioners, policy-makers, business leaders, parents--who shared a similar set of beliefs about education. In common parlance, these are often termed "conservative," but in the context of American education in recent decades it is more accurate to term them "radical."

The Network has always had such a credo and was never shy about stating it or timid about making organizational decisions--what books to praise, what articles to put in this monthly compilation, what organizations to join with, what projects to undertake--according to that credo.

The credo, however, evolved as experience gave us greater hope for some reform strategies and less confidence in others. The unvarying constant has been our commitment to high academic standards; this was the overriding concern at the original meeting at Teachers College, and focused the Network's attention through most of its first decade.

Standards (and good teaching, sound tests, results-based accountability) remain high on our agenda of fundamental changes needed by U.S. education. We've come to understand, however, that standards cannot successfully install themselves within U.S. public education and that people who believe in standards do not have enough leverage to make the system embrace them, no matter how many trees are felled and bills passed in the name of "systemic" reform. It's simply a fact that monopolies seldom create serious standards; they tend to serve the interests of their constituent parts more than those of their helpless clients and consumers; and of course they are can slough off all forms of accountability so long as their monopoly remains intact and they need not compete with anyone for anything.

Reflecting on the snail-like movement of standards into American schools, we came to understand that K-12 education in the United States must also be "reinvented," not as a substitute for standards (as some choice advocates would have it) but as the essential prerequisite for standards to have a chance to make a difference. Thus we have come to believe strongly in school choice--and choices--not as an end in itself (though it's certainly compatible with democracy and freedom) but as the only way of breaking down the walls that keep excellence out, people (especially low-income and minority people) in, and the old standards-averse system in place. (We really do see similarities to eastern Europe while the Berlin Wall stood.) Thus our strong commitment to what we have come to call the "reinvention paradigm," a mix of diverse organizational options (including charter schools, contract-management and low-income scholarships) that allow real choices to flourish, real competition to operate and real consumer empowerment to occur.

Most Network members and NNV subscribers appear to share that evolving credo. Some do not. But our lists have always been open to anyone wanting to join--and willing to cough up a few dollars--and we always hoped that those who did not share our purposes might, through their membership, learn enough to change their minds.

At its high water mark, the Network's membership rolls numbered about 2000. But big numbers were never our goal. Rather, the Network has believed in the power of sound ideas, well expressed, to shape the national education debate, and in the ability of able and energized leaders to shape education policy and practice. That remains true today.

Though some members viewed the Network as synonymous with this publication, it has always had other significant elements, too. For example, it has continued to serve as a "support" group for, and information exchange among, people, often still isolated and lonely in their town or school or university, who believe in its credo. Our mail, e-mail, phones and faxes are often jammed with such communications. Our Web-site, a recent innovation, has been a big hit.

This "network" of people, in turn, has been a resource for others seeking expertise or advice: legislative committees, grant-makers, conference organizers, journalists and others whom we have been able to match up with individual Network members.

And of course the Network has served as an umbrella under which many focused projects took shelter from the elements. These included research studies, books, commissions, conferences, international meetings, annual report cards, and on down the list. A full tally of projects and activities that have enjoyed Network sponsorship or auspices over the past 15 years might surprise you with its length, quality and impact. They include our own works, of course, such as What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, but also books that grew out of Network-launched projects (such as The Democracy Reader and a USIA guide to teaching democracy) and other works, such as E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, that trace their roots at least in part to Network-sponsored events.

Then, of course, there is this journal, News & Views, which has gone through several formats and editors over the past 15 years. It began as a simply-Xeroxed, rather sporadic "clipping service." It has obviously grown better organized, more professional, more regular and more durably produced. It's also come to be appreciated as much for its original contributions--Netnotes, essays, etc.--as well as for well-chosen reprints. These have faithfully tracked certain issues and topics, of course, but have also ranged widely, both in the ideas (and occasional follies) that they have relayed and in the range of sources from which they're borrowed--often thanks to Network members sending in items from publications that we might not otherwise see.

News & Views is cherished by many Network members, but it's been overtaken by modern technology, by rising costs and by a major organizational evolution. To summarize the last of these, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has decided to devote itself to education reform consistent with the Network's credo and has asked me to serve as its president. (Diane Ravitch is one of the Foundation's trustees.) This will become my primary work and will subsume some activities long-associated with the Network. (Our Web-site, for example, will now become a joint venture of the Network, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and Hudson Institute.) The Foundation will also launch a number of projects, activities and products of its own, and will endeavor to distribute the fruits of these to key people in the education world, including former Network members. It is likely that the Foundation's products will, in time, include some kind of clipping service or compilation of worthwhile articles. But the Network will no longer be a "membership organization." It will be more like a set of projects and activities initiated and supported by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

The Network lives on, of course, in our hearts and minds and spirits. Its credo, undimmed--and many would say slowly triumphing--lives on in the Foundation's mandate. Its members will continue to avail themselves of Network-related services such as the Web-site and many will join the Foundation's lists as well. The substantive work that we do--the projects, the studies, the articles and books--won't be much different if at all. The names of the staff will be familiar. The Hudson Institute link continues, too, not least because the Foundation will be housed, at least for now, within Hudson's Washington office.

We have enjoyed and benefited from our association with you. We have valued your membership. We, too, will miss News & Views. But some things change while others remain the same and still others begin. We hope you will want to stay in touch. You can, henceforth, find us at

 

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