Checker Finn: Ed Reform as the Faber College Pan-Hellenic Disciplinary Council

July 18, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Checker Finn wrote a read-worthy lament for the state of ed reform for Hoover. Read the whole thing but this paragraph in particular caught my attention:

Exacerbating the disagreements on those questions is the self-righteousness that seems to have swamped this field in recent years. Education has never been a mirth-filled realm, but when I first got into it a lot of participants could still smile, occasionally giggle, even tell the odd joke—and the chuckles were, often as not, bipartisan. Today, however, practically nobody seems to have a sense of humor, at least not about anything bearing on ed reform. Is it because of our unfunny national politics? Because social media and 24/7 news mean that even a short chortle can be turned by one’s foes into evidence that one is making light of something? I’m not sure about the cause, but I can attest that it’s hard to make common cause with people who can never share a spoof or jest.

Practically nobody?!? It is alas a lonely task, but we continue to hold this last, best outpost of making light of things in ed reform-especially the deeply misguided and doomed to fail yet uhhh-gain sorts of things. We have been spoofing and jesting here at JPGB non-stop since 2008 and ed reform continues to provide plenty of material.

Checker makes an important point-social justice warriors make for poor dinner guests. It reminds me of this Charlie Rose debate about the 1960s when Barbara Ehrenreich droned on sternly while PJ O’Rourke’s related that his fondest 1960s memories involved LSD and picking up hippie women at protests.

Lighten up, Francis-we may as well keep a good sense of humor during what constitutes a protracted process of figuring things out.

There Just Might Be Hope for this Marriage After All

April 1, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Sensible clarification from Checker and Mike on transparency in choice programs.

It is however April Fools Day…hmmm…

Stand down Mr. Worf, but remain vigilant.

Hemisphere Fallacy Sighting

October 21, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In a new Flypaper post, Checker and Mike argue that the federal government takeover of schools implementation of common standards can follow one of three paths:

1.      “Let’s Become More Like France.” Here, we picture a powerful governing board—probably via a new compact among participating states—to oversee the standards, assessments, and many aspects of implementation, validation, and more.

2.       “Don’t Rock the Boat.” We keep the Common Core footprint as small as possible. An existing group is charged with updating the standards when the time comes, but everything else stays with states, districts, and the market.

3.      “One Foot before the Other.” This middle ground foresees an interim coordinating body that promotes information sharing, capacity building, and joint-venturing among participating states. By the time the Common Core needs revising, this interim body may evolve into something more permanent or may recommend a long-term governance plan.

In other words, our options are:

  1. Too big, strong, and heavy handed.
  2. Too weak, limited and complacent.
  3. Just right!

Guess which one they favor. No hints!

JPGB readers will recognize Fordham’s longstanding addiction to the hemisphere fallacy – making themselves look good by oversimplifying the landscape into two extreme errors held by the extreme extremists on either side of them, and the reasonable middle ground occupied by reasonable middle grounders like themselves.

Some people say the earth is flat and others say it’s round, so the reasonable middle ground is to say it’s a hemisphere.

Personally, I’d rephrase those three Fordham options as follows:

  1. So big and bold that the federal government takeover of schools becomes obvious, provoking an inevitable backlash from Americans who have repeatedly made it clear they don’t want any such thing.
  2. So weak and limited that the federal government won’t actually be able to take over the schools.
  3. Just strong enough to hand all schools over to federal control, but not so strong that the handover becomes obvious.

While we’re on the subject, Neal McCluskey notices something interesting in the new Fordham report:

All that said, there is one, small part of the report that I find quite satisfying. A few months ago, Fordham President Chester Finn called people like me and Jay Greene “paranoid” for arguing that national standards would be hollowed out by politics. Well, in the report, while it is not explicitly identified as such, you will find what I am going to take as an apology (not to mention a welcome admission):

How will this Common Core effort be governed over the long term?…This issue might seem esoteric, almost philosophical in light of the staggering amount of work to be done right now to make the standards real and the assessments viable. But we find it essential—not just for the long-term health of the enterprise, but also to allay immediate concerns that these standards might be co-opted by any of the many factions that want to impose their dubious ideas on American education. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to worry about this possibility [italics added]…

No, you don’t.

I’m not sure I would take it as an apology. If Checker wanted to apologize, he would. But he hasn’t.

Which leads me to wonder why he’s suddenly so anxious to make sure there’s something out there in print that shows him expressing exactly the same doubts we do. Something he could point to later, perhaps?

Checker’s Selective Memory

October 14, 2010


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Checker just published a column on the incompetence of government. It’s a little bit weird; there’s not much connection to education policy here, and the piece doesn’t reach any conclusions or advocate any new policies. He just complains that government is really incompetent.


To which one can only reply: You’re just discovering this now?

Or is this one of those things like a coworker’s extension number, or your brother’s ZIP code – something you don’t need to know all the time, so you periodically remember it and forget it, remember it again and forget it again?

Like, say, you might remember it when conservatives are doing well in Washington, then forget it when liberals are doing well in Washington, and suddenly remember it again just before a wave election brings the conservatives back?

Arguing the Merits

August 11, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last week I noted that Fordham had offered up the Gadfly as a platform for an argument, made by guest columnist Eugenia Kemble, that the next logical step after establishing national standards is a single national curriculum.

Well, my post has drawn a sharp response from Kemble. Of course, she disagrees with me on the substance (the merits of a national curriculum and the badness of teachers’ unions) but that goes without saying. More interestingly, she accuses me of not addressing her argument on the merits, but only being concerned with the significance of her piece having appeared in the Gadfly. The indictment has two counts. First, she accuses me of not offering an argument for my position that “common” standards adopted by the states are really “federal” standards (i.e. controlled by the federal government.) Second, she accuses me of practicing “guilt by association” by insinuating that if Checker publishes a union piece, he must embrace the entire union agenda.

To the second count I plead not guilty. I didn’t insinuate that Checker agrees with the unions about everything. I insinuated that his position in favor of national standards was having the effect – whether intended or not – of advancing the unions’ agenda in one respect. And that the appearance of Kemble’s piece in the Gadfly clearly demonstrates that those of us who have been saying this all along were right. And I stand by that insinuation.

But to the first count I plead guilty as sin. I did not address the merits of Kemble’s claim that it is possible – not just in some hypothetical cloudcoocooland but in the real world, right now, in the actual political climate as it stands now and under all the other conditions that currently prevail – to have “common” standards nationwide (thus “national” standards) that are not controlled by the federal government. On the merits of this claim I said nothing at all.

Here are some other claims whose merits I have never addressed:

  • The existence of the tooth fairy
  • The medical effectiveness of aromatherapy
  • The flatness of the earth (oh, wait)

Even Checker admits that national standards have been “entangled in a competition for federal money,” that it’s bad that “that same federal money [is] paying for development of new assessment systems to accompany the standards,” and that “it would have been lots better if President Obama had never hinted at harnessing national standards to future Title I funding.”

As Matt aptly put it: other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

But never mind. My real point was to highlight the fact that Checker has spent weeks calling us “paranoid” because we thought national standards would become the first step toward greater national control of schools, especially by unions; then offered up the Gadfly to a union blogger as a platform to argue that national standards should become the first step toward greater national control of schools.

Does Fordham Support a National Curriculum?

August 5, 2010


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

For weeks, Checker has been calling us “paranoid” for worrying that the national standards machine Fordham has helped create will be hijacked by the teacher unions.

Today, there lands in my inbox the new Gadfly from Fordham, featuring a guest editorial by Eugenia Kemble of the Shanker Institute. Kemble’s argument, in a nutshell: Now that we have national standards, the next thing we need is a national curriculum. That way we don’t just ensure that all schools set outcome targets and measurements in the one best way that’s right for everyone regardless of their individual needs; all schools will do everything in the one best way that’s right for everyone regardless of their individual needs. And we’ll have a benevolent dictator who will make sure that everyone will do everything in the one best way, and who will never abuse that power.

I paraphrase.

On Kemble’s list of the heroic, wonderful people she admires who have been pushing not just for national standards but a national curriclum are Bill Schmidt and Randi Weingarten at the AFT; teacher union shill Diane Ravitch; and . . . Checker Finn.

Inquiring minds want to know:

  1. Does the Fordham Foundation support a national curriculum?
  2. Given that Fordham is offering up the Gadfly as a platform from which Kemble can advocate using national standards as the first step toward broader federal control of schools, does the Fordham Foundation still consider it “paranoid” to be worried that national standards will be used as a first step toward broader federal control of schools?

I’ll hold my breath and wait for Checker to give us a clear, unambiguous answer.

Checker Finn, FREAK OF NATURE!

July 30, 2010


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Yet you can count the voucher programs on your fingers.

Wow! Checker Finn has TWENTY-FIVE FINGERS!

(P.S. Congrats to FEC on the rockin’ new website.)

[Update: Just realized I should have added a link to Matt’s outstanding demolition of Checker, below.]

Checker Says RELAX!

July 29, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Checker Finn wrote a response to the eight or so of us incurable skeptics of  Common Core Standards.  I will address a few points. Checker wrote:

Yes, it would have been better if the voluntary move by states to develop and consider adopting common standards hadn’t been entangled in a competition for federal money. Yes, it would be better if more of that same federal money weren’t paying for development of new assessment systems to accompany the standards. Yes, it would have been lots better if President Obama had never hinted at harnessing national standards to future Title I funding. Yes, the long-term governance of the standards and tests remains to be worked out.

But good grief, folks, do you really want to preserve the meager academic expectations, crummy tests, and weak-kneed accountability arrangements that currently drive—or fail to drive—K-12 education across most of this broad land? Are you so risk averse and change resistant as to see no merit in trying to do this differently in the future?

So other than that, how did you like the play Mrs. Lincoln? The final point about long-term governance alone is more than enough to reject Common Core.  Checker quickly moves the discussion straight into a straw-man argument. Do I want to preserve a status quo of meager standards?  No thank you. Good standards and tests are a vital part of a comprehensive reform package. 

No one who supports Common Core can seem to muster anything better than a “yeah, we’ll figure that out later” on long-term governance. Let’s just say that I’d happily bet my left big toe that Common Core has already reserved a final resting place in the failed education fad graveyard.  This has all happened before, and it will all happen again. Tick tock.

Checker goes on to very odd paragraph:

Third, much as I wish otherwise, conservatives’ preferred alternative ed ucation-reform strategies haven’t gained the traction or scale that advocates (myself included) hoped for, nor have they delivered reliably better academic results. Yes, the principle has largely been accepted that kids need not necessarily attend the district school in their neighborhood. Yet you can count the voucher programs on your fingers. And charter-school enrollments, while respectably up, don’t amount to more than 3 percent of all kids. The parent marketplace isn’t causing bad schools to close. (Only Catholic schools, many of them fine, seem to be closing.) One can keep beating this drum—and you’ll find more and more people snapping their fingers in time with the beat—but, mostly for political reasons that aren’t going away, it hasn’t produced a lot of marching.

Oi vey- again with the magic bullet straw man. Let’s get this straight once and for all: within real world political constraints parental choice programs are not a panacea to the ills of public education. Neither is anything else.  Let’s all pull up our big boy pants and have everyone admit there are no magic bullets in K-12

It is not the case however that a reform needs to either be a cure-all, or we don’t do it at all. By that logic, Massachusetts should abolish all student testing because there are still illiterate children in Boston. Florida may as well abolish their reforms too- after all, 27% of 4th graders still score Below Basic in reading!

Parental choice programs have been demonstrated to have positive academic effects on participants, and positive impacts on district schools.  So far as I know, no one else has come up with another decentralized system of accountability that allows parents to hold schools directly accountable. Please let me know when someone does- and sign me up. Until then, it is worth bearing in mind that no system of schooling will ever be as effective as it could be in the absence of parental choice. Top down command and control efforts have their limits. Comprehensive approaches are the way to go- and the one state that has tried it succeeded in vastly improving student learning.

Checker is frustrated with the trench warfare pace of the battle for parental choice. So am I, but let’s not lose sight of what has been accomplished. Nationwide, 25 percent of students attend schools other than their zoned district school. Figure at least that many parents have exercised “check-book choice” by paying a premium for housing in neighborhoods with desirable district schools. I’d guess it is more than that, but it would be just that, a guess. Half down, half to go. Don’t give up yet, Checker. 

In any case, none of this discussion about choice this has anything to do with whether states should adopt Common Core. Back on task, Checker writes:

So yes, I’ve partly changed my mind about national standards and tests. I’m mindful of the risks and unknowns that lie ahead. I’m not totally satisfied with the Common Core. (Our raters gave it honors grades but not straight As). It troubles me that we’re so narrowly focused on just two subjects within the school curriculum. I’ve no idea what “cut scores” will be established for the forthcoming tests nor whether colleges and employers will take them seriously. I’m alarmed that one of the new assessment consortia doesn’t seem serious about accountability. I’m wary of what Congress will do to the Common Core when it finally gets around to reauthorizing NCLB. I’m nervous about the administration’s political backbone as electoral stakes rise. I’m skeptical about the stick-to-it-iveness of states that pledge their troth to Common Core but are rejected at the Race to the Top altar. (This may get clear fast. On Tuesday, a dozen states that had already adopted the new standards—more than one third of all adopters—were omitted from Secretary Duncan’s list of RTT finalists.)

Right, now we are getting somewhere. Checker forgot to mention that no one has any assurance whatsoever about the maintenance of the standards and tests, if they are any good to start with,  which is in doubt.

But what’s the point of just fretting and biting my nails and issuing cries of alarum? The education status quo sucks, to put it bluntly. Conserving it is no fit work for conservatives. In most of the country, they—we—should demand something better.

I certainly can’t speak for all Common Core skeptics, but “conserving the status-quo” is not my cup of K-12 tea. I completely agree that the status-quo sucks out loud. That doesn’t mean I should support something as poorly thought out as Common Core.

My state (Arizona) received pretty good grades for standards from Fordham, but it is painfully obvious that nothing about the status-quo of testing has been driving improvement. Our state has 44% of 4th graders who can’t read according to NAEP, and 4% of schools labeled underperforming by the Arizona Department of Education.

Arizona’s system, in short, devolved into a cruel joke on kids.

So what did we do?  Rather than dreaming about some implausible federal “solution” we fought back. We talked to our policymakers. Our governor called for Arizona to adopt the Florida method for grading schools based upon a combination of overall scores and student learning gains. Our legislature adopted the law with a bipartisan majority.  There will be attempts to water this down. The fight goes on.

If Arizona adopts the Common Core standards, and they turn out to be unteachable mush, how do I seek redress? I know who to talk to here in Arizona.  I get to vote for these people. Why should I want academic standards for my children drawn up by some faceless body of alleged grandees?  Churchill’s had it right when he said that democracy is the worst form of government ever devised, except for all the other ones.

In 2005, Esquire ran an article about Donald Rumsfeld called “An Old Man in a Hurry.”  As the United States continued to wallow in a full-blown Iraqi insurgency for which it had failed to prepare, the title of this piece became increasingly ironic. The title derived from an old English expression “Beware of an old man in a hurry.”

Checker isn’t old in my book, but is a highly respected veteran of the school reform movement. He’s earned the stars on his shoulder, and my admiration. He has an insightful intelligence and a knack for quickly getting to the heart of things. He may have forgotten more about K-12 policy than I’ll ever know. 

Passion however can lead to impatience, impatience can lead to recklessness, and recklessness leads to suffering. David Petraeus ought not to have been forced to write the United States Army Counterinsurgency Manual on the field in Iraq in 2006. ( Hundreds of thousands of people in the military, but no one had time to write one before. Hmmm.) Likewise, Donald Rumsfeld ought not to have invaded Iraq without an occupation plan. 

“Relax, don’t worry, be happy, we’ll figure out that stuff later” is an opening verse to a song that often ends in disaster. Rushing to adopt academic standards without so much as a reassuring fairy-tale of how they will be maintained over time is reckless.

Conservatism isn’t exclusively about preserving the status-quo. It also involves caution and a healthy respect for the law of unintended consequences.  Rummy forgot this and it seems to come and go with Checker, sometimes within the span of a single essay. Checker circa 1997 seemed to have it figured out, Checker circa 2010 seems to have thrown caution to the wind.

Checker Finn Comes Out Against National Standards and Assessments

July 26, 2010

As Neal McCluskey revealed (and Greg highlighted), Checker made an excellent case against national standards… in 1997.  The Weekly Standard has now allowed non-subscribers to link to the piece, so everyone can read it for him or herself.

Many of Checker’s arguments against national standards and assessments  back in 1997 are remarkably similar to those of current critics.

Here’s the money quote:

… anything so sensitive as these tests must be run at arm’s length from the government and education-establishment tar babies. It also seemed that Congress should have something to say about the arrangements for so momentous a shift in American educational federalism….

As often in education-reform efforts, the procedure has been hijacked by the tar babies. The hijacking takes the form of contracts that are already being signed with neither congressional approval nor independent oversight.

The main contract so far is with the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop test specifications. “The chiefs,” as they’re known in educator- land, are the Washington-based association of state superintendents, and they form one of the establishment’s most change-averse crews. The chief of the chiefs, Gordon Ambach, is a former New York state commissioner of education, staunch advocate of a larger federal role in education — a key backer of Goals 2000, for example — and a veteran federal grant-getter. He and his group have an ancient and cozy relationship with the Education Department and can be counted on to do its bidding, down to such particulars as Spanish- language math tests and other worrisome wrinkles in the Clinton plan.

The current national standards and assessment craze has similarly not been authorized by Congress and is being spear-headed by the very same Council of Chief State School Officers that Checker denounced as “one of the establishment’s most change-averse crews.”

It’s hard to see what about the current national standards push is fundamentally different to justify Checker’s change of mind.  I suppose people are entitled to change their views, but when they do so without being able to articulate the reasons for the change we might have to worry about how much we would trust their policy opinion.

Why was Congressional support essential then but not now?  Why was the Council of Chief State School Officers unreliable back then but wonderful now?

Forget “Who’s Fickle?” Who’s Paranoid?

July 26, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Earlier this year, Checker Finn went through a brief period where he was tying himself in knots, sounding a whole lot like he was both for national standards and against them. Mike Petrilli chose that moment to take potshots at Arne Duncan for being “Fickle on Federalism.” I had a little fun asking “Who’s Fickle?

Since then, Checker has finally decided where he stands (at least for now). He’s accused those of us who ask embarrassing questions about whether national standards will be hijacked by the blog blob of “paranoia.”

[Update: Hijacked by the “blob,” of course. This was totally not a Freudian slip. The blog doesn’t hijack anything – as far as you know. Nothing to see here, folks…]

Well, the game just changed. Neal McCluskey has dug up a 1997 Weekly Standard article in which Checker makes the same arguments against national standards we are now making. None of the relevant facts on the ground has changed. So today I get to ask, “Who’s Paranoid?”

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