Interview With Chester Finn: September 2010

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Chester Finn

By Garry Boulard

As the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Chester Finn is one of the country’s most respected education policy analysts. He is also a man who, notes the Economist, has “spent most of his adult life trying to improve America’s education system.”

Because of his years of service and expertise—he was also an assistant secretary of Education under President Reagan—Finn’s views on the common core standards movement have been greatly anticipated by education leaders both in Washington and across the country.

This summer Fordham released a study both comparing the standards-of-learning in all 50 states and the District of Columbia with the proposed common core standards, while also grading the common core standards for their own merit. The result: the common core standards got an A- in mathematics and a B+ in the English language arts.

Finn says the report should be looked at as a sign that the common core standards movement is on the right track. But he cautions that a lot of work remains to be done, and that the standards could still fall short if the states fail to fully embrace them.

STATE LEGISLATURES: What is your take thus far on the Common Core Standards movement?

CHESTER FINN: The movement has been vindicated by the standards themselves, which are better than we ever would have imagined in terms of their rigor, their quality and their content. My view and Fordham’s view for a long time now has been that common standards for the United States would only be a good thing in the 21st century if the standards are any good. But they would not be a good thing if the standards were sleazy or low or weak or politically correct or in other ways inferior.
According to our analysis, the common core standards are clearly better than about two-thirds of the state standards that have been in use across the country. And in almost all of the other cases, they are neck and neck.

So our view basically is that there are a lot of places where kids would be better off if their schools were shooting for these standards, rather than the ones that their states have set on their own.

But let me hasten to add, standards themselves don’t cause anybody to learn anything. The standards are the beginning of a complex journey; they merely describe the destination for the journey. They don’t put fuel in the car, or align the wheels or even know what roads to take.

We have a bunch of places that have had pretty good standards over the years, but have done a dreadful job of implementing them, and their kids haven’t benefitted from them. So having good standards doesn’t accomplish much, but it is better to have a good destination than a bad one.

SL: Some critics of the common core standards have compared the movement to the No Child Left Behind legislation. Are they onto something—or comparing apples and oranges?

FINN: It’s more like apples and cumquats. NCLB was an act of Congress and was more or less mandatory for the whole country. These standards are a product of the states voluntarily coming together, and most of them, not all, came together for this process. The states don’t have to participate in the standards or in the assessments that are going to follow. And a number of states have said they won’t, and others haven’t made up their minds yet.

It is not without federal entanglement. Let’s be honest about that. The Race to the Top money has certainly become a factor in the decisions of a number of states as to whether or not to embrace the common core standards.

But this is not the federal government imposing standards on the country. And if it were to be that, I would be one of those that would have very serious misgivings.
I know some legislators feel left out of the process, which was largely determined by governors and state superintendents, and that is a legitimate gripe. But having a legitimate gripe does not mean that this is analogous to NCLB.

SL: Do you foresee resistance to the standards movement after the November election when new governors and legislator who may not be enthused about this idea win office?

FINN: There is already some resistance. And that’s fine. Texas and Virginia have already announced that they don’t want to play on this basketball court. But as of the last time I looked 33 or 34 states said they do want to use these new standards.

Some of the states that have said they are going to use them have already been left off the list of finalists for Race to the Top. So, if those states were only doing this to qualify for Race to the Top, and if then they don’t qualify for Race to the Top, either because they are not among the finalists or because they are among the finalists but don’t wind up winning, I don’t know how ardent their implementation of these new standards is going to be.

Certainly the election will bring other possibilities of some state leaders backing away, or alternatively some state leaders may embrace the common core—if the Democratic candidate was to win the governorship in Texas, for example, which I don’t think is going to happen, Texas may end up rethinking its approach to the common core.

SL: It seems as though there is a real hardening of attitudes when it comes to education issues such as this. Why is that?

FINN: It isn’t just education. Look at the Supreme Court nominations and health care and you name it. Washington has become a hardened position city. And that’s a shame, I think, for the republic. And some state capitals are like this too. Look at Sacramento as an illustration. I don’t honestly think it is education, it is modern partisanship, and I think it’s a great pity.

SL: Advocates of the common core standards frequently say that they would help to make American education more competitive globally. What do you think of that argument?

FINN: Most industrial countries in the competitive world, with a mobile population, do decide that in at least the core of the curriculum there is no rationale for having kids in one city learning things different from the kids in another city. Fifth grade students in Portland, Ore., and in Portland, Maine, and Waco, Texa,s ought to be learning the same math. There is no justification for them to be learning differently.

I think it’s time for the United States to recognize that we have a mobile society and this is a competitive planet. This is the way modern countries organize their education systems.

SL: What don’t you like about the common core standards? What problems do you see with it?

FINN: The presentation has been OK. The implementation is a huge question. It is a question mark—not anything that anyone has done wrong yet. But for these standards to get traction in classrooms with kids and teachers, a whole bunch of other things need to happen. Curriculum needs to happen, textbooks need to be aligned with the curriculum, teacher preparation and professional development needs to be aligned, tests need to be aligned, the accountability system that is built on those tests needs to make sense and be workable—without all of those other things, and this is just skirting the surface—the standards are toothless tigers.

It’s going to be four or five years before the new assessments are actually in use. And that is a four- to five-year transition period for state and local education systems that I hope make good use of.

SL: Will that also be enough time for us to see more resistance to the movement?

FINN: Some of those things cause money—textbooks, just to give a simple example. And some of those things tread on local control within the state, not state sovereignty, but the tradition of every school system coming up with its own curriculum. And that doesn’t make much sense to me either. The states that have a hang up about each district no longer coming up with its own curriculum are very likely not going to do a very good job of implementing it. No matter what happens, this is going to cause controversy within those states.