Education reform from ESEA to ESSA part 1 – Interview with Checker Finn | VIEWPOINT


Rick: Hey, I’m Rick Hess, director of education
policy studies here at AEI. Delighted today to have a conversation with
my long time friend and colleague, Checker Finn, about the Every Student Succeeds Act,
about school reform, and about places where school reformers maybe have sometimes stumbled
and can do better. Checker: Well, how long do we have? Those are big topics. Rick: Big question. You know, Checker, let’s start with Every
Student Succeeds Act. You’ve been involved in these questions and
these challenges, really, I think you were you in…were you in graduate school or close
to it? Checker: I was a senior in college when Lyndon
Johnson proposed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and it inspired me. It arguably shaped my career direction. Rick: Now, that’s either inspiring or disheartening,
a piece of federal… What about that spoke to you? What was so significant about it? Checker: At age 21 or so, I was…I wanted
to save the world. I was a social reformer. I wanted to end misery, end poverty, end illiteracy,
and ignorance. And Johnson said that better education for
poor kids would end poverty, and that struck me as a very good thing to be part of. Besides that, I didn’t wanna join my father’s
law firm. Rick: So when you got inspired, what did you
do back in ’65? Checker: Well, two things. One is I enrolled in the Graduate School of
Education immediately, into what became a MIT program and then a doctorate in education
policy. And the other thing was I started volunteering
in the war on poverty in as it happened, Cambridge, Massachusetts, attempting to help the Community
Action Program get organized in the community, which is another long story, not a lot to
do with education, but it was pretty frustrating. Rick: So, I mean…so from that vantage point,
so we have 50 years after the passage of ESEA. We just saw, you know, President Obama sign
the Every Student Succeeds Act. What are the big similarities or differences
as far as these two landmark pieces of legislation? Checker: Well of course, Every Student Succeeds
is about the, I think, seventh iteration of the Elementary Secondary Education Act, No
Child Left Behind, having been the previous one. And so there been about 7, and they’ve every
5, or 6, or 7, or 8, or in this case, 14 years, Congress gets around to updating it and trying
to fix what went wrong the last time around. So this was a big fix because the last time
around we had a whole lot of federal government dictated requirements laid on states and districts,
and that produced not very good results and a lotta backlash, and a lot of other things
contributed to the backlash. And so Every Student Succeeds is in significant
part moving the pendulum back toward where it was about 20 years ago, which is to give
states more say over how they’re gonna educate their disadvantaged kids and a bunch of other
things that the federal government had edged into using NCLB/ESEA as its lever. Rick: You know, NCLB, No Child Left Behind
is hugely unpopular. Well, what was usually unpopular two years
ago? Checker: Somebody called it a tainted brand,
I believe. Rick: But back in 2001, right, it had close
to 400 votes in the House of Representatives. It had 90 votes in the Senate just like with
the SSA, it seemed hugely popular at the time… Checker: It was, at the time. Rick: What did NCLB get wrong and how come
we didn’t see it when it was getting ’em wrong? Checker: Every single iteration of ESEA has
had a somewhat similar history, has been popular at the time, and didn’t get everything right,
and led to unintended consequences, and lead to need for further mid-course corrections,
or in this case, some rollbacks, and further tweaks, and incidentally, additional regulations
in other spheres because the political compromises that have dictated every one of these cycles
have included some give and some take from left and right between sorta state and local
freedom, and parent choice on the one hand, and federal government knows best on the other
hand. But keep in mind as well that the scope of
this law has widened from a 30 page statute in 1965 to about 1,000 today, and it swept
up into it all kinds of things that were never there at the beginning. I mean, education for English Language Learners,
for example, has been added to the elementary secondary education, and scads of little programs
intended to promote this reform, or alter that behavior, or so forth. So every one of these has produced unhappiness
as well as happiness left and right, and has produced unintended consequences big time. I mean, I think the best known example from
NCLB was its solemn declaration that every child in America would be proficient in reading
and math by the year 2014. That was understandable at the time, okay,
and produced all kinds of negative consequences. And ESSA has to some extent, tried to undo
those negatives. Rick: Now, let’s talk about the…and it says
in 2001, Congress said 100% of kids will be proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Well, we talk a lot about moonshots in education
and…what’s the, I guess, the upside of that’s obvious, “Hey, it’s good. We want all our children to learn.” Checker: High expectations for everybody. Rick: So what are the downsides and why do
we wind up in this funny place? Checker: Well in that case, I think there
were two big downsides. One was most educators immediately dismissed
it as a pipe dream up high in the sky. We know our kids, 100% of them are not going
to be proficient by any reasonable definition of proficient, by anything like 2014. So the first was educators said, “Pa, [SP]
we can ignore this. It’s not gonna happen.” The other was that States policymakers elected
officials wanting to maximize the number of kids who are deemed to be proficient, tended
to define proficiency down and set a low bar so that more kids would be over it. Well, politically understandable, but if your
big macro problem is kids achieving not enough, to lower the bar that they have to clear in
the name of getting more of them over it is an unintended consequence that I think is
indeed negative. Rick: So if educators said, “Pa, this isn’t
serious,” how come it’s felt like NCLB had such an impact on school practice? [inaudible 00:06:35] so much complaint about
overtesting? Checker: Because it hinged everything on test
scores and in just two subjects, and it judged schools according to how many kids basically
passed those tests every year in those two subjects. That led to a lot of emphasis on test prep
and it led to a fair amount of neglect of other subjects. And so it both narrowed the curriculum and
caused, I’m gonna say, less imaginative teachers to…and teachers with tougher kids to teach
to use more and more of the year just getting ’em ready for the test. And the tests at that time weren’t very good
either, so getting ’em ready meant a lotta drill and kill. Rick: So how…from where you sit, how does
the Every Student Succeeds Act try to improve upon or fix the things that we may have got
wrong in NCLB? Checker: Mostly by saying, “States, it’s up
to you. You define how many kids are gonna be proficient. You define proficiency. You define what’s the deadline, the timeline
for all of this happening, and you figure out how to do it. Yes, you’ll still have to test every year,
and the tests will still have to be in reading and math, but we’re not gonna tell you how
many kids have to pass them, and we’re not gonna tell you…we just tell you have to
set goals and you have to be measured against your own goals.” Rick: Now, you’re currently vice president
of the Maryland State Board of Educations. Checker: Yes, this is my punishment for having
lived this long. Rick: So you were busy trying to help Maryland
transition to these new set of norms and rules. As…you know, I think many observers say,
“Well gosh, can we trust the states to do this well? Are state’s gonna make sure that every child
is actually learning?” Isn’t this why we need Washington to keep
a firmer hand? How are your experiences? What have been your thinking on that? Checker: Telling bit of information arose
just the other day at a state board meeting, when we were presented the results of a wide-ranging
survey around the state, in which so-called stakeholders, educators, parents, and others
were asked, “Do you believe that 100% proficiency should be the state’s goal?” And the overwhelming majority said, “No.” And then they asked, “So, if we had to set
a percentage of proficient, what should be the state’s goal?” And the range was basically from 65% to 75%
of kids, which is to say apparently the majority Marylanders participating in this survey would
be satisfied if two-thirds or three-quarters of the kids in Maryland were proficient by
some unknown date in the future. Well, that’s problematic in various ways. If you believe that all kids can learn, that
all kids should be held to a high standard, that everybody should go to college, and a
lotta groups do, a lotta people do, then you’re gonna say the stakeholders in Maryland are
benighted troglodytes who think that a quarter of the kids should be dispensed with. Well, or are they realists who know that pie
in the sky isn’t…can ever be pie on the table? I don’t know. This is something that the state board is
struggling with, the bureaucracy is struggling with, and we are in the middle of trying to
figure out the ESSA plan for Maryland. Rick: Did ESSA get the balance right? Did ESSA go too far in pushing power to the
states, did it not go far enough? Checker: Well I hear that Rick Hess and a
colleague have recently published a book that is devoted entirely, almost, to this question,
of probing ESSA for its strengths and its weaknesses. It’s a very good book and it finds many strengths
and many weaknesses in ESSA, some unexpected constraints that are there on states. The Maryland State Board just stumbled upon
one the other day that we hadn’t known was there. But also a lotta freedom which incidentally
states often find scary, means they suddenly are in charge of how many kids should be proficient,
and how do we explain that to the voters, and the interest groups, and the factions,
and so forth, that are gonna accuse us of a civil rights violation, for example, if
we don’t say 100%? Rick: You know, in the aforementioned book,
you wrote a remarkable chapter talking about these…the evolution of the ESEA over time… Checker: And my love-hate relationship with
it. Rick: I think it might be interesting for
viewers, this love-hate relationship. Could you explain? Checker: Well, in the chapter, I explain that
in many cases, my heart and my head were going in opposite directions. My head was saying that such and such is not
going to work and my heart was saying, “God, I wish it would work.” And the upshot was that sometimes when they
tighten the screws on…in the federal law, I was saying, “Good, that’ll make it work
because it needs to work, because the kids deserve it.” And they do. My head was saying, “This is another exercise
in big government futility and there is no evidence that it’s going to work.” And so I guess depending on whether my head
was in charge or my heart was in charge on Wednesday afternoon, would be…would define
what I wrote about that particular iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act. It was impossible, let me say, to reconcile
what I think would be good for kids in America, if it could happen, with my sense of, what
can the federal government make happen? Rick: And given that tension, are you…do
you find yourself pretty much in the same heart-head tension today that you were when
No Child Left Behind was passed, or has it changed? Checker: My head has swollen and my heart
has shrunk, which is to say I still do believe that the country needs and would be better
off if, but I’ve seen too many iterations of unintended consequences of the big government
overreached actually causing damage that it didn’t intend to cause. And I wish I had greater confidence in the
field doing right by all kids so that it didn’t need to be prodded by the feds, and measured
by the feds, and reported to the feds. But my head is now telling me that nobody
can be entirely trusted, at least in the traditional system to do right by kids, which is part
of what’s brought me more and more toward alternatives to the traditional system and
toward empowering parents, as in most cases, the only ones who really care above all about
their kids. Rick: You know, you wrote a book 30 years
ago, give or take, now called “We Must Take Charge”, and one of the themes was that parents
and citizens needed to be more assertive when it came to improving schools. Over…I mean, over the course of your career,
what are the things that stand out in your mind as far as the shift in that question
of empowering parents and the role that parents play in driving these policies? Checker: Well, the good news is that what
we call school choice in its many forms has become basically an accepted premise in American
education, and we’re now arguing about which kinds of choices for how many kids, in which
places, under which rules. But we no longer take for granted as we did
when I was a kid in school in Ohio in the ’50s, that you go to your assigned neighborhood
district-operated school, unless you’re Catholic or very rich, which were the only two real
exceptions in those days. Today we kinda take for granted as a society
that the government doesn’t have the right to assign you to a school, that your parents
should be able to choose schools, and now we worry about, are the schools they’re choosing
any good? Are they…to whom are they accountable? For what should this range of schools be? Include private schools, virtual schools,
homes schools, other kinds of schools. So we argue a lot about the fine print, but
I think the concept of parent empowerment to make some choices for their kids is pretty
widespread now. Hey everyone! Thanks for watching part number one of this series on school reform from ESEA to ESSA. If you enjoyed what you saw, remember to like the video or leave us a comment. And if you want to see more, check out part number two.

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