“In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same
reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.” 

—F.W. Nietzsche

After a decade of “reform,” the public schools are at best stagnant. The College Board reports that SAT scores for college-hound 12th-graders have dropped for the fourth consecutive year, with the average score on the verbal section reaching an all-time low. Especially alarming is the performance of the brightest students: verbal scores in the six and seven hundreds are far their parents. 

When SAT scores fell for 17 consecutive years from 1963 to 1980, people rightly blamed the policies and the policymakers that dominated those years: the National Education Association and its political and cultural allies. Since 1980, the policy initiative has passed to another coalition. Its most conspicuous spokesman is former Secretary of Edu cation William Bennett, its most influential strategist is Chester Finn of Vanderbilt University, and its favorite union leader is Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers. 

A decade ago these leaders made “excellence” the rallying cry for a new agenda in education. Yet they carefully avoided threatening the core interests of the public-school establishment, emphasizing piecemeal measures such as “merit pay” rather than basic structural changes such as tuition vouchers. Their strategy was to combat the failures of an increasingly centralized school system by centralizing it still further, using state governments as the key agents of reform and the federal Department of Education as a “bully pulpit.” Some members of this coalition, such as California school chief Bill Honig, still insist that this strategy has worked. Chester Finn knows better. His latest book, We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future, aptly likens the 1980’s reforms to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. The education system was merely “playing at reforming itself,” he writes; the reforms “eliminated virtually none of [the system’s] hazardous practices, dangerous ideas, or pointless customs.”

But Finn’s analysis is oddly schizo phrenic. He accurately reports the dismal score, but fails to repudiate any of his team’s losing tactics: his most serious omission is the phrase, “We were wrong.” He still offers almost no criticisms of the 1983 National Commission on Excellence in Education or of the costly programs that the “reform” movement inspired in states such as Tennessee and Texas. Instead he praises his Washington friends’ latest maneuvers, gushing over President Bush’s mushy 1989 education summit (“an historic gathering”) and Bush’s equally bland 1990 “national education goals.” But do we have any reason to expect such meetings and press releases to accomplish anything more than the Commission on Excellence did? Finn says yes. He and his allies think that the time is finally ripe to strip the last vestiges of “local control” from the public schools and to institute a core national curriculum along with standardized achievement tests to measure the performance of states, schools, classrooms, and individual students. The key, as he sees it, is national testing: uniform, compulsory, rigorous, and administered by authorities completely separate from the day to-day running of schools. Today’s educational establishment evaluates schools by bureaucratic “input” standards such as the number of students per teacher or dollars per student. These tests, in contrast, would focus on results. 

This call for “standards” and “ac countability” sounds just as beguiling today as Finn’s demand for “excellence” did a decade ago. It will fail in practice for just the same reason: his deep-seated distrust of families, churches, market places, and all other sources of authority outside government leaves him with no body to implement his ideas but the same public-school establishment that betrayed the reformers in the 1980’s. 

Suppose that the federal government—or a private commission with federal funding, which amounts to the same thing-were authorized to draft standardized national tests. Suppose, as Finn urges, that all students had to take those tests and that all schools had to report the results. Even if this federal agency had no other powers, the teachers’ unions and allied pressure groups would surely realize that they had an enormous stake in the content and grad ing standards of those tests. Their lobbyists would work harder than anyone else in Washington to shape those standards, using the time-tested tools of the “iron triangle”: demands that their own members be appointed to key positions, alliances with career bureaucrats and congressional committees, and smear campaigns against dissidents. We have not the slightest reason to suppose that a federal “Department of Testing” would be any less a colony of the special-interest groups than the Department of Education is today. 

The result would almost certainly be a lowering of academic standards. As we have already seen from state-level programs of minimal competency test ing for both students and teachers, the political system simply cannot tolerate a large number of failures. It comes under enormous pressure to recalibrate the tests so that almost everyone “succeeds.” The chief victims of such distortion are the average and above-average students, who form inflated opinions of their own academic attainments. 

Finn wants the national tests to mea sure achievement in specific subjects such as history and literature, unlike generalized aptitude tests such as the SAT. It is true that today’s public schools neglect few areas more than such “cultural literacy,” but it is equally true that few areas are more vulnerable to ideological manipulation by the Washington lobbies. Should elementary and secondary curricula emphasize Europe rather than Asia or Africa, the classics rather than current events? Should they pay more attention to the Bible or to the Koran? Should they be open to the view that the wrong side may have won the French Revolution or the fight over the New Deal, or should they preach the superiority of the present over the past? Should they be evenhanded on issues such as feminism and environmental ism? Anyone who has read the curricular manifestos of the National Education Association, or the “multicultural” programs now spreading from Albany to Oregon, and who is still willing to em power a federal agency to decide such questions, has a remarkable faith in Washington’s ability to resist demagogues. 

Deep down, Finn seems to know this. His book has an entire chapter showing how the education system is often “paralyzed by design.” He sees that even if a generation of reformers manages to improve things, the routine administration of these improvements falls back into the hands of the iron triangle after the reformers leave office. He admits that “the system can be stretched but, like a giant rubber band, it never stops yearn ing to resume its previous shape”; that even the modest reforms of the 1980’s, both in Washington and in the state capitols, are already being diluted. But for some reason he thinks that his proposed testing agency would be immune to these ills, as if its administrators could be philosopher-kings standing outside the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics. Perhaps that is why on page 63 of his book he praises Kentucky’s recent switch from electing to appointing its state school chief-contradicting his embrace on page 233 of democracy as “our central social and political value.” 

Finn is an uncompromising democrat: he trusts majorities far more than mar kets to produce wise decisions. He criticizes parental choice, the great alternative to his own reform strategy, precisely because it would give people what they want rather than what they should want. How, he asks, can the marketplace, which posits that the customer is always right, discipline the irresponsible parents-those who want nothing more from their children’s schools than baby sitting or entertainment? How can it guarantee that schools will transmit our arduous cultural heritage? 

But such questions have sharper edges than Finn realizes. As a skeptic of mar kets but dogmatic advocate of democratic decision-making, he puts himself in the odd position of arguing that parents cannot be trusted to choose high standards for their own children, but can be trusted to make such choices for everyone else’s children. But why should this be so? If mom and dad are Philistines, why would they vote for policymakers who demand higher standards? 

Finn seems to think that if even one family seeks educational choices worse than the state’s, that risk justifies elaborate regulatory powers over all other families. His choice of words reveals a deep suspicion of individual freedom: he speaks of private citizens as having an “interest” in education, the state as hav ing “rights.” He grudgingly tolerates choice as one possible mechanism for educational decisions, but only as long as it is clear that it is parents who arc ac countable to the state, not the reverse. Though he calls himself a “radical,” he seems perfectly comfortable with the statist legacy of Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Lyndon Johnson. 

The book’s title conveys the image of populist firebrands ready to storm the ramparts of the Washington establishment. But Finn and his allies have long since taken charge already. Their ideas have failed. It is time to try something else.


[We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future, by Chester E. Firm, Jr. (New York: The Free Press) 365 pp., $22.95]