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Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik
Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik
Chester E. Finn Jr.
Princeton University Press, 2008
368 pp., $26.95

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The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem
The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem
Patrick McCloskey
University of California Press, 2009
456 pp., $85.00

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Rebecca Ward Lindsay


School Daze

How can we fix our primary and secondary schools?

How's this for a manifesto? "Advancing parents' right to choose their children's schools while holding schools to account for their students' academic achievement are the twin turbos of education reform in twenty-first century America." Does it stir you to hope—or are you already changing the channel? This prescription comes courtesy of Chester E. Finn, Jr. In Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik (note the self-flattering title), Finn argues that "standards-based reform" (in other words, standardized testing) is the way to set our schools aright. Once the tests reveal how schools are performing, families ought to be able to use that data to decide where to enroll their children.

Nearly all educational bureaucracies—from teachers unions to graduate schools of education—resist such changes. Finn's recommendations would significantly loosen their grip over our nation's fifty million pupils and six million education employees, not to mention half a trillion budgetary dollars. Who would willingly relinquish that kind of control? For someone who cut his teeth in the educational field while serving as an aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Finn seems remarkably naïve about the political viability of his recommendations. But suppose we could put Finn's proposals into practice. Should we?

What our schools need more than anything, Finn argues, is accountability. But how do we accomplish that? The irony of all the hand-wringing about our nation's educational system is that we are home to the world's finest institutions of higher learning. No country can boast as many spectacular universities as the United States. And yet, our primary and secondary schools lag behind dozens of other nations. If Finn had his way, we would expand standardized testing, but that can hardly be best for our students. Take, for example, Houston—one of the best large public school systems. The current school calendar tracks nineteen different standardized ...

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