Chester Finn has more listings on his C.V. than there are plankton sucked into the megamouth of a feeding whale shark. Although he is an education policy adviser and erstwhile academic, he is not an educator.
He’s the president of the non-profit (in the sense of potential intellectual gain) Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Reportedly he’s a likeable chap ( likes to be called “Checker,” perhaps because he’s partial to board games as much as board rooms), and not at all brash. His murderous animus for teacher unions is conveyed with old-boy elegance and charm. (The eye is not malevolent when it winks like a pixie. With a twinkle he assures teachers that they have nothing to fear from disembowelment.)
In a recent post on the Education Next blog he draws a sharp distinction between the virtue of teachers and the vices of their unions. He practically says that teachers and their unions should be mortal enemies. They would be, he feels, if teachers would simply take to heart opinion polls that show that teachers are revered but their unions are reviled.
He sets up teachers by flattering them, seducing them with praise and suspiciously-flavored statistics from polls. He implies that if teachers cut themselves loose from the unions that exploit and are strangling them, there would be veritable peace on earth. Nothing like a choke-out to clear institutional memory!
But all conscientious teachers know that the interests of their profession and their union are not antithetical and it is not their union that is exploiting them but rather Finn and his confederates who are giving it their best shot.
If only teachers would free their hard-working hides from the ripping talons of the union bird-of-prey, Right-to-Work Heaven would be ensconced on earth, believes Finn with evangelical fervor.
Finn is a master of the “Good Reformer/Bad Reformer” ruse. It is a mutation of the “Good Cop/Bad Cop” ploy. He plays the nice guy reformer whom the “status quo” folks can work with and live with (for the time being). He soothingly baits them with the promise of “a seat at the table” where the dissolution of the union is negotiated step-by-step with the sportsmanship worthy of gentlemen cricketers. By making the demise of unionism more gradual, he makes it less unpalatable. By making the surrender temporarily not unconditional, it appears less stark and more conducive to face-saving.
But our grassroots and our leaders are not duped and will not yield to defeat, even as Finn and his henchmen seek by hook and by crook, sometimes in the guise of polite public conversation, to implement it is discreet increments. We see what he is trying to do, even though his sleight-of-hand is in slow-motion. He will never get so far so that our awareness dawns too late. We already have connected the dots of his pernicious advocacy.
Teachers and their union are one indivisible soul and as such are indestructible. Their leaders see the picture, much as Finn and his confederates work around the clock to blur it.
Checker Finn supports higher pay for those teachers whom their bosses favor. The way to do that, he says, is by employing “fewer flesh-and-blood teachers sitting in the classroom with Johnnie and Susie — though we may need more aides and tutors and such to provide face-to-face explanations, pats on the back, and (when needed) stern looks and reminders to remain on task.”
He passionately endorses the revamping of retention rights, tenure, compensation, promotions, and the transference of governing civil service rules to the absolute and veto-proof prerogative of management. No doubt that embraces the collapse of seniority and due process in the workplace and any trace of teacher autonomy in the classroom, unless it comports with the principal’s own predilection and consent.
His fondness for the dignity of the workplace is like the affection of vipers for birds and rabbits.
Finn is a big fan of alternate routes in teacher preparation and licensing. He singles out Teach for America, which is getting “traction,” he observes, “as more attention is paid to what a teacher knows about her subject than to what pedagogy courses she took in college.” He makes no mention of the indisputable fact that many of the newer principals have no academic background or prowess whatsoever in any subject matter, including those that they supervise.
Yet he demands, though not explicitly in this post, that the teeth of principals as rating officers of teacher job performance be sharpened as he and his ilk would cede to these “CEOs” complete hiring and firing authority and life and death decision power over the careers of master veteran specialists of the classroom.
While provoking the logical inference, Finn, in this blog post, stops short of openly pushing “a set of arrangements that capitalize on the short-termers as well as the classroom careerists.” Clearly, Checker is titillated by the idea of “people who want to do this work for a time, before or after they do something else, rather than make a lifelong career of it.”
That reminds of me of a recently published interview with the new CEO of Deloitte, who recalled his rise from the days when he worked in a gas station for a time. The education profession, to Finn, is plausibly analogous to that pumping stint. (I bet he doesn’t have the same notion about the medical profession, his wife being a physician.)
Being a patsy of the privateers who have co-opted the word “reformer” and hijacked its meaning to suit their own pernicious goals, Finn may get a stack of invitations to sit on their dais, but such thrones are beneath the chair of honor of the lowliest classroom teacher.