Memoir time

It's gratifying to publish one's memoirs but also a little scary. People keep asking if this is the end. Am I retiring? Dying, maybe? Will there be anything more?

Let me hasten to assure (or, in some cases, dismay) you by dismissing all such allegations. I'm not quitting or even hunkering down--though I'm spending a bit more time with my two little granddaughters and a bit less at the office, much to the relief of Fordham's fantastic team. But some people publish more than one volume of memoirs--and since baby Alexandra arrived after the book and its dedication were put to bed, I might just need to do a second volume for her sake.

The challenge of this book was intertwining what was happening in American education over the past half century with my own occasional Zelig-like appearances on the policy scene and with the education-related parts of what was happening in my life and family during the same period. Readers and reviewers will decide how well I pulled this off.

For now, let me be a little self-indulgent and extract four short passages from the book that, I hope, convey some of its flavor and a few of the lessons I've learned.

***

The summer I graduated from Exeter, I went through the brand-new Colorado Outward Bound School, high in the Rocky Mountains. For most of the summer, I worked as a counselor at the Dayton YMCA day camp and mowed lawns to accumulate the Outward Bound tuition; then my friend and I crossed the heartland by Greyhound bus from Ohio to Denver. When we reached the mountains, we found ourselves amid a very odd mix of "students." About a third of us were eastern preppies. Another third were youthful offenders sent by a Denver juvenile judge to expiate their crimes and recalibrate their lives. The final third were newly recruited Peace Corps volunteers--JFK was still president--preparing for their assignment in Nepal. (Not knowing how best to train them, novice Peace Corps bureaucrats settled on replicating the topography of their future posting as faithfully as could be done within the continental United States.)

My tent mate was a young but practiced auto thief. When, at the outset of our initial four-day mountaineering expedition, he ate our entire food ration on the first day, I began to appreciate the value of "deferred gratification." Then he raided an abandoned miner's cabin for canned goods during the 48-hour "solo survival" while I dutifully plucked watercress from a burbling spring and rationed my secret roll of Life Savers. Mainly, though, for a chubby, bookish type, the Outward Bound experience--more than three straight weeks of it--was a physical challenge at every level: trudging slowly up 14,000-foot peaks; climbing ropes and walls, with much help from my mates; and jogging breathlessly down miles of stony road on the "marathon." It was humbling, but--as intended--getting through it intact built one's confidence.

I also began to see that there's more to education than book learning--and people who are really good at the other kinds of learning deserve respect, too. I was used to being an intellectual leader, but those who distinguished themselves at Outward Bound had physical prowess, street smarts, character, stamina, and the ability to forge and lead a group. These skills have societal value, too, of a sort not often tallied by contemporary "school accountability" schemes.

***

Working in the Nixon White House in 1969 and 1970 was a tough time for the nation but an extraordinary opportunity for me. Despite the late nights and short weekends, it was sometimes a real kick--lunching in the White House mess, walking through the woods at Camp David, asking the fabled White House switchboard to ring up friends and relatives.

I also learned a lot, not all of it uplifting. I saw how clumsy and weak are Washington's instruments for effecting changes in education; how seemingly good ideas, once translated into legislation and bureaucracy, often end up not working; how much easier it is, even near the pinnacle of government, to prevaricate, argue, and block change than to accomplish things; yet also how steady goals and perseverance can matter over the long haul. Daniel P. Moynihan's multi-decade pursuit of several causes (Pennsylvania Avenue redevelopment, welfare reform, education) was a bona fide inspiration. So was he, of course. I also saw the value of having a mentor, which left me more disposed later to be one.

***

Governor Lamar Alexander's "Better Schools Program" was presented to the Tennessee legislature in January 1983 as the centerpiece of his second-term agenda. It had multiple elements, of which the boldest and most contentious was a "career ladder" for teachers--in effect, a merit pay plan.

I was thrilled to be a member of the governor's brain trust, batting out memos, drafts, talking points, explanations, and questions-and-answers on my Vanderbilt typewriter, and joining innumerable meetings at the statehouse and executive mansion. I also relished introducing Lamar to Al Shanker--we lunched at the Baltimore airport during a day trip via state plane--who responded with interest to the governor's "master teacher" plan, wrote supportively about it in his New York Times column, and invited Alexander to address the AFT convention later that year.

After much arm-twisting, compromising and revising, legislators agreed to key parts of the "Better Schools Program," including the contentious career ladder. Lamar thus won his spurs as an "education governor," among the first such. But neither of us fully appreciated the rubber-band-like nature of k-12 policy and how it yearns to snap back into its previous shape as soon as the tension eases. Once Alexander's term ended, the Tennessee Education Association and its allies began to "revise," "improve," "make fairer," and generally erode the performance-pay scheme and other prickly parts of his plan.

Any lasting policy change in education, I was coming to realize, must include a vigorous "war of ideas" because the broader political culture either subscribes to obsolete beliefs or has delegated responsibility to a priesthood that stubbornly clings to them. Just as important, however, is Alexander-style political leadership--astute, brave, goal driven, results oriented, and relentless. Yet even with those assets in place, a leader's boldest reforms are apt to prove transitory once he/she leaves the scene and the establishment strikes back.

***

By 1988, while lastingly appreciative of the one-tenth or so of the career civil servants at the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, those who worked hard, strove to do a good job, and were open to new ideas, I was weary of dealing with the 90 percent who, on good days, just went through the motions, and on bad days sabotaged, leaked, and stonewalled. I was also tired of the internal roadblocks that the executive branch has erected lest some change actually occur.

While the fourteen-hour days of an assistant secretary had their downside, being part of Bill Bennett's team was always stimulating and usually fun. Visiting award-winning schools with him was a kick. A peerless troublemaker in his own right, he was endlessly quotable--and controversial--in the media. He found plenty in the education establishment that riled and amused him--this being a solemn and sanctimonious field where a lively sense of humor can get you in further trouble--and he didn't hesitate to speak his mind, telling the truth as he saw it, salted with apt quotes from Aristotle and Kant as well as second graders and moms and dads, with astonishingly little regard for the sacred cows of education and politics. Though most of the administration's legislative initiatives were doomed on Capitol Hill, he used such discretionary dollars and executive authority as he possessed to pursue his goals: good information, accurate data, candor about problems, respect for excellence, empathy for educators (but not their Washington lobbyists), and a steady focus on customers rather than producers.

When Bill told a Chicago journalist one day in 1987 that that city's schools were the worst in the country, he urgently summoned me into his office and asked--I was the research guy, after all--if he was right. I thought fast and said, "Well, Chicago has some competition from Newark and St. Louis and Detroit, but you weren't wrong."

Watching Bennett in action, multiplying the irritation to the education establishment that had been caused by Ted Bell's "wall chart" and earlier users of the secretary's bully pulpit, I again thought that the National Education Association, Walter Mondale, Abe Ribicoff, and other champions of the department's creation less than a decade back could not have pictured this role for their new cabinet agency. They had foreseen an education secretary who safeguarded educators' interests and pursued the equity agenda of the seventies. I doubt that their wildest dreams featured a feisty, conservative, Plato-quoting Republican who put kids and parents first, who was eager to say what was wrong (as well as what was sound) about schools and colleges, and who advanced such heresies as choice, character, and standards.

Not even the most extraordinary leadership, however, can transform a sluggish federal bureaucracy into a high-performance agency of change in three years. The Education Department was lucky to get its data accurate and its checks mailed to the right addresses. I came to realize that only those who had never seen it from the inside could expect it to remake teaching and learning in millions of classrooms as the No Child Left Behind Act now does. Government can alter the flow of dollars, yes, and can certainly influence priorities, provide information, and so forth. But nobody who knows Washington well would ask it to change schools directly.

Checker's new book, Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik, has just been published by Princeton University Press. Learn more here and here.

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