A Tribute to John Chubb

By 11/20/2015

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John Chubb passed away on November 12, 2015, after a valiant struggle with cancer. I am at a loss for words. I suppose I should start with the obvious: that with his passing the nation lost a pioneer in education reform, someone who, for a quarter century, fought hard for change, innovation, and improvement in America’s schools. This is a true statement, and an important one. I think it does a decent job of capturing, at least at a very general level, what John will be most known for in the decades ahead as people reflect on the history of the education reform movement and its prime movers. He had a real impact on this world. He made waves. He was unafraid. He was a leader. But he was also much more than that, and I fear that nothing I say here can do him justice.

I first met John when we were both graduate students in political science at the University of Minnesota during the mid-1970s. He was a few years younger (a fact he would never let me forget in the decades that followed), so I had no seminars with him. But he had a reputation as the star of his cohort, and the word was that, when he spoke up in class, he would talk in such elegantly constructed paragraphs that it almost seemed as if he had written them out in advance (which, of course, he hadn’t). He was just extraordinarily smart, deeply knowledgeable, a gifted speaker, and preternaturally confident in himself. He stood out. And he always felt, from the very beginning of his professional career, that he wanted to do big things.

He landed an academic job at Stanford in 1978, right out of grad school. He found academia a bit too removed from the real-world policy problems that most interested him, however, and in 1984 he accepted a position at the Brookings Institution as a (very young) senior fellow–which seemed to give him, for awhile, the kind of mix he was looking for. At both Stanford and Brookings, he proved himself an academic political scientist of the first rank–turning his dissertation into a book, Interest Groups and the Bureaucracy (1983); editing and contributing to two important books with Paul Peterson, The New Direction in American Politics (1985) and Can the Government Govern? (1989); and publishing a number of articles, among them two major pieces on state politics in the discipline’s most prestigious journal, the American Political Science Review.

In the midst of all this, he maintained his interest in policy, and he convinced me to join him in designing and carrying out a study of public education—which led, after more than seven years of hard work and continuous collaboration, to the publication in 1990 of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. This book, which showed how politics undermines the effective organization of schools and argued the advantages of a choice-based education system, attracted so much attention that we were stunned. Reformers embraced it as a powerful intellectual force for change and used it to propel the budding choice movement forward. Defenders of the existing system castigated it as little more than ideology dressed up as social science, and it became the book they loved to hate.

From the day Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools was launched, John’s life was changed forever. (So was mine, but that’s another story.) He put academic political science in the rear view mirror and radically shifted his entire career path, a move that I admire and that took great courage. Education policy now attracted all his professional energies, talents, enthusiasm, and aspirations. Leaving Brookings in 1992, he joined entrepreneur Chris Whittle in founding the Edison Project, a controversial, profit-making venture dedicated to bringing novel ideas, private-sector know-how, and efficient management to the American education system. He would stay with Edison (now EdisonLearning) for the next 18 years.

During that time–the bulk of his career–he was immersed in the everyday difficulties (which vexed but impressed him to no end) of building high-performing schools; he was in constant interactions with teachers, principals, and students; and he exercised hands-on leadership in pursuit of tangible results. He was also a high-profile public figure: he gave speeches, appeared in the media, attended conferences, wrote op-eds, advised politicians. Whatever he did, he did it impressively. Critics in the education community often stereotyped John as an ideologue, a privatizer, and a fire-breathing voucher advocate, but they just didn’t know him. He was actually very practical, very concerned about the nuts and bolts of schooling, very intent on finding out what works—whatever it might be—and making it happen. Above all else he was truly dedicated to children, particularly the many kids, most of them socially disadvantaged, who attended Edison’s schools and were in his charge. There was nothing ideological about what he felt or what he did. It was personal. He deeply cared about kids, and he was determined to do right by them by making sure, as best he could, that they got a quality education. If that meant departing, even radically, from the regular public school system, then so be it.

Beginning in 1999, John complemented his work at Edison by becoming a charter member of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, a group of outside-the-box thinkers devoted to the reform of American education. This group, to which I belonged as well, met twice a year for some 15 years–discussing, debating, developing projects, writing books and articles, crafting policy proposals, consuming lots of wine and food, and doing our best to shape the trajectory of American school reform. John loved all this. He loved the people, he loved the intellectual challenge, and he loved the opportunity to call upon his prodigious academic talents and analytic gifts as he plunged back into the world of research and writing—which led, over time, to a number of new publications on American education and its reform. Among these were a book he co-wrote with me, Liberating Learning (2009), on the revolutionary promise—and disruptive politics—of technology in reforming America’s schools, and his most recent book, The Best Teachers in the World (2012), on the pressing challenge of improving the nation’s teaching force.

In 2010 or so (I may have the year slightly wrong), John left Edison for a job in international consulting, which put him—astoundingly—in the Middle East much of the time advising leaders there about how to organize their public school systems. He found it an exciting and mind-blowing experience, but the travel was crushing, as was the burden on his family life. In 2013, he took a job in Washington, D.C., as president of the National Association of Independent Schools, and he found it to be a wonderful fit, immersing him in the everyday realities of member schools and allowing him to put his awesome leadership skills to effective use. This was the job he held—and very much enjoyed—until melanoma cut his life short.

I have focused here on John’s professional life because he was a public figure and a major force in American education reform. He had many accomplishments, and I wanted to list at least some of them and offer perspective. Even so, I must say that it is sad and frustrating to sum him up in this way, because it doesn’t come close to conveying who he really was as a human being. He loved his family and was totally devoted to them. He talked about his kids incessantly. He loved music. And dogs. He was a trivia buff and had a mind like an encyclopedia. He was a runner from the time he was very young, and was in better shape for his age than anyone I know. He loved the beach, he loved to jet ski, and he and his family spent as much time as possible over the years at their place in Avalon, New Jersey. He had a great sense of humor and enjoyed a good laugh. He had a good heart.

There’s more to say, but no way to say it.   I can only add that it’s unfair that John was struck down at such an early age. Unfair to him. Unfair to his family. Unfair to all of us. But during his limited time on this Earth, he put his remarkable talents and human qualities to great use—and we are all far, far better off because he was here. He will be missed.

—Terry M. Moe

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