I am breaking the rules of book-reviewing by admitting right away that I like Chester E. “Checker” Finn Jr., whose memoir, “Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik,” just came out. For an education reporter, Finn is a godsend — the most quotable man in his field. But that also means he is funny, irreverent and often as irritating as he can be.
I think that’s good. I don’t know him well personally, other than seeing him in the supermarket occasionally. (A very picky shopper, he is murder on the produce.) We don’t always agree, particularly over a recent column of mine that criticized a report by his Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
But I love the fact that no one is spared his acidic sense of humor. That makes him a first-class writer, and “Troublemaker” may be the best of his many books. It’s $26.95, from Princeton University Press, though you can buy it for less online. The book offers one of the most enjoyable, astute and fair-minded reviews of the topsy-turvy course of our national effort to improve schools. It flavors that complex tale with the story of Checker Finn, a smart kid from Dayton, Ohio, who wisely attached himself to some of the most thoughtful political figures of his era and brought their practical approach to fixing schools to a new generation. Among them were Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served as a Democratic senator from New York from 1977 to 2001; William J. Bennett, a Reagan administration education secretary; and Lamar Alexander, an education secretary in administration of President George H. W. Bush and now a Republican senator from Tennessee.