WHAT WE NEED TO FIX U.S. SCHOOLS Our main problem, agreed the executives, educators, and politicians at FORTUNE's Education Summit, is translating into action the ideas that we know will work.
By Nancy J. Perry REPORTER ASSOCIATE Tricia Welsh

(FORTUNE Magazine) – REFORMERS of America's badly ailing education system don't lack for clever, effective solutions. Their critical failing is that, like automakers in the days before Henry Ford, they haven't successfully mass-produced them. That flaw -- and what can be done about it -- was the focus of FORTUNE's fifth annual education summit in Washington, D.C. As Ann McLaughlin, CEO of the New American Schools Development Corp., told the nearly 300 executives, educators, and politicians who gathered at the Capitol Hilton, ''Our problem lies not in a lack of better ideas about how to educate children but in the failure of these ideas to spread once they succeed.'' What does make a difference in improving our kids' performance at school, and what can business do about it? The solution starts at home. Says Education Secretary Lamar Alexander: ''You cannot talk about achieving 90% graduation rates without talking about parents who check on homework and turn off the television and know where their kids are.'' Still, the reality of late-20th-century American family life is that many children grow up in single-parent households, homes where both parents work, and all too often in homes ravaged by drinking or drugs. Are these kids doomed to fall behind? No, not as long as someone -- a parent, a teacher, a friend -- takes an interest in them. Several recent studies tracked young people who had successfully overcome great odds. The one thing they all had in common: a one-to-one connection with a caring adult. ''Children cannot learn unless they have constructive relationships,'' says Peter Smith, dean of George Washington University's school of education. ''That has to underlie everything.'' American business has already made great efforts to fill this void, but it can do more. Says Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan: ''If all members of our business community took an active, personal interest in the lives of our children, I think it would foster a miraculous turnaround in our nation's education system.'' Reuben Mark, CEO of Colgate-Palmolive, fervently agrees. Adopting what he calls the ''mud-on-the-wall technique'' -- because if you throw enough mud on the wall, at least some of it will stick -- Mark is trying to expose every one of his 25,000 employees to Colgate's educational programs. Many converts, he figures, will encourage at least one other adult to get involved, creating a ripple effect. (For Mark's own involvement, see the following story.) One of those programs, called Shadow Days, brings 60 to 70 inner-city kids to Colgate for a day in which they follow an executive around headquarters in New York City. ''None of these kids or adults are really changed by one day's experience,'' Mark admits. ''But if you do this four times a year, that's 250 kids and 250 adults. The hope is that some of them will get fired up and pursue that relationship. The program tries to suck people in.'' Anyone who doubts the national need for more caring adults to get involved should take a look at Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, the oldest and largest mentoring organization in the U.S. Some 35,000 children are currently waiting to be matched with a big brother or sister. Their voluntary nature is what makes these relationships so special. Says Big Brothers/Big Sisters National Executive Director Thomas McKenna: ''When a kid knows that his big brother or big sister is doing this because he or she wants to do it, that has a lot more impact.'' In addition to more volunteers, the education reform movement could use better marketing. ''Everything has to be sold in this world,'' says Dean Kamen, an entrepreneur and physicist whose alarm at Americans' lack of regard for math and science led him to create U.S. First (Foundation for the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The intriguing notion he advanced at FORTUNE's summit was that the U.S. should spend less time worrying about improving the supply side of education and more time creating demand for it. ''We don't sit in these meetings and worry that we won't have great football players, even though we are not putting a lot of extra money into schools anymore to coach them,'' says Kamen. ''Kids go to school eager to learn how to play football.'' Who better to make science as appealing as football than U.S. business? As Kamen observes, ''Reebok invented a $200 sneaker full of air bags and decided it needed to make all kids in the country feel they needed them -- in six weeks, not eight years. Companies know how to create demand.'' To introduce kids to some real, live corporate heroes, Kamen in February - staged an event called the Maize Craze. Teams of high school students and scientists and engineers from 21 companies, including IBM, Xerox, Boeing, and General Motors, as well as seven universities, among them Harvard and MIT, worked for six weeks to design robots from a kit filled with motors, levers, springs, and other goodies provided by U.S. First. These remote-controlled creations then squared off in a large box filled with tennis balls in a high school gym in Manchester, New Hampshire. The winner was the robot that got the most points collecting balls. (The victor: the Clinton, Massachusetts, High School, in conjunction with Nypro Inc.)

The event drew a respectable crowd: President Bush was at the kickoff party. Next year Kamen is hoping to persuade ESPN to broadcast the contest, provided he can attract two kinds of corporate support: teams of engineers to compete and sponsors to pick up some of the costs. Companies that remain skeptical about the value of such events can still help teachers make learning more fun -- and relevant. In California, a group called 100 Black Men of Los Angeles has created the Young Black Scholars program, whose aim is to get more African-American children into college. The group gives kids who maintain at least a B average help with homework, special preparation for SAT exams, and rewards that mirror the recognition that athletes get, such as fancy jackets and book bags. Since the program began in 1986, the rate of black students in Los Angeles County who go on to college has climbed 40%. Probably the cheapest -- and most effective -- step that executives can take is to attend local school board meetings and fight for a curriculum and textbooks that will teach kids the skills that business needs. Merck is trying to turn its 5,000 New Jersey employees, particularly parents, into a pro- education lobbying group by offering them materials and workshops. Governor John McKernan of Maine points out that most U.S. schools continue to neglect the kids who will ultimately become the backbone of the economy: the two- thirds of high school graduates who will not earn a college degree. For those students, business should be pushing schools everywhere to introduce an alternative curriculum -- often known as 2+2 -- which would combine special coursework in the last two years of high school with two years of community college or technical training. Says James Baker, CEO of automotive parts maker Arvin Industries: ''In the workplace of the future, all employees on the factory floor are going to have to be highly literate and computer-friendly.'' Right now too many are neither. At Baldor Electric, CEO Roland Boreham conducted an assessment of his 3,000 workers' skills and found that 500 so far needed help in basic reading. The company provided it. SCHOOLS also desperately need capital to acquire up-to-date technology. Though U.S. homes contain more than 30 million Nintendos, there are less than 1.5 million computers in America's schools. Says Joyce McLeod, a vice president at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: ''We need to focus on materials that reflect the child's world by combining print and the latest electronic technology. Instructional materials have to invite children in.'' For such newfangled technologies to be effective, however, teachers must be trained to use them. In his book Smart Schools, Smart Kids, author Edward Fiske calls teacher training the ''black hole'' of education reform. Agrees Ralph Caulo, president of Simon & Schuster's Educational Publishing Group: ''If I could write the check, the place I would tell the private sector to put its money would be for staff development -- to allow teachers 15 or 20 days a year off to become better professionals.'' Two drug companies are doing exactly that. Glaxo Pharmaceutical underwrites a program that gives teachers time off to work on curriculum development and new technologies. Merck has established the Merck Institute for Science Education to provide training for kindergarten to eighth-grade science teachers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A new resource center will allow educators to draw upon the latest science research and teaching tools. Says Robin Hogen, Merck's executive director of public affairs: ''The trick to reforming education lies in improving the teacher core.'' Would greater competition spur even more innovation in American schools? Some believe so. Says Joseph Alibrandi, CEO of Whittaker Corp., the California aircraft-equipment company: ''One reason Colgate-Palmolive is a leader is because every time Reuben Mark looks over his shoulder, there are P&G and Bristol-Myers attempting to do him one better. This vitality, this constant striving for improvement, is the thing that is missing in our system.'' EVEN SO, pockets of innovation do exist. Some states are experimenting with a new concept called charter schools -- public schools that, with the approval of the local school board and the state board of education, are exempt from many of the anachronistic rules that stifle most reform efforts. Aided by a grant from the New American Schools Development Corp., a team in Minnesota will start three charter schools next year. California Governor Pete Wilson has just signed legislation that will permit the creation of 100 charter schools. The New American Schools Development Corp., which is trying to raise $200 million from private U.S. sources to start a whole different generation of schools, has tapped Bensonville, Illinois (pop. 17,767), as one of its 11 primary grant recipients. The entire town is turning into a school. Kids will learn math at Bensonville's bank, journalism at the newspaper, physics at the hospital. For now, such promising experiments remain examples of reform by exception. Some propose broadening the quest for change by letting parents use a portion of the tax revenue that supports public schools to help send their kids to private or parochial schools. President Bush favors one such approach, which he calls a ''GI bill for kids.'' But while a national consensus has emerged in recent years that parents should be allowed more choice within the public system, this bid to expand choice to private schools remains highly controversial -- and politically a nonstarter. ''Pushing for private school choice is a mistake,'' David Durenberger, the Republican Senator from Minnesota advised summit attendees. ''Instead, we should be challenging the people within the public system to reform.'' The key to fixing public schools is not to spend more but to spend smarter. As Lamar Alexander points out, the U.S. devotes more money to K-12 education -- $6,300 per student in the current school year -- than any other country except Switzerland. One problem: Too much of that money feeds a hungry bureaucracy. In New York City the Board of Education houses 3,500 administrators, while the city's well-run parochial schools get by with less than 50 such overseers. That need not continue. In Baltimore, Mayor Kurt Schmoke has abolished 200 administrative positions over the past five years, thus transforming his city from the second-highest-cost jurisdiction in Maryland to the third lowest. Schmoke has also turned over nine of his city's 177 schools to Education Alternatives, a private corporation that runs public schools for profit. Says Schmoke: ''We need the education bureaucracy to support our schools and not to control them.'' True, Schmoke has a few things going for him that many mayors do not: a real desire for change, the power to control the city school budget, and most important, the grudging support of the unions. In many cities the teachers' unions fight reform, though some administrators at FORTUNE's summit see change ahead. Says Michael Massarotti, superintendent of a school district in Westminster, Colorado: ''The unions are at a crossroads. Either they will change or they won't survive.'' NO VENTURE is attempting a more ambitious rethinking of the way U.S. schools work than the Edison Project. This enterprise, conceived by Tennessee media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, aims to create a ''technologically integrated'' chain of break-the-mold schools that will cost no more per student to run than public schools. One way the Edison Project hopes to keep costs down is to hire teachers on the cheap. Says Benno Schmidt, who quit the presidency of Yale University in July to become CEO of the Edison Project: ''If you create an environment that is conducive to professional and intellectual growth, that is fun and exciting to be part of, and that eliminates rules that elevate routine over results, I think you can hire outstandingly good people at entry-level salaries.'' To succeed, the Edison Project is going to have to leap some extraordinarily high hurdles. Designing and building a national chain will eventually cost at least $2 billion, money that Whittle aims to raise from private investors. In the meantime, the Edison Project, which hopes to have its first schools up and running by September 1996, may at least provide some valuable R&D. Says Schmidt: ''If we invent and demonstrate innovative new approaches that work, at a cost public schools can afford, then a lot of them will take advantage of what we do.'' The goal of all this innovation, of course, is to produce better results. But what is better, and how do we measure it? Two years ago the White House and the nation's 50 governors agreed that the U.S. should develop a set of voluntary national standards in math, science, English, history, and geography -- and hold educators accountable for achieving them. Since then the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has come up with a new set of math standards. Under the leadership of Assistant Education Secretary Diane Ravitch, other professional groups are now working to develop standards in their disciplines. Most should be finished within two to three years.

Still, the U.S. is unlikely to use a national examination to ensure that students are meeting those standards. The main reason: Fierce opposition from the education lobby, mainly the unions. Says Chester Finn, a former assistant education secretary under Ronald Reagan and founding partner of the Edison Project: ''Testing and assessment has run into a buzz saw on Capitol Hill. The status quo in education doesn't want measures of how it's doing.'' The problem is not lack of data. Over the past 20 years the National Assessment of Educational Progress has amassed a mountain of test scores. The NAEP is allowed to publish only information on how well America's fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders are doing as a group. So we know, for instance, that in 1990 only 46% of high school seniors demonstrated a consistent grasp of decimals, percents, fractions, and simple algebra. But under federal law, the data cannot compare individual kids, schools, or school districts. Says Finn: ''The closer you get to where the rubber hits the road, the harder it is to get anyone to agree there ought to be data.'' NATIONAL EXAMS are common in most other industrialized countries. Why, other than a fear of accountability on the part of teachers and administrators, should the U.S. not adopt them? The main objection is rooted in this country's strong adherence to local control of education. In a nation so large and diverse, the argument goes, a uniform exam will inevitably fail to take into account profound regional differences. But Albert Shanker, the progressive head of the American Federation of Teachers, rightly gives the back of his hand to this objection. ''Does diversity mean that different races and religions and peoples do not have to reach high levels on reading, writing, and mathematics?'' he asks. ''That seems to me one monumental excuse.'' To put teeth into national standards, political leaders in Washington will likely have to embrace far bolder measures. Boston University President John Silber suggests either withholding federal funds from communities that don't test or rewarding teachers and school systems that demonstrate their competency with salary increases, tax exemptions, or special bonuses. Says he: ''The carrot or the stick, that's the way you enforce accountability.'' Finally, education reformers should begin thinking harder about how to use Ross Perot's favorite medium -- television. Anyone seeking proof that TV can alter people's behavior should talk to Arnold Shapiro, producer of the popular television series Rescue 911, as well as numerous documentaries, including the September special on child abuse, Scared Silent. After the latter aired, 125,000 viewers looking for help called a hotline number featured on the show. One man, a wanted child molester in Las Vegas, turned himself in to the police. Says Taxi star turned producer Tony Danza: ''TV is the greatest tool, and we're not using it.'' The main barrier to getting more and better educational shows on the air is low ratings. Networks want to run shows that companies will sponsor, and companies want to sponsor shows that people will watch. Fourteen of the 16 documentaries that Shapiro has produced in the past eight years have been underwritten by one company: USAA. This insurance company does this not to market its products (which can be sold only to military officers and their dependents), but because it has a civic-minded CEO, retired Air Force general Robert McDermott. Says Shapiro: ''I know there are other USAAs out there. We just have to find them.'' Members of Education First, a Hollywood organization founded by Lynda Guber and Carole Isenberg, former New York City teachers turned TV and film producers, spend their days prodding writers, producers, and network executives to create and air shows that incorporate positive educational messages. In the spring of 1991, the networks and cable carriers inaugurated an Education First week, with over 70 hours of programming that contained such messages -- many of them inserted into prime-time shows like Designing Women. The next Education First week begins November 30. Education First also produced a CBS special in September, Back to School '92, that featured Robin Williams, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Whoopi Goldberg. Despite disappointing ratings, the educational variety show reached 20 million viewers and prompted over 20,000 calls to a hotline set up to connect viewers with centers that combat illiteracy, teen pregnancy, low self- esteem, and high dropout rates. As Guber told FORTUNE's summit participants, ''You've discussed many successful programs here. But what is the delivery system that will expand their impact beyond localized pockets of innovation? Television has the power and skills to carry your success into the grass roots of America.'' She's right -- and the sooner the better. Raising the question that was on many people's minds in Washington this year, Gail Morse, a middle-school science teacher from North Carolina, asks: ''How many conferences do you go to, and how many more will you go to, before we start redesigning them so that we can implement programs when we leave?'' She hopes not many. Adopting her sternest, you-kids-ought-to-be-ashamed-of-yourselves schoolteacher voice, Morse adds, ''My students are not getting any younger.''