The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform

The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform


These days everyone is for education reform. The question is which approach is best. I favor the Steve Jobs model.

In 1984 Steve introduced the Mac with a Super Bowl ad. It ran only once. It ran for only one minute. And it shows a female athlete being chased by the helmeted police of some totalitarian regime.

At the climax, the woman rushes up to a large screen where Big Brother is giving a speech. Just as he announces, “We shall prevail,” she hurls her hammer through the screen.

If you ask me what we need to do in education, I would point you to that ad.

At the top end, our public schools are producing fewer and fewer graduates who have the skills necessary for the world’s best jobs. At the bottom, each year more than a million Americans—that’s 7,000 every school day—are dropping out of high school. In the middle, too many American children float from grade to grade in schools that never challenge them to reach their full potential.

A high school student in Casper, Wyo., familiarizes herself with the iPad.

This is unjust, unsustainable and un-American. And it is especially galling because we have the technology to change it.

If you read the front pages of the New York Times, they will tell you that technology’s promise has not yet been realized in terms of student performance. My answer is, of course not. If we simply attached computers to leeches, medicine wouldn’t be any better today than it was in the 19th century either.

You don’t get change by plugging in computers to schools designed for the industrial age. You get it by deploying technology that rewrites the rules of the game.

Our children are growing up in Steve Jobs’s world. They are eager to learn and quick to embrace new technology. Outside the classroom they take technology for granted—in what they read, in how they listen to music, in how they shop.

The minute they step back into their classrooms, it’s like going back in time. The top-down, one-size-fits-all approach frustrates the ones who could do more advanced work. And it leaves further and further behind those who need extra help to keep up.

Teachers are likewise stunted. Some excel at lecturing. Some are better at giving personal attention. With the right structure, they would work together like a football team. With the existing structure, they are treated like interchangeable cogs.

The point I’m making isn’t about Apple. It’s about our colossal failure of imagination. The education industry bears a good part of the blame here. It continues to sell its tired wares into a failing status quo. It settles for mediocre charter schools. And its answer seems to be throwing more money at the problem.

Three decades ago, the Department of Education released a report noting that if an unfriendly foreign power had imposed our mediocre education system on us, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” In the three decades since, per-pupil spending on K-12 education has doubled—while achievement scores have been flat.

That’s where technology comes in. Just as the iPod compelled the music industry to accommodate its customers, we can use technology to force the education system to meet the needs of the individual student.

For example, say I was trying to teach a 10-year-old about Bernoulli’s principle. According to this principle, when speed is high, pressure is low. Sounds dry and abstract.

But what if I could bring this lesson alive by linking it to the soccer star Roberto Carlos—showing students a video clip that illustrates how his famous curved shot is an example of Bernoulli’s principle in action. Then suppose I followed up with an engineer from Boeing—who explained why this same principle is critical in aviation and introduced an app that could help students master the concept through playing a game. Finally, assessment tools would give teachers instant feedback about how well their students had mastered the material.

Better doesn’t have to be more expensive, either. For example, Georgia state legislators now spend $40 million a year on textbooks. They are considering iPads to save money and boost performance. Unlike a textbook—which is outdated the moment it is printed—digital texts can be updated.

Textbooks aren’t the only area for savings. Rocketship charter schools in San Jose, Calif., use a model that combines traditional classroom learning with tutor-led small groups and individualized instruction through online technology. So far the mix has brought higher performance with lower costs—savings that can be used to pay teachers more, hire tutors, and so on.

Let’s be clear: Technology is never going to replace teachers. What technology can do is give teachers closer, more human and more rewarding interactions with their students. It can give children lesson plans tailored to their pace and needs. And it can give school districts a way to improve performance in the classroom while saving their taxpayers money.

Everything we need to do is possible now. But the investments the private sector needs to make will not happen until we have a clear answer to a basic question: What is the core body of knowledge our children need to know?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on academic standards. But as a business leader, I do know something about how common standards unlock investment and unleash innovation. For example, once we established standards for MP3 and Wi-Fi, innovators had every incentive to invest their brains and capital in building the very best products compatible with those standards.

We are now seeing the same thing happening in education. Over the last few years, leaders and educators in more than 40 states have come together to reach agreement on what their students should know and be able to do in math and English—and by what grades.

They have come together because they have taken a look around the world. They know that the student in, say, San Francisco is not just competing against his classmate—or even against the kid from St. Louis. He or she is competing with his peers in Shanghai, Lima and Prague.

Steve Jobs knew all about competitive markets. He once likened our school system to the old phone monopoly. “I remember,” he said in a 1995 interview, “seeing a bumper sticker with the Bell Logo on it and it said ‘We don’t care. We don’t have to.’ And that’s what a monopoly is. That’s what IBM was in their day. And that’s certainly what the public school system is. They don’t have to care.”

We have to care. In this new century, good is not good enough. Put simply, we must approach education the way Steve Jobs approached every industry he touched. To be willing to blow up what doesn’t work or gets in the way. And to make our bet that if we can engage a child’s imagination, there’s no limit to what he or she can learn.

Mr. Murdoch is chairman and CEO of News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal and a new Education Division. This article is adapted from his remarks Friday to the Foundation for Excellence in Education Summit in San Francisco.

What if the NFL Played by Teachers’ Rules?

What if the NFL Played by Teachers’ Rules?

Imagine a league where players who make it through three seasons could never be cut from the roster.


 Imagine the National Football League in an alternate reality. Each player’s salary is based on how long he’s been in the league. It’s about tenure, not talent. The same scale is used for every player, no matter whether he’s an All-Pro quarterback or the last man on the roster. For every year a player’s been in this NFL, he gets a bump in pay. The only difference between Tom Brady and the worst player in the league is a few years of step increases. And if a player makes it through his third season, he can never be cut from the roster until he chooses to retire, except in the most extreme cases of misconduct.

Let’s face the truth about this alternate reality: The on-field product would steadily decline. Why bother playing harder or better and risk getting hurt?

No matter how much money was poured into the league, it wouldn’t get better. In fact, in many ways the disincentive to play harder or to try to stand out would be even stronger with more money.

Of course, a few wild-eyed reformers might suggest the whole system was broken and needed revamping to reward better results, but the players union would refuse to budge and then demonize the reform advocates: “They hate football. They hate the players. They hate the fans.” The only thing that might get done would be building bigger, more expensive stadiums and installing more state-of-the-art technology. But that just wouldn’t help.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the NFL in this alternate reality is the real -life American public education system. Teachers’ salaries have no relation to whether teachers are actually good at their job—excellence isn’t rewarded, and neither is extra effort. Pay is almost solely determined by how many years they’ve been teaching. That’s it. After a teacher earns tenure, which is often essentially automatic, firing him or her becomes almost impossible, no matter how bad the performance might be. And if you criticize the system, you’re demonized for hating teachers and not believing in our nation’s children.

Inflation-adjusted spending per student in the United States has nearly tripled since 1970. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we spend more per student than any nation except Switzerland, with only middling results to show for it.

Over the past 20 years, we’ve been told that a big part of the problem is crumbling schools—that with new buildings and computers in every classroom, everything would improve. But even though spending on facilities and equipment has more than doubled since 1989 (again adjusted for inflation), we’re still not seeing results, and officials assume the answer is that we haven’t spent enough.

These same misguided beliefs are front and center in President Obama’s jobs plan, which includes billions for “public school modernization.” The popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. We’ve been spending billions of dollars on school modernization for decades, and I suspect we could keep on doing it until the end of the world, without much in the way of academic results. The only beneficiaries are the teachers unions.

Some reformers, including Bill Gates, are finally catching on that our federally centralized, union-created system provides no incentive for better performance. If anything, it penalizes those who work hard because they spend time, energy and their own money to help students, only to get the same check each month as the worst teacher in the district (or an even smaller one, if that teacher has been there longer). Is it any surprise, then, that so many good teachers burn out or become disenchanted?

Perhaps no other sector of American society so demonstrates the failure of government spending and interference. We’ve destroyed individual initiative, individual innovation and personal achievement, and marginalized anyone willing to point it out. As one of my coaches used to say, “You don’t get vast results with half-vast efforts!”

The results we’re looking for are students learning, so we need to reward great teachers who show they can make that happen—and get rid of bad teachers who don’t get the job done. It’s what we do in every other profession: If you’re good, you get rewarded, and if you’re not, then you look for other work. It’s fine to look for ways to improve the measuring tools, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Our rigid, top-down, union-dictated system isn’t working. If results are the objective, then we need to loosen the reins, giving teachers the ability to fulfill their responsibilities to students to the best of their abilities, not to the letter of the union contract and federal standards.

Mr. Tarkenton, an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback with the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Giants from 1961 to 1978, is an entrepreneur who runs two websites devoted to small business education.


Education policy has failed kids

Education policy has failed kids

Nicholas Wishek: Education policy has failed kids

October 04, 2011|By NICHOLAS WISHEK

When I originally heard that President Barack Obama was going to allow states to opt out of the No Child Left Behind program, my reaction was that it was a good start. After hearing more details, it looks like just more of the same. All the Obama waiver appears to have done is to lift the NCLB 2014 deadline of 100 percent proficiency for all students as the price for accepting more of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top agenda for education. Neither program, though well-intentioned, is a viable solution to the massive problems facing public education in America.

Most people recognize that public education in its present form is failing. Since “A Nation at Risk,” a landmark report on education reform, was published in 1983, test scores have basically flat-lined. Too many schools haven’t gotten better in spite of multibillions of dollars spent to improve education.

A solid case can be made that many children are not getting as good an education as their parents did. Paul Peterson wrote in his “The Decline and Fall of American Education” that Americans educated 30, 40 and 50 years ago compared better with the rest of the world than those graduating today. He writes, “All signs point to a deterioration in the quality of American schools. … In the United States stagnation if not decline has been apparent at least since the 1970s.”

So why? Some, like John Stossel, in his recently aired TV special “Stupid in America,” primarily blame the teachers unions for protecting bad teachers. He suggests incompetent teachers are the main reason public education is failing.

Are there inept teachers? Well, sure. Are there so many of them that they are the cause of the widespread problems in public education? Not likely.

The fault more realistically belongs with those who make educational policy. Those decision-makers, many of whom are ivory-tower theorists who have never been teachers, demand the impossible. These policy-makers are reminiscent of some World War I generals. Safe in their tidy headquarters miles from the front, these commanders directed troops by moving brightly colored pins on a map, never equating moving a pin with sending thousands of soldiers out of their trenches to struggle through knee-deep mud, trying to cross a No Man’s Land of barbed wire, poison gas and machine gun fire.

Back in the educational trenches, teachers are ordered by detached policy-makers to meet impossible goals. These theorists might better ask themselves why students in private and charter schools so often do better than those in public schools. The primary advantage private schools and charter schools have is that most of their students either want to learn themselves, or have parents who motivate them to learn. This is not the case for far too many students in public schools.

Critics like Stossel maintain that good teachers should be able to so motivate students to become eager learners. If only it were so simple. The reality is that all teachers are not Jaime Escalante. Nor should they have to be to be effective. And, it should be remembered that Escalante, the Los Angeles teacher depicted in “Stand and Deliver,” taught students who voluntarily signed up for his classes. He helped them all he could, but the students still had to choose to attend his classes.

Compounding this lack of student motivation is the choice of curriculum offered in public schools. Aside from the fact that there are not enough hours in the school day to teach everything demanded by the bureaucrats in charge, the choices reflect the preconceived notions, almost snobbery, of what the policy-makers think is important. In truth, every child doesn’t want to be a scientist or mathematician or even to go to college. Ironically, while educational theorists recognize the existence of different learning modalities, this hasn’t translated into course offerings. By middle school and, certainly, by high school, students should be offered courses to help them be successful in skilled trades or vocations.

Students who see no appreciable benefit in courses offered have no incentive to apply themselves. This alone would make it more difficult to teach a class, but these disengaged students too often disrupt the learning process for others. To cope with this, teachers aren’t allowed much in the way of tools for classroom control.

Yet, teachers are still expected to teach unwilling students and then be judged on how well they scored on standardized achievement tests. Neither NCLB nor its presumed successor, Race to the Top, addresses these realities. Education should be more than preparing for standardized tests in reading and math.

It would be truly enlightening to see how well those who make educational policy would fare if they had to teach a year in one of the classrooms they determined was failing.

At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope

At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope

Jeremy Davidson, an art teacher at Manual Arts High, walks off the job because of unruly students. Many share his sense of frustration.

Art teacher Jeremy Davidson skipped the annual back-to-school-night at Manual Arts High this week.

He’d walked off the job the day before — after 10 years at the mid-city campus — done in by a group of unruly ninth-graders who’d hijacked his sixth-period drawing class.

While Davidson was “trying to give a lesson on shading,” the troublemakers were “whacking each other with rulers, throwing paper across the room, getting up and walking around.”

They blocked the door when he tried to close it, talked over him when he tried to teach.

The first time it happened this semester, he summoned security “four times during the period and help never came.”

Day after frustrating day, he said, the scenario replayed. And when he sought support, administrators met his request with a checklist: Have you contacted their parents? Have you encouraged the students? Have you treated them with respect?

Davidson bristled at the implication. “Seven students needed to be removed, so I could teach the other 45. … And I’m expected to spend a week providing all this documentation, while these kids spend 50 minutes each day destroying the class for everyone else.”

So two weeks after the school year began Sept. 7 — after a string of sleepless nights — Davidson called his principal from class midmorning and said: “It would be best if you got me covered so I can pack my things and go.”

Davidson shared his story with me a few hours after he left campus. Two days earlier, he had emailed The Times, complaining about “the awful conditions” at Manual Arts.

“The overcrowded, dirty classrooms, and lack of support from administrators, is demoralizing and crushing the teachers — and not fair to students,” he wrote.

Still, I had to wonder, what kind of teacher abandons those students when the semester has barely begun? A teacher at the end of his rope, Davidson told me; one who has had his fill of broken promises and dashed hopes.

“You keep raising your expectations, but nothing changes,” he said. “After all these years, I look around and see that things are just getting worse.”

After spending years on a year-round schedule, Manual Arts switched this month to a traditional school calendar, which puts 3,200 students on a campus built for 1,000, during a year when the Los Angeles Unified School District is drastically cutting teachers and funding.

Officials with the reform group LA’s Promise, which runs Manual Arts, decided to make the move even though a campus designated to take its overflow will not open until next year; the new calendar has students in school for 22 more days than last year.

That extra time is important to a school with some of the district’s lowest test scores, where two-thirds of the students drop out. But after talking to teachers this week, I wonder if the benefits will trump the chaos.

Classes are crammed into “every available space,” they said; offices, wood shop, the library and computer labs. Teachers travel from room to room. There aren’t enough desks. The lines in the cafeteria are so long that students wind up missing lunch. There aren’t enough security guards to handle problems, or enough custodians to clean the 17-acre campus.

Two weeks into the school year, English teacher Antero Garcia said students still didn’t have lockers. “The administrator who did that job left, and no one else was assigned to do that.”

And textbooks didn’t arrive until Friday for some Spanish, algebra and history classes. “It will be the start of week four before every kid has a textbook in their hands,” said history teacher Daniel Beebe, who had “zero” textbooks for 160 students in U.S. history and government classes.

Beebe is the chapter chair for the teachers’ union. He’s also one of the school’s traveling instructors, with “a little black backpack and five minutes after every class to pack up, run to the next classroom and set up.”

The class average is 42 students for 11th and 12th grades, and 32 for freshmen and sophomores. Davidson’s sculpture and photography classes had 60 and 65 pupils — and a budget that allocated about $2 for supplies for each student, he said.

I couldn’t reach an administrator at the school on Thursday or Friday; my telephone calls went to voice mail and I never heard back. The superintendent of LA’s Promise, Rupi Boyd, did email me a statement that read, in part:

“Class size is consistent with current LAUSD norms. We have started off the school year with a new principal, a re-invigorated teaching staff and students who want to learn.”

I wonder how much time Boyd is spending on campus. “Every single teacher I’ve talked to is frustrated this year,” said Garcia, who has taught at Manual Arts for seven years and runs a blog on education reform. “People are feeling burned out already, in the second week of school.”

Teachers knew the change would be challenging. “But we saw this calendar as [a way of] raising scores,” he said. “I think there are many of us who, if we could, would go back to a three-track schedule in a heartbeat now.”

I’ve followed Manual Arts’ ups and downs for years. It’s an institution in Los Angeles, with 100 years of history. And it’s a reflection of the challenges of educating this city’s least advantaged kids.

The school was handed off two years ago to LA’s Promise, which has built a culture of success at the nearby, newly built West Adams Prep.

But Manual Arts is a bigger project. The school has had 10 principals in 10 years. Its faculty long has been considered a combustible mix of firebrand activists and holding-out-for-retirement deadwood.

LA’s Promise deserves credit for pointing the school toward success: a big jump in the percentage of 10th-graders passing the exit exam, and a 43-point increase in Academic Performance Index scores last spring. But improvement seems so fragile, help so fleeting. “It’s like we’re bombarded with change, but nothing ever changes,” Davidson said. “Everybody wants this to work, but what will it take to make it?”

That’s a question for my Tuesday column. In the meantime, Davidson’s decided not to resign, but instead ask for a leave of absence. “I still love teaching,” he insists. “And I’ve got some very talented kids.”

Don’t give up


Don’t give up

OFTEN LIFE DOESN’T go in the direction we want it to. Does that mean our lives are doomed and we can’t achieve the success we dream of? Let’s be realistic: Everybody fails. Consider the following.

Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Disney went bankrupt several times before he built Disneyland. Infact, the proposed park was rejected by the city of Anaheim, California, on the grounds that it would only attract “riffraff.”

Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He was fired from his first two jobs for being “nonproductive.” As an inventor, Edison made more than 1,000 unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb. When a reporter asked him how it felt to fail 1,000 times, Edison said that he didn’t fail all those times, but that the light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.

Albert Einstein did not speak until he was 4 years old and did not read until he was 7. His parents thought he was “subnormal,” and one of his teachers described him as “mentally slow, unsociable and adrift forever in foolish dreams.” He was expelled from school.

Every cartoon that Charles Schulz, creator of the comic strip Peanuts, submitted to the yearbook staff at his high school was rejected.

After Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the memo from the testing director of MGM, dated 1933, read, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” Astaire kept that memo over the fireplace in his Beverly Hills home.

Decca Records turned down a recording contract with The Beatles with this fascinating evaluation: “We don’t like their sound. Guitar groups are on their way out.”

A friend of mine in the music industry personally auditioned a singer by the name of Reg Dwight in the 1960s. He unceremoniously shoved the singer out of his office for wasting his time. That singer is now better known as Elton John.

Imagine if these individuals had given up, believing they were doomed to failure and would never achieve success. Do you think they ever felt down and depressed? Sure.  But they didn’t allow a gloomy state to overtake them, to overpower their desire to succeed. In every case they did succeed—in a huge way, far greater than their wildest dreams. Bad experiences can be viewed as positive in hindsight. They can be stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks. It’s your choice. But be determined to never give up.

College bubble the next to burst?

College bubble the next to burst?

Michael Barone: College bubble the next to burst?

When governments want to encourage what they believe is beneficial behavior, they subsidize it. Sounds like good public policy.

But there can be problems. Behavior that is beneficial for most people may not be so for everybody. And government subsidies can go too far.

Subsidies create incentives for what economists call rent-seeking behavior. Providers of supposedly beneficial goods or services try to sop up as much of the subsidy money as they can by raising prices. After all, their customers are paying with money supplied by the government.

Bubble money, as it turns out. And sooner or later, bubbles burst.

We are still suffering from the bursting of the housing bubble created by low interest rates, lowered mortgage standards, and subsidies to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those policies encouraged the granting of mortgages to people who should never have gotten them – and when they defaulted, the whole financial sector nearly collapsed.

Now some people see signs that another bubble is bursting. They call it the higher-education bubble.

For years, government has assumed it’s a good thing to go to college. College graduates tend to earn more money than non-college graduates.

Politicians of both parties have called for giving everybody a chance to go to college, just as they called for giving everybody a chance to buy a home.

So government has been subsidizing higher education with low-interest college loans, Pell grants, and cheap tuitions at state colleges and universities.

The predictable result is that higher education costs have risen much faster than inflation, much faster than personal incomes, much faster than the economy over the past 40 years.

Moreover, you can’t get out of paying off those college loans, even by going through bankruptcy. At least with a home mortgage, you can walk away and let the bank foreclose and not owe any more money.

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, is adept at spotting bubbles. He sold out for $500 million in March 2000, at the peak of the tech bubble, when his partners wanted to hold out for more. He refused to buy a house until the housing bubble burst.

“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he has said. “Education may still be the only thing people still believe in, in the United States.”

But the combination of rising costs and dubious quality may be undermining that belief.

For what have institutions of higher learning done with their vast increases in revenues? The answer in all too many cases is administrative bloat.

Take the California State University system, the second tier in that state’s public higher education. Between 1975 and 2008, the number of faculty rose by 3 percent, to 12,019 positions. During those same years, the number of administrators rose 221 percent, to 12,183. That’s right: There are more administrators than teachers at Cal State now.

These people get paid to “liaise” and “facilitate” and produce reports on diversity. How that benefits Cal State students or California taxpayers is unclear.

It is often said that American colleges and universities are the best in the world. That’s undoubtedly true in the hard sciences.

But in the humanities and to a lesser extent in the social sciences, there’s a lot of garbage. Is a degree in religious and women’s studies worth $100,000 in student loan debt? Probably not.

As economist Richard Vedder points out, 45 percent of those who enter four-year colleges don’t get a degree within six years.

Given the low achievement level of most high school graduates, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many of them shouldn’t have bothered in the first place.

Now consumers seem to be reading the cues in the marketplace.

An increasing number of students are spending their first two years after high school in low-cost community colleges and then transferring to four-year schools.

A recent New York Times story reported that out-of-staters are flocking to low-tuition North Dakota State in frigid Fargo.

Politicians, including Barack Obama, still give lip service to the notion that everyone should go to college and can profit from it. And many college and university administrators may assume that the gravy train will go on forever.

But that’s what Las Vegas real estate developers and homebuilders thought in 2006. My sense is once again well-intentioned public policy and greedy providers have produced a bubble that is about to burst.

The government we deserve

The government we deserve

I look at the mess the federal government and most state governments are in and wonder how in the heck we got into such a dilemma. The obvious answer would be that our elected leaders have screwed up beyond belief. To some extent that is true, of course, but a more accurate reason for the predicament we are in is that the electorate not only elected these clowns to begin with, but has continued to reelect them time and time again.

Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.” Truer words were never written.

Some try to excuse the voters by claiming that the mainstream media does a very poor job presenting them with the facts. To some extent that is true, but the reality is that the information is out there and available to any citizen who wishes to be informed. Sadly, way, way, too many don’t care to be.

The fault, I believe, is with the dismal state of the social studies curriculum in schools. For nearly 40 years I saw firsthand how poorly history was covered. Lately, it has gotten only worse. The No Child Left Behind emphasis on reading and math scores has taken even more time away from social studies. Now, the Obama administration’s emphasis about the importance of science is taking even more away from social studies.

Don’t get me wrong. Math and science are important, but only a tiny fraction of our students will become mathematicians or scientists. All our students, well, at least those here legally, will become eligible voters.

A Marist poll in July 2010 asked, “On July 4th we celebrate Independence Day. From which country did the United States win its independence?” Only 74 percent of those questioned answered correctly and just 60 percent of those ages 18-29. Yet these are the people who can elect our leaders. Columnist Thomas Sowell said it best when he wrote, “Without a sense of responsible citizenship, voters can elect leaders who are not merely incompetent or corrupt, but even leaders with contempt for the constitutional limitations on government power that preserve the people’s freedom.”

We already have far too many elected officials who are guilty of a weak understanding of our history. Our vice president, the self-described smartest man in the room, told us in 2008 that when the stock market crashed in 1929, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on national TV and put the public’s fears to rest. Of course, Roosevelt wasn’t sworn in as president until 1933, and television didn’t come into wide use until the 1950s. FDR’s “fireside chats” were broadcast by radio. And this man is one heartbeat away from being the leader of the free world.

The current leader of the free world seems similarly clueless.

A June 2009 column in National Review by historian and syndicated writer Victor Davis Hanson listed many of his concerns about President Barack Obama’s understanding of history and cavalier approach to historical facts. Since then he could have added dozens of more examples, including the president’s inaccurate description of Arizona’s much maligned immigration law.

So what can be done about electing more responsible leaders, people who have some sense of history and our Constitution? Ideally, some kind of voter literacy test, similar to the citizenship test immigrants must pass to become citizens, would help. In reality, such an idea would never be implemented, because, for starters, it would risk the reelection of too many current politicians.

What can and should be done is to reform how schools teach social studies. First, it ought to be recognized that one of the most important goals of education is to produce good citizens. Citizens who will make good decisions. In elementary schools, where such a foundation is laid, teachers seldom get through the entire social studies text.

One way to improve this situation would be to use historical fiction as the reading curriculum. Well-researched historical fiction can help children realize that social studies is not boring; it is the story of people.

Second, the political correctness of texts needs to be addressed. Inaccurate history is not history. Sadly, too many teachers, at all levels, are historically challenged or extremely slanted in their historical point of view. As Sgt. Friday in “Dragnet” would say, “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.” School administrators should work to make sure this is the way history is taught.

This is not a quick fix. It will take time. Hopefully, in 10 or 20 years more than 60 percent of young voters will know that we won our independence from England.



If The dog ate your homework, read this

If The dog ate your homework, read this

A community college English teacher tries to impart a life lesson to students who can, but don’t, try hard enough.

By Jaime O’Neill    May 22, 2011

Dear Students,
I taught my first freshman composition class more than 40 years ago. Your class is my last. We began the semester with 36 students. I predicted on the first day that I would probably wind up giving grades to half that many. Had I been more strict about dropping people whose attendance was erratic and whose assignments weren’t coming in, I would have been right. But I let lots of students slide. I didn’t drop people who weren’t showing up, nor did I drop the people who weren’t doing the work. That was no favor because now I’m forced to give grades that will narrow future options for people who might have gone further, had they only tried. If you were one of the students who missed more than five or six classes, or who failed to turn in most of the assignments, you need to ask yourself if you’re making good use of your time. There are always excuses for not showing up, or not turning work in. I’ve heard them all. But lives built on excuses generally don’t turn out well.

There were a handful of people in this class who made it here every day, always with the assigned writing completed. If I were an employer, these are the people I would want as employees.

But I have never liked to think of myself as working to provide a screening process for your future bosses. I like to think I’m working for you, and helping build your futures as more fully realized human beings. In that light, some of you have failed this semester. You’ve failed yourselves. As a result, some of you learned very little and showed no discernible improvement in your writing, wasting your time and mine.

I never find it pleasant or productive to guilt-trip students. But if just one of you reads these words and decides to take your education a bit more seriously, it was worth writing them.

Few people care whether you succeed or fail. You are not showing up to class for your teachers or even your parents. You’re not doing these assignments for anyone but yourselves. If you cut classes because your teachers bore you, then you should be dropping those classes, not piddling away your GPA.

I went to a community college too. I screwed up in high school, graduating in the bottom third of my class. But I married and became a father not long thereafter. Those responsibilities made me quite serious about the second chance offered by the community college system. It’s difficult to maintain a slacker attitude when you’re up nightly with 2 o’clock feedings of an infant daughter whose vulnerability and dependence on you are impossible to overlook. Had I not shown up regularly and done the work conscientiously, I would have blown that second chance. I would have had a much different life, a much poorer one, not only materially but intellectually and even spiritually. And my children would have had poorer lives too, because what I learned in college was shared with them in ways too numerous to count. I’ve never regretted the portion of my youth that I devoted to study.

And I’ve never regretted spending so much of my adult life teaching in community colleges. I’m glad I was able to help some of my students get their own second chances. Most of the people who attend community colleges have very little handed to them. We are not favored by wealth or connections. Unlike the Donald Trumps of the world, those born to the mansion, the way is not made easy for us. So it is something of a crime against our very selves when we squander the second chance when it is offered.

Some of you did just that this semester, throwing away time and opportunity. If next semester provides another opportunity, I hope you will seize it. Life has a way of getting serious with us well before some of us decide to get serious with it. By that time, it may be too late to build the life you might have wanted.

And if you don’t know just what it is you do want, drop out of school until you figure it out. If you misuse your time here, you will erode the chance you have for a more hopeful future. In the papers you wrote, I occasionally pointed out cliches in your prose. In this note to you, however, I have turned myself into a living cliche, an old teacher scolding the young for lack of seriousness. But ignore the hectoring of an old man who has traveled the road that lies ahead of you and you could become your own living cliche — the loser who squandered opportunity. My hope is that you do not.

Jaime O’Neill is a writer in Northern California.



In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a “college of last resort” explains why.

By Professor X

I work part-time in the evenings as an adjunct instructor of English. I teach two courses, Introduction to College Writing (English 101) and Introduction to College Literature (English 102), at a small private college and at a community college. The campuses are physically lovely—quiet havens of ornate stonework and columns, Gothic Revival archways, sweeping quads, and tidy Victorian scalloping. Students chat or examine their cell phones or study languidly under spreading trees. Balls click faintly against bats on the athletic fields. Inside the arts and humanities building, my students and I discuss Shakespeare, Dubliners, poetic rhythms, and Edward Said. We might seem, at first glance, to be enacting some sort of college idyll. We could be at Harvard. But this is not Harvard, and our classes are no idyll. Beneath the surface of this serene and scholarly mise-en-scène roil waters of frustration and bad feeling, for these colleges teem with students who are in over their heads.

Also see:

An Anti-College Backlash? (March 31, 2011)
Americans are finally starting to ask: “Is all this higher education really necessary?” By Professor X

I work at colleges of last resort. For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. Those I teach don’t come up in the debates about adolescent overachievers and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé.

Some of their high-school transcripts are newly minted, others decades old. Many of my students have returned to college after some manner of life interregnum: a year or two of post-high-school dissolution, or a large swath of simple middle-class existence, 20 years of the demands of home and family. They work during the day and come to class in the evenings. I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.

My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses. For many of my students, this is difficult. Some of the young guys, the police-officers-to-be, have wonderfully open faces across which play their every passing emotion, and when we start reading “Araby” or “Barn Burning,” their boredom quickly becomes apparent. They fidget; they prop their heads on their arms; they yawn and sometimes appear to grimace in pain, as though they had been tasered. Their eyes implore: How could you do this to me?

The goal of English 101 is to instruct students in the sort of expository writing that theoretically will be required across the curriculum. My students must venture the compare-and-contrast paper, the argument paper, the process-analysis paper (which explains how some action is performed—as a lab report might), and the dreaded research paper, complete with parenthetical citations and a listing of works cited, all in Modern Language Association format. In 102, we read short stories, poetry, and Hamlet, and we take several stabs at the only writing more dreaded than the research paper: the absolutely despised Writing About Literature.

Class time passes in a flash—for me, anyway, if not always for my students. I love trying to convey to a class my passion for literature, or the immense satisfaction a writer can feel when he or she nails a point. When I am at my best, and the students are in an attentive mood—generally, early in the semester—the room crackles with positive energy. Even the cops-to-be feel driven to succeed in the class, to read and love the great books, to explore potent themes, to write well.

The bursting of our collective bubble comes quickly. A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them. Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught.

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile.

Our textbook boils effective writing down to a series of steps. It devotes pages and pages to the composition of a compare-and-contrast essay, with lots of examples and tips and checklists. “Develop a plan of organization and stick to it,” the text chirrups not so helpfully. Of course any student who can, does, and does so automatically, without the textbook’s directive. For others, this seems an impossible task. Over the course of 15 weeks, some of my best writers improve a little. Sometimes my worst writers improve too, though they rarely, if ever, approach base-level competence.

How I envy professors in other disciplines! How appealing seems the straightforwardness of their task! These are the properties of a cell membrane, kid. Memorize ’em, and be ready to spit ’em back at me. The biology teacher also enjoys the psychic ease of grading multiple-choice tests. Answers are right or wrong. The grades cannot be questioned. Quantifying the value of a piece of writing, however, is intensely subjective, and English teachers are burdened with discretion. (My students seem to believe that my discretion is limitless. Some of them come to me at the conclusion of a course and matter-of-factly ask that I change a failing grade because they need to graduate this semester or because they worked really hard in the class or because they need to pass in order to receive tuition reimbursement from their employer.)

I wonder, sometimes, at the conclusion of a course, when I fail nine out of 15 students, whether the college will send me a note either (1) informing me of a serious bottleneck in the march toward commencement and demanding that I pass more students, or (2) commending me on my fiscal ingenuity—my high failure rate forces students to pay for classes two or three times over.

What actually happens is that nothing happens. I feel no pressure from the colleges in either direction. My department chairpersons, on those rare occasions when I see them, are friendly, even warm. They don’t mention all those students who have failed my courses, and I don’t bring them up. There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.

Recently, I gave a student a failing grade on her research paper. She was a woman in her 40s; I will call her Ms. L. She looked at her paper, and my comments, and the grade. “I can’t believe it,” she said softly. “I was so proud of myself for having written a college paper.”

From the beginning of our association vis-à-vis the research paper, I knew that there would be trouble with Ms. L.

When I give out this assignment, I usually bring the class to the college library for a lesson on Internet-based research. I ask them about their computer skills, and some say they have none, fessing up to being computer illiterate and saying, timorously, how hopeless they are at that sort of thing. It often turns out, though, that many of them have at least sent and received e-mail and Googled their neighbors, and it doesn’t take me long to demonstrate how to search for journal articles in such databases as Academic Search Premier and JSTOR.

Ms. L., it was clear to me, had never been on the Internet. She quite possibly had never sat in front of a computer. The concept of a link was news to her. She didn’t know that if something was blue and underlined, you could click on it. She was preserved in the amber of 1990, struggling with the basic syntax of the World Wide Web. She peered intently at the screen and chewed a fingernail. She was flummoxed.

I had responsibilities to the rest of my students, so only when the class ended could I sit with her and work on some of the basics. It didn’t go well. She wasn’t absorbing anything. The wall had gone up, the wall known to every teacher at every level: the wall of defeat and hopelessness and humiliation, the wall that is an impenetrable barrier to learning. She wasn’t hearing a word I said.

“You might want to get some extra help,” I told her. “You can schedule a private session with the librarian.”

“I’ll get it,” she said. “I just need a little time.”

“You have some computer-skills deficits,” I told her. “You should address them as soon as you can.” I don’t have cause to use much educational jargon, but deficits has often come in handy. It conveys the seriousness of the situation, the student’s jaw-dropping lack of ability, without being judgmental. I tried to jostle her along. “You should schedule that appointment right now. The librarian is at the desk. ”

“I realize I have a lot of work to do,” she said.

Our dialogue had turned oblique, as though we now inhabited a Pinter play.

The research-paper assignment is meant to teach the fundamental mechanics of the thing: how to find sources, summarize or quote them, and cite them, all the while not plagiarizing. Students must develop a strong thesis, not just write what is called a “passive report,” the sort of thing one knocks out in fifth grade on Thomas Edison. This time around, the students were to elucidate the positions of scholars on two sides of a historical controversy. Why did Truman remove MacArthur? Did the United States covertly support the construction of the Berlin Wall? What really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin? Their job in the paper, as I explained it, was to take my arm and introduce me as a stranger to scholars A, B, and C, who stood on one side of the issue, and to scholars D, E, and F, who were firmly on the other—as though they were hosting a party.

A future state trooper snorted. “That’s some dull party,” he said.

At our next meeting after class in the library, Ms. L. asked me whether she could do her paper on abortion. What exactly, I asked, was the historical controversy? Well, she replied, whether it should be allowed. She was stuck, I realized, in the well-worn groove of assignments she had done in high school. I told her that I thought the abortion question was more of an ethical dilemma than a historical controversy.

“I’ll have to figure it all out,” she said.

She switched her topic a half-dozen times; perhaps it would be fairer to say that she never really came up with one. I wondered whether I should just give her one, then decided against it. Devising a topic was part of the assignment.

“What about gun control?” she asked.

I sighed. You could write, I told her, about a particular piece of firearms-related legislation. Historians might disagree, I said, about certain aspects of the bill’s drafting. Remember, though, the paper must be grounded in history. It could not be a discussion of the pros and cons of gun control.

“All right,” she said softly.

Needless to say, the paper she turned in was a discussion of the pros and cons of gun control. At least, I think that was the subject. There was no real thesis. The paper often lapsed into incoherence. Sentences broke off in the middle of a line and resumed on the next one, with the first word inappropriately capitalized. There was some wavering between single- and double-spacing. She did quote articles, but cited only databases—where were the journals themselves? The paper was also too short: a bad job, and such small portions.

“I can’t believe it,” she said when she received her F. “I was so proud of myself for having written a college paper.”

She most certainly hadn’t written a college paper, and she was a long way from doing so. Yet there she was in college, paying lots of tuition for the privilege of pursuing a degree, which she very likely needed to advance at work. Her deficits don’t make her a bad person or even unintelligent or unusual. Many people cannot write a research paper, and few have to do so in their workaday life. But let’s be frank: she wasn’t working at anything resembling a college level.

I gave Ms. L. the F and slept poorly that night. Some of the failing grades I issue gnaw at me more than others. In my ears rang her plaintive words, so emblematic of the tough spot in which we both now found ourselves. Ms. L. had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified for college. What exactly, I wondered, was I grading? I thought briefly of passing Ms. L., of slipping her the old gentlewoman’s C-minus. But I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair to the other students. By passing Ms. L., I would be eroding the standards of the school for which I worked. Besides, I nurse a healthy ration of paranoia. What if she were a plant from The New York Times doing a story on the declining standards of the nation’s colleges? In my mind’s eye, the front page of a newspaper spun madly, as in old movies, coming to rest to reveal a damning headline:



Illiterate Mess Garners ‘Average’ Grade

Adjunct Says Student ‘Needed’ to Pass, ‘Tried Hard’


No, I would adhere to academic standards, and keep myself off the front page.

We think of college professors as being profoundly indifferent to the grades they hand out. My own professors were fairly haughty and aloof, showing little concern for the petty worries, grades in particular, of their students. There was an enormous distance between students and professors. The full-time, tenured professors at the colleges where I teach may likewise feel comfortably separated from those whom they instruct. Their students, the ones who attend class during daylight hours, tend to be younger than mine. Many of them are in school on their parents’ dime. Professors can fail these young people with emotional impunity because many such failures are the students’ own fault: too much time spent texting, too little time with the textbooks.

But my students and I are of a piece. I could not be aloof, even if I wanted to be. Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up. I’m working a second job; they’re trying desperately to get to a place where they don’t have to. All any of us wants is a free evening. Many of my students are in the vicinity of my own age. Whatever our chronological ages, we are all adults, by which I mean thoroughly saddled with children and mortgages and sputtering careers. We all show up for class exhausted from working our full-time jobs. We carry knapsacks and briefcases overspilling with the contents of our hectic lives. We smell of the food we have eaten that day, and of the food we carry with us for the evening. We reek of coffee and tuna oil. The rooms in which we study have been used all day, and are filthy. Candy wrappers litter the aisles. We pile our trash daintily atop filled garbage cans.

During breaks, my students scatter to various corners and niches of the building, whip out their cell phones, and try to maintain a home life. Burdened with their own assignments, they gamely try to stay on top of their children’s. Which problems do you have to do? … That’s not too many. Finish that and then do the spelling … No, you can’t watch Grey’s Anatomy.

Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students—whatever you want to call it—is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford’s Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.

There is a sense that the American workforce needs to be more professional at every level. Many jobs that never before required college now call for at least some post-secondary course work. School custodians, those who run the boilers and spread synthetic sawdust on vomit, may not need college—but the people who supervise them, who decide which brand of synthetic sawdust to procure, probably do. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed? Will it benefit the correctional officer to have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? The health-care worker Arrowsmith? Should the child-welfare officer read Plath’s “Daddy”? Such one-to-one correspondences probably don’t hold. But although I may be biased, being an English instructor and all, I can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and broadening and ultimately good for you. If I should fall ill, I suppose I would rather the hospital billing staff had read The Pickwick Papers, particularly the parts set in debtors’ prison.

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

We may look mild-mannered, we adjunct instructors, but we are academic button men. I roam the halls of academe like a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book, “a thing of blood, whose every motion / Was timed with dying cries.”

I knew that Ms. L.’s paper would fail. I knew it that first night in the library. But I couldn’t tell her that she wasn’t ready for an introductory English class. I wouldn’t be saving her from the humiliation of defeat by a class she simply couldn’t handle. I’d be a sexist, ageist, intellectual snob.

In her own mind, Ms. L. had triumphed over adversity. In her own mind, she was a feel-good segment on Oprah. Everyone wants to triumph. But not everyone can—in fact, most can’t. If they could, it wouldn’t be any kind of a triumph at all. Never would I want to cheapen the accomplishments of those who really have conquered college, who were able to get past their deficits and earn a diploma, maybe even climbing onto the college honor roll. That is truly something.

One of the things I try to do on the first night of English 102 is relate the literary techniques we will study to novels that the students have already read. I try to find books familiar to everyone. This has so far proven impossible. My students don’t read much, as a rule, and though I think of them monolithically, they don’t really share a culture. To Kill a Mockingbird? Nope. (And I thought everyone had read that!) Animal Farm? No. If they have read it, they don’t remember it. The Outsiders? The Chocolate War? No and no. Charlotte’s Web? You’d think so, but no. So then I expand the exercise to general works of narrative art, meaning movies, but that doesn’t work much better. Oddly, there are no movies that they all have seen—well, except for one. They’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz. Some have caught it multiple times. So we work with the old warhorse of a quest narrative. The farmhands’ early conversation illustrates foreshadowing. The witch melts at the climax. Theme? Hands fly up. Everybody knows that one—perhaps all too well. Dorothy learns that she can do anything she puts her mind to and that all the tools she needs to succeed are already within her. I skip the denouement: the intellectually ambitious scarecrow proudly mangles the Pythagorean theorem and is awarded a questionable diploma in a dreamland far removed from reality. That’s art holding up a mirror all too closely to our own poignant scholarly endeavors.

Back to School for the Billionaires

Back to School for the Billionaires

They hoped their cash could transform failing classrooms. They were wrong. NEWSWEEK investigates what their money bought.

Brent Humphreys / Redux

This story was reported and written by Center for Public Integrity.

The richest man in America stepped to the podium and declared war on the nation’s school systems. High schools had become “obsolete” and were “limiting—even ruining—the lives of millions of Americans every year.” The situation had become “almost shameful.” Bill Gates, prep-school grad and college dropout, had come before the National Governors Association seeking converts to his plan to do something about it—a plan he would back with $2 billion of his own cash.

Related: Corporate Titans Who Spent a Fortune on Schools »

Gates’s speech, in February 2005, was a signature moment in what has become a decade-long campaign to improve test scores and graduation rates, waged by a loose alliance of wealthy CEOs who arrived with no particular background in education policy—a fact that has led critics to dismiss them as “the billionaire boys’ club.” Their bets on poor urban schools have been as big as their egos and their bank accounts. Microsoft chairman Gates, computer magnate Michael Dell, investor Eli Broad, and the Walton family of Walmart fame have collectively poured some $4.4 billion into school reform in the past decade through their private foundations.

Has this big money made the big impact that they—as well as teachers, administrators, parents, and students—hoped for? In the first-of-its-kind analysis of the billionaires’ efforts, NEWSWEEK and the Center for Public Integrity crunched the numbers on graduation rates and test scores in 10 major urban districts—from New York City to Oakland—which got windfalls from these four top philanthropists.

The results, though mixed, are dispiriting proof that money alone can’t repair the desperate state of urban education. For all the millions spent on reforms, nine of the 10 school districts studied substantially trailed their state’s proficiency and graduation rates—often by 10 points or more. That’s not to say that the urban districts didn’t make gains.

The good news is many did improve and at a rate faster than their states 60 percent of the time—proof that the billionaires made some solid bets. But those spikes up weren’t enough to erase the deep gulf between poor, inner-city schools, where the big givers focused, and their suburban and rural counterparts.

“A lot of things we do don’t work out,” admitted Broad, a product of Detroit public schools and Michigan State who made a fortune in home building and financial services. “But we can take the criticism.”


The bottom line? The billionaires aspired to A-plus impact and came away with B-minus to C-minus results, according to the NEWSWEEK/CPI investigation, which was based on specially commissioned data and internal numbers shared by the philanthropists’ foundations.

Despite the money, graduation rates in Oakland actually fell by 6 percentage points—though less than the rest of California’s schools, which fell by 9 points. In Houston, graduation rates dropped about 6 points, while the remainder of Texas fell only 2. Graduation rates in New York City, on the other hand, while still trailing state averages significantly, improved markedly—up 18 points, compared with the state’s 10-point rise. Washington, D.C.’s graduation rates dropped slightly, while students’ math and reading proficiency generally improved (not being part of a state, its reading and math performance was measured against the district’s independent charter schools). The city’s education achievements, which have helped fuel a national debate over education reform captured in the hit documentary Waiting for Superman, have lately come under investigation amid suspicions of cheating (a charge the city’s recently resigned schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, denies).

Oakland more often than not was improving faster than the rest of California, but still fared poorly at the high-school level, where reading scores trailed the rest of the state’s average by 18 percentage points in 2010. Similarly, Los Angeles over the five years often outpaced the state’s rate of improvement, but its scores lagged, including by 19 points in middle-school reading.

The confidence that marked Gates’s landmark speech to the governors’ association in 2005 has given way to humility. The billionaires have not retreated. But they have retooled, and learned a valuable lesson about their limitations.

“It’s so hard in this country to spread good practice. When we started funding, we hoped it would spread more readily,” acknowledges Vicki Phillips, the director of K–12 education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “What we learned is that the only things that spread well in school are kids’ viruses.”

Gates has abandoned his $2 billion high-school campaign focused largely on shrinking the overall size of schools in favor of a massive new effort to encourage effective teaching. And Broad put a school-principal training initiative on pause—and focuses instead on charter schools, training administrators and improving teacher performance.

Meanwhile, on the ground in the districts these billionaires selected, the excitement of being chosen for philanthropic funding has all too often given way to diminished expectations.

“The foundations are looking for rapid-fire turnaround. That’s not realistic,” said Hae-Sin Thomas, a former principal who helped manage the Gates-backed small-schools effort in Oakland before the Microsoft guru dropped that campaign.

Oakland’s school system was a case study in dysfunction. Eight years ago, the district’s financial woes led to a state takeover.

That made it a magnet for the billionaires. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation chipped in $6.2 million for its first experiment with broad data-collection methods used to monitor student and school progress. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ponied up some $30 million to help expand on a grassroots effort to shrink the schools. And Broad’s foundation invested $7 million for charter and district schools. “It was a chance to rethink how the district was designed, moving from a concept of a highly bureaucratized school system to a portfolio of schools,” explains Kevin Hall, chief operating officer for Broad’s foundation at the time.

Hopes soared—only to crash back down to earth. The district went through five superintendents in seven years. Enrollment at many schools shrank, and the district is still plagued by a 40 percent high-school dropout rate. In lower grades, better-performing students are fleeing: a third of the kids who are deemed academically proficient by sixth grade are defecting to private, suburban, or charter schools. And at least seven of the 49 new, smaller schools funded by Gates have closed; others are hanging on by a thread.

“There wasn’t a clear and thoughtful long-term plan on how you scale something that everyone needs and sustain it over the long haul,” concedes Tony Smith, the cur-rent school superintendent. “There was a strategy in place to support the creation of schools that would hopefully get to those kinds of ends, but there was no comprehensive shared commitment or framework.” What’s worse, the students who needed the most help, from the “most distressed” families, were often unaware there were better school choices available, he says.

These days, Smith is trying out his own vision of a “full-service community district”—one that tries to address challenges outside the classroom like nutrition and racism. But Gates, Broad, and Dell did leave a legacy for Smith to build on, at least in the lower grades where some schools have seen strong academic growth. The district increased from 11 to 50 the number of schools attaining a score of 700 toward the California achievement target of 800. And between 2008 and 2010, Oakland has outpaced the rest of California in improvement at the elementary- and middle-school levels.

The reform era also left its own financial mess. The officials imported during the salad days left Smith a $25 million deficit, including nearly $6 million in state fines for audit failings.

Smith sees another factor for failure inside a horrific scattering of red dots on a city map he displays on a PowerPoint in his office. Each dot is a student lost to gun violence—a dozen African-American and Latino boys gone since last summer, all slain on the hardscrabble streets of the city across the bay from San Francisco’s famed skyline.

The business titans entered the education arena convinced that America’s schools would benefit greatly from the tools of the boardroom. They sought to boost incentives for improving performance, deploy new technologies, and back innovators willing to shatter old orthodoxies.

They pressed to close schools that were failing, and sought to launch new, smaller ones. They sent principals to boot camp. Battling the long-term worry that the best and brightest passed up the classroom for more lucrative professions, they opened their checkbooks to boost teacher pay.

It was an impressive amount of industry. And in some places, it has worked out—but with unanticipated complications.

One of those places was New York City. Boasting 1 million students spread across 1,700 schools, New York City drew the lion’s share of philanthropy—$270 million from the four billionaires—and saw results. Graduation rates improved from 37 percent in 2002 to 55 percent by 2007 (New York state’s overall graduation rate by the end of that stretch: 71 percent).

The big-money donors benefited from a well-placed ally. New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, a former Clinton White House lawyer, launched his own package of reforms that dovetailed with the billionaires’ goals—reorganizing the power structure and replacing failed schools with smaller, mission-driven ones.

He also installed “CEO”-style principals, and bucked criticism that his laser focus on core math and reading curricula was narrowing the scope of learning.

“From our point of view we were getting good results,” Klein said in an interview. “[The problem] wasn’t about the breadth of the curriculum. It was the failing of the kids.”

The numbers began to move in the right direction. But the tactics bred resentment among some educators and parents. Klein stepped down last year with low approval ratings. The CEO approach took a further hit when his successor—publishing executive Cathie Black, who had no background in education—flamed out after just 100 days on the job.

What’s worse, last year, New York state declared only a quarter of the city’s graduates college-ready, sending officials back to the drawing board. While acknowledging gains in New York, Gates decided to scrap the small-schools project, decreeing that the initiative overall had failed to produce students who were ready for the rigors of college.

“The call in many ways was made prematurely, based on evidence that wasn’t as comprehensive as it should have been,” says James Kemple, author of a study just published by Harvard Education Press that cites real gains from the Klein reforms in New York. “We are now finding the positive effects.”

No reform has won more philanthropic favor than public charter schools. Now numbering 5,000 across the country, charters receive tax dollars to operate with considerable autonomy and innovation. The quality of charter schools varies widely, and some have posted dramatic gains, owing to strategies like longer school days and strong teacher support for students. Drawn by the results of charter networks like KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program seen in the Waiting for Supermandocumentary, the billionaires have poured more than $900 million into charters, including $466 million from the Gates foundation alone.

The Walton Family Foundation hoped that its $8 million investment in Milwaukee charters would produce strong schools and a competitive environment to raise the bar across all the city’s schools. But the charters failed to outperform traditional schools. Reading scores were mostly flat over the past five years citywide. In math, elementary- and middle-school gains were stronger than in the rest of Wisconsin, but high-school proficiency dropped 2 points.

“All good philanthropy is based on testing a hypothesis. If you really peel away, you can uncover each foundation’s hypothesis. Essentially we all have a theory,” said Jim Blew, education-reform director for the Walton Family Foundation. “All the foundations are trying to tackle the same problem. And that problem is very low student achievement, especially in low-income areas.” Blew said the Waltons maintain their theory that charter competition can raise scores across school districts, and still hope that all Milwaukee schools will improve.

Michael Dell’s family foundation, too, placed a big bet on charters, along with its signature work on data and technology systems that help schools track and respond to student needs. Dell, a University of Texas dropout who was in such a hurry to enter the business world he asked to take a high-school equivalency exam at the tender age of 8, has spent heavily on children’s causes through the foundation he launched with his wife in 1999. He started in his native Texas, where his foundation helped insert a high-performing charter school onto a traditional Houston high-school campus.

Lee High School officials were excited at the prospect of copying the strongest elements of the charter. But it turned out the district wasn’t ready to let Lee try charter practices like a longer school day and taking more control over hiring, said Steve Amstutz, Lee’s principal at the time. “The premise that we were going to learn from each other really never occurred,” he explained. “It evolved to just being a lease agreement”—that is, until the charter moved to another location.

The executive director of Michael Dell’s family charity, Janet Mountain, concluded: “Should we ever try it again, we now have knowledge we can bring to the table that will set it up for better success the next time.”

The setbacks had to be a humbling experience for titans accustomed to outsize success.

Broad entered the education-reform arena with riches amassed at two Fortune 500 companies. Thinking his billions might make a difference, as he did in the Los Angeles arts and cultural community, Broad embarked on a yearlong investigation of education. “It was clear to me that if we wanted to have an impact, we could look at what others had done and then what we could do,” he told NEWSWEEK. “There weren’t many positive results that we could identify with. There was always pushback from powerful interests.”

Undaunted, Broad plowed ahead—investing in attempts to upgrade school governance and management, charters, and experiments to pay teachers for their performance instead of their length of time on the job. “We said we were not going to just write checks,” Broad said. “We were going to make investments.”

School boards seemed an especially ripe target. Broad began training efforts to get them away from what he saw as mind-numbing minutiae, like choosing paint colors for buildings or fixing stadium lights. The effort proved frustrating. Board members themselves, as he saw it, were often problematic; too many were well-meaning but not especially savvy parents, micromanagers, or excessively political.

Broad moved on to the front lines: superintendents, principals, and school-district management, ultimately spending $116 million on training people to work in schools and district offices, and another $71 million on central-office reforms and teacher evaluation, preparation, and pay schemes.

“Our role is to take risks that government is not willing to do … People question my motivation,” Broad said. Not least is a growing unease with the prominent role of private foundation money that doesn’t have the accountability constraints of public tax dollars. “The fact that I don’t concern myself about criticism or pushback helps,” Broad said.

He’s had to take some lumps. Several principal-training programs, to the tune of $45 million, were a bang-for-the-buck disappointment; student test scores under most of the principal graduates did not meet his expectations.

He pulled the plug and reevaluated before trying a “more rigorous” approach for the next round of training programs.

Graduates of his Broad Superintendents Academy and the dozens of M.B.A.s he has placed in school-district management, on the other hand, have largely measured up. Even so, superintendents sometimes shake things up only to see their efforts falter in the face of political pressures, Broad said. “Even if some of our original high expectations are not realized, we don’t give up. If we’re going to move America’s students forward, we must continue to be bold and try new approaches.”

—With Laura M. Colarusso

The analysis examined how graduation rates changed between 2002 and 2007—the most recent years for which the data is available from the nationally recognized Editorial Projects in Education Research Center—in 10 districts targeted by the big spending. The study also measured the holy grail of the education-reform movement—standardized test scores in reading and math for kindergarten through 12th grade—and compared the proficiency rates in the urban districts that benefited from billionaire bucks against the average for the rest of the schools in their states over the past five years. (That data was provided by MPR Associates, Inc., a respected education-statistics agency based in Berkeley, Calif.)

No yardstick is a perfect measure. And the billionaires’ gifts are a drop in the bucket when compared with the $600 billion spent annually on America’s schools. But the city-to-state comparison is one of the measures Broad’s own foundation uses in determining his annual award for the most improved school district. For complete data, go to