Former IBM Chairman Argues for Radical Education Reform
December 8, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Having long since turned in the reins at IBM and presumably keeping himself plenty busy as chairman of private equity player Carlyle Group, Louis Gerstner still has time to think and lecture about the state of the educational system in America. And last week, in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Gerstner did just that.
If you have access to the WSJ, you can read Gerstner’s prescription for what amounts to the nationalization of our schools at this link. Gerstner said that he had “realized rather glumly” that he had personally been advocating for school reform in America for 40 years, and with the economy in such a mess and a new president coming in, now was a perfect time for him to give Uncle Sam some free advice about reforming K-12 education. And that advice is just what you would expect from a former McKinsey & Co consultant and former leader of Nabisco and IBM.
Gerstner essentially blames the system as being the problem. That this country has over 15,000 school districts, each with its own local and state standards, curricula, and so on. “This unbelievably unwieldy structure is incapable of executing a program of fundamental change,” Gerstner explained. “While we have islands of excellence as a result of great reform programs, we continually fail to scale up systemic change.”
To this end, Gerstner proposes a national core curriculum for K-12 education; a national testing day for children in the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th grades where every school’s results would be publicly available; national standards and evaluations for teacher certification and better pay, with salaries above $100,000 a year for the best teachers; and an extended school day. Gerstner also thinks billions of dollars can be saved by getting rid of local school boards, and that this money should be pumped back into education.
I am an American more than I am a New Yorker, and while I think local democratic rights are important, I think national standards sometimes have to take precedence. So I have to admit, that despite my discomfort with far-way bureaucracies, I agree that 15,000 school boards and 50 state educational agencies seems a bit unwieldy. But what I find curious–and let’s face it, classist–about Gerstner’s comments is that as far as I can tell, it doesn’t really get to the bottom issues facing the educational system in America.
First and foremost, the funding for local schools is not national, but ridiculously local. You live in a poor neighborhood? Guess what? Your schools are going to be terrible because the school is probably funded out of property taxes. And anyone who doesn’t have children right now screams bloody murder any time the local tax people try to raise taxes to improve the schools. So, if you want national standards and a national curriculum, Louis, you gotta pay for it. And that means the kids in Greenwich, Connecticut, have to be funded the same way as the kids in East Harlem, or South East Washington D.C., or Chicago’s South Side, or East L.A. Make school funding national and equitable–and scale it according to some other metric than property values, such as local cost of living for a reasonably equal standard of living–and maybe this will actually work. Otherwise, what you have is a national expectation of performance without the proper funding to meet the expectation. You end up with something far worse than One Child Left Behind, as far as I can tell.
Gerstner understands investment in education, or at least on some level he seems to. “And we need to drive into the consciousness of every American politician that education is not an expense. It is, rather, the most important investment we can make as a country,” he wrote in the WSJ piece.
Here’s my other problem with the K-12 education reform Gerstner is proposing. America had good schools in the past, as well as reasonably educated people who were also remarkably physically fit, and we did not have standards. Why was that? No one is asking that question, and I personally want an answer. My in-laws were products of the New York City school system in the 1940s and 1950s, and they had good, high-paying professional careers. They attended college, but did not have to finish. Why? Because a New York City high school diploma was in many cases better than a university diploma, and both parents and employers in the New York region knew this. People funded public education, and people used public education, because it was well funded and excellent. (Same reason people are still willing to pay for mainframes and AS/400s, now that I think of it.)
Now, after 40 years of cuts of funding, flight to the suburbs, the gutting of manufacturing and professional jobs in the region, and gee, what a surprise–the schools are sometimes terrible, teachers are stressed out, and so are parents and students. And by the way, my kids go to a dual-language public school right in my neighborhood–if my wife and I put them into private school or move to a richer neighborhood (or out of New York City entirely), then we are part of the problem. But that’s easy for us to say. We won a lottery at the Amistad Dual Language School that only lets in 100 kids a year, and had we not, I don’t know what we would have done because the other public schools here are not of the same caliber. And we donate time and money to that school like crazy because we truly love it.
The best you can ever do in this world is to get exactly and precisely what you pay for. But you have to pay for what you want to get.