Fixing America's Future

Article excerpt

To stave off a U.S. work force crisis, CEOs are getting more involved in improving the nation's schools.

At first glance, the imposing high school on Irving Avenue in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Brooklyn presents a bleak picture of urban education. The facade of the once-stately brick building with collegiate gothic touches is marred by thick metal doors. The lobby's most striking features are uniformed New York City police officers standing beside a metal detector.

Two flights up, however, colorfully decorated classrooms crackle with conversation, and intimations of change abound. To be sure, the hallways are dim and resources are scarce, but students talk of math instructors who coach them one-onone during lunch periods. A science teacher tries to engage her class in a discussion of the ethics of genetic engineering. A full-time social worker counsels students on the realities of teen pregnancy and drug abuse.

Welcome to the Bushwick School for Social Justice, a "school within a school" that opened in 2003 with some private support. This public-private hybrid is trying to see to it that most of its students receive high school diplomas and go on to college, despite poverty or other obstacles. Jorge Sequeira, a ninth-grader who hopes to become a lawyer, says the difference between Bushwick and the public middle school he attended is that teachers at Bushwick continually push him, even when he's excelling. "In this school, " explains Jorge, "they say, 'You're doing great, but I want you to do better.'"

Bushwick is one result of a campaign in New York and cities across the United States to replace failing public schools with smaller, more innovative schools that work. As a school that has received assistance from an organization established by a husband-wife business team, it's an example of another trend, too: a committed effort by CEOs to champion school reform. In many cases, they seek to apply principles from the business world, such as competition, accountability and merit pay, to a publicly funded industry that has long resisted them.

Bill Gates is perhaps the business community's most visible and vocal advocate for education reform. The Microsoft eofounder has established a foundation that is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on education initiatives, including the establishment of small, high-quality high schools around the country to help U.S. students better compete with their counterparts in countries such as China and India. In a speech in late February, Gates decried the state of high school education in America. "When I compare our high schools with what I see when I'm traveling abroad, " he said, "I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow."

There's also Louis Gerstner Jr., the retired IBM chief executive, whose latest effort is spearheading an organization, called the Teaching Commission, that aims to improve teaching through changes in teacher training and pay. IBM itself is currently spending $70 million on a "reinventing education" initiative that is introducing such practices as online teaching training. And Jack Welch, formerly of General Electric, chairs the advisory board of an academy set up to develop a corps of first-rate principals in New York.

Many other CEOs have joined the school reform crusade, and the reason is simple: They face difficulty filling job positions with recent U.S. high school and college graduates, and they fear the problem will only get worse in the years to come. "I don't think any of the people who expect to be running companies in 25 years would say we are getting an A-or even a C-plusin running public education," says Peter Temes, president of Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, N.H. To cite just one example: Last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the results of a survey that found 1 5 year olds in the United States scored below average in math skills among students in more than two dozen industrialized nations (see chart, page 28). …