Academic journal article Education Next

Foundations Matter: A Detroit Boy Works to Fix the Public Schools

Academic journal article Education Next

Foundations Matter: A Detroit Boy Works to Fix the Public Schools

Article excerpt

I grew up in Detroit, lived in an apartment with my immigrant parents, and walked to Thirkell Elementary, six blocks away. It was a time, the 1940s, when our industrial midwestern city was known as the nation's "Arsenal of Democracy" and had a singular mission: to provide American servicemen with the equipment they needed to win the war and return home to their families.

The city's focused determination and unity of purpose seemed to affect almost everyone. I say "almost" because focused and determined isn't an entirely accurate description of my high-school experience. The truth is, I was an average student at best, more interested in running track and occasionally getting in trouble than focusing on studies.


Basics + Innovation = Success

Even though I goofed off too much, I learned enough of the basics in Detroit's Central High to continue my education at another public institution, Michigan State University, in 1951. MSU changed my life. In contrast to high school, my college professors invited students to challenge their beliefs and question what they read in textbooks. I majored in accounting, with a minor in economics. I remember the lessons of Walter Adams, an economics professor who taught that anyone who developed innovative new products could succeed during the 1950s economic expansion. That may sound like a tame idea now, but 50 years ago it was quite a revolutionary thought for a bunch of public-school graduates far from the traditional centers of American wealth.

As a young accountant I saw people starting businesses and making money, and I knew I could do the same. With a partner and $25,000 borrowed from my father-in-law, I began to build houses and sell them with affordable mortgages, with monthly payments that were less than what people were paying in rent. Today Kaufman and Broad Homes is known as KB Home, and it's one of the largest home builders in the world. …

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