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Fortune Takes Issue With Future of Education

May 10, 1990|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Why Johnny Can't Read" is a perennial magazine obsession. Standard procedure is to document the abysmal state of education in America, profile a few tragic cases, catalogue a litany of official excuses and offer token solutions.

Fortune magazine, in a special spring, 1990, education issue, brushes past the problem and cuts to solutions: dozens and dozens of them, billions of dollars worth and all of them, naturally, business-oriented.

Critics of the increasingly popular "kids as commodities" approach to learning will not be pleased with Fortune's gung-ho, take-charge, kick-it-in-the-seat-of-the-pants attack on education. To which the corporate types respond: put up or shut up.

That challenge is not leveled at the usual liberal suspects. Fortune gives President George Bush an "A" for rhetoric but an "incomplete" for action, urging him to spend a lot more on education.

Nor is Gov. George Dukemejian mollycoddled by the advocates of educational bean-counting. He fails to make the magazine's "Ten Education Governors" list--by a long shot, presumably, because Fortune ranks California 42nd nationwide in high school graduation rate, 50th in teacher-to-student ratio and 31st in expenditures per pupil.

The thrust of the issue, however, is in praising business for what it has done and cajoling it to do more.

For example:

* IBM has authorized local managers in all 50 states to help train school personnel in districts that have shifted from top-heavy bureaucracies to school-based management.

* A Florida insurance company actually built a schoolhouse for its employees' kids and melded it into the public school system.

* Mentor programs give executives the chance to help inner city students rise above their environmental disadvantages.

* Major infusions of cash let corporations exercise a social conscience.

Some of the most encouraging ideas are the most simple. In Connecticut, teachers have telephone voice-mail systems. Instead of meeting with parents once or twice a year, teachers can leave individual messages and the parents can respond. In New York, science teachers rent inflatable planetariums, usher in their students, then play Carl Sagan to a captive audience.

Ultimately, education boils down to a chicken-or-egg dilemma: Good students come from economically stable families, economic stability depends, more and more, on solid education.

Fortune doesn't address underlying issues of social injustice, which may be why the package, as instructive as it is, ultimately leaves one vaguely unsatisfied. Still, only a cynic will read it and not find a few seeds of hope.

By most indications, the time to start enriching kids is the day they're born. So, at one end of the educational spectrum, Fortune holds up the Head Start program as a textbook success and urges corporate support.

At the other end, because the current educational assembly line is churning out so many work force lemons, 93% of American corporations plan to offer basic instruction in math and reading to their employees by 1993.

So the bottom line is this: One way or another, business is going to have to get into education.

REQUIRED READING

* While statisticians have for the past decade demonstrated that America's public schools are in trouble, other critics have attacked this country's institutions of higher education. In the May-June Harvard magazine, Derek Bok, the university's president, analyzes the college system. He concludes that American universities, while clearly the best, are also flawed.

* Just more than 40 years ago, developer William Levitt looked at an Island Trees, N.Y., potato field and saw a new America. His "Levittown" of cookie-cutter frame houses came to symbolize oppressive conformity. The June-July Memories takes another look at Levittown and decides the place, which inspired a sense of community and interdependence, wasn't half bad.

ESOTERICA

Fact Sheet Five is one of those peculiar publications that arrives mysteriously in the mail and never quite explains itself. What is this thing? you wonder. If you keep browsing, you notice the New York bimonthly reviews hundreds of magazines each issue. Where else will you find capsule critiques of Afraid ("A fast-growing magazine for the horror writer"), African Farmer ("A magazine laying out the many ways in which farmers in Africa are helping to increase food production. . . .") and The Agonizer ("A thick journal for Klingons on Earth")? And these are just a few of the A-selections. For information, write to: Mike Gunderloy, 6 Arizona Ave., Rensselaer, N.Y. 12144.

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