In 1989, Pacific Bell tested 6,400 applicants for the job of operator. Rocket scientists need not apply; the test requires only a seventh-grade reading level, and the work is probably within the grasp of a precocious 10-year-old. Guess how many test takers passed.
If you answered just 42%, go to the head of the class. Such stories abound, of course, and they make business a little hysterical. All over California, companies are adopting schools, donating equipment and lamenting the state of public education. Business is spending a fortune on this stuff.
Given the scale of the problem, most of this effort can't help much, and companies are beginning to see that. For business, fixing the public school system is a Sisyphean struggle. Says Joe Richey, Pac Bell's educational relations chief: "You wonder if it is salvageable."
Which raises some tough questions. As Ted Kolderie put it in the Harvard Business Review, "Why is business so nice to the schools?" Companies honed by the marketplace still miss some essential facts about schools: Customers must use the service, choice is limited, change is glacial and the product often is lousy.
If this sounds more like Bulgaria than public education in California, the two have something in common: the potential for salvation through the marketplace.
In a way, business is pursuing that. Here in Los Angeles, the efforts of Chief Executives Robert H. Smith of Security Pacific, Richard J. Stegemeier of Unocal, Lew R. Wasserman of MCA and (before he died) Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum, among others, illustrate how business might better pursue reform.
Through the Archdiocesan Education Foundation, these executives are helping to raise $100 million for Southern California Catholic schools, mostly for tuition. They've already raised more than half.
These folks aren't all Catholic, so why Catholic schools? Quite simply, Stegemeier says, because "the success of these schools is outstanding." Exalting the role of parents and teachers, bureaucracy-free Catholic schools deliver a huge education per dollar expended, especially for the disadvantaged.
Here's how lean they are. California public schools are spending $4,880 per pupil this year; the three-county Archdiocese of Los Angeles school system spends just $1,700. Similarly, the Los Angeles Unified School District, with nearly 800,000 day and evening students, has 3,500 headquarters employees. Catholic schools, with an eighth as many students, get by with 25.
The archdiocesan schools aren't equipped for special education, which is costly. And they operate at a huge pricing disadvantage, which, with assimilation and other factors, has cut enrollment.
Still, experts ranging from James Coleman, the renowned sociologist of education, to Terry M. Moe, a Stanford political scientist and advocate of school choice, agree that Catholic schools perform.
There must be an explanation for all this. Do they depend on the cheap labor of nuns? Nope; 85% of the local faculty is lay. Do they beat the kids into line? Corporal punishment is illegal in California. Do they take only white suburbanites? At Verbum Dei High School, near the bleak Nickerson Gardens housing project in South-Central Los Angeles, 99% of the all-male, heavily black student body graduates; better than 80% go to college.
The overall ethnic mix of archdiocesan pupils is rich: 35% white, 44% Latino, 12% Asian and 9% black. Indeed, 18% of their high school kids aren't even Catholic.
And that's today's lesson. Mentoring is fine, but parental choice is crucial in schooling, and raising money so that poor parents can choose Catholic schools is one powerful way to improve education. Nowhere is the need for wider parental choice greater than in California, a bellwether whose future rests with minorities, immigrants and a sophisticated international economy. Schools will be vital to that future in ways they haven't been before.
The truth is, our schools aren't any worse than ever. Teachers today are at least as good as they used to be, and aside from our disastrous inner cities, the poor are better educated. Stanford's David Tyack, a historian of education, notes that Americans periodically get worked up about the death of literacy but forget the awful history of urban and rural public schools--particularly for immigrants and blacks. Just 45 years ago, half of U.S. high school kids dropped out.
Now school really matters. Compared to other countries, our kids are ignorant of math, science, geography and almost everything else, even as our economy increasingly values skills. Knowledge, more than ever, is power. Strong backs come cheap.
Although the schools have held steady, Americans changed. Johnny, who can't read, is likelier to live in a one-parent household with the TV on for seven hours a day. Parents spend less time with their children, and children spend little time in school. Counting absences, the Japanese attend 217 days annually versus 160 for us.