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Why Johnny Can’t Comprehend

Page one, line one of Kearn & Doyle’s WINNING THE BRAIN RACE says it all, “Public education in this country …

Page one, line one of Kearn & Doyle’s WINNING THE BRAIN RACE says it all, “Public education in this country is in a crisis.” The statistics, relative to the functionally illiterate and the annual high school drop out rate, are so horrendous and well known that they need not be repeated here. We must reform and improve our system of public education, in order for the U.S. to maintain a competitive edge.

Kearn and Doyle maintain that if education’s shortcomings are that clear and that important, it is high time somebody did something about it. After a short piece of reasoning, they conclude that the “somebody” is “business”. Why? Because the new agenda for school reform must be driven by competition and market discipline-unfamiliar ground for educators-and cannot be the product of the monopoly position held by each of the 15,500 nominally independent school districts across the nation.

From this, the authors develop a six-point “Plan to Reform and Revitalize American Education,” on which the book is based. They are as follows: choice; restructuring; professionalism; standards; values; and federal responsibility.

The essence of point number one, Choice, is that the state would fund individual children, rather than individual schools or school districts. This is a voucher system that reaches public schools only. The concern is that the inclusion of private schools in a voucher scheme would weaken the public school system, whereas their exclusion should have a tendency to strengthen both. Whether they are right is debatable, although they are on the mark when they say that unless public schools begin to behave more like private schools, the time will come when public support of private schools will be a reality in this country as it is in others.

Point number two, Restructuring, is very much a derivative of the first point. The authors call for reorganizing every school district with more than 2,500 students into a year-round magnet system, keeping it open on a flexible time basis. For example, there are 240 days less a few holidays in a year-round schedule. At present, most U.S. schools offer 180 days. The authors propose a minimum of 180 days, but make up to 240 available at the choice of the student (or parent). School and vacation time would be the choice of the student (or parent). The same choice is proposed for teachers with the theoretical merits being quite obvious.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of this restructuring idea is the decentralization involved, so that the essential curriculum and teaching decisions are, for the most part, in the hands of the teaching staff and principal.

The authors’ proposals relating to Professionalism are not exactly radical unless you happen to be a teacher. The high points are as follows: deep grounding in the content of the discipline to be taught; elimination of the education degree; introduction of teaching internships via master teachers; certification and merit pay. If there is any area where established prejudice and resistance can be expected, it is here. The most powerful collective voice in the country today is probably that of the teachers’ unions and these are tender spots on their hide that the authors are targeting for surgery.

The chapter on Standards is probably the best, with lots of punchy one-liners and perceptive observations. At the same time, it clearly states the burdensome task that lies ahead. “Not enough is expected of American students. American youngsters attend school 180 days a year, have an hour or less of homework daily-Japanese attend 240 days, have two and one-half hours or more of homework, and more than 95 percent of Japanese youngsters finish high school.

In writing this book, the authors get very detailed concerning their purpose, but don’t go far enough when considering their enthusiasm for their subject. “What a Core Curriculum Should Be” is a suitable subject for a twenty volume treatise, not for a 143-page bash based on WINNING THE BRAIN RACE. All the authors do is invite critics like me to harass them on details peripheral to their main thrust.

I strongly recommend that readers look up their file copies of the March/April 1988 issue of CE magazine which brought together a bevy of CEOs in a Roundtable on “Can CEO’s Help Educators Educate?”. From both of these sources, I get the distinct impression that progress in this field is likely to be at a margin. CEOs seldom unite in crusades. They much prefer, on average, to select and lead their own crusades. Could they be the energizing force needed to pull public education up to a world-class competitive level? Perhaps Kearn, as a full-time Chief Executive Crusader, could do it.

-By Lawrence Blackmon

If you approve of name-dropping, you’ll like George Lazarus’ book about MARKETING IMMUNITY. Lazarus isn’t writing about the beautiful people in New York and Hollywood; he’s writing about brand names-citing more than fifty brand-marketing stories within the first 100 pages of the text. (That covers a lot of TV commercials and trips to the supermarket!)

Lazarus, who is a long time advertising columnist for the Chicago Tribune, is a knowledgeable professional and a good story teller. From his journalistic catbird seat, he has seen thousands of marketing campaigns launched with fantastic fervor and at colossal costs. A few manage to catch the eye of the buying public and become established money makers for their sponsors. Most, unfortunately, fall into a catagory which Lazarus dubs “marketing immunity: the consumer becomes immune to an “appeal factor” that’s been overused by the competition.

We learned: how Wendy’s and Federal Express and Reebok did it right; why General Motors’ K cars and New Coke almost came up croppers; and what Proctor & Gamble and Xerox had to do to win their stand back from the “Immunity Doldrums.” Cases such as these are short, readable and authentic. You match his opinions against your own. In analyzing the causes for so many cases of the marketing blahs, Lazarus comes up with three primary whipping boys.

First, he contends that the massive mergers that have hit both corporations and advertising agencies are stifling creativity, discouraging risk and encouraging conservatism. The great entrepreneurial ideas that gave us Bartles & Jaymes Amos and Guess ? Jeans are becoming less and less frequent.

Secondly, Lazarus bashes MBAs and the business schools, because they all use the same textbooks, courses, cases and teaching methods. They all come up with the same formulas when they graduate, failing to realize that marketing is not an exact science. (As a sometime teacher of marketing classes at Columbia Business School, I think this analogy is hitting below the belt of logical cause and effect.)

Finally-and here he may have a point -he decides that we have gone too far in over-analyzing the flood of information now available to data-base marketers. Brand managers and copy writers spend so much time in crunching numbers and in reading competitive tea leaves that they are losing the spark of creative spontaneity.

Okay, Brother Lazarus, we’ve got our consumer goods industries built up with bit global corporations and agencies, managed and staffed by MBAs and surfeited with reams of computerized market data. What do you think should be done to break through all of this marketing immunity that is keeping out fresh new thinking?

Lazarus rises to this question in his last chapter and offers his summary solutions for coping with the eight most common marketing problems-falling market share, brand maturation, limited budgets, etc. In doing so, he has a tendency to stumble over his own platitudes. Actually, he begins to sound a little academic-as though he had been asked to come to a business school and tell the MBA marketing classes about the real world. (I graded him “low pass” on this chapter.)

The parts of the book that stick to the specific brand action are the best. It might even make worthwhile reading for MBA candidates.

-By Robert W. Lear

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