Features

The market for minds

National | Why is "public education" the last government monopoly?

Issue: "Flawed to the Ameri-Corps," Oct. 19, 1996

Once during the Middle Ages disgruntled students at the Sorbonne advanced to the lectern, stabbed their professor to death with their quill pens, and wrote out their grievances with his blood. Now that's real education reform!

Chrysler Corporation President Robert Lutz also wants reform, though less radical than the Sorbonne affair.

In a speech to the governor's "education summit" in Michigan, Mr. Lutz said it is time to stop fooling ourselves about government schools. They are not doing the job the taxpayers are paying for and are unlikely to improve unless education follows the example of business and engages in competition.

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Standardized tests in Michigan show 40 percent of fourth-graders failed to get acceptable scores in reading. Unsatisfactory achievement in math was recorded among many of the state's seventh-graders. To his credit, Mr. Lutz is participating in forming the Alliance for Children's Education, which will send volunteers into Michigan schools in an effort to tutor underachievers. But in his speech, he said that tutoring is not enough.

Just as the goal of automaking is to produce good cars at competitive prices, so, too, is the goal of education to produce people with the knowledge and skills to succeed in an increasingly competitive world. Does it makes sense, he wondered, that virtually everything else, including the once-monopolistic phone company, is competitive and our public schools are not?

"Competition is the core process in the natural order of things," said Mr. Lutz, who noted that the United States spends considerably more resources on education than any other nation in the world, but gets diminishing returns on its investment.

Mr. Lutz charged that education requirements have been "dumbed down" so as not to injure students' self-esteem and added, "I believe that self-esteem comes only from hard work and legitimate achievement. I think failure is a wonderful teacher, and that shielding a student from failure is a form of child abuse as cruel as denying him encouragement."

How's this for a reality check concerning outcome-based education-watered-down curricula and grading techniques-which is the rage in some circles: "There's no such thing as 'outcome-based' competition to make sure nobody's feelings get hurt. The real world is not a padded romper room at McDonald's. It has edges to it."

No, Mr. Lutz said, teachers are not responsible for family break-ups and other social problems that can undermine students' abilities to perform in school. Usually, he said, critics of government education are told they judge American teachers unfairly, especially when comparing our system to other nations' educational systems. Mr. Lutz replied that fairness has nothing to do with it.

Speaking of Detroit's recent past, Mr. Lutz noted, "The cars coming out of foreign factories were better than ours. The customers are only interested in the end product-not the problems that we have producing it or the advantages our competitors enjoy that we don't."

In the '70s, he said, "Chrysler was public school. The other guys were Country Day and St. Margaret Mary." Unfair to compare? "Fairness is irrelevant," says Mr. Lutz. "[Private] schools produce what we say we want."

To those who claim school choice would irreparably harm public schools, Mr. Lutz said the opposite would occur: "Competition won't kill public schools. But in many cases it will force them to act differently, to adopt different priorities, to make needed changes, to cut costs where they are wasteful and to devote more resources where they will do more good, and to become more customer-focused."

Sputnik put America on the moon, he said. Toyota made Chrysler a success. Federal Express made the U.S. Post Office self-sustaining.

Unruly students? "We've made a big mistake thinking that our public schools should be warehouses for incorrigible adolescents." No one should be allowed to stay in school just because he has nowhere else to go but the street, he argued. If you belong in school, you should be in school. If you belong in the street, you should be in the street. The real tragedy is when a street kid is in school and a school kid is in the streets.

Children get self-esteem from success, he said. "I was appalled to hear that syntax and spelling get in the way of self-expression, and that protecting a child's self-esteem is more important than developing his mind."

Maybe there's a place for people who sit around feeling good about themselves but can't write a coherent sentence saying why, but Mr. Lutz thinks school is not that place. "With competition," he said, "the bad [schools] would change and the good ones would get even better."

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