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Published: April 1, 2000

 
 

Does Six Sigma Belong in Sixth Grade?

For business/school partnerships to work, companies have to listen, as well as teach.

For several years now, a little piece of corporate jargon has lingered in my mind: "the 91 percent." I first heard it in mid-1996, on a visit to the Motorola Corporation. Ed Bales, then the director of the company's groundbreaking, multimillion-dollar, decade-long program for improving the quality of public schools, was talking about his frustration. During the previous decade, Motorola's executives had invested at least $1 million per year in grants to teachers, consultations to schools near their plants and offices, and training programs for teachers — because they felt they had a supplier problem. The graduates they recruited from public schools (and even universities) didn't have enough skills to handle Motorola's jobs. It was very expensive to train them, and after looking at the future of public education, they believed things would only get worse unless companies like Motorola stepped in proactively.

But they had gradually come to realize that "changing the schools" would be much tougher than expected. Teachers didn't want to hear from companies about new teaching methods; parents wanted schools to remain the way they remembered them from their youths; and most school reform efforts didn't seem to improve student performance very visibly. "So we've decided," Mr. Bales said, "to go after the 91 percent." He used the phrase so matter-of-factly that it didn't occur to me, at first, to ask him what it meant. But, finally, I did. "Ah," he said. "Only 9 percent of a child's time, up to age 18, is spent in school. If we knew how to affect the other 91 percent, including the time they're playing and asleep, and especially their preschool time — then we could really make some progress."

This was in the heady days before Motorola's late-'90s slump, and I came away impressed, and a little disturbed, by the company's hubris. "Research shows," said the company's initial report to employees on its "education-reconstruction" project, "that lifelong learning can be initiated at birth." Did these managers really think they had so much power and savoir faire that they could establish a beachhead on children's earliest years? It wasn't until recently that I realized that they weren't so much arrogant as desperate. They needed to find some leverage on the upcoming work force, and they would go wherever they could see an opening.

And they are hardly alone. The idea that companies must step in to change the schools has taken on startling currency during the past few years. Hundreds of companies have started initiatives to help reform the public schools in their home communities, and (in many cases) to "help them act more like businesses." McDonald's creates curricula for Martin Luther King Day; Toyota funds inner-city literacy efforts (aiming, like Motorola, at preschool and parent training); BellSouth sponsors in-school weather stations; Exxon Mobil, with butter not melting in its collective mouth, writes ecology lesson plans; British Telecom offers teachers awards for improving reading; John Deere finances a project to train children to be energy auditors; Textron and Arthur Andersen start pilot schools (in Providence, R.I., and Alameda, Calif., respectively); and Microsoft and Intel set up massive, multimillion-dollar training programs for teachers to learn how to use — well, Microsoft software on Intel-driven computers.

Most press attention has gone to blatantly self-serving projects by such people as Channel One entrepreneur Christopher Whittle and investment mogul Theodore J. Forstmann, who are leaping to build new kinds of private schools for what they see as a mainstream market. ("What do you think is harder? Making jet engines or teaching kids reading, writing, and arithmetic?" Mr. Forstmann asked a New York Times reporter rhetorically in January, after he had turned around Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation and then sold it to the General Dynamics Corporation.) But the straightforward industry–education partnerships are more interesting, to my mind, because they reveal the hidden stresses that our boom economy has placed both on the labor force and on mainstream corporate culture.

 
 
 
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