First of all, the real problem is not quite as the press or the businesspeople have defined it. Yes, most schools today are inadequate, but their quality, by any objective standard, has not declined. Indeed, both in the U.S. and around the industrialized world, schools are, if not better, at least no worse at teaching basic skills than they have always been.
The modern school, with its grade levels and strictly timed periods, was invented in the late 19th century as a way of bringing order to the newly evolving industrial cities, and to prepare children for the emerging factories. Schools have struggled ever since to somehow reconcile their mass-production heritage with the person-to-person colloquy and care that lies at the heart of all successful teaching. And throughout the past 125 years or so, the 7th- and 8th-grade reading level of most high school graduates was good enough for most jobs — from Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee through H.L. Mencken's booboisie through Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton to the era of Roseanne.
Today, however, the bar has been raised. Assembly-line workers in companies like Motorola need statistics (for their Six Sigma quality control approach), a 12th-grade reading level (for complex machine instructions and upgrades), a basic background in physics, a little programming, and possibly a foreign language (to communicate with their counterparts in, say, Brazil or Taiwan). Any high school graduate so well-educated, these days, is probably going on for an engineering degree, or else straight to a dot-com. In an era of what looks to be persistent shortages of skilled labor, schools are blamed, traumatized, and struggling to cope. Anything that reclaims more disadvantaged and uneducated youth for the economic mainstream represents a survival strategy for corporations that need more and more, not fewer and fewer, skilled workers.
With a crisis at hand, why is progress so difficult? As in most alliances, it comes down to culture. I saw this firsthand last year, when I joined the editorial staff of a book called Schools That Learn, one of a series of "Fifth Discipline Fieldbooks" on organizational learning (due out in August from Doubleday). Half the authors were business consultants, and the other half were educators; and even though we got to know each other well, we kept getting tripped up by our startlingly different attitudes about the world.
To most businesspeople, for instance, profit is not just a way of making money, but the most honorable part of the game; without it, there could be no hedge against risk. To educators, profit is sheer exploitation, and it poisons community values. Recently an educator told me that she would cheerfully toss out capitalism and go back to a feudal economic structure, "where at least the lord of the manor made sure everyone was taken care of."
Similarly, to businesspeople, promoting ethnic and gender diversity is an option that you take to make the workplace more interesting, to reach customers more effectively, or to forestall legal action and criticism. But to teachers, there is no choice about diversity. Some love it and some hate it, but all recognize that schools today are microcosms of the whole population, with children from increasingly wider groups of ethnic, religious, cultural, economic, and family backgrounds. (Incidentally, that's why Mr. Forstmann will find teaching is much tougher than making jet engines; today's children simply can't be dealt with effectively in a standardized fashion.) Factor in attitudes about teachers' unions (which business managers viscerally detest, but educators see as their most reliable champions) and the near-universal low status of most education schools on college campuses (including most businesspeople's alma maters), and you have a fascinating ongoing culture clash that never fails to breed new misunderstandings.