McKinsey & Co. released a report that rocked both the
educational and business worlds, putting a $700 billion price tag on
the education achievement gap—or the difference between the
performances of high- and low- income K-12 students. The Economic
Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools concluded that the
impact of this gap on the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) was
equivalent to a “permanent national recession”—a recession much deeper
and longer-lasting than the current one promises to be.
report received front-page coverage in major media outlets, and
certainly got everyone’s attention, said Jonathan Schorr, a partner at
New Schools Venture Fund, speaking at the 2009 Stanford Business of
Education Symposium on April 30. For people in the education world
there was surprise that a respected business research organization
would declare a crisis in education, he said. Businesspeople, on the
other hand, were impressed that McKinsey had managed to calculate a
dollar figure that actually measured the economic impact of that crisis.
reaction was typical of the different perceptions that educators and
businesspeople have long held about the U.S. educational system.
People who make the journey between the business and education schools
know you are traveling across international borders with different
languages, different cultures, different systems of beliefs, and
different values, he said. And these differences are not exactly
celebrated. Businesspeople think educators are too nonlinear, fuzzy in
their thinking, and that they use their hearts more than their heads,
Schorr said. Educators, on the other hand, see themselves as rivers of
knowledge, bringing a wealth of ideas as well as actual practical
classroom experience that benefits their students, he said. For
teachers and educational administrators, businesspeople are all head
and no heart.
Schorr said the tension between these two
groups resembles the battle lines journalist Michael Barone drew in his
2004 book Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the
Battle for the Nation's Future. Barone’s thesis of division can also be
viewed through the lens of politics, from the conservative right (hard)
compared to liberal left (soft). In the educational universe, the
battle is over such issues as who gets taught, what they are taught,
and by whom, and how success is measured.
the divide, Schorr said today he's witnessing major changes by both
sides crossing previously impenetrable lines. The labels of 'hard' and
'soft' are starting not to fit, and a new space is being created where
those categories are no longer useful, he said.
beginning to see alliances between liberal and conservative groups who
are saying, 'We really have to find a way to get our kids to be more
competitive,' and the people who are saying, You don't understand what
they've gone through just to show up, he said.
former teacher himself and a member of the founding group of Teach For
America, also worked as a journalist covering educational topics for
such publications as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and
Washington Monthly. He also authored the critically acclaimed 2002 book
Hard Lessons: The Promise of an Inner-City Charter School.
he is seeing what he calls a fascinating coalition of political
opposites. For example, he sees grass roots community- and
church-based initiatives such as the Oakland Community Organization,
which is as soft as you can go, collaborating with the deeply
conservative Coalition for Essential Schools, which is just about as
hard as you can get, he said. These interactions that involve people
from very different places in the political spectrum are going to
happen more and more, he said. We’ll be seeing some very strange
bedfellows—all of whom, however, are passionate about the education of
A case in point: John Walton, the son of
Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, whom Schorr characterized as an arch
conservative agrees with many self-described liberals that education
is the biggest problem this country faces. His conservative belief
that hard work and opportunity are required to earn a place in this
country, and his commitment to founding charter schools in low-income
neighborhoods to achieve this, has led him to fund some very 'lefty'
groups, said Schorr.
What signaled most strongly to Schorr
that the barriers between hard and soft were breaking down was a
meeting held in Denver the Monday before the 2008 Democratic
Convention. This was an education forum which would have, in the past,
attracted maybe five or ten people, he said. But this time we had a
standing-room-only crowd of more than 500. One of the surprises of the
evening occurred when Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and
a rising star in the Democratic Party, announced that Democrats have
been wrong on education, and that it was time to get it right. It was
impossible to stand in that cheering crowd and not feel that something
had changed in a truly profound way in this country, said Schorr.
Barak Obama’s subsequent election, and his rejection of tired dualities
from the past, gives Schorr the confidence that we'll finally move past
the same arguments debated for the past 30 years.
want to improve performance. It's not a conservative or liberal issue,
he said. We have to be willing to both embrace the idea of being truly
held accountable with measurable results with children, and capable of
embracing the children themselves. It's no longer a question of what
side you are on, but what are you going to do? he said.
one of six leadership partners of the New Schools Venture Fund, a
national nonprofit venture philanthropy firm in San Francisco that
seeks to transform public education, particularly for underserved
students, by supporting education entrepreneurs and connecting their
work to systems change.