The Mission: David Kearns's Crusade To Fix America's Schools

Remaking Xerox was child's play compared with this next challenge

Dunn Avenue Elementary is an old school building in a beat-up neighborhood of Memphis where three out of four children are poor. Inside, though, Barbara Williams' fourth-grade classroom comes alive. As Williams reads from Rhinoceros in the Snow, a forest of hands shoots up from the kids circled at her feet. In chorus, they shout out answers to her questions.

"How would you feel if you were a rhino wearing galoshes?" Giggles, more hands. These youngsters are focused and interested, and they have been taught to pay no mind to the visitors who often slip into their room. Even so, they steal glances at the striking older gentleman leaning against a nearby desk.

He wears the uniform of big business--pinstriped suit, white shirt, black wing tips--and comports himself with the surety of a person accustomed to power. He is handsome, with a luminous smile and a shock of silver hair brushing over rugged features.

Yet there also is evidence of frailty. A black patch covers his left eye, and hearing aids adorn both ears. His nose is twisted to startling effect, his left cheek dented below the patch. As he rises to leave, he betrays a slight stoop and reaches for an aide's arm.

In truth, David T. Kearns is not the same man who, a decade ago, led Xerox Corp. to one of the great turnarounds in recent business history. Treatment for cancer of the sinus has punched a hole in the side of his face, leaving him nearly blind and hard of hearing. His short-term memory is poor, and he sometimes fails to finish sentences. He tires easily.

It has been a long morning, and Kearns is indeed bushed. Still, he troops through Dunn Elementary, listening in on lessons, chatting with teachers. Simply put, he loves schools--especially good ones. There is an energy in a good school, an electricity, that infects him. "I walk around places like this, and I feel really good," he says. "I feel like a kid."

It is more than a visceral charge. Kearns wants to help save public education. This is a mission he has pursued for nearly two decades, after his travels to Japan led him to suspect that education was what gave that nation its competitive advantage. As a matter of equity, he thinks, every American is entitled to decent schooling. Just as important, he says, "high-quality education of all our citizens is what will continue to make this country economically strong."

POLARIZED. In an office back in Stamford, Conn., Kearns wages his quiet crusade. Quality, standards, choice, competition--this is his mantra. He proselytizes, networks, and raises money, all to broaden the reach of New American Schools, which he founded while serving as deputy secretary of education under President George Bush in 1992. With consultant James Harvey, he is finishing a book that offers solutions to education's ills.

It is, to be sure, an ambitious quest, perhaps quixotic. Public schools are improving, slowly, but they are not keeping up with demands posed by the 21st century. Student performance, especially among older kids, compares poorly with that of peers in such places as Singapore, South Korea, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. High school graduation rates no longer are among the world's highest. Urban schools remain abysmal.

This backsliding is a function, certainly, of the formidable task of providing universal access to education for an increasingly diverse population. But it also reflects institutional gridlock. Schools are ruled by a web of competing interests, variously local and national, each dedicated to protecting itself and to preserving the status quo. Those who would reform the system are also polarized by philosophy and politics.

Kearns thrives in this complex breach by dint of fierce perseverance and a profoundly democratic style. At Xerox, say those who worked for him, he overcame cultural inertia by pounding relentlessly at the need for change and by using allies to co-opt his opponents. In the education world, he has kept up the act, embracing as potential agents of change everyone he meets. Even his intellectual detractors respect him. In fact, they like him.

At Dunn Elementary, Principal Willie Mae Willett approaches Kearns gingerly. It has been years since the two met, when Kearns was chairman of the National Urban League and Willett was a Memphis delegate. "You probably don't remember me," Willett begins. Kearns doesn't but won't let on, instead wrapping Willett in a generous bear hug. Soon, they are strolling down the corridor, arm in arm, talking school reform.

SECOND FIDDLE. It's what Kearns does best--winning over people, seeking out intelligence, preaching his gospel. Why does he keep going? He has, after all, attained considerable success in both business and government. He is 68, and the cancer has weakened him. He could bow out now, his legacy ensured.

For one thing, he doesn't easily sit still. "David is restless," says Shirley Kearns, his wife of 44 years. "He isn't one to twiddle his thumbs." As much as that, Kearns is driven by a sense of citizenship and obligation. Life has granted him wealth, fame, and much personal satisfaction, and he feels compelled to return the favor. "He's said, in effect, `I'm not going to fade away, I've got some resources, I can still make a difference,"' says J. Richard Munro, a friend and former head of Time Inc.

Most of all, Kearns is moved by the sheer challenge, by the call of a job maddeningly incomplete--and by the determination that it can be pulled off. Schools will get better. "We're not doing what we should," he says, "so I'm willing to keep at it."

It was January, 1991, when Kearns took a call from Lamar Alexander, who asked to meet in Washington. Alexander, newly nominated to become Secretary of Education, was looking for a team to reinvigorate a department long considered a backwater. Kearns's 1988 book, Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan To Make Our Schools Competitive, written with Dennis P. Doyle, had attracted attention on Capitol Hill. Retired as CEO but still chairman of Xerox, he had unmatched credibility in the business community. Over dinner, Alexander asked Kearns to be his deputy.

In Kearns's circle, word of the job offer was met with incredulity. He would go from the highest reaches of Corporate America to second fiddle in an also-ran federal bureaucracy. "What did that say to people?" asks IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner Jr. "It said, I care so much about this problem, I'm willing to go in as No. 2. He gave up a lot."

By then, Kearns had cemented his reputation. Born in Rochester, N.Y., to comfortably well-off parents, he got only passable grades through high school and at the University of Rochester. In business, though, he shone, joining IBM's sales force and advancing quickly. In 1971, he jumped to Xerox, with ambitions to someday run the company.

By the time he took over as CEO in 1982, however, his company's share of U.S. copier installations had plummeted. Japanese manufacturers, such as Ricoh, Minolta, and Canon, had driven Xerox to the brink of competitive irrelevance with smaller, cheaper machines that worked better.

Neither a great intellect nor a technician, Kearns nonetheless recognized urgent problems and their solutions where others didn't. He was among the first corporate leaders to latch onto total quality and employee involvement, preaching their virtues in speech after speech to skeptical managers. Eventually, product quality revived, as did customer satisfaction. Market share and profits, while never equaling those of the 1970s' heyday, recovered. "It really was an unbelievable success story," says B. Alex Henderson, a longtime Xerox watcher at Prudential Securities Inc.

Xerox had beaten back its rivals by remaking itself--foreshadowing the massive restructuring that soon would hit Corporate America. Alexander contended that education was ripe for the same sort of overhaul. "What schools needed was what businesses had had to go through," he says now. "We had to turn schools upside down." Kearns had thought the same himself: In the restructurings of such giants as Motorola, Ford, and Xerox, he believed, lay critical lessons for education. In May, 1991, he joined the Bush Administration.

Kearns and Alexander, joined later by New York University Professor Diane S. Ravitch, proved a formidable combination. Together, they authored America 2000, a blueprint for lifting the nation's high school graduation rate and attaining global superiority in math and science. The plan: build 1,000 new schools, improve curriculum in existing ones, and promote lifelong education.

Kearns set to organize New American Schools, a nongovernmental agency funded by corporations that would work outside the education Establishment to select and promote models of reform. He got Gerstner, then running RJR Nabisco Inc., to cough up $1 million and some office space. Within weeks, Kearns had assembled an all-star board that eventually raised $140 million.

The Democrat-controlled Congress killed America 2000, mostly because it required a $535 million appropriation. Yet New American Schools survived, and Kearns's credibility in Washington. His name was floated as a candidate to head NASA or the U.S. Postal Service or to take a Cabinet post in a second Bush term. And when the Los Angeles riots broke out in May, 1992, the President asked Kearns to represent the White House on the scene.

NOSEBLEED. On the flight to California, Kearns's nose bled fiercely. It had bled intermittently in the preceding weeks, but not like this. Between his duties amid the riots, he visited a doctor. X-rays revealed a tumor.

Cancer of the sinus is rare and difficult to diagnose, so it often spreads widely before being recognized. Kearns's cancer was grave, and he soon underwent surgery at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It was a horrific, 16-hour procedure: Doctors tore away part of his face and lifted up his brain to scrape away the tumor. Two weeks later, the cancer was back, and the procedure was repeated. Then came two weeks of heavy radiation.

The combined therapies finally licked the cancer, and in six years, it has not recurred. But the price was high. Before the illness, Kearns had kept fit, running seven or eight miles a day. Overnight, friends say, he aged dramatically. And in the next few years, the effects of the radiation gradually eroded his eyesight, hearing, and memory.

Publicly, at least, Kearns and wife Shirley have accepted all this without complaint. Although candid about his disfigurement and sensory losses, he prefers not be identified by them. He walks without a cane or tapper, instead casually taking the arm of whomever he's near. And each year, he hires a young intern to be his eyes, ears, and chauffeur.

The system works well, allowing Kearns to pursue his passion. Yet his friends wonder, sometimes, what's going on inside a proud man so humbled. At Xerox, "David was as tough a guy as you would want to meet," says Mike Hobbs, a builder and longtime neighbor in New Canaan, Conn. "But what he's doing now is the toughest. When they start cutting your face off, and you're going blind and deaf, and you've been one of the top people in business, well, it takes an extraordinary couple to handle that with the grace they've shown."

Early on Election Night last November, at home with Shirley, Kearns is upbeat. Education is emerging as a hot topic at the polls. From San Diego to Hartford, voters approve record sums of bond issues for school construction and renovation. Exit surveys commonly identify schools as the most important issue in tight races.

Certainly, schools are not what we want them to be. Student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has improved since 1990, but that leaves three-quarters of fourth and eighth graders--and far more in urban districts--deemed less than "proficient" in math and science. Test scores of high schoolers are declining, and drop-out rates are rising.

Such results have fueled decades of reform efforts--none of them completely satisfying. True, some reforms have produced unambiguously positive results. But most require difficult decisions and long slogs, fixing schools one by one in the face of high political hurdles.

Consider the example of Memphis, which has embraced "whole-school" reform, a comprehensive, grassroots strategy. Since 1995, it has required all its schools to accept one of eight new curriculum designs, most supplied by Kearns's New American Schools. Superintendent Gerry House has won wide acclaim, in part because the redesigned schools appear to be improving.

But it has been a tortuous evolution. House spent three years developing a strategy and winning local commitment before asking schools to change a single word of curriculum. At each participating school, teachers, administrators, and parents wrote a detailed vision plan, then chose a design to suit the vision. Even then, the extra work, retraining, and new methods provoked opposition. Many principals fled the system. Teachers have been more accepting, but those at the high school level have tended to resist the mandate to teach interdisciplinary courses.

All the while, House has had to counsel patience as dropout rates and absenteeism stay stubbornly high and as students' test scores overall show no improvement. "You can't turn around a system in a couple of years," she says. "You have to build a culture, change attitudes, and keep people focused." And this from a system recognized as a rare showcase for school redesign. In all, New American Schools has seeded its designs in just 1,000 of the nation's 85,000 public schools.

Such piecemeal progress has inspired public frustration--as well as openness to broader, systemic solutions, such as charter schools. Charter legislation, passed so far in 35 states, allows innovators to establish new schools under the aegis of the local public system but remain free to pursue their own hiring, curriculums, and teaching methods. In eight years, some 1,500 such schools have been created.

Charters neatly address the delicate politics of education, appeasing conservatives and allowing disenchanted parents an escape hatch, while mostly preserving the hegemony of public systems. The experiment is snowballing, though, without any real evidence that it actually helps kids learn more.

What's more, critics argue, charters--like vouchers, their more unfettered cousins--create solutions outside existing public systems, avoiding the more difficult, less glamorous task of fixing the systems themselves. Opponents worry that charters simply siphon off students and funding, further eroding older schools' base.

RADICAL SOLUTION. Kearns and his allies figure any improvement is welcome, as is the presence of new competition, especially if it forces change in the status quo. Yet they also acknowledge the need for remedies that fix all schools. "Don't forget," he says, "we're not trying to eliminate the public system we have now. We're trying to make it better."

That's why, in their forthcoming book, he and Harvey endorse a radical solution. Conceived by University of Washington Professor Paul T. Hill, it would require districts to contract out management of their schools to private operators, for-profit and not. Public officials still would be accountable for quality and could sack providers whose performance fell short. They would provide central services, such as maintenance and purchasing. But schools would design their own curriculums, employ their own teachers, and compete for students--who would be free to apply to any school.

Competition, choice, professional management--it's a paradigm that appeals naturally to a business mind-set. Past experiments with contracting, however, demonstrate that what plays in corporations may not translate easily to education. For one thing, public school officials aren't equipped to manage the contracting process, say critics.

More to the point, observes George Washington University Professor Jeffrey Henig, such strategies as contracting and charters are "magic solutions" that deflect the more important questions facing public education. Where should schools invest resources? Should we focus on kids with the potential to go to college? How do we deal with health and social problems that begin outside school walls but pervade the classroom? "Those are questions that Americans have found it easy to avoid answering," says Henig.

`I am absolutely dedicated to education," David Kearns exhorts 300 people in a vaulted auditorium in Washington, D.C. He is retiring as chairman of New American Schools; in the audience are employees, past and present, teachers and students, politicians, and fellow executives.

Kearns is no longer the orator of old, the general who spurred Xerox troops to battle the Japanese. His delivery is not so focused, his tone less urgent. Unable to see or hear his audience clearly, he faces slightly the wrong way. Among the crowd, a few friends dab away tears.

GOLDEN ROLODEX. As he returns to his table, though, a fraternity of potentates is standing, applauding: Lamar Alexander and former Boeing CEO Frank Shrontz, John Clendenin of BellSouth, B.F. Goodrich's John Ong.

This is the heart of Kearns's golden network: a Rolodex full of leaders bridging industry and politics. They come to the phone for him. They join his committees and raise money for his cause. They admire him deeply, and they share his conviction about reinventing public education. Facing chronic shortages of skilled workers to fill increasingly complex, technology-driven jobs, Corporate America cannot sustain the innovation and productivity it needs to thrive globally.

For the most part, though, these are yesterday's CEOs--and the climate in the boardroom has since changed. Executives of Kearns's generation joined together to address education. Today, Corporate America invests billions of dollars in education--probably more than ever--but its efforts appear disjointed. Some companies focus on technology, while others adopt individual schools, invest in technical training, or assist in developing the local curriculum.

Kearns worries about the fragmentation of business's efforts. He understands the intensifying demand for profits and shareholder returns that are behind the change. But he also remains convinced that "this isn't a giveaway, that it's a positive for shareholders to invest in education."

Which is why he is still at it--making calls, pressing flesh, seeking converts. True, he is seeing his grandchildren more and traveling with Shirley; a two-week vacation to Europe last autumn was the longest of his life. Yet Kearns still serves on the NAS board, where he no doubt will remain until he dies. He's also a trustee of the Ford Foundation and the University of Rochester. He hopes the book, titled A Legacy of Learning, will come out in the autumn, after which he plans to pen his memoirs.

Kearns is an impatient man, especially when it comes to the fruit of his own, almost obsessive efforts. Yet he, if anyone, comprehends the meandering quality of the change he seeks. He understands that at schools such as Dunn Avenue Elementary, things are slowly getting better. Classrooms are being rebuilt, teachers retrained, curriculums overhauled. "It's taken a lot longer than I ever thought," Kearns tells the crowd in Washington. "But we have to do it." So, too, does he.

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