A business built on failure

After 37 years with NPR and PBS, John Merrow claims he’s leaving the non-profit world to go into the remedial education business.

I know it’s going to be a gold mine. All I need are failing kids, and I don’t see any signs that the supply is drying up.

He’s not serious, but many readers missed the satire. I think it’s because his fictional business makes a lot of sense. He writes:

I have some definite advantages over schools: (1) the technology to diagnose deficiencies and create specific programs that address those shortcomings and measure accomplishment; (2) a population of (finally) motivated young people who realize they need certain skills if they want to find decent jobs; and (3) powerful financial incentives that encourage me to teach them quickly.

He proposes self-paced modules, instead of semesters. “Learn it, prove you’ve learned it, and you’re done.”

Students will be motivated to learn so they can move on to the world of work. He’ll be motivated to help them do that.

Unlike today’s educators, I will get paid only when the students succeed. Should I fail, I get hurt where it matters: in the pocketbook. In most education systems, failure is blamed on the students. And then their failure is usually ‘punished’ by promotion to the next grade.

He won’t use the word “remediation,” which is a downer. Instead, he’ll “certify” his students’ skill levels.

If Merrow could teach useful skills to failing students — and be paid only for success  — he’d deserve to earn a profit. Of course, it may be harder than he thinks. And, if it’s not, he’d have lots of competition.

The fact that businesses make money supplying books, tests, technology, desks or pencils — or tutoring,  training and consulting — to schools  is not a problem, if those supplies and services are worth the cost.


About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    Joanne, You don’t seem to realize. If a company has a million dollars of income, pays its ten people $90,000, and makes a $100,000 profit, they are motivated by greed and should be discouraged. If it is organized as a non-profit, has a million dollars in income, pays its ten people $100,000, and makes no profit, they are motivated by the public interest and should be encouraged.

  2. The key fault in his satire is customer selection. In that private business, he could turn away any student, focus exclusively on one-to-one instruction, and wait for customers to come to him of their own volition as opposed to being mandated by the state to consume a product they are not committed to purchasing.

  3. bill eccleston says:

    And, Mike, the customer has to pay, thus “The Matthew Effect”: to those that have, more; to those that don’t, less, because the public system, stuck with the poor and domestically unsupported, (the kids whose parents are unconcerned or clueless about helping their kids learn,) still does not understand the way forward. The ideology of progressivism, reiterated yet again in the sheep’s clothing of “21 Century Education” (see Valerie Strauss’ recent column on the subject) remains the dominant outlook—a set of ideas, if applied to engineering, would have us flying around in biplanes and starting our cars with hand-cranks. How are the poor, the politically unrepresented, ever to overturn this set of ideas so immensely flattering to the prejudices of the elite that peddles them? Oh, for a Voltaire to puncture this grotesque self-satisfaction and send Pangloss and Candide on a tour of our urban schools and collegiate departments of education. These ideas need to be stripped naked and laughed at.