In his weekly opinion column, A Point of View, Harold Evans writes of innovative attempts to improve the US's state schools.
We tend to think of American innovators in terms of electronic wizards and science boffins conjuring up modern marvels like the personal computer and the internet, but this is a restless country where change-makers are everywhere.
US school buses
I'd like to tell you about two innovators I know - I call them the Odd Couple - who have dared to touch the emotionally charged third rail of American life - the neighbourhood school. .
First, Chris Whittle. He grew up in the tiny hill town of Etowah, Tennessee and learned his three Rs, like everyone else in the 50s, at public school. In America that doesn't mean a fee-paying Eton, but a state school, run by locally elected boards of education.
Whittle graduated from the University of Tennessee where he struck his first gold, publishing guides to help university freshmen find their way around their new locale. Everybody had a decided view then about the up and coming Whittle.
The schemes he scribbled on yellow legal pads were the work of a visionary genius - or of a clever huckster. Later both admirers and critics felt vindicated. He brilliantly salvaged the foundering Esquire magazine, but he flirted, multiple times, with financial ruin - both corporate and personal.
Today, he asks Americans to consider this question: How would they react if a thousand commercial airliners crashed every day? Or if every night 40 million homes were blacked by power failure?
Whittle, a cheerfully ebullient man in a jaunty bow tie, poses these scary hypotheticals to dramatise the prolonged trauma of American public education, as documented in periodic reports by the US Department of Education.
Failure rates as high 30% that would produce such catastrophes in the air and in the home have been manifest in thousands of America's 97,000 public schools. State schools in Britain and other major industrialized countries have their headaches but they have been outperforming the superpower's for 20 years.
In the US 15m children, most of them poor and of colour, have been unable to pass even the most basic state tests in reading and maths. There are many fine schools, but many clusters of shame.
Scattered about New York state, for instance, there are 13 schools where not one student is proficient in maths. Not one. The Department of Education sounded the alarm in 1983: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
Chris Whittle decided he would try to do something. In his view, the children weren't failing because they were dim. They weren't failing because schools were starved of money. They were failing, Whittle believed, because the organisation of education had fallen behind major social changes.
What happened? A lot of things. Fewer bright women entered teaching when careers opened up in better-paid law, medicine and business.
There was uncollected garbage, aimless bad behaviour, an atmosphere of decay and disorder - Nobody had a smile, not the teachers, not the kids
Benno Schmidt on public schools
"White flight" to the suburbs left city schools with a majority of poor children of colour, black and Latino, and too many of them in broken families. From the 60s on, the dogma was that they should not be expected to reach hitherto expected standards in reading and maths.
A national neurosis of low expectations for all students developed. It conspired with inflexibility in teacher unions who customarily insist that experienced teachers have a right to choose the best schools, leaving the blackboard jungles of the inner cities to the beginners.
On top of all this, as schools declined, the middle classes deserted them so the pressure for reform was reduced.
To get a taste of the trenches, Whittle volunteered to be a two-year tutor in a New York city school. But for a moment we will leave him there, chalk in hand, and take a highly relevant trip along Broadway, New York to meet our second innovator.
To the world Broadway at 42nd street in New York is show business, but if you travel Broadway uptown to 116th street you arrive at another universe of stars - the campus of Columbia University.
When the Department of Education warned of the crisis in 1983, Benno Schmidt was the dean of the Law School at the age of 38.
He used to take a break off campus walking the district and invariably came back depressed. "Out of curiosity," he told me, "I'd drop in on a public school. There was uncollected garbage, aimless bad behaviour, an atmosphere of decay and disorder. Nobody had a smile, not the teachers, not the kids."
In 1986 Benno was elevated to the presidency of Yale University, but there, too, when he wandered off campus in New Haven his heart sank.
Fast forward now to the summer of 1991 and a barbecue in the Hamptons at the summer home of Ed Victor, the literary agent. My wife and I happened to be invited and found it was Whittle who was on the griddle.
He was advancing the conclusion he had reached: the public school system had become so ossified generally that only comprehensive large scale private sector partnerships with school districts would bring the flexibility and, accountability, needed to rescue children from failure.
Ed Doctorow, the celebrated author of Ragtime, was incandescent. "You want to make a profit out of a public service. It's outrageous."
In vain did Whittle say there would be no school fees and what would some profit matter if thousands more children achieved basic literacy.
His ideas sounded so off the wall. Double the pay of teachers and principals. Pay according to merit and results not years. Insist on standards. Invest in research on just how children learn. Extend the short school year designed for an agrarian society. Lengthen the school day.
Cool probing questions came from another guest: it was Benno Schmidt. He had never met Whittle before. A few days later he agreed to have lunch with him at Mory's, a Yale watering hole.
Whittle plunged in: "Leave Yale. Come to Tennessee and help me plan a national partnership of private enterprise and public education. We'll call it the Edison Project."
This was like asking the chairman of General Electric to come and mend a fuse. "I thought Chris was a little crazed," Benno remembers. "I said No, but what I'd seen of the schools had moved me. I came from a privileged background and felt the inequity of that."
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war
Dept of Education warning, 1983
Over 12 months Schmidt reasoned and shamed himself into giving up his stellar presidency. His prestige and Whittle's passion got the project Edison off the ground.
Now 15 years later, Whittle and Schmidt celebrate success after some bumpy roads. In one crisis, Whittle was fired by his own company, then rehired. Edison does have its critics. Not every Edison school has worked, but looking at the performance of their 157 schools they claim an average improvement rate that is twice that of comparable public schools.
Not only that. Edison - as the country's largest partners of public schools - has spearheaded a movement. Other competitive private enterprise ventures have sprung up.
Go-ahead Philadelphia has contracts with four, including Edison, and reports nearly tripling the number of schools meeting government improvement standards. There is a long way to go, no doubt, but the Edison ideas have entered the mainstream of the national conversation.
Maybe Benno and Chris - or Chris and Benno - are an odd couple, the cerebral former president of Yale and the entrepreneur, but together they've survived the jeers that the inert always inflict on the innovative - and they've improved the lives of thousands of children.