7 Lessons Learned by CEO-Turned-Inner-City-Teacher Tom Bloch

Never, Ever Bet Against the American Dream: Seven Ways to Reinvest in Our Most Valuable National Resource and Reclaim Our Place in the World

America’s slide in world prominence is causing a national malaise; we grow more anxiety-ridden and worried about our futures by the day. Tom Bloch, the former CEO of H&R Block who left his corporate career to become an inner city teacher, says we need to stop the negativity and start getting serious about the education of all of our nation’s children.

As other countries around the world enjoy economic growth and expansion, America seems to be stuck in a rut. Jobs have gone overseas, consumer confidence has declined, home foreclosures have risen, the stock market has dropped from its highs, and the resulting economic slump seems to paint a grim picture of a nation whose star is falling, not rising. And Americans are plenty worried about it. Consider a Gallup Poll taken in 2000, which found that 65 percent of Americans believed the U.S. was the leading economic power. In 2008, a similar poll found that 40 percent named China as the leading economic power. And, according to yet another Gallup Poll, we think this will remain true over the next 20 years.

Is all the handwringing a reflection of reality? Are we losing our superpower status, never to enjoy it again? Absolutely not, says Tom Bloch. All we have to do is remember who we are-and who we want to be tomorrow.

“Too many Americans have lost sight of the optimism and ingenuity that made our country great,” says Bloch, author of the new book Stand for the Best: What I Learned after Leaving My Job as CEO of H&R Block to Become a Teacher and Founder of an Inner City Charter School (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, August 2008, ISBN-10: 0470188960, ISBN-13: 978-0-4701889-6-5, $24.95). “It’s almost like we’ve given up hope of a bright future for our nation, and that perception is far sadder than the actual hardships we face. History suggests that Americans can do anything we set our minds to-and it’s time we remembered that fact.”

So here’s the proverbial $64,000 question: What can we do to start solving the problems that are causing our national malaise? Bloch says the turnaround should begin in the classrooms and corridors of America’s most important institution: our schools.

“We must invest, first and foremost, in our education system for all kids, whether they are rich or poor, black, brown, or white,” asserts Bloch. “School must be more than a place kids go to learn how to read and write, multiply and divide. It’s where they must develop special skills that prepare them for successful careers in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. And it’s where they must develop basic life skills such as honesty, perseverance, self-discipline, and respect. By making sure that our young people get what they really need to be productive and successful members of society, we’ll be tackling our problems where they begin.”

Bloch does not speak from a place of theory. He speaks from hard experience. As his book describes, at the age of 41, he resigned from his high-profile position as CEO of H&R Block to pursue a new career as a middle school math teacher in the inner city. The next several years were tough but rewarding, as he navigated the uncertain waters of a dramatic career change.

He went on to co-found University Academy, a nationally acclaimed college preparatory charter public school in an impoverished area of Kansas City. The school serves over 1,000 students in kindergarten through grade twelve. Over the last five years, all but two University Academy graduates have gone on to attend college, an almost unheard-of feat for an urban school.

Bloch’s new book highlights his personal journey from CEO of a large corporation to math teacher in the urban core. And while his story is fascinating in and of itself, it also sheds light on the techniques that help underserved kids from low-income, broken families discover their self-confidence, ambition, and a sense of accountability.

“I think what we’ve been able to do at University Academy could be done on a larger scale throughout the country,” Bloch says. “The American Dream is alive and well. I see it every day with the kids I teach. We need only to re-harness and refocus some of the ingenuity that made our country special so that more citizens can achieve their dreams. And that starts with improving the way we educate all of our children.”

What’s so refreshing about the changes Bloch suggests is that they needn’t be mandated by the government. That’s right. Improving our education system shouldn’t require legislation. It can and should begin with “We the people.” If more parents, educators, and concerned community members got involved in a “Take America Back to School” grassroots movement, we could see a dramatic change in our nation. Bloch offers his advice on how we can ensure that happens:

First and foremost, it’s about people. Bloch says that the primary focus needs to change from the education reform movement du jour to attracting, hiring, and retaining the most qualified teachers and administrators in our nation’s schools. “Like any service business, quality is dependent on the caliber of individuals who are providing the service,” says Bloch. “We must recognize that, compared to countries in which student academic achievement is higher than in the U.S., our teachers are undervalued and under-appreciated, particularly in the urban core. This is significant because, after all, teaching is the most important profession in the country.”

Set and maintain high standards in all schools. Low standards produce low performance. All schools-whether they are public or private, urban, rural, or suburban-should establish high standards. “It’s no secret that many of our nation’s urban schools have lower standards,” Bloch notes. “And out of a sense of pity, too many kids who haven’t demonstrated academic proficiency are passed along from one grade to the next. Pity is a dangerous trap for an urban teacher, who is tempted to feel sorry for the stereotypical poor, disadvantaged kid who might be viewed as having no future. No one helps kids by feeling sorry for them. It tells them only that their teachers expect them to fail and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Upgrade teacher education programs at colleges and universities. About half of beginning teachers leave the profession within five years. Although there are a number of factors contributing to this high rate of attrition, one of them is that too many first-year teachers are unprepared to succeed in their new profession. “Just as medical students spend a significant amount of time training in hospitals, education students should spend more time in a variety of actual classrooms observing, assisting, and teaching,” says Bloch. “This is particularly true for aspiring urban teachers, who will face unique challenges when they start their careers. Education schools must also recruit much more aggressively the best and brightest high school graduates to become future teachers.”

It’s not only okay to teach core values, it’s vital. Some people question whether in a diverse, multicultural society, schools should be in the values business. Of course they should, says Bloch. “Schools must teach caring, compassion, respect, and responsibility to help offset the corrosive aspects of our larger culture,” he insists. “After all, who, other than parents and religious institutions, is better positioned to teach these things? Character education and academics go hand in hand. I have discovered that there are fewer disruptions in the classroom when there is a strong emphasis on character development.”

Stop accepting mediocrity in math and science. Other countries have surpassed the U.S. in educating their young people. “We simply can’t afford to have math and science programs that are sub-par,” says Bloch. “In a world in which technology is changing at unprecedented rates, an emphasis on math and science content coupled with teachers in all schools who are qualified to teach these subjects will help ensure our nation’s ability to compete in the 21st century.”

Change the way teachers are compensated. “Traditionally, teacher salaries have been based largely on education and experience levels,” says Bloch. “This is, in my opinion, inadequate and unjust. Experience and education are certainly important, but performance matters the most. I think schools should move toward performance-based compensation. Pay for performance is commonplace in business, and it should be standard practice in the business of education. It motivates workers to accomplish specific goals, and it rewards top achievers. Why should public educators be exempt from the same opportunities that other professional managers are afforded? They shouldn’t.”

There is no substitute for parental involvement. Some parents expect schools to do all the work in educating and socializing their children. This is not just a problem faced by poor communities. Even affluent parents often find themselves too busy to take an active role in their children’s schooling. “No question about it: Raising kids is intense and often exhausting,” he admits. “But to not get deeply involved in their education is to neglect a critical aspect of parenting.” University Academy requires parents to sign a contract that spells out specific responsibilities to ensure that they are directly involved in their kids’ education.

While these ideas all sound good and noble, it’s hard not to wonder: Will Americans rise to the occasion? Will we find it in ourselves to do the hard work it’s going to take to get our nation back on track? Of course we will, says Bloch-but first we must snap out of our collective malaise and start believing in ourselves again.

“There is a saying that ‘Attitude determines altitude,'” says Bloch. “The growing sentiment that our society’s problems are too big for any of us to conquer affects us and not just the problems themselves. Believe me, I’ve seen students, who once viewed themselves as having no future, graduate from high school with distinction, then go on to college, and truly make something of themselves. We all have that fighting spirit; it’s our national birthright. Never, ever bet against the American Dream. It has never let us down before, and I don’t believe it will fail us now.”


What I Learned after Leaving My Job as CEO of H&R Block to Become a Teacher and Founder of an Inner City Charter School

By Thomas M. Bloch

ISBN: 9780470188965; $24.95

Tom Bloch, former CEO of H&R Block, is a middle school math teacher and president of the board at University Academy. He co-founded the highly acclaimed Academy, which is a K-12 public charter school of more than 1,000 inner city students. Bloch is also a founding board member of the Kansas City Foundation for Higher Education, vice chairman of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, president of the Endowment Fund for the Henry W. Bloch School of Business, and chairman of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.

By Thomas M. Bloch