Stanley H. Kaplan's Legacy

The Washington Post mourns the man whose enterprise, acquired 25 years ago, now accounts for 58 percent of its corporate income, Stanley H. Kaplan. He was a flesh-and-blood Frank Capra hero, and why not? Capra, also from an immigrant family, released Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, when Kaplan graduated second in his class at Brooklyn College, but was rejected by medical schools because of academic as well as religious prejudice, according to the New York Times obituary:

"I was Jewish, and I attended a public college," he wrote. "I had a double whammy against me."

That experience made him a champion of standardized tests when others attacked them. If there had been a medical school admissions test, he said, he could have shown the medical schools that he was the equal of students from private universities.

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But as often happens, unfairness encouraged him to do what he had always excelled at, teaching and entrepreneurship. He made millions because he loved to help people learn more than he appreciated the money; as a tutor in school, he would even pay some classmates to listen to him. And equally impressively, as a businessman he was able to train tutors and thus build what became a national organization.

Getting back to the Frank Capra script, there's a new set of foes, the higher education and testing establishments, committed to the idea that studying for tests doesn't help, a dogma that Kaplan was able to vanquish, at least in the public mind.  The climax is the crucial board meeting, where a intervention by the ultimate management guru saves the day, clinching the $45 million Stanley H. Kaplan Co. acquisition in 1984:

The Post was not his only suitor and Post publisher Katharine Graham was lukewarm about the purchase; but Post financial executive Dick Simmons was enthusiastic, and Post board member Warren G. Buffett said Kaplan reminded him of Rose Blumkin, an irascible, hard-toiling Russian transplant whose discount Furniture Mart was outselling every furniture store in the country when Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway bought it in 1983.

And there's the heartwarming conclusion of celebrity, philanthropy, autobiography, and vindication by yet another guru, Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker. Not exactly a Horatio Alger story -- Kaplan's family was middle class rather than poor, and fiercely devoted to education -- but close enough.

Now comes the surprising sequel. Stanley Kaplan embraced the competitive academic world in which he had excelled. Haven't business executives and politicians been telling us that we need to learn from the rigorous tests of Japan, China, and Korea, countries that threaten to overtake us in technology? Won't more testing (and more tutoring) yield more skills?

On the same day the Kaplan obituaries appeared, the web site Inside Higher Ed featured a paper by researchers at the University of Michigan and Harvard and released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) showing, for example, that the number of students spending at least ten hours a week on homework has actually declined as test preparation activities have risen.

"The increased competition that currently exists for admission to a more selective college might have real benefits if it were to increase learning amongst high school students," the authors write. "However, our analysis suggests that there are reasons to be suspicious that this congenial outcome might not hold true. Moreover, the increased resources parents and students are able to use to improve their odds of admission at top colleges put low-income students at a disadvantage."

Of course most of this didn't happen under Mr. Kaplan's watch; he stepped down as CEO at approximately the beginning of the paper's main base line, 1992, when reported high-school homework hours reached an all-time peak.

The NBER paper won't settle the debate on testing; it's about much more than test prep companies. Its results on inequality of opportunity call into question the Post's obituary headline phrase "The Poor Man's Private School." But it leaves open the possibility that Stanley Kaplan's greatest historic role, for all his ideals and generosity to good causes, was not in fostering educational equity and excellence. It was in helping diversify and ultimately preserve a great national newspaper. Mr. Kaplan did indeed go to Washington.

(Photo: Kaplan Inc)