For Baskerville, economic progress is a real stretch

Most Wisconsinites probably are unaware their state has fallen behind Minnesota in key economic measures, but David Baskerville is trying to change that by promoting a “stretch goals” technique he developed for business clients.

Baskerville, a retired international business consultant now based in Madison, says Wisconsin needs a Kennedyesque “moon shot” to close the gap and overtake its Rose Bowl-starved neighbor to the west. His plan might not be quite that ambitious, but given the barriers he’s already encountered — elected officials don’t talk about it, the public education establishment is skeptical, and the citizenry has yet to be galvanized behind the concept — it’s no sure thing, either.

Baskerville, however, believes stretch targets could be one answer to addressing the gap in personal income between Minnesota and Wisconsin — now about $4,900 per capita — that has developed over the past 30 years. Baskerville notes that Minnesota now is ranked 10th nationally in this metric, while Wisconsin is 28th or 29th, depending on the year. About 35 years ago, the two states were bunched in the middle, with Wisconsin ranking 18th and Minnesota 19th.

After his business travels to Asia and European factories, he senses that American workers, especially young workers, are not as trainable as workers in other nations, and the superior performance of international students in math, science, and reading tests only confirm his reasons for concern.

“I come to it not as an economist or an educator, but as a guy who was born and raised here and worked for 40 years, mainly in international business, and retired back here to our hometown,” he explains. “I’m concerned that Wisconsin is not going in the right direction in terms of both its economy and its education.”

In his sights

The stretch targets, which would be measured by a simple, easy-to-track scorecard, are to achieve 10% higher per capita income as compared to Minnesota by the year 2037, and for Wisconsin teens to be in the top 10 globally in math, science, and reading.

Baskerville is quick to note that he’s not advocating any particular pathway — through school choice, charters, or the traditional K–12 system — only that long-term goals be established and pursued with what Kennedy would call, in his best Boston dialect, “renewed vigah.”

The skeptics are out there, and Baskerville encounters them everywhere he goes. “I got a long spiel from one [school] board member in Appleton saying, ‘You know, there’re more important things than math and science,’” Baskerville says, shaking his head. “This is a board member. He says, ‘You know, there is communications and there is how you relate to people,’ and I’m saying ‘Yeah, math and science are not the only skills in the world, but …”

Baskerville goes on to suggest that a strong foundation in math and science is the path to higher earning and societal transformation. “It’s skills, it’s jobs, and it’s also social justice or social mobility,” he notes. “I grew up in the 1940s, early ’50s, and all those GIs that came back from World War II that were Slavic and Belgian and German, including many farm kids who got to the eighth grade, they got to college on the GI Bill, and they took the necessary remedial courses and went to the university. It was just huge and I don’t know of any better way in our country for social mobility other than through education.”

In mentioning Kennedy’s ramped up space program and the highly successful GI Bill, Baskerville might be up against generational differences because stretch targets are not a universally accepted way to make educational progress. In an April 2012 article from the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Markovitz, a business consultant and Stanford professor, opines that when stretch goals seem overwhelming and unattainable, they sap employees’ intrinsic motivation.

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Baskerville’s experience with them in the business world suggests otherwise, but that’s not to say they are immediately embraced. He notes that Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the 1960s was viewed skeptically by some, especially given the enormous complexity of the project, yet it was maintained over three presidential administrations and finally accomplished in July 1969.

“It’s been my experience that if a company either has a new opportunity, a major new opportunity they have never been in, or perhaps they need to move for survival reasons, that with stretch targets — long-term targets — the first reaction in an organization is always can’t do it, shouldn’t do it, nobody has ever done it, and we don’t have the resources to do it,” he states. “If the senior leadership maintains that commitment and indeed provides some of the resources, it’s amazing what companies can do.”

A believer in the proposition that it’s not how much you spend but how wisely you spend it, Baskerville cites examples in other states, especially Massachusetts. About 20 years ago, he notes the Bay State did three standard-setting things:

  • First, elected officials there said high school graduation requirements are going to be really tough. “Specifically, they said if a kid can’t get to this certain level, he just won’t graduate in Massachusetts,” Baskerville says. “They gave the kids six years and didn’t flunk out anyone for six years.”
  • Secondly, they looked at the professional requirements for doctors and lawyers, noted how stringent these certifications were, and extended that to teachers. “They tied that certification with their subject matter, as well as teaching, so a great science teacher has to know science at a really high level, and eighth grade math, etc.,” Baskerville states. “In the first year, 51% of the Massachusetts teachers were certified. They didn’t fire anyone. They gave them six years.”
  • Thirdly, in what Baskerville called a “politically beautiful or politically unbelievable” development, they sustained that commitment over multiple gubernatorial administrations — Democrat and Republican — and the Republican was Mitt Romney. “They made a commitment and they sustained that thing,” Baskerville marveled. “Apparently, it didn’t have great, huge results immediately, but by year five, even before this six-year deadline, they were clearly moving.”

As a result, Baskerville says Massachusetts is approaching some global levels in terms of test results. “That state is Democratic, pro-union, and progressive, so it’s doable here,” he states. “People sort of look at you as though you’re in a different world, but I keep getting back to my world, which is international business, and I’ve seen workers being trained on several continents. To have those basics, they are going to be better skilled, and get more investments, and be able to make sophisticated products than our labor force will be.”

Road less traveled

Although about 370 people statewide have signed on to support stretch targets, Baskerville acknowledged his quest has been pretty much a one-person effort up to this point. Now 80, he has pitched his plan to Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs all over the state, and knows he will have to bring millennials on board to take the baton and deal with the political polarization he sees.

In other words, the demand for this kind of change will have to come from the grass roots. Without public pressure, “the politicians aren’t going to set long-term goals, much less enforce them,” he says. “They did it in one state — Massachusetts — and with marvelous results. These are long-term goals. You don’t immediately turn around an economy that’s been going relatively south for 35 years, and you don’t do it with short-term fixes.

“But we love this place and we think it has potential, and as the old Yiddish proverb says, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.’”

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