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New Activism Marks Corporate Role in Schools

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The nation's corporate and industrial community is beginning to break with past practice and play an active role in improving the performance of the nation's elementary and secondary schools, recent developments indicate.

This new type of corporate involvement extends far beyond the traditional contribution to vocational programs, into such areas as curriculum development and financial management.

But it is not yet widespread. Most of the emerging business initiatives appear to be local efforts focused on improving schools in the city or region where individual companies do business.

The overriding motivation for the corporate world's emerging concern with public education, according to both educators and business representatives, is its growing anxiety over a perceived failure of the nation's schools to supply an adequately trained work force. In addition, business leaders increasingly acknowledge that economic redevelopment and increased productivity in the years ahead will depend to a significant degree on a more effective educational system.

"In the past, public education was off-limits to business," said Kathryn L. Troy, sen-ior research associate for the Conference Board, a 4,000-member research institute supported by industry. "Now concern is mounting that there are grave problems in education that everyone has to deal with. There is a lot more talk [about business involvement in public education] than ever before."

"There's a widespread feeling within the business community that the schools have failed to produce students who can communicate, who can listen and think, and who can work with other people," added Sol Hurwitz, senior vice president of the Committee for Economic Development (ced), a nonpartisan, public-policy organization representing the leadership of 200 major corporations.

Indications of Active Role

Among the indications that business is beginning to play a more active role in public education:

The ced has commissioned a task force to study the relationship between business and schools. It will investigate ways to improve lines of communication, identify the future educational needs of business, and recommend ways that business can play a direct role in improving elementary and secondary education.

A similar corporate-sponsored study of the business-school relationship at the state level will be released next month by the California Roundtable; another is under consideration by the Minnesota Business Partnership.

School, city, and business leaders in Boston recently announced a cooperative effort to upgrade the performance of the city's public schools. The school system has agreed to meet specific standards for attendance, testing, and placement, and has also established 11 business-supported curriculum priorities ranging from basic skills to computer literacy. In return, business leaders have agreed to reserve entry-level jobs for Boston high-school graduates.

The New York City Partnership, a three-year-old organization created by New York corporate leaders to coordinate corporate efforts toward solving the city's public-policy problems, last month created a task force made up of school officials, teacher representatives, and corporate leaders that will encourage business projects in support of the city's school system. Richard Munro, president of Time Inc., is the chairman of the task force.

In 1980, Chicago United, another local corporate public-policy organization, sponsored a four-month, $800,000 study of Chicago's school system by 70 management experts who were lent by local corporations. The effort produced 250 recommendations, which are now being put into effect, on matters ranging form personnel policies to purchasing to curriculum reform.

The organization also recently put together a slate of 11 candidates for the school board. All were appointed by Mayor Jane M. Byrne, according to a recent study on corporations and public education by P. Michael Timpane, dean of Teachers College at Columbia University. (See interview on page 10.)

Several major corporations, including General Motors, Xerox, and Control Data, are discussing providing financial backing for the creation of career high schools in Washington, D.C. Similar arrangements have been developed in Houston and in other cities.

The rapidly changing nature of the workplace, caused primarily by an equally rapid evolution of new computer-related technologies, has been cited by a number of observers as a major reason for the business community's decision to play a direct role in shaping the education of its employees-- something it had not done since the mid-1960's.

Widespread controversy at that time and changing social conditions caused many businessmen to abdicate their once-prominent roles on local school boards, Mr. Timpane and others acknowledged.

"Fifteen years ago, we could tolerate people with marginal skills," said Denis P. Doyle, who has studied the business-school issue for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based "think tank," and will head the staff of the forthcoming ced study. "As each year goes by, that is less and less the case. Business people realize that they are going to need more and more problem solvers. But they are not getting them."

The American Society for Training and Development estimates that businesses spend at least $30 billion annually on retraining workers, with some of that spent on remedial-education programs. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company alone spends about $6 million per year to teach its employees basic writing and mathematics.

Moreover, school systems, hit by sharp cuts in support from all levels of government, are more willing to embrace the ideas, and especially the potential political and financial support of the business community, many say.

'Blackboard Jungles'

"When business people are involved in the schools, they tend to drop the popular idea that all schools are blackboard jungles," said Sandra Feldman, executive director of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and a member of the Partnership's new education committee.

"Business and schools are not cooperating because they love each other," added Nevzer G. Stacey, a researcher at the National Institute of Education who has commissioned several papers that will assess the scope of business-school collaboration nationwide and identify the barriers to such cooperation. "They are doing it because they desperately need each other."

Some educators say they are concerned that, if it plays a major role in support of the public schools, business may try to remold the schools into narrowly focused "vocational" centers.

Ms. Feldman, however, is less concerned about that possibility. "They do not want to run the schools, and I'm not worried about that," she said. "If they have an effect on policy, that's fine. Policy should be made by as many people as possible."

Some businesses have limited their involvement to "Adopt-a-School" programs or "School-Business Partnerships," in which corporations encourage employees to go into the school to give lectures, tutor, or offer career counseling. More than 60 Houston businesses are involved in such programs this fall.

Others contribute equipment or other services. In Dade County, Fla., for example, the American Automotive Association provides an alcohol-education course. In Los Angeles, the Security Pacific National Bank offers a free week-long summer course in banking principles for public school teachers.

Other corporations "contribute" executives' time and expertise to improve the management of school systems. Chicago United's four-month study is the most comprehensive such project; the idea has also been tried in New York City and elsewhere.

In addition, corporate foundations--longtime supporters of postsecondary education--have begun to provide some financial support to elementary and secondary schools. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development in Pittsburgh, for example, has provided grants to teachers to develop innovative curriculum projects and has supported the city's teachers' union in a public-relations campaign promoting Pittsburgh's schools.

As these and other examples of renewed corporate activism in education multiply, some observers say that rapid technological develop-ment will require a closer, more consistent relationship between those who educate students and those who employ them.

Says Michael D. Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, a nonprofit organization that is promoting business-school cooperation: "The rate of change in the workplace is so great today that the dialogue between educators and the business world has to be institutionalized."

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