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Published in Print: March 6, 1991, as Report Cautiously Optimistic on School-Business Ties

Report Cautiously Optimistic on School-Business Ties

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Washington--Faced with a dwindling labor supply in the 1980's, American businesses exhibited a legitimate and profound interest in education that spawned support programs ranging from "feel good" partnerships to systemic-reform efforts, according to a study released here last week.

But future support could be clouded by the current economic recession and by growing frustration in the business community over the slow pace of education reform, according to the study by P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Laurie Miller McNeill, an education consultant.

"If there is any bias in this report, it is toward optimism," states the study, commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development as background for its report on education and child development. (See related story, page 1.)

But the researchers temper their optimism, asserting that many of the nearly 73,000 school-business partnerships across the country grow out of opportunism and result in little more than good public relations. Furthermore, they say, the nation's reversing economic fortunes and concerns over the length of time education reform takes have already discouraged some businesses from entering the arena, and others may follow suit this decade.

Indeed, the authors say, there probably are fewer chief executive officers committed to education today than there were in 1988, and that worrisome trend is likely to continue in the near future.

"One has the feeling that both business leaders and education leaders are preoccupied with financial survival at the moment," Mr. Timpane said in an interview last week. "Whether when they come up for air they will join up on the same agenda is hard to predict."

But, he emphasized, the underlying economic factors that created the interest--a shrinking labor supply, poorly prepared workers, and heightened international competition--will still exist when the recession ends.

Core of Leaders Emerges

Despite the recent cooling of interest, the report says, a core of committed business leaders emerged during the past decade who understand the complexity of education problems and the time it will take to correct them.

"The enterprise under way intends to reinvent schools for the 21st century, not to give education a face-lift," the report says.

This vanguard, many of them the CEO's of the nation's largest corporations, must now raise the level and depth of involvement if the reforms of the 1980's are to continue. Of particular concern, the report says, is a glaring lack of support for early-intervention programs.

The study notes that business leaders have shown little initiative in early-childhood education, where programs can be expensive and questions arise over who should deliver the services and whether those services intrude on family privacy.

The problem, Mr. Timpane noted, is that businesses are most concerned with the high schools and colleges that produce their workers. They are less worried about the earlier grades and pre-kindergarten where educational quality seems to be only distantly related to the quality of the worker who will emerge years down the road.

Mr. Timpane predicted that business support for early-childhood education in the 1990's would go through the same stages of support that developed for precollegiate education in the 1980's: "helping hands" relationships, programmatic initiatives, compacts and collaboratives, and policy change.

Four Types of Aid

Of the four, clearly the most popular--and the most superficial--is the "helping hands" relationship, under which a business provides schools with such resources as computers and other equipment, public speakers and mentors, and mini-grants for teachers.

In 1984, such partnerships existed in 17 percent of the nation's schools; today, the figure is 40 percent, the report says.

Corporate philanthropy for precollegiate education jumped by almost 50 percent between 1987 and 1988 alone, according to the report.

While such programs help meet the immediate needs of individual schools, they "do not ... challenge the ways in which schools go about the business of education or the ways in which business goes about its involvement with schools," according to the study.

"In the worst case," it says, "they are a union of opportunists--both seeking public-relations gain."

The most successful type--the programmatic initiative--concentrates on enhancing learning opportunities in one school or education program. Such efforts may focus, for example, on science and technology programs, career preparation and job readiness, or school curricula and management. These programs aim to change rather than enhance existing programs.

Although such collaborations have had demonstrable success in improving educational achievement, only a few hundred exist, the report says.

Compacts and collaboratives have linked business coalitions with an individual school district to hammer out policies and create enthusiasm for school reform both within the district administration and the community at large.

Such projects as the Boston Compact, formed in 1982, have set clear goals with the understanding that there are problems in the education system that must be solved. Because collaboratives have arisen largely in urban centers that embody some of the most intractable problems, the researchers say it is too early to judge their effectiveness.

The final stage is at the policymaking level, where business made an impact during past decade in almost every state. The study indicates that policymaking shifted from the offices of state school chiefs and boards of education to governors, state legislatures, and business leaders.

Between 1983 and 1985, more than 300 state task forces and commissions were formed to set new standards and procedures for education. Business leaders filled nearly 25 percent of the seats: 9 percent of those on educator-sponsored task forces and 31 percent of those on panels created by governors and legislatures.

"In many if not most states, the new reforms ... [that emerged in the 1980's] would not have passed without business support," the study concludes.

While national business organizations such as the CED, the National Alliance of Business, and the Business Roundtable have encouraged businesses to focus on policy, educators at the local level maintain that businesses should remain primarily resource providers, the study notes.

In a 1989 survey of school principals conducted by the National Center on Education Statistics, 52 percent said they wanted business to provide awards and scholarships. Only 6 percent said that business's primary concern should be education committees and task forces.

"Considerable suspicion and misunderstanding persist on both sides of the relationship," the report says, "but they are gradually diminishing."

Educators' mistrust has led some business leaders to charge that education is timid and unwilling to change. Some educators, in turn, believe business does not understand the complexity of the education enterprise and is trying to take over the schools.

"I think it's going to take several years for the two sides to come to an understanding of each other," Mr. Timpane said. "There has to be change on both sides."

The study concludes that, to date, business involvement has not had widespread impact on educational outcomes--not surprising, given the size of the task.

"It will take all of the 1990's to redeem the promise of the 1980's," the study asserts. "With 'controlled impatience,' business must remain in the midst of the enterprise."

Vol. 10, Issue 24, Page 19

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