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Slow Pace of School Reform Worries Business Leaders

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A decade after A Nation at Risk, the 1983 federal report that galvanized efforts to reform American schools, business leaders are "deeply disturbed'' by what they see as a lack of progress toward that goal, a report by the Conference Board says.

The informal survey of corporate leaders by the board found that they express moderate praise of business efforts to help improve schools in the past decade, but recognize the need for an even stronger commitment to systemic change.

"While affirming the good intentions and the effort in workplace programs,'' the report released last month says, business leaders "are deeply disturbed by the lack of broad-based measurable results.''

A separate report by the New York City-based business organization suggests that a number of corporate efforts have been at least moderately successful in reducing high-school-dropout rates.

Minimal Return on Investment

The report assessing the education-reform movement, entitled "Ten Years After A Nation at Risk,'' is based on a survey and interviews of an unidentified number of business leaders and educators.

It includes comments from numerous survey respondents, such as Jack Bowsher, the retired education director for the International Business Machines Corporation, who summed up the concern of business leaders over the lack of progress.

"Unfortunately, the vast majority of the schools are about the same as they were 10 years ago,'' he contends in the report. "The return on investment in education is minimal when one applies real quality-control measurements to the public school system.''

And Morton Egol, a partner at the accounting firm Arthur Andersen & Company, is quoted as saying: "The initial efforts were significant, but business needs to be more aggressive in pressing for positive change. We don't have another decade to design the solution.''

The report, written by Leonard Lund and Cathleen Wild, describes what it defines as the four "waves'' of business involvement in education reform since 1983. The first wave included school adoptions and small partnerships. The second involved larger collaborations and compacts among several companies to aid their local schools.

The third wave, says the report, brought the institutionalization of partnerships and a growing interest in public-policy initiatives. The fourth wave has been marked by a campaign for systemic reform.

"The current wave,'' the report says, "has the potential to radically alter the educational landscape.''

'A Total Restructuring'

Business leaders are now in more agreement on the need to change the standards of the teaching profession, bring up-to-date technology to classrooms, and revise school-governance systems, according to the report.

"The business leaders of this country must demand a total restructuring of the American public school system in future years,'' Mr. Bowsher states in the report. "Then, the C.E.O.'s and other well-intentioned leaders could decide if they wish to continue to support 'quick-fix feel-good' programs that only fine-tune the existing paradigm.''

The report says that business leaders agree on the need for continued and enhanced involvement in school reform, although they offer few common suggestions on exactly which path that involvement should take.

However, it suggests that future efforts will focus on parental involvement, linkages between school and work, and outcomes-based education.

"Whatever the future role of business in education reform, many business and education leaders firmly believe that business will 'stay the course' and continue to contribute time, energy, leadership, and resources,'' the report says.

Dropout Programs Examined

In the other report, "Corporate Support of Dropout Prevention and Work Readiness,'' the Conference Board examines seven business-supported programs for children at risk of dropping out.

The programs in the study are the Chevron Corporation and Ford Motor Company's Project 2000, the Coca-Cola Foundation's Valued Youth Program, the James Campbell Estate's Winners' Camp, the U.S. West Education Foundation's Choices program, the Bank of America's Building on Achievement program, the Savannah Burger King Academy, and Kaiser Permanente's support of a health academy in Honolulu.

The seven programs "are among the most effective business-supported education-improvement projects'' in the nation, according to the report.

It says the programs all avoid standard remediation methods for at-risk children, seeking instead to build students' self-esteem and self-discipline while teaching concepts such as managing time, becoming motivated, managing emotions, and setting goals.

In the Coca-Cola Foundation's program, for example, middle school students at risk of dropping out become tutors of elementary school pupils. A study of the program found that only 2.5 percent of the tutors had dropped out of school.

Chevron and Ford's Project 2000 involves a special high school curriculum for "average'' students designed to sustain their interest in school. Students attend core classes in English, mathematics, social sciences and study skills, with ample time for teacher conferences.

But some observers worry that dropout-prevention programs do not receive enough corporate support to make dramatic progress toward achieving the national goal of raising the high-school-completion rate to 90 percent by 2000, the report cautions. Many firms prefer to join collective efforts such as Cities in Schools and the National Dropout Prevention Center, it says.

Information on ordering both reports can obtained by calling the customer-orders department of the Conference Board at (800) 873-6273.

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