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Business Still Up To Tackle Reform, Report Says

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Business is in a "fourth wave" of involvement with school reform, with corporate leaders finally realizing the enormous task of systemically changing the education system, a new report says.

The first wave involved businesses starting individual school partnerships in the early 1980's, according to the report by the Conference Board, a national business association based in New York City. The second focused on the introduction of management principles into public schools. The third involved business leaders' advocacy of a range of reform ideas, from school choice to higher performance standards, that were not necessarily linked to the goal of systemic change.

"The fourth wave involves a major reframing of what needs to be done, away from symptomatic fixes and toward system change," said Sandra A. Waddock, a professor of management at Boston College and the author of the report.

This latest wave is based on a much deeper understanding by business leaders of the complexity of reform, the report adds, with less of the "blaming mentality" that existed earlier.

The report notes that some business leaders have decided that the current system cannot be fixed and have decided to support vouchers, charter schools, and privatization efforts. But others are "rolling up their sleeves" and working on changing the existing school system.

"The critical assumption is that schools can be transformed from within," the report says.

The report cites eight models for systemic reform, including the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, the Partnership for Kentucky School Reform, and the Connecticut Business for Education Coalition.

The Connecticut coalition, for example, involved business leaders in efforts to draw up a statewide reform plan based on higher-education outcomes.

No More Model Projects

The report notes that the state legislature shelved the plan last year, but it does not mention that the comprehensive plan failed to convince most of the general public in Connecticut of the need for dramatically higher standards in education.

The Los Angeles plan has been adopted by the city's school board for eventual implementation in all 630 of the district's schools. The Los Angeles alliance has been spearheaded by the ARCO Foundation.

Eugene Wilson, the former president of the foundation, is quoted in the report: "We learned in the last decade and a half that you couldn't just support 'model' projects. You had to become politically active and advocate and help create community coalitions."

Several lessons can be drawn from the work of existing alliances for systemic reform, the report says. The most obvious is that there is no "quick fix for education." Business leaders must make a long-term commitment to the effort, it says.

Second, the report says, reformers must rethink and restructure the curriculum and content of schools. "No longer is working at the margins on new programs or new pieces of curriculum enough." But there is much research about what is likely to work in the classroom, upon which reformers should build, it says.

Lessons To Be Learned

Business leaders have also learned the "difficult lesson" that they must get involved in the politics of school reform. "Reform in schools is about shifting power," the report says. "Real reform means everyone has to change."

Finally, corporate leaders should work on turning schools into learning organizations. There always will be a need for continued staff development and re-evaluation of reform efforts, the report notes.

"A key lesson is that there really is no endpoint to achieving the goals of education," it says.

Information on how to order "Business and Education Reform: The Fourth Wave," is available from the Conference Board, 845 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022-7014; (212) 339-0345.

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