Business Speaks: A Call for Reform From ‘Bottom Up’

By J. R. Sirkin — September 11, 1985 11 min read

Declaring that the nation’s economic health depends on an effective system of public education, a distinguished group of corporate executives and university presidents last week called for sweeping “bottom-up” reform of the nation’s schools. The reform must give more authority to teachers, more resources to preschool programs for the disadvantaged, and more attention to elementary and middle schools rather than high schools, the officials contend in a report called “Investing in Our Children.” The document was produced by the research and policy committee of the Committee for Economic Development, a nonprofit organization whose trustees represent 225 of the nation’s leading corporations and institutions of higher learning.

Excerpts of report, page 17.

Many schools are “failing the nation’s children"--and undermining its international competitiveness--by turning out high-school graduates who cannot advance in the workplace or even hold an entry-level job, the report charges. And it levels harsh criticism at vocational-education programs, which it says too often “warehouse” low-achievers and ignore their academic needs.

Nonetheless, schooling “contributes more to the economy than it takes out,” the C.E.D. report states, and it argues that the nation must increase its investment in public education.

It rules out the business sector as a “significant source” of funding for schools, beyond what individual firms pay in taxes, but it suggests that businesses can encourage and support “initiatives to increase funding for the public schools where it is needed.”

Nationwide Survey

The report’s findings are based in part on the results of a nationwide survey of employers’ needs and on research papers commissioned by the group’s subcommittee on business and the schools, chaired by Owen B. Butler, chairman of the board of the Procter & Gamble Company.

The subcommittee’s work, which spanned three years and cost about $1 million, was directed by Denis P. Doyle and Marsha Levine, both with 4 the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Advisers included Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Harold Howe 2nd, former U. S. commissioner of education.

Among the 107-page report’s key recommendations:

  • Schools should emphasize literacy, mathematical and problem-solving skills, and the ability to adapt to change. They should also teach and reward attitudes--such as self-discipline, teamwork, and acceptance of responsibility--that enable students to succeed in work or higher education.
  • The teaching profession should be strengthened by upgrading salaries, improving working conditions, and increasing teachers’ ability and opportunity to exercise judgment and make decisions. “In sum,” the report states, “we are calling for nothing less than a revolution in the role of the teacher and the management of the schools.”
  • An emphasis on elementary schools and on well-designed preschool programs for children from disadvantaged backgrounds will produce “the best return on our investment in education,” the report says, noting that more research is needed to find ways to continue progress made in elementary grades into junior-high and middle schools.
  • The federal government should play a strong role in supporting educational research. But responsibility for meeting the special educational needs of minorities, women, and the handicapped should be assumed by states and local districts.
  • The Job Corps program--which has been repeatedly targeted for elimination by the Reagan Administration but sustained by the Congress--should be continued because it has proven cost-effective in improving the job prospects of drop-outs.
  • Business, which has much to gain from improvements in the quality of education, should be actively involved with local schools. Possible roles might include redirecting vocational programs, assisting school administrators with training in modern business management and administration, and encouraging participation of working parents and employees.
  • ‘Bottom-Up’ Reform

    Focusing on four issues--curriculum, investment priorities, teachers and school management, and what businesses can do to improve schools--the report in general encourages free-market solutions to the problems schools face and delegation of authority whenever possible.

    For example, while it acknowledges the states’ greater financial commitment to education, it admonishes state departments of education to “resist the impulse to run the schools” and calls instead for a “bottom-up” strategy of reform that maximizes local control and initiative.

    “The states should provide ‘top-down’ guidance and support to local schools by establishing clear goals and high standards and by developing precise measuring tools to evaluate educational achievement,” the report states. “At the same time, the states should give the schools maximum freedom to develop and implement the methods that would best achieve those goals.”


    Based on its survey of businesses, the C.E.D. found that employers are generally dissatisfied with the schools.

    Businesses “put a strong value on learning ability and problem-solving skills,” the report states, but “can no longer assume that young people graduate from school adequately prepared to read, write, reason, calculate, communicate, or accept responsibility.”

    Yet the skills students learn in school will become even more important in the future, the report contends, because “the more rewarding tasks done by people will become nonroutine, placing greater demands on workers to be able to think critically, respond to changes in the environment with reasoned judgment, communicate effectively, and take part in a continuing learning process throughout their careers.”

    As a result, the C.E.D. recommends that schools make a greater effort to teach students a “basic set of academic skills, behavioral patterns, and attitudes toward work” that it says form the “minimum requirements for success in the workforce, in postsecondary education, or in the military.”

    The report recommends that state and local agencies agree on a common curriculum that “balances the teaching of the basics… with the need for desirable regional or local variations,” but without imposing a national curriculum.

    And students should be required to demonstrate retention of course content as they progress through school, it recommends.

    Vocational Education

    The report saves its sharpest criticism for vocational-education programs, which it says “can be credited with preparing but a small fraction of students for future work.”

    Vocational education also “too often perpetuates sex-role stereotyping and tracking of minorities into inferior programs.”

    The main problem with such programs, the report states, is that too many of the students enrolled “have not had the necessary grounding in basic academic and behavioral skills.” Business, it says, “prefers a curriculum that stresses literacy and mathematical and problem-solving skills” to one that teaches narrow vocational skills.

    The report recommends that schools offer only vocational programs that prepare students for work in specific fields, such as agriculture, auto mechanics, and secretarial work, and that all vocational-education students complete a core academic curriculum.

    “Before any student is allowed to complete occupationally specific training, he or she should be required to demonstrate achievement of an adequate level of academic competence,” it states.

    Suggested alternatives to existing school-based vocational programs include cooperative-education programs with businesses, expansion of area vocational centers that have a history of success, and contracting with private firms to supply vocational services.

    The report also calls on the business community to “take the lead in sorting out what vocational education is and what it should be.”

    Investment Priorities

    The C.E.D. ‘s call for greater investment in schools proceeds from the assumption that there are “substantial opportunities for yielding a very high return” on increases in the quality of the education system, especially at “the earliest stages of educational development.”

    “A sound public education system is the most important investment this nation can make,” the report states. And “any call for comprehensive improvement… that does not recognize the need for additional resources is destined for failure.”

    Citing studies of preschool programs for disadvantaged students in Harlem, N. Y., and Ypsilanti, Mich., the report recommends that every school district offer such programs.

    “It would be hard to imagine that society could find a higher yield for a dollar of investment than that found in preschool programs for its at-risk children,” the report states. “It appears to be the margin of difference that can have substantial effects on the later economic and social performance of these children.”

    Other high-investment priorities should include improvements in teaching science and mathematics at the elementary level, and maintaining gains in reading skills at the middle-school level, the report states.

    Another problem with middle schools--which the report refers to as the “neglected alleyway” of the education system--is that “almost no time is spent on developing problem-solving skills, although this is the age at which such skills should be firmly established.”

    For high-school dropouts, the report recommends the continuation of the Job Corps. “From the point of view of taxpayers, this program is almost costless in the long run if the benefits of reduced criminal activities, reduced welfare payments, and higher tax contributions by higher earning corps graduates are taken into account,” the report states.

    The nation’s aging teaching force and the likelihood of expanded school enrollments present the possibility that “poorly qualified teachers will become the tenured teaching force for the next two generations, “the report states.

    To avoid that end, the C.E.D. report says that teachers’ salaries need to be raised and that districts should experiment with performance-based pay scales, career ladders, and different methods of evaluation. The report also recommends that teachers’ clerical responsibilities be “sharply curtailed,” and that teachers take a greater role in curriculum and program development.

    Teacher candidates should be required to obtain a college degree with a major “other than education,” and a national commission should address the issue of certification standards, the report recommends. Uncertified individuals should be allowed to teach as long as they complete their requirements within “a reasonable time period while on the job,” the report states.

    As teachers take on responsibilities and principals devote more attention to school management, their relations will become “complementary rather than hierarchical,” the report states.

    What Businesses Can Do

    Although businesses should not assume the burden of financing schools, they should give increased investment in education their “wholehearted support,” the report states.

    Businesses should also encourage their employees to become active in the schools, share their management expertise with schools, and provide schools with employment information about their graduates, the report recommends.

    Subcommittee Members

    Chairman: Owen B. Butler, chairman of the board, Procter & Gamble. Vice Chairmen: Ronald R. Davenport, chairman of the board, Sheridan Broadcasting; Ralph Lazarus, chairman, executive committee, Federated Department Stores; James W. McKee Jr., chairman, CPC International; Donna E. Shalala, president, Hunter College.

    Trustee members: Alfred Brittain 3rd, chairman of the board, Bankers Trust; W. Graham Claytor Jr., chairman and president, Amtrak; Peter A. Derow, president, CBS/Publishing; Donald J. Donahue, retired chairman, KMI Continental; Francis E. Ferguson, retired chairman of the board, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance; William S. Fishman, chairman, executive committee, ARA Services; Donald E. Garretson, community service executive program, 3M; Barbara B. Hauptfuhrer, corporate director, Huntingdon Valley, PA.; Arthur Hauspurg, chairman of the board, Consolidated Edison of New York; Charles Keller Jr., New Orleans, LA.; Donald P. Kelly, president, Kelly Briggs & Associates.

    Charlee M. Kittrell, executive vice president, Phillips Petroleum; Robert W. Lundeen, chairman of the board, Dow Chemical; Steven Muller, president, The Johns Hopkins University; Alfred C. Neal, Harrison, N.Y.

    Barbara W. Newell, chancellor, State University System of Florida; Victor H. Palmieri, chairman, Victor Palmieri and Company; Dean P. Phypers, senior vice president, IBM; S. Donley Ritchey, chairman, Lucky Stores; Bruce M. Rockwell, chairman of the board, Colorado National Bank; Donald M. Stewart, president, Spelman College; J. Paul Sticht, chairman, executive committee, R. J. Reynolds Industries; Howard R. Swearer, president, Brown University; Walter N. Thayer, chairman, Whitney Communications; Charles C. Tillinghast Jr., Providence, R.I.; Thomas A. Vanderslice, president and chief executive officer, Apollo Computer; Clifton R. Wharton Jr., chancellor, State University of New York; William S. Woodside, chairman, American Can.

    Nontrustee members: John Brademas, president, New York University; W. M. Marcussen, vice president and assistant to the president, Atlantic Richfield; Martin Meyerson, president emeritus, University of Pennsylvania; Vincent Reed, vice president, communications, The Washington Post.

    Copies of the report may be obtained from the C.E.D. at 477 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; paperback copies, $9.50; library binding, $11.50; add 10 percent for handling. Orders under $50.00 must be prepaid.