Education Opinion

Multinational Partnerships

By Donald Hirsch — May 27, 1992 7 min read

Like clothing, art, and pop music, education runs in fashions that transcend national boundaries. The present fad of creating partnerships with business has found favor with schools from Paris to Peoria, just as the idea of links with schools has appealed to executives from Renault to I.B.M. But in Europe as in North America there are skeptics who ask whether this new liaison between business and education can be anything more than a passing fancy that has little real impact on educational practice. The answer to these skeptics, borne out by international experience, is yes: Partnerships can be more than a mere fashion, under the right conditions. Look closely at partnership movements in virtually any country in Europe or North America, and you will see the emergence of attempts to link them with movements for the genuine reform of education systems. Since every country’s system is different, this process naturally takes a variety of forms. So why should Americans be interested in partnerships in this foreign context? First, because they give some important insights into the strengths and weaknesses of America’s own partnerships. Second, because a movement founded largely with the goal of improving the international competitiveness of America’s workforce would be foolish not to consider what the competition is up to.

In the first international study of this subject, published recently by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the most striking feature of American as compared to European experience is the decentralization of effort. This reflects the less centralized political structures of the United States, which can be both a strength and a weakness. A strength because a local focus can nurture powerful bonds between individual companies and schools, and allow them to define their own appropriate agenda. A weakness because of the fragility of on-off local coalitions, as opposed to concerted efforts to improve educational practices at a regional or national level. Many European countries are the mirror-image of the United States: Local enthusiasm for change is slower to develop where educators look mainly to central authorities for direction; but those initiatives which do emerge are potentially more coordinated and more durable

coordinated and more durable. Three cases of partnership from outside the United States should help illustrate some of these points. The first, tasty example is a cake and chocolate factory in Harrogate, in the north of England A lucky group of high-school teachers were invited by its management to spend a few days working there to experience how various skills were developed in the working world They then returned to their schools where, assisted by some of the factory’s employees, they involved pupils in a project to design and make a new chocolate product

In isolation, such a project does nothing special for education; it is at most a useful exercise in work experience. But in the context of various British curriculum initiatives, initiated by the central government and coordinated by local education authorities, it was much more. One thrust of these initiatives is to ensure that some of the skills needed by workers in a modem workforce--such as the ability to solve problems, to work in teams, and to communicate effectively-are cultivated in schools. (The U.S. Labor Department’s SCANS commission has produced a detailed list of these “necessary skills.”)

The Harrogate chocolate project was designed specifically to develop the teaching of such skills, extending the lessons learned into everyday classroom practice. A further aim, also reinforcing curriculum-reform efforts, was to encourage interdisciplinary cooperation. Most of the main school subjects were involved-from craft and design to foreign languages. But how on earth can you bring a language department into a project to make chocolates? Simple. The chocolates were designed as a gift for a French school that had hosted an exchange visit. English 7th-graders had to write the covering letters to the French children who would (after all this educational effort) finally get to eat the chocolates.

Example number two comes from France. In the suburb of Paris, Renault has helped finance a “technological resource center” designed to demonstrate to pupils in vocational courses the very latest concepts in car-production technology. Co-sponsored by the public-education authorities at a cost of about $5 million, this project tries to give pupils hands-on experience of the concepts that have been explained to them on blackboards and in textbooks. A very high proportion of partnerships in continental Europe similarly address the problem of putting school-based vocational education more directly in touch with the world of work. These are countries with well-developed systems of vocational education, which public authorities and companies worry has become too abstract.

The Renault center is atypical of France. In a country where a central education ministry takes such a firm lead in directing education, it is rare to find a company bringing its own educational ideas so squarely into the public system. But such a partnership, approved officially by the authorities, can have a wide impact. Pupils and teachers from all over the Paris region visit Renault’s center as part of their curriculum. A course there can potentially count as credit towards a vocational qualification.

The last example is not from a centralized country; on the contrary, from one where federalism is so powerful that there is not even a national education ministry. Canada is a country whose similarities to the United States include strong current concerns about high-school dropouts and worker illiteracy. School-business partnerships to tackle such problems are popping up all over the country. The Canadian Conference Board, an independent organization with a strong interest in education, wants to encourage this relatively young movement, but also to ensure that efforts are well-directed.

This month, the conference board will present its National Awards for Excellence in Business-Education Partnerships at the second annual conference on the subject. Through the awards and the conference, the board tries to ensure that Canadian partnerships are nudged in certain strategically important directions. It gives high marks to schemes that muster communitywide coalitions for change. Its hope is that Canada can skip the phase of “feel-good” partnerships largely symbolic links between individual businesses and schools-that for a long time were symptomatic of most partnerships in the United States.

Americans, too, now want to steer their partnerships towards greater coherence. Like in Canada, any national c0- ordination may need to come from forces outside government: The U.S. Education Department is simply not in a position to dictate policy in the manner of its European counterparts. The New American Schools Development Corporation, which wants to pool private money to design and implement strategies for systemwide change, is one initiative that is trying to step into the breach. The idea seems a good one in principle, though the initiative has already bred enough controversy and skepticism to make one doubt its future as a unifying force. As so often in the not-so-United States, it is easier to come up with an exciting idea than to get everyone to fall in behind it, and to give it the level of long-term support necessary for real impact. Remember Head Start?

That does not mean that partnerships in America cannot make a lasting contribution. Coalitions around areas such as school restructuring are now showing genuine commitment to fundamental change. The lesson from Europe is that to stick, such change needs to be coordinated with educational reform coming from the main education authorities.

In America, this in practice means the states. By European standards, state governments have until very recently done relatively little to reform the school curriculum. Mandating a certain number of hours of high-school math is not the same as trying to make fundamental changes in course content and teaching methods. Politicians and officials do not like to appear to be telling teachers their job. But if businesses really want schools to teach the kind of skills identified by SCANS, they might first have to persuade state governments to start getting their fingers dirty.

A version of this article appeared in the May 27, 1992 edition of Education Week as Multinational Partnerships