The Education of Business

By Reagan Walker — January 01, 1990 7 min read
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The Public School Academy and the Chiron Middle School in Minneapolis are two examples, among thousands, of business involvement in schools—involvement that has escalated to unprecedented levels in the past decade.

Historically, the business community has always been interested in education and has sought to shape public schools to meet its needs—whether it was to educate immigrants, gear up for the Industrial Revolution, or catch up with the Soviets after the launch of Sputnik. Even the nine-month school year was established largely to satisfy an agrarian economy’s need for young workers during crucial farming seasons.

But not until this decade has the business community so forcefully pressed for a complete restructuring of public education. Business leaders have pushed for such change in a variety of ways: They have created local partnerships, offered resources and expertise, and flexed their political muscle in state capitals, the halls of Congress, and the White House.

Business leaders have helped write virtually every reform report written in this decade. As a result, they have become both the strongest critics and the staunchest advocates of public education.

Substantive efforts by business in projects like the two schools in Minneapolis have evolved from the “adopt-a-school” programs that flourished early in the decade. These programs are still the most common type of business-education partnership.

Through such programs, a business or corporation usually “adopts” a school and provides an array of services that may include tutoring, special speakers, mentoring, teacher training, and some financial assistance. The idea received a boost when former President Ronald Reagan declared the 1983-84 school year the “National Year of Partnerships in Education.” Initially, companies were interested in such joint ventures for their public-relations value.

But as the decade progressed, a deeper, more genuine concern about the nation’s future seemed to replace public relations as the driving force behind these programs.

A rapidly changing economy, shaped in large part by technological innovation and the emergence of the global marketplace, forced many corporations to look inward and restructure. Following the Japanese model, many companies sought to devolve decision-making to rank-and-file workers.

In the process, they discovered that many of their employees lack basic academic skills and are not well-prepared for the demands of an increasingly sophisticated workplace. In fact, U.S. companies spend more than $50 billion annually on remedial education for their workers.

With a labor shortage on the horizon, business leaders worry that they will not have the skilled workers needed to take the country into the 21st century.

“Business has a major stake and a major role to play in the improvement of our public schools,” stated the 1985 report, Investing in Our Children, by the Committee for Economic Development. “Better schools can mean better and more productive employees and a boost toward restoring the nation’s international competitiveness.”

The CED report galvanized many in the business community to rethink their involvement in schools. It called for “urgent efforts” to develop education strategies that have high payoffs, to revitalize the teaching profession, and to establish “strong and enduring” partnerships between business and public schools.

The Institute for Educational Leadership, a nonprofit organization committed to improving the quality of school leadership, describes the shift away from the school-business partnerships of the mid1980’s as an effort to move beyond “fuzzy altruism” toward more substantial efforts to build a world-class work force.

Although the adopt-a-school plans came to be viewed in many cities as inadequate, the projects did establish lines of communication between the two sectors. The partnerships opened the eyes of business leaders to the enormous challenges of public education, and helped educators overcome skepticism about business involvement in their schools.

These efforts spawned a number of local, state, and national coalitions—usually comprising top corporate executives—established to examine problems in education and seek solutions. Many have been advocacy oriented and have released detailed reports calling for massive educational reform.

But business leaders didn’t stop with reports. In a number of places, they have used their clout to pressure politicians into action and to rally voter support for tax increases, a tough task in an era when the pool of taxpayers with school-age children is shrinking.

At the national level, the Committee for Economic Development has continued to address the issues. In 1987, it released another influential report, Children in Need. And Owen Butler, the former chairman of Procter & Gamble, who has led the CED’s effort, has devoted nearly all of his time since retiring to the improvement of public education.

The CED reports helped focus the attention of Congress and the White House on early-childhood education. And Butler has kept the heat on. Last fall, for instance, he publicly challenged President Bush’s domestic policy adviser, Roger Porter, at a meeting of business and education leaders on the Administration’s education priorities. He bluntly told Porter that stronger federal leadership is needed and that more federal resources are critical for early-childhood programs.

Business leaders have also been active advocates for education at the state level. The California Business Roundtable, for example, has become a major advocate for education change in that state. It has already pushed reform measures through the Legislature and is currently working on another package.

And in South Carolina, the Business-Education Subcommittee, created by the Legislature to oversee the implementation of the state’s landmark 1984 school-reform act, has been hard at work. But probably nowhere has business wielded more clout than in Chicago. Corporate leaders, along with community organizations, were the major champions of the bill passed by the Illinois Legislature requiring extensive restructuring of that city’s schools, including the establishment of local school councils.

One company, Harris Bank, took the lead in encouraging its employees to run for seats on their local school councils. The bank offered employees time off to campaign for council seats and sponsored training workshops on what a school council member does. Any employees winning seats were told they could work out a flexible work schedule to aid in meeting council responsibilities.

But private-sector efforts also extend beyond advocacy. Increasingly, businesses are crafting partnership projects at the district and school-building level that differ from the early adopt-a-school approach. The Institute for Educational Leadership categorizes these efforts generally in two areas: school improvement and support initiatives, and job initiatives for disadvantaged youths.

The improvement and support initiatives range widely. One business may contribute equipment and supplies to a school district, while another may provide scholarships, in-service programs for teachers, and management training for administrators. Still another may donate legal assistance.

The Polaroid Corporation, for example, has a program called “Project Bridge,” which brings mathematics and science teachers into its laboratories during the summer and provides teacher fellowships for its senior employees who are interested in switching to the teaching profession.

In the area of job initiatives, one of the first dramatic partnerships to be formed was the Boston Compact, which has become a model for employment-focused programs.

Under the agreement, signed in 1982, businesses guaranteed jobs to all the city’s high school graduates if the schools lowered the dropout rate, raised student test scores, and moved forward on a number of stated goals. The National Alliance of Business is currently sponsoring the formation of similar compact projects in 12 other cities.

The Boston Compact may be a model school-business partnership, but it is also an example of how business is becoming more aggressive in its demands for school improvement. Business leaders initially refused to sign a new compact in 1988 in protest of still-soaring dropout rates and the city’s failure to move toward school-based management. Once the business leaders were satisfied that the district was making a concerted effort in these areas, they signed on again.

Although there appears to be a national consensus that the involvement of business in public schools is a plus, some are wary. On the one hand, they fear that business intrusion will follow its financial support—that schools may be unduly shaped to meet specific business needs. On the other hand, some fear that business will not sustain its involvement—that a new CEO will lose interest and abandon programs before they are fully implemented. (Several substantial, long-term, corporate financial commitments to education may be easing the latter concern.)

Nevertheless, the more savvy business leaders are aware that these concerns must be addressed. They are also aware, as Kay Whitmore, president of Eastman Kodak, puts it, that improving schools is turning out to be “a more complex problem than we ever thought it would be.” He adds: “There was a great deal of distrust about whether the business community would stick with this, but I believe we will. We have to.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Education of Business


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