Top Business Heads Say Schools Earn Low Grade

By Ann Bradley — April 26, 1989 4 min read

Washington--A majority of the senior executives of the nation’s largest companies who responded to a recent survey believe the public-education system is seriously flawed and is hampering their attempts to recruit well-educated workers.

In findings issued last week on the attitudes of top-level corporate officials toward the public schools, 77 percent of those surveyed rated the schools as fair or poor.

None of the 404 executives who responded to the survey said the schools were doing an excellent job.

The survey, “Business Response To Education In America,” was sponsored by the magazine Fortune and the Allstate Insurance Company. It was aimed at finding out how business leaders are responding to “the public-education problem” and to what extent they believe the system’s shortcomings are hurting their companies.

The findings were based on responses to an eight-page questionnaire mailed this year to the chief executives of the nation’s 1,000 largest industrial and service firms.

To gauge the severity of the effects of educational problems on companies, the survey used an “impact index” based on four factors:

The difficulty executives experience in hiring employees with good educational skills;

Any increase in the difficulty of hiring those employees, compared with a decade ago;

Damage to the company’s productivity caused by employees’ lack of educational skills, and

Damage to the company’s international competitiveness caused by the skills problem.

Companies were considered to be “encumbered” if executives reported that two or more of the factors applied to their firms.

By that standard, the researchers found, 62 percent of companies carry a significant burden because of educational problems.

Service companies and those located in larger cities were most affected by such problems, the study revealed.

Virtually all companies indicated that they are working to improve public education. But companies that were rated as encumbered were more likely to report that they were taking such steps as lobbying legislatures for reform, providing disadvantaged students with jobs as incentives to graduate, and supporting tax increases.

The survey indicated that 36 percent of the companies currently offer remedial courses to improve reading, writing, and mathematical skills, while another 28 percent of the executives said they were willing to offer such assistance in the future.

“Altogether, then, 64 percent of America’s leading companies are facing the possibility that they will be the education alternative,” said Merle Sprinzen, director of market research for Fortune.

Executives responding to the survey most often blamed their companies’ educational problems on students’ lack of discipline and4motivation, parents’ failure to provide guidance, shortages of motivated and properly trained teachers, and insufficient emphasis on basic skills.

They tended to give less emphasis to students’ drug and alcohol abuse, low-income or non-English-speaking households, or cuts in federal aid as the source of their troubles.

Ms. Sprinzen added that companies that are significantly burdened by educational deficiencies are more likely to be familiar with solutions that exist within the system, such as Head Start programs and efforts to improve teacher training.

The study was made public last week at “Labor Force 2000: Corporate America Responds,” a conference sponsored by the Allstate Forum on Public Issues.

Also at the meeting, representatives of major corporations presented Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole with a book of recommendations for improving education.

“We’d like the U.S. Department of Labor and the federal government to know that corporate America is finding its voice in terms of public education and is willing to participate,” said Kenneth R. Graham, vice president of human resources for Allstate Insurance.

The survey also sought information on the most tangible measure of support for education--money.

Researchers found marked differences in corporate giving for education. More than 80 percent of companies reported contributing to college or graduate schools, while 65 percent said they give to high schools or vocational schools.

But the survey indicated that only 35 percent of the companies give to junior highs, elementary schools, or preschool programs.

Ms. Sprinzen called the findings about the relative lack of giving to lower-level schools “quite revealing, given what we know about the importance of early education.”

More than 8 of 10 executives reported that they had donated their own time to public schools, including 77 percent who had given guest lectures, 45 percent who had provided career counseling for students, and 29 percent who had taught courses.

Despite those efforts, however, “only a minority of companies feel that their efforts have made an impact on the quality of the education delivered by their area’s public-education system,” the study said.

In a session following presentation of the study, several educators argued that those who talk in terms of a uniformly high-quality education system are engaging in “school bashing.” In fact, they said, conditions differ profoundly among school districts.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 1989 edition of Education Week as Top Business Heads Say Schools Earn Low Grade