Q & A: Business and the Schools: 'The Bottom Line'Is a Mutual Interest

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P. Michael Timpane, dean of Teachers College at Columbia University, spent six months in 1981 studying the business world's interest in urban public schools. His work, supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, resulted in a report entitled "Corporations and Public Education in the Cities." Thomas Toch spoke with Mr. Timpane recently about the findings in the report and his perspective on the issues surrounding corporate involvement in public education.

QYour report suggests that business clearly feels that the public-school system is failing. Is that view pervasive?

AThere are problems in communication and, in some cases, real problems of distrust, hostility, and lack of performance. This leaves businessmen very skeptical about the extent to which education will be able to respond to their needs, there is no question about that. I think that attitude characterizes a significant number of corporate leaders.

In the many localities where there have been "adopt-a-school"programs, or where corporations have lent executives to help the school systems with management as well as education problems, that negativism, and the stereotypes that business often holds concerning educators and teachers, begin to break down. They stop using the schools as scapegoats.

Our urban public schools are improving. If corporate leaders pay close attention to what is going on in our city schools today, they will notice that the city schools are in almost every case moving in the direction that they would want them to--improving test scores, improving security and safety and discipline, re-emphasizing core skills and curriculum.

QWhat does business need from the public schools today? And what is business's stake in public education?

AThe interest of corporations as employers is rising and will continue to rise for the rest of the next decade ... and it will be that interest that has the most to do with renewed corporate activity in education.

First of all, the baby boom is over. There are going to be fewer students showing up for employment every year ... and the labor surplus may very well turn into a labor shortage. Corporations will not be able to afford to ignore the failures of the public schools any longer. They are realizing that either the public schools (perhaps with their appropriate but quite limited assistance) will do a better job and produce a larger proportion of students with the skills needed, or the corporations will face some unpleasant choices such as substituting technology for labor which might not be the most cost-effective thing to do, or of relocating, or of expanding their own educational programs. I don't think the employers are eager to do these things until they've given the schools every opportunity to do the job.

In addition, many jobs have become technically more complicated. An individual has to perform various technical operations--sometimes with hardware, sometimes with pencil and paper, but still technical, than might have previously been the case.

Secondly, the technical nature of any job changes rapidly today. Office occupations are probably the most dramatic examples. New office technologies seem to appear every two or three years--electric typewriters, automatic electronic typewriters, word processors--it just happens very quickly. So requirements for the same jobs change very quickly.

Thirdly, people move from job to job more frequently; job mobility has come to be an accelerating phenomenon.

That means that businesses can't consider employees to be interchangeable parts the way they may have been able to consider physical capital. Employers now need people who can absorb new technical skills and adapt to changes in technology. I think that these are dramatic changes. What they imply for what corporations expect from schools is: they want [graduates who have] basic technical skills and who also have the ability to adapt and learn on the job.

QAre you saying that there is a gap between education and business? And, if so, how do you account for it?

AI think communications are improving. The actual performance of the schools and the realization that there is a legitimate and shared interest of business and the schools is gradually improving that situation. But you are right. Businesses don't pay much attention to the schools because of the way the issue is handled in the corporate environment. Usually, it is handled either by the public-affairs and community-relations division, on the one hand, or by the personnel office on the other. Neither of those corporate offices are typically in the mainstream of high-level corporate decision making.

The typical chief executive officer has plenty of things on his or her mind. If they never hear about these matters, by and large, that's O.K. But it's my belief that these are matters of human-capital development and are matters that ought to be on the agenda of corporate strategy. But the fact of the matter is they rarely have been.

It's one of the offshoots of the fascination with Japanese management styles to discover that Japanese have a very different attitude toward their employees and toward their previous and continuing development. The Japanese model brings home to many American corporate leaders the extent to which they have downplayed human-resource development in general and education in particular.

QAre you saying that corporate leaders, in ignoring the plight of the schools, are ignoring their own self-interest?

AThat's an important point. In my report, I was trying to develop some sense of what the corporate self-interest is. I wasn't interested in writing another report which offered educators six more inviting ways to entice corporations into doing things they really didn't want to do. That is too often the pattern of the past. I was much more interested that we together, the corporations and education, understand what the corporations want.

QNevertheless, you say that the dialogue seems to be improving. What started the corporations talking?

AWell, it seems clear that the Reagan Administration's emphasis has had some impact. Certainly the national political leadership emphasizing over and over again the extent to which they expect the private sector to take over in this area has caused the private sector to reflect fairly widely on this matter.

Also, considerations of labor supply are emerging and the need for a greater proportion of skilled graduates is becoming manifest. And the context of the discussion in the particular localities, is, in almost every case I know of, improving.


AEducators are ready for the discussion. The situation in the public schools has at least stabilized to the point where corporations are willing to reconsider their involvement. The schools are now stable in all of the aspects in which they had been previously seen to be deteriorating. This is certainly clear in New York City where the New York City Partnership, the umbrella organization for corporate interests, has just created an education committee, and it's clear in Boston. Boston was one of those places where the corporate involvement was a little bit untracked when I was there a year ago. Yet, a year later, it's beginning to occur.

The Committee on Economic Development is planning to do an extensive [national] study on the issue. The development of what I refer to in my report as local education foundations as vehicles through which corporations and private individuals can channel limited amounts of contributions in a targeted way to school improvement and teacher improvement seems to be taking off in a big way. (See Education Week, Nov. 3, 1982.)

QCan you identify the various levels of corporate involvement in education and the relative amounts of each?

ABy almost any measure, the level of corporate financial involvement in these matters is very small. The amount of corporate resources that are invested in adopt-a-school programs, in programs that lend executives to schools, or even in corporate contributions to elementary and secondary education are minuscule. They are likely to rise slightly, but they are always going to be an extremely minor part of public-education financing. The potential doesn't lie in corporations' beginning to underwrite education; the potential lies in the corporations' becoming satisfied customers who understand and support the efforts of the public schools in the community and in the state legislature and at the federal level.

QWhat do you see currently as the nature of that support? And, if corporate satisfaction with the public schools increases, what form will their support take in the future?

AThere's a favorite corporate expression called "the bottom line." It's at the bottom line that this support will be stressed. If corporations are urging the improvement of the public schools, on the one hand, and organizing forces to support tax-limitation movements, on the other, they are speaking ambiguously, to put it mildly.

This is not to say that corporations need to come racing out for massive tax increases in support of schools, because that's not always what the situation calls for. But it would be healthy for the schools if support for education was one of the things corporations weighed heavily when shaping their positions on taxation and public-spending programs.

QDo you sense that business and industry leaders are getting back into public-school policymaking'?

AI don't believe that their involvement will ever again be extensive. The politics of schools has changed and is likely to stay changed. Parent groups, community organizations, and teachers' unions now all have a voice in the matter along with business. In the past, business used to be one of just a few voices. Its influence now will be exerted much more informally. But whether or not they are on school boards, [business leaders] remain very influential persons in the community, and their opinion is important.

QWhat about some of the specific programs that you've seen that reflect different types of new business involvement?

AThe study to be done by the Committee for Economic Development will have an important impact in reforming the corporate attitudes. The committee was very interested in public education 10 or 12 years ago; it did some important work on the progress of the disadvantaged at that time, but then it's formal interest subsided, and it's been absent [from education] for 10 years or more. Now, it is taking another look at education.

The kind of thing that the Allegheny Conference Education Fund and San Francisco Education Fund are doing [offering small grants to teachers to promote innovative curriculum ideas] is also very important, because one of the reasons for the reluctance of corporations to be involved has been that they viewed public-school finance as a bottomless pit. They felt if they began to put their money in it, it would just disappear like everyone else's money.

The idea that there are ways to contribute very limited resources in ways which will help individual teachers to apply leverage to the large public budget is an important new development that I believe will be significant. Management-assistance programs will also help.

QDo you see a growth in the area of lending managerial expertise?

ATo some extent, it's there for the asking, and education leaders seem increasingly inclined to ask. It's inevitable that it will expand. I am less certain about the adopt-a-school projects. They are a way to get corporations' attention, but what ideally ought to happen out of that kind of project is that the corporation goes on to consideration of the more fundamental stakes involved.

QWhich are?

AThat the whole school system be vigorous, not that they help just one one school.

QWhat is the real significance of adopt-a-school ventures? Some argue they are simply corporate public-relations gimmicks.

AI think the jury is out. Adopt-a-school programs have helped reintroduce hundreds of firms and probably thousands of individuals in the firms to the realities of public education. They've undoubtedly been very helpful. There have been some projects that have been of some assistance to the schools and some that have been of very little assistance.

The dynamics of that appear to hinge on whether or not a specific corporate head and a specific school leader hit it off and determine themselves to carry this thing on through the years. We just don't know how many of those examples there are or will be, or how persistent they will be over the years.

QHow prepared are the school leaders for this re-emergence of business interests?

AMore so all the time.

QMeaning what?

AI did not talk to a single large-city school superintendent in the course of my study who was not ready to sit down and palaver on this issue right away. And that remains the case. All of the urban school superintendents I know--and I've talked to most of them in the course of this project--are ready to develop projects, collaborations on the civic and political level, school-system level, school building level. They have few qualms.

QIn the course of your project, did people express concern' about the potential problems or dangers of a re-emergence of the business-industry role in public schools? When you are talking about political alliances and an increase in management consulting, there seems to be an opportunity for business to start dictating where the public schools are going.

AThat concern is there. There is no question about that. But it's clear to me that businesses are going to leave education to the educators in the final analysis. They feel very strongly about that. They understand that they can't do it for the schools; the schools must do it for themselves. ... Corporations have no interest at all in running public schools.

QWho expressed the concerns and what were they?

AThere are instances where educators have believed early business involvements to be nave and sometimes very negative. And some parts of the community, sometimes minority communities, who [want to be sure] that the business community does not intend to exploit or diminish what they perceive to be their own recently acquired benefits from the education system. They say, "We've just gotten rid of tracking, we've just gotten our kids out of the dumping grounds, and now you want to put them back in." And, "No, our kids, just like everyone else's kids, should be aspiring to college. If we let corporations in, they'll just put them back in tracks."

There is luckily little evidence that that is the way the things are unfolding. Corporations are quite aware--I was surprised at this--of the extent to which school programs have diversified and most students have alternatives within the school system and that it is not monolithic any more. They support and understand that. They are not advocating a return to [vocational] tracking, they're displaying some sensitivity to these concerns.

QWhat should the proper role be?

AThe exploration of mutual interests between education and the corporate world is the appropriate starting place. That, combined with a mutual respect for one another's skills and significance in society, so that one party is not trying to exploit the other, but is generally trying to seek a mutual self-interest--that's the fundamental basis upon which the dialogue can best proceed.

Vol. 02, Issue 10

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