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Corporations, Educators Work on Strategic Giving

Partnerships between corporations and public K-12 schools are likely to be more prevalent in the new millennium than ever before, and yet many business executives and school administrators seem unsure how they can best work together to improve education, according to a wide range of experts gathered at a recent conference.

More than 400 corporate executives, school administrators, teachers, and educational consultants met here May 3-4 to examine the problems that plague such partnerships—and to interact with representatives from the companies and the schools that have managed to create successful partnership models.

The 12th annual meeting, "The Business and Education 2000 Conference: Building Strategic Partnerships That Work From the Inside Out," was sponsored jointly by the Conference Board, a New York City-based business-research organization, 14 national corporations, and the U.S. Department of Education.

This year's theme was intended as a response to a shift in thinking about corporate philanthropy, said Susan D. Otterbourg, the Conference Board's program director. Over the past few years, she said, corporations have abandoned "adopt-a-school" models—in which a company funded many projects in one school—in favor of programs at several sites that are more clearly aligned with the mission of the contributing corporation.

Instead of simply donating money to schools, businesses are working on more targeted and strategic plans for giving, Ms. Otterbourg said. They are fashioning long-range programs that aim to change American education by underwriting initiatives in districts and states or by making an impact on a particular issue, such as assessment or special education.

The Burbank, Calif.-based Walt Disney Corp., for example, has long rewarded outstanding educators by recognizing them publicly, said Kathy Franklin, the director of the Disney Learning Partnership, also based in Burbank. Last year, Disney added to the effort by incorporating professional development for teachers into the awards program. Creative designers work with teachers from around the country to produce a series of "best practices" videos and handbooks.

The general movement away from the adopt-a-school model happened as companies realized their philanthropic efforts weren't having much of a measurable effect on education, said Spencer L. DeShields, the executive director of strategic business development for Texas Instruments Inc., one of the businesses cited by the Conference Board as being a superior model for partnerships.

The company, based in Dallas, not only donates technology to schools, but also provides extensive professional training and development for teachers so that they can learn how to make use of the hardware.

The more hands-on corporations are, however, the more complicated the partnerships become.

"There is a lot of mistrust between education and business," said Irma Tyler-Wood, the principal of Thoughtbridge, a consulting company in Cambridge, Mass., that helps corporations set up and enhance partnerships with schools. "The assumption is that business is [in schools] to tell them what to do."

Administrators and teachers often fear criticism and are skeptical of advice given by people who have never studied pedagogy or worked with children, she said.

Corporations, meanwhile, are frustrated by school bureaucracy, Ms. Tyler-Woods said.

Changes in school administrative staffing are a particular problem for long-range programs, said Phyllis Arnette, the director of government relations for Texas Instruments' education office in Cherry Hill, N.J. "You're trying to get the infrastructure in place, and someone comes in with different goals," she said.

Yet dismissing partnerships as too troublesome would be disastrous for everyone, said Arthur E. Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. Corporations need to participate in education to ensure a high-quality workforce, he said, arguing that schools on their own can't prepare students to compete in a society driven by new technologies.

"This is the time for partnerships," Mr. Levine said. "Alone, we won't accomplish nearly enough."

—Julie Blair

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Page 12

Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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