Concern over schools' 'outputs' spurs business sector's interest in education

David Fettig | Editor

Published January 1, 1992  | January 1992 issue

Business owners were worried, as were government officials and educators. America was a world power in an emerging international economy and yet its students were unprepared. Something must be done, these leaders said, our youth and the general populace aren't sophisticated enough—they'll be a drag on the economy.

While that rhetoric may sound familiar, it comes from the 1940s and was the harbinger of the Joint Council on Economic Education, a non-profit organization formed to educate Americans about their economy.

Today, leaders from industry, the government and education are again sounding a warning, and this time their criticism is not about students' lack of economic knowledge. Their criticism is now more general, put simply: Students are not learning enough and they are not necessarily learning the right things.

Reports with titles like A Nation at Risk, declining SAT scores and tests that show, among other things, that just 5 percent of high school graduates are prepared for beginning college math, have raised awareness about the quality of America's schools. One national poll shows that 55 percent of American parents believe that the nation's schools are doing a "poor or very poor" job.

However, 58 percent of those same parents say that "public schools in our community are doing a very good or good job of educating children." And the latest fedgazette poll reveals that 84 percent of Ninth District business leaders say that students in their local public schools are receiving either "good" or "excellent" educations; also, 82 percent rate their local teachers as "good" or "excellent."

But regardless of whether America's schools are in some form of crisis, and regardless of whether the problems reside in someone else's neighborhood, one thing is certain: American businesses, including those in the Ninth District, are taking a greater interest in schools' "outputs" and are becoming increasingly involved in the education process.

Labor quality drives business involvement

According to a report published by the Committee for Economic Development, an independent national coalition of business leaders and educators, entitled "Business Impact on Education and Child Development Reform," the reason business has begun to take a keener interest in education is simple:

"It seems clear that changes in labor supply and demand have been the most significant spur to this renewal. Neither an abstract devotion to the importance of schools in society (to prepare employees, citizens and consumers), nor local interest in communities that were 'good places to do business,' nor even contemporary theorizing about corporate social responsibility had been sufficient to rekindle that interest, but a growing concern about the quantity and quality of labor was."

In addition to concerns about the quantity of labor (the number of high school graduates declined by 20 percent between 1980 and 1990), American business leaders began linking declines in productivity to the quality of the work force. As technological change occurred in the workplace, different and more complex skills were often required. These skills called for more general knowledge and adaptive reasoning and were often left unaddressed by traditional vocational education, according to the Committee's report.

Any discussion of the quality of American labor invites immediate comparison with Asian and European workers. According to Paula Prahl, director of education policy for the Minnesota Business Partnership, an association of CEOs from 96 of Minnesota's largest corporations, there is a perception—whether real or not—that American students cannot compete on an international basis. That perception, she says, is driving much of the recent interest in education.

The business community doesn't necessarily point all the fingers of blame at the education system either, Prahl says. For too long, she says, businesses have expected too little from graduates. For example, businesses have been more concerned about whether a job candidate graduated from high school or college, and not interested in grade point average or a student's course list. As soon as all companies begin checking grades and evaluating course selection, Prahl maintains, students and educators will also take a keener interest.

Of the 96 members of the Minnesota Business Partnership, 85 have education support programs of some type totaling about $20 million in annual contributions and over 4,000 volunteers, according to a September 1991 report of the Minnesota Business Partnership. And not all of those business support programs are brand new. H.B. Fuller Co., for example, has had a partnership with Murray Magnet Junior High School in St. Paul since 1979.

One of the oldest Minneapolis partnerships exists between Honeywell Inc. and North High School. Begun in 1981, Honeywell's program provided support for the development of a new math/science model and curriculum. Honeywell has two additional partnerships in the Twin Cities metro area, with Coon Rapids Senior High and Galtier Magnet School in St. Paul.

Most of the Partnership's members are located in the Twin Cities, however, and their efforts only scratch the surface of total business commitment in the state, as well as throughout the entire Ninth District.

According to the fedgazette poll, 76 percent of Ninth District businesses provide financial support for their local schools, 74 percent provide educational assistance (such as speaking to classes), 46 percent offer work-study programs, 44 percent sponsor educational programs and 17 percent provide tutor or mentor programs. In addition, 34 percent are involved in general school reform efforts.

Reaching out to the 'real world' ...

But efforts to affect school curricula, especially those changes relating to the business world, are not always driven by the business community. For example, in the Twin Cities, three school districts have joined forces to offer special programs in connection with the Mall of America in Bloomington. Upon its completion in the fall of 1992, the mall will house classes to put students in closer contact with the "real world" of business. Another plan even calls for a permanent school to be established at the mall.

In Belle Fourche, S.D., high school students have been reaching out to the business community in recent years to offer special services like telephone and marketing surveys. Curt Shaw, Harding County High School social science teacher, began shopping his students' services to local businesses in an effort to ignite students' interest in their own community.

Born in Belle Fourche, a town of about 3,800 with a high school population of about 300, Shaw says he hopes to impress students with the possibilities of spending their lives in their hometown. Like many small communities in a largely rural state, one of Belle Fourche's most valuable exports is its young people, Shaw says. "As naive as it sounds, I want to keep kids in the state."

In addition to the telephone and marketing survey services offered by his classes, Shaw's students have prepared a 68-page demographic profile of Belle Fourche, which they completed through research and interviews with local businesses.

Shaw also aids students who participate in South Dakota's Fastrack program, a state-run effort to promote entrepreneurship among high school students. If a student's application is approved, the state guarantees 80 percent of a bank loan of up to $2,000. Examples of Fastrack businesses include a golf driving range, manufacture of coin banks in the shape of Mt. Rushmore and a video recording business.

... As the 'real world' reaches in

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., an Ishpeming mining company, and Marquette General Hospital have established partnerships with local schools. Marquette General Hospital provides hands- on training in various medical fields for high school students, including one semester of classroom training and one semester working in a medical facility.

Cleveland-Cliffs has developed three programs with four area school districts to recognize outstanding academic achievement, to provide classroom support through their employees and to hold teacher workshops. "We're trying to find ways we can be supportive," says Don Ryan, spokesman for Cleveland-Cliffs. He says the mining company hopes to give students and teachers a better idea of the opportunities and challenges in the workplace.

To that end, Don Mourand, superintendent of the Negaunee School District in the Upper Peninsula, believes the schools' relationship with Cleveland-Cliffs has been successful. The schools and the mine are only in their third year of cooperation and Mourand expects the partnership to expand. "The partnerships allow us to fine-tune our curriculum," he says.

Chamber of Commerce offices, as representatives of the business community, have also been increasingly involved in special programs for students. The state chamber offices of North Dakota and Montana, as do many chamber offices and organizations from other states, hold annual week-long events at a college or university where high school students learn about business from executives of state companies. "Hopefully we're giving them exposure that they haven't had, or reinforcing what they've already learned," says Dan Nelson, governmental affairs coordinator for the Greater North Dakota Association.

In northern Wisconsin, an ad hoc group of businesses has formed to promote the improvement of technological education in the region. Companies such as Cray Research Inc., 3M Corp., Supercomputer Systems Inc., Northern States Power Co. and Watson Industries Inc. have formed the Northern Wisconsin Technology Council. "We're interested in employment for our region," says William Watson, president of Watson Industries of Eau Claire and the organization's treasurer and former president.

While there are only a limited number of engineering positions available in technical industries, Watson says, there are a large number of technical jobs involving lasers, plastics, thermal dynamics, magnetic presses and others. Colleges, and high schools before them, must take a greater interest in educating workers and not just engineers, he says.

Science and technology are too partitioned within the educational system, according to Watson, who says that the sciences should be "infused" into all levels of education. "Kids in school get to the 12th grade before they take physics," he says. "How can they develop an interest in something when they're introduced to it so late in the process?"

The Northern Wisconsin Technology Council is a new organization, and other than generally promoting its views of education reform, it does not yet have a specific program agenda, Watson says. However, individual companies—such as Cray Research through its annual seminars for teachers known as the Cray Academy—are conducting their own programs with schools.

Partnerships as first step to reform

For all of their efforts to influence the education system, Paula Prahl of the Minnesota Business Partnership says businesses are under no delusion that they—and they alone—can revolutionize education. "We view business/education partnerships as the crucial first step, not as the saving grace for American schools," she says.

Business/education partnerships may also become a normal part of the education system, she says, and not just a series of various and changing commitments from individual companies. "For some businesses it's an ongoing thing and for others it's an attempt for societal change. Business will never give up its commitment to education," Prahl says.

Joe Nathan, director for the Center for School Change at the Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, has long been a proponent of drastic change for public education. A member of a presidential advisory commission on education and an author of books and numerous essays on education reform, Nathan believes business should do more than support schools with their money and labor—they should shake up the system and raise tough questions. For starters, for example: "I think the business community should absolutely insist on a moratorium on new school buildings that are just school buildings." Nathan argues that school districts have "edifice complexes" and that they inefficiently build new structures on large parcels of land when schools could be housed in existing empty buildings—public or private—and could share facilities with other social services. In some cities, he says, schools share facilities with day-care programs, senior citizens groups and even some medical services.

Like Prahl, Nathan says businesses have an inherent interest in public education's "outputs" and the more emphasis that is placed on the results of public education—and not merely the amount of "inputs," namely money—the better the results will be.

One Minnesota company would like to see business go beyond a partnership with education and literally expand into the public schools system. John Golle, CEO and chairman of Education Alternatives Inc., a Twin Cities firm that manages public school systems, says this country's public schools are "a national problem of the highest order." If he were to update the early 1980s study A Nation at Risk, he said he would now title it A Nation Doomed. And he considers himself an optimist.

Some school districts in America have high school graduate rates of less than 50 percent, Golle says. (All Ninth District states, with the exception of Michigan, rank in the top 10 for high school graduation rates among the 50 states.) "We need a revolution, not an evolution," he says, and he advocates, among other things, school choice and a retooling of America's education resources toward the very young. Studies show that there is a strong correlation between a child's third-grade performance and eventual senior high success, he says. Golle's optimism is somewhat evident when he suggests that in 10 to 20 years America's educational problems could be fixed if the country would pour its resources into efforts to aid young children—and not wait until students are about to graduate from high school.

Golle's firm, Education Alternatives, is in the vanguard of public school reform and is gradually gaining acceptance among public school officials. The goal of the company, which must meet all state guidelines of the districts that hire them, is to make education more efficient, Golle says. It aims for efficiency, essentially, by cutting a district's operating budget and setting standards for success. For example, parents receive quarterly evaluations to rate the performance of teachers and the administration, and the firm's contract is based on the performance of schools and students. "If we don't perform, the school board kicks us out," Golle says.

Companies like Education Alternatives may be more prevalent in the future of education reform, but in the meantime the business community will continue to pursue more traditional partnerships with schools. The Committee for Economic Development encourages businesses to pursue those relationships, both for business' own sake and for the sake of America's schools:

"Education in the 1980s was the scene of a great deal of energetic leadership from within the field and from without. A profusion of good ideas for reform and improvement have been derived from new research, the experience of other fields (including business), and plain common sense. By contrast with the beginning of the decade, the situation today should not engender despair; rather, it should stimulate hope and determination to succeed. It will take all of the 1990s to redeem the promise of the 1980s. With 'controlled impatience,' business must remain in the midst of the enterprise."

And the education system will continue to welcome business' involvement, according to Don Mourand, Negaunee school superintendent, to the point where business/education partnerships could become institutionalized. "The more we learn of how skills are used, the more the teachers will adjust teaching to stress practical use," he says. "Business should have—and has had—an influence on how we teach."

The shapes of school-business partnerships

  • Helping-hand relationships, in which business provides tangible goods and services to schools (such as equipment, donations, mini-grants, tutors, speakers and special materials).

  • Programmatic initiatives, in which business is involved in attempts to change and improve one particular school or one particular program.

  • Compacts and collaborative efforts providing a single, communitywide umbrella for a wide range of school-business and school-community activities and, in one way or another, pressure for districtwide school reforms.

  • Policy change, where business leaders and organizations are participants in developing a vast array of new policies, especially at the state level.

From Business Impact on Education and Child Development Reform, the Committee for Economic Development.