188. "School Reform: A Serious Challenge for Business," Challenge, (May/June 1989), pp. 51-54.

Two cheers for the business community's newest venture: rehabilitating public education. At last, important segments of the business community are taking on school reform as a matter of vital interest both to them and to the country, rather than treating schools as just another charity.

Facing a poorly trained labor force, a low work ethic, and competitive pressures from countries with superior schools, key business leaders and well-known corporations have decided that public education is too important to leave to teachers, principals, and school bureaucrats. So far so good.

What these well-meaning business people lack are the same thorough plans in their reform efforts that they would develop if they were entering a new line of business. Indeed, corporations have discovered that even in moving from one area of business to a similar one, many traps await the unwary. (See, for instance, Coca-Cola's troubles when it moved into the orange juice business.) To become seriously involved in the world of public education is a much bigger leap, especially because most business leaders have no firsthand experience with public education, particularly with the kind of schools most in need of reform. These leaders rely largely on images acquired from the public press (Why Can't Johnny Read?), weekend conferences, and "in" consultants.

The result: a highly sporadic, confused, helter-skelter slew of contributions--cash, in kind, and labor--that may help or hurt a little, but basically leave schools unchanged. For instance, some corporations have promised schools financial support on the basis of management by objectives: if a school reduces its dropout rate by X percent, the corporation will grant the school Y amount of funds.

But the same corporations argue that the training in these schools is obsolete, that the schools are "nineteenth-century factories" building robots in an age that requires employees who can think critically, use high technology, and so on.

It follows that if more pupils were induced to remain in such schools, more would be mistrained, and for longer periods of time. Conversely, once training in schools is reformed, it ought to be sufficiently motivating to alleviate what is mainly a symptom: dropping out.

Some corporate executives volunteer to teach classes in public schools, a highly commendable activity (aside from whatever they teach the kids, the executives will learn about the reality of public education). Others invite classes to tour their plants.

Still others help schools in their accounting, fix up playgrounds, even teach principals how to improve a school's public relations. Yet, even if these efforts were increased tenfold, perhaps one hundredfold, they would correct little of what is wrong with public education.

The tough issues

The business community needs to take on the tough strategic issues that have languished because they're very challenging and because no one takes responsibility for them. At the core is a matter that CEOs are highly qualified to deal with--the allocation of resources.

One can set aside, for the moment, important secondary questions such as the desired student/ teacher ratios or the search for the best science/humanities "mix." The primary strategic concern is the allocation of educational resources (budgets, staff talent, executive attention) among the major areas of investment--primary schools, secondary schools and colleges, as well as the relationship between schools and whatever educational foundations the American family still provides.

There is ample evidence that educational resources are basically misallocated. The American educational "system" is extremely top heavy, compared to European and Japanese educational institutions (and to those in the United States before World War II).

American primary and secondary schools are leaving more and more of the responsibility of educating and training students to colleges. In many cases, students' first two years of college are devoted to either remedial (correcting what public schools did wrong) or "catch-up" learning.

To put it differently, Japanese and many European high school graduates have about the same preparation that our youngsters have after two years of college. And, the United States sends more than 50 percent of the age cohort to college, compared to about 10 percent in many other industrial countries.

The result is an irrational, wasteful system, in which pupils are first poorly trained and highly alienated from learning, only to drop out or later require retraining at great expense.

A massive shift of resources

Strategic reforms require a massive shift of resources downward in the American educational structure. Specifically, we need to slow down the expansion of colleges as much as is politically possible and provide more resources to schools.

As teachers' salaries improve, as more MAs turn to high school teaching rather than to junior colleges, and as the stigma of teaching secondary education is reduced (which should follow from better salaries and an influx of talent), American schools will be able to carry a higher proportion of the educational mission.

We must direct more resources to our primary schools, although both primary and secondary schools should gain compared to colleges. The elementary reason for this reallocation is the much overlooked fact that to acquire skills and knowledge, pupils must first have certain personality traits such as self-discipline, the ability to concentrate, and to control their impulses.

Recent reforms have focused on pumping more math, science, and foreign languages into students. But adding science teachers, labs, computers, and so on, will achieve little if students are not psychologically willing and able to learn.

Evidence from the social sciences gives us good reason to invest in primary schools: research shows that the required basic personality traits are developed early in life. Ideally, the family should play a fundamental role in forming these traits, and their development should be enhanced in kindergarten and primary schools with continued family support.

In the past, this is what many American families did. Many still do in Japan and, to a lesser extent, in Europe. (Indeed, these nations must often worry about excesses in the other direction. For teenagers, who after years of family pressure, fail the qualifying exams at the end of high school, suicide is all too common.)

In the United States, however, we labor under a great parenting deficit. Millions of parents now work outside the household, are often absent when their young children come home, and at the end of the day, parents often are too exhausted physically and psychologically to educate. Only a small part of the parenting deficit has been assumed by grandparents, child-care centers, and the like. The result is that youngsters begin primary school psychologically undeveloped.

While the character development associated with acquiring basic "work" habits is what young students need most, there is little the public or the business community can do about restoring the ability or willingness of American families to discharge this mission (although businesses could provide more flextime and parental leaves). Primary schools hence must assume more of this task than in the past.

Starting young

The best use of educational resources is probably to start at age four, as long as these school years are focused on character development rather than on pumping the "three Rs" into unformed personalities.

Resources also can be dedicated to extending the school year (currently geared to farming!). Parents are absent all year long, and kids can be taught nearly any of that time. Japanese students spend about 60 more days in school each year than American kids, not to mention the intensive study camps many Japanese attend in the summer.

Beyond reallocating our educational resources, the entire intraschool structure must be redesigned. We have a strong tendency to think about school reforms in terms of redesigned curriculum. But schools also are a place youngsters undergo a set of critical, formative experiences. It is akin to sports--all components of the activity affect character development, and thus the ability to study in school and to work after graduation.

If parking lots are wild, corridors chaotic, cafeterias a zoo, and classrooms in turmoil, students will not develop adequate work/study habits. And if school assignments are boring, meaningless or arbitrarily graded, students' motivation to learn will be low. Schools must be encouraged to develop a structure and environment that promotes educational experiences rather than undermine their mission.

Why corporations can lead

Why is this a job for corporate leaders?

Because the resistance to reform is largely political. Numerous special interests maintain existing, deforming schools. And there are no effective educational policy-making bodies on the national or state or local level; only boards for individual school systems or colleges or a bureaucratized state department of education.

A major force with an eye on national needs, but no vested interest, must enter the picture. If the business community does not provide for change, the record shows, other groups (such as concerned parents), simply do not have enough clout. School reform needs effective lobbyists far more than volunteers.

Corporate executives who wish to go beyond supporting general educational reform and seek a hands-on opportunity to contribute need not travel far. Among the consequential programs in place, that could use additional leadership and direction, is the massive employment of high school students in corporations.

While they provide jobs and spending money for the nation's youth, many of these programs could be much more educationally effective. The typical job in a fast food restaurant or bagel chain is too repetitive and unchallenging, offering little opportunity to acquire the skills of post-modern work.

Corporations could fashion these programs, in collaboration with schools, as apprentice programs with increased educational content, for which students might gain "shop" credits at schools. Even more significant is the promise of meaningful jobs to those who successfully complete high school.

The transition from dealing with school reform as an occasional good deed to a serious challenge has just begun. The business community has shown good will and concern, soon to be followed by a growing awareness of the complexity of the issues. A strategic approach that identifies the main levers and how to reset them cannot be far behind.

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