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Business and Industry

This chapter defines ways for the business community to help implement science, mathematics, and technology education reform. It discusses business' current involvement in K-12 reform, and examines ways for business to to become involved in the reforms and to help foster an environment in which reforms can succeed. It identifies barriers to successful business involvement in education in general and science reform in particular, and suggests ways for science education reformers to address those barriers and develop and maintain useful relationships with business.

Business involvement in pre-college education in America dates to the mid-19th century, when many members of the Whig Party saw economic success and desirable socialization skills, such as punctuality and good work habits, as key goals of education. Business involvement in education reform began early in the 20th century, when the National Association of Manufacturers led a lobbying campaign that resulted in the 1917 passage of the Smith-Hughes Act- legislation that called for standardized testing, guidance counseling, and tracking in the nation's schools. More recently, business reacted to the Soviet launch of Sputnik and to the Cold War by demanding more engineers and scientists. In the 1980s, when reports like A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) justified for many business people the idea that education was both a root cause of many economic and social problems and the best hope to remedy these problems.

Although we could argue that business' historical involvement in education has been only marginally effective, there are signs that today's participation could lead to more significant results. Corporations have developed an interest in disadvantaged youth, early childhood education, and a variety of programs ranging from adopt-a-school efforts and collaborative partnerships to systemic change initiatives. Business involvement in education logically fits with science education reforms emphasis on teamwork (which many modern workplaces stress) and on professional development (which most business have long offered for their employees).

Companies involved in education for a decade or more have come to understand how difficult science education reform is and how business must commit support for the long term. This understanding is key to the success of business-school partnerships, many of which have waxed and waned in past decades (Shakeshaft & Trachtman, 1986). if business becomes frustrated by the pace of education reform and begins to support more radical approaches, or goes outside the education system to solve its problems, it may be working at cross purposes with other reformers. Science education reformers should continue to encourage business leaders to take the long-term view when getting involved in education reform, and educators and business people should remain at the reform table together.

The Current Status
Although there is little research on the extent of business involvement in K-12 education, anecdotal evidence suggests that big business is usually more involved than smaller organizations. Although every community cannot have access to a Xerox production facility or an AT&T laboratory, every community does have businesses that contribute to science education. Power companies, telephone companies, engineering firms, environmental businesses, and veterinarians all have the potential to help. For instance, David Coen of Vermont's State Systemic Initiative formed a partnership with a back-hoe operator who visited elementary school classrooms to explain that you cant operate a back-hoe without a solid knowledge of math (Coen, 1993).

The key point for education reformers to recognize about business involvement in K-12 education is that businesses most likely to become involved in reform are those who feel most affected by today's competitive environment.

The Nature of Business Involvement

Recently, there have been important changes in business' priorities for education reform. For example, business is now urging a more inclusive approach, as evidenced by the Business Roundtable's 1990 education reform credo that "every student can learn at significantly higher levels." Demographic projections indicate an increasingly important role in tomorrow's work force for traditionally underrepresented groups-women, minorities and immigrants-and businesses have testified before Congress for increased Head Start funding to ensure that today's schools better serve these populations.

Second, business has changed its traditional approach of reserving most of its education investment for higher education. Recognizing the need to improve learning earlier in students' lives, business increased its giving to elementary and preschool programs considerably during the late 1980s and early 1990s and has recently increased its support of pre-K education. Financial support for K-12 education grew as a percentage of overall educational contributions during that period, peaking in 1992 (Sommerfield, 1993; Tillman, 1994).

Corporate Contributions in Education

And third, business involvement in partnerships, alliances, and other collaborative education efforts is growing. About 50% of America's school districts are engaged in some kind of partnership with business  (National Association of Partners in Education, 1991). The trend toward widespread and more systemic partnerships offers hope that business-school relationships are becoming a key part of science education reform. Although information on the types of business likely to get involved in education is as sketchy as data on the extent of their involvement, a handful of studies and surveys suggests that banks, utilities, insurance companies, financial services companies, and electronics and high-tech firms are most likely to collaborate on school reform (Shakeshaft & Trachtman, 1986). Other frequent collaborators include paper companies, manufacturers, and aerospace and automotive companies.

As educational policy makers at the state and national level continue to pursue systemic change, businesses are increasingly engaged in the reform effort. Most states have reform groups in which business plays a major role, and it is not uncommon for a 1990s CEO to visit the White House or the Department of Education to discuss school reform. The Business Roundtable, which includes more than 200 CEOs from Americas leading companies, is committed to a ten-year, 50-state reform initiative. This initiative focuses on public policy issues including standards, performance and assessment, school accountability, school autonomy, professional development, parent involvement, learning readiness, technology, and safety and discipline. As an important actor in the business community and therefore in the policy community, the Business Roundtable initiative is already having an impact on education.

Businesses are also increasingly encouraging well-defined disciplinary standards like Project 2061's Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993) and academic content frameworks at the state level. The 1996 Governors' Education Summit-well attended by prominent CEOs-added momentum to this drive. Associations and collaborative groups are expanding their roles in education reform. The National Alliance of Business (NAB) focuses on education reform as it relates to work-force issues. Eleven business organizations belong to the Business Coalition for Education Reform, an NAB-led umbrella group that addresses legislative matters relating to education. The Council for Aid to Education exists to stimulate private support-especially business support-of education. Trade associations such as the Edison Electric Institute, Chemical Manufacturers Association, and American Petroleum Institute have well-established education programs and encourage members to work in concert with educators, communities, and other businesses in restructuring K-12 education. Local Chambers of Commerce have contributed significantly to resources produced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for Workforce Preparation and Quality Education.

Not surprisingly, many of the large companies that are involved in K-12 education concentrate their efforts on science, mathematics, and technology, as these subjects naturally help to meet future work-force needs and promote U.S. competitiveness. In supporting science and mathematics, businesses emphasize curricula, motivation, achievement, school-business contacts, and technology-based instruction (Lund & Wild, 1993). Increasingly, science educators are recognizing that business can-and probably should-play an active role in effecting change. The Corporate Council for Mathematics and Science Education, the National Science Resources Center, the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, The National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science work closely with business to solicit input about science education reform issues and to include representatives from the scientific and business communities on their advisory boards.

Finally, there is a growing interest in school-to-work transition (STW), which aims to close the gap between what happens in school and what is needed on the job by using each to reinforce the other. Many business leaders see STW as a way to improve education generally, while many educators are beginning to see possibilities for STW to go far beyond the traditional school vocational program. The goal of STW is to acknowledge, from a pedagogical and curricular perspective, that although the majority of students put their future economic life near the top of their list of educational objectives, they also think of vocational education as a dead-end track intended for someone else (Timpane & McNeill, 1991).

The Motivation for Business Involvement

The desire for a highly skilled work force seems to be a primary factor motivating business involvement in science and math education reform. Many businesses contend that today's schools do not provide the highly skilled workers needed for today's work. Such thinking reflects the popular wisdom, but critics ask whether a skills shortage really exists and question the link between curriculum content and workplace needs. Still others suggest that Americas lack of competitiveness in the 1970s and 1980s resulted from poor management, not poor work-force training on the part of public schools. Only now is the reality of a high-tech workplace catching up with the rhetoric. Manufacturers will increasingly demand the services of highly skilled workers as jobs become more complex. That appears to be the case with the Big Three auto makers, which in hiring production line workers reportedly follow checks on applicants' "reading and math abilities, manual dexterity and understanding of spatial relations." These checks take the form of a three-hour group exercise in which applicants are evaluated on their contribution to a task, such as improving a production-line process (Meredith, 1996).

Many chemical, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and other companies that depend on a highly-trained work force also see a science literate public as crucial to their future success. Said one chemical company CEO, "It is important to educate all children to be literate, informed citizens and consumers-the same citizens and consumers who buy our products go to the polling booth and vote on issues which affect the success of our industry." Public relations, community relations, employee relations, economic development, and corporate social responsibility continue to motivate business involvement.

Business involvement in education always sparks debate about whether schools exist to educate students for life or for work. The answer should be both-that a schools customers are students, parents, and society. While much of the dialogue about business' relations with schools revolves around preparing students for the workplace, surveys consistently reveal that businesses do not expect schools to provide job training for future workers. Business wants workers who have mastered basic skills and who have good work habits and attitudes (Mann, 1987). "You teach 'em, well train 'em" remains an appropriate call for today's businesses.

A difficult issue arises when corporations promote products, ideas, or values in public schools. Many people criticize business harshly for using schools to promote ideas of free enterprise and to distribute materials reflecting the corporate view on issues such as environmental protection, labor, and energy. Some businesses recognize this fact and have structured their involvement to address broader goals such as the development of critical thinking skills.

The Needed Changes

The ideal and useful relationship between business and science education reformers would be a truly collaborative one in which each partner understood the others perspective and was comfortable with constructive criticism. Business would advocate reform in public policy debates and funding requests, keeping the issue high on society's agenda. Business would participate in science education reform and assist local schools-offering expertise in strategic planning and finance, encouraging employees and parents to participate in school-improvement efforts, and collaborating with schools on programs that make schooling more relevant to students' lives. Schools and business would work together to maximize schools' use of volunteers, funding, and in-kind contributions from business.

Affecting Education Policy

Business would also signal to students that science literacy is important to future success and would actively participate in school-to-work programs. Business would help to develop effective science curriculum materials and provide internships and summer employment to assist minority, female, and disadvantaged students in pursuing successful careers in science.

As one of the country's most powerful political lobbies, business can help create safe policy space for science education reform to flourish, especially in the areas of finance and implementation. Now that many business leaders have been involved in education reform for more than a decade, they are an especially powerful voice for science education reform. Having one or several respected business leaders support science benchmarks and standards can make an extraordinary difference in passing legislation that will support the type of teaching and learning promoted by science educators, but business will not always want to lobby directly on behalf of controversial reforms. In some instances, however, such lobbying can be done through trade associations or the many business alliances that were described earlier.

Continuing efforts to upgrade the quality of education in South Carolina illustrate how business can lead a long-term advocacy effort. Businesses there not only played an active role in developing reforms and pushing policymakers to provide the necessary funding in 1983-84, they also helped implement the reforms and maintained the momentum that so often fades from reform efforts. On several occasions they beat back efforts to gut the original legislation. Many people believe that business' most crucial role in education reform is to be an advocate for reform efforts, helping to convince parents, the public, and policymakers to focus on meaningful change-just as they did in South Carolina.

In addition to being an advocate, business can place constant pressure on many levels of the system to change. As major contributors to universities, business can encourage schools of education or departments of chemistry, for instance, to reform the way they teach. Business is often the only institution that has enough power and credibility to bring together key constituencies-educators, policymakers, parents, and business representatives-to support education reform.

Demanding "improvement" in education is easy; defining "improvement" is often difficult, but critical if businesses expect schools to produce an improved workforce for the next century. In support of higher standards and expectations, business can not only make grades and attendance important factors in hiring considerations, It can also clearly define its workplace needs and inform schools of future skills-in alignment with science standards-that will be needed on the job.

Finally, business can play a critical role in improving education by adopting workplace practices that allow parents to be with their children at key moments and to become involved in their children's education. Providing parents with paid time off to visit a child's teacher or developing a formal education policy that legitimizes employee/parent volunteerism in schools, for instance, can be an invaluable incentive for getting parents into the classroom.

Direct Contributions to Reform

Although corporate grants to public schools will never rival public support, business funds can still be helpful-especially if they are available for professional enrichment activities or pilot projects. Businesses with experience in leadership, quality, and managing change can make significant contributions to the increased staff development called for in science education reform. Many companies today focus their contributions to achieve greater program leverage and results. In order to support specific changes in curriculum, professional development, materials, or assessment, businesses often combine financial assistance such as scholarships or incentives for students and teachers with employee involvement and expertise..

Breaking down walls between schools and the community directly affects business, and the day should come when the involvement of parents, business people, and others in schools will no longer be news. As students learn more meaningful science, schools will surely need more and better facilities and equipment-materials that business is in a unique position to provide. Business contributions can fill gaps in needed resources by funding supplemental booklets, films, and other needed materials.

In addition to providing facilities and materials to schools, businesses are providing schools with technology and expertise on using it. Local cable and telephone companies are wiring some schools for Internet access. The relationship between Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia and Westinghouse-described in detail in Blueprints' Chapter 6: Curriculum Connections-exemplifies how business can both provide schools with the latest technology and help students understand and use that technology.

Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME)A successful example of business providing support for classroom science and mathematics teachers is the Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME) program in the San Francisco area. A consortium of companies and government laboratories, working with the Lawrence Hall of Science, provides summer internships for K-12 teachers.

Although we usually think of business volunteers or programs inside the classroom, volunteers often make their greatest contributions elsewhere. Industry scientists and engineers across the country design school-to-work transition programs that are showcased at school career days; participate in professional development programs for science teachers; keep teachers current on new technologies and their applications; provide technical input in developing inquiry-based curriculum materials; and serve as role models and mentors for students, especially for minorities and women. Teachers find it much easier to relate classroom work to the real world if companies provide tours of facilities, workshops for students and teachers, and apprenticeships for students outside the classroom.

The Jefferson Davis High School Educational CollaborativeIn one attempt to foster a school/industry partnership, Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee, alternates contracts with two local school systems to have middle school science teachers spend two years with Eastman as "educators-on-loan." During that time, the teachers serve as liaisons with partnering schools and help the company evaluate school requests for help. Eastman had previously sent only professionals and managers into schools; today any employee may be found volunteering time in the classroom. The schools and the company have a written agreement that clearly identifies guidelines and expectations, and the company actively maintains contact with-and therefore the trust of-local school officials, the district superintendent, local principals and teachers, and the school board.

Various kinds of science alliances around the country help coordinate area scientists, offer enrichment programs, and function as clearinghouses of resource materials for schools and businesses that are interested in collaborating on improving education in local areas. In Houston, Texas, the Jefferson Davis High School Collaborative, formed with the help of Tenneco, has raised the percentage of students passing the state assessment from 37 to 86%.

This type of third-party structure often provides business people with the encouragement they need to participate and shifts the burdens of collaboration-locating suitable business representatives, instructing them on effective classroom activities, and ensuring that they will show up-away from individual teachers.

Ultimately, business isn't monolithic. Individual employees who are parents and taxpayers will carry out most of the work that "business" undertakes to implement science education reform. Business as a whole cannot be expected to march in lockstep with all reform goals or to make a major financial contribution-beyond the taxes it already pays-to improve public schools generally. Finally, business can make an important contribution by letting educators know what skills the workers of tomorrow will need, while recognizing that educational decisions ultimately must be made by educators, parents, and students-not by business people.

Barriers to Successful Involvement

The business-education collaboration described above faces several barriers. Business is often disdainful of what it labels as education's "inefficiency," while educators have long doubted the ability of profit-making business to understand the uniqueness of school systems. This mutual mistrust is difficult to overcome. Hopefully, the kind of collaboration envisioned here and described in The Conference Board's report, Business and Education Reform: The Fourth Wave (Waddock, 1994), will reduce historical suspicions and enable participants to move beyond symptoms and stereotypes to underlying needs and problems. This collaboration can lead to true two-way involvement in which business and education help one another meet their needs.

Despite all that has been written about problems in American education today, and despite the involvement of corporate America in reform efforts, the majority of business people remain uninvolved in public schools. Large corporations that are not involved in education indicate that their employees lack the time to volunteer or believe business and schools should remain separate entities (Shakeshaft & Trachtman, 1986). Recently, however, some major corporations have made commitments to providing time for their employees to do volunteer work in schools or attend school events.

School reform has always been and will continue to be a politically charged issue. Whether significant numbers of businesses are willing to speak out during debates on issues such as national standards remains to be seen. Although groups such as the Business Roundtable have brought some cohesion to recent business activities advocating school reform, the U.S. largely lacks groups that are able to speak for business as a whole on the ongoing issue of science education reform.

Because a business' involvement in education is very often the result of a CEO's decision, turnover in management can have a deleterious effect on business-school partnerships. The impact of such turnover can be minimized if business adopts strategic plans to guide its grant making and program involvement.

Many corporate scientists have little knowledge of science education reform and their nonscience counterparts have little knowledge of school reform generally. Involved business leaders often know little about the substance of school reform-curriculum frameworks, embedded assessment, and so on.  Modern theories of learning and notions that problems may have no "right" answer could be troubling to those who believe that things do have one right answer or who were served well by a more traditional approach to schooling. The most consistent and emphatic plea from business is for more coherence among the plethora of science reform organizations and efforts. As long as businesses perceive reform efforts to be disjointed, relations between business and reformers will suffer.


Local efforts to build relationships between the business community and science education reformers should probably start with a small group of business people chosen for their prior experience with science education in public schools. This small, high-powered group could not only serve as advisers but could help forge links with other groups. Getting business people involved in the development of curriculum blocks or other "hands-on" engagement has been shown to greatly increase business interest in and support for school reform efforts.

Business is not interested in supporting multiple groups striving for what it sees as the same results. Science education reformers should either work to define the way they are unique or collaborate with others-such as Project 2061 or the National Research Council-that are seeking a national support structure for implementing reform. Business and schools can take the following steps to bring about the type of reform envisioned by Project 2061 and other reform organizations:

The most significant impact is achieved when both business and schools emphasize systemic and long-term science education reform. Alliances that incorporate methods for buy-in by business and the schools and build a local base of political support that includes teachers, scientists, parents, and local business and industry have the best chance for lasting change and improvement.

References and Bibliography
Blueprints' Resources


Blueprints Online
Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, DC

Copyright © 1998 by American Association for the Advancement of Science