The Trouble with Business-Education Partnerships

By Clark, Donald M. | Techniques, January 1997 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Business-Education Partnerships


Clark, Donald M., Techniques


The steady barrage of redundant articles, task force and commission reports and forums on "business-education partnerships" in recent years continues to represent rhetoric over substance. Except for some isolated examples of real collaboration, most "partnerships" that have formed between U.S. schools and businesses represent a piecemeal and ineffective approach to education reform.

Most business-education partnerships focus on student activities within individual programs or schools. While these efforts are worthwhile, today's business-education partnerships rarely encompass attempts to affect curriculum, the overall education process or the acquisition of basic skills.

Those of us who directed industry-education alliances and career education initiatives in the 1970s and early 1980s were puzzled when the Reagan White House seemed to ignore our efforts in favor of a new "business-education partnership" movement. President Reagan urged businesses, government agencies and communities to form partnerships with every school and community college in the country by the end of the 1983-84 school year, which he proclaimed the National Year of Partnerships in Education.

Though well-intentioned, what followed was a misguided effort over 13 years marked by "tinkering at the margin." Business-education partnerships continue to be conducted, for the most part, on an unstructured, fragmented, duplicative and ad hoc basis with employer involvement primarily in a school here and a classroom there.

The National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce, in a 1995 study, reports that ,'most partnerships have diffuse and unquantifiable goals, and, in the worst cases, are exercises in public relations."

"We sit on some advisory committees and run some programs that help a few individual students and get good press clippings for the company. But we don't fool ourselves that any of this results in any fundamental, systemic change in the way schools operate," one employer told interviewers for the Public/Private Ventures survey, "School-to-Work or School-to-What," published in October 1995.

How can we make relationships between industry and education more productive? At the outset, both sectors need to shelve the rhetoric and focus on the mission of industry-education collaboration--fostering substantive school improvement and workforce preparation.

This requires the employment community to recognize that the entire education system needs help and that effecting change takes time, patience, discipline, hard work, money and commitment (in writing) for the long term. …

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