The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, February 24, 2006

Insights from a new business/education partnership effort

There was a really interesting article in the Las Vegas Sun newspaper on 2/17 about local business/education partnership efforts (thanks NASSMC for the heads-up). The article, "Business' influence in schools source of contention" (link here), offers thoughts from many of the typical players in business/education partnerships, including principals, union representatives, school partnership coordinators (these are typically school employees, often operating out of the PR or community relations offices at the district level), and of course businesses themselves.

The article focuses on the creation of a new business/education coalition in the district called CARE, made up of the power players in the area (chamber heads, CEO of the local United Way, the superintendent, head of diversity for a major casino, etc.). Most of the players' perspectives were expected and reasonable: the school partnership coordinator, for example, wanted this new group (called CARE) to realize that there were already many business/education ties in place, and that the existing relationships and knowledge base should not be overlooked. The business leaders wanted to apply business principles to education to drive change, focusing on increasing school autonomy in exchange for greater accountabilty. The principal was grateful for support in any form at any level. And so on.

There were a few things that jumped out at me, that may or may not be applicable to other such situations:

  • In this community, and probably in any community, there are really two distinct groups of businesses interested in supporting education: the power players, who want to reshape education from the top down according to business principles, and the local businesses, who support individual schools with direct contributions (money, supplies, volunteers, etc.). These are two very different entities and should be treated as such.
  • A second aspect of the two different types of business seems to be their motivation: CARE (the power players) are focused on business-related issues like competitiveness and accountability, while the local businesses are driven by a sense of civic responsibility. These differences in motivation should not be overlooked.
  • While CARE is clearly making efforts to be inclusive (they invited the union and some school reps to the table), they do seem to have a top-down mentality, moving in to demand reforms without a deeper knowledge of the school system. This could well be an unintentional portrayal in the article: for all I know, these business leaders are deeply involved in schools already and have a thorough working knowledge of education.
  • There is a lack of communication all around, likely caused in part by CARE's top-down executive mentality. The school/community partnerships person, who has years of experience and tons of local business partnerships in place, was never contacted; the CARE representative just said "we've got the superintendent on the steering committee, and if there were people in the schools we needed to talk to, I'm sure he'd tell us."
The one thing that really frosted me was the union representative's perspective. While other school personnel just wanted to play a contributing part in the reform effort by offering their experience and perspective, the union head explicitly stated that businesses should not have a voice in the goals or management of schools, but rather should shut up and do what the schools ask them to do:
John Jasonek, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, suggested members of Council for a Better Nevada "roll up their sleeves and actually work in a classroom."

"Instead of trying to be power brokers, why don't they be worker bees?'' asked Jasonek, who has been invited to represent the teachers' union on CARE's working group.

There are already enough legislative committees, councils, working groups and coalitions discussing what's wrong with the county's public schools, Jasonek said.

"It's the same old song. How about a little less talk and a lot more action," Jasonek said.

Mr. Jasonek should acquaint himself with David Mathews' book "Is there a public for public schools?" (previously discussed here), in which Mr. Mathews writes:

Efforts to involve citizens, though well intentioned and sincere, sometimes unwittingly treat the public as a means to ends that educators have in mind. In talking to people about public participation, I realized that some see this as a technique whose effectiveness is judged by how well it helps schools reach their objectives. The public schools really are the public’s schools, and the public’s involvement is not by sufferance of the educational authorities. Citizens belong in the schools’ hallways because they are their hallways. If they are given the impression that they are welcome to participate only if they can do something that educators think worthwhile, this puts the cart before the horse (i.e., treats citizens as means) and disconnects the public from the schools.

The public is not a means to the ends of educators, and people know it. They react adversely to many of the techniques used to involve them; though educators intend to empower, people feel manipulated. For example, the common practice of having the community discuss its needs, on the assumption that this will make people feel “involved” – while consultants and staff members develop curricular reforms based on long-held professional preferences – gives people the sense that educators are experimenting with their children and not listening to what they are saying. Researchers say practices like this have created a “legacy of mistrust.”

Great article, and great insight into the various parties involved in or affected by business/education partnerships.


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