Grade School Goes Corporate
Businesses want to build better employees, but will that really mean a better education for your child?
This interest excites some educators who have long felt like the neglected middle child of American domestic policy. But it also signals a new direction bound to make many uncomfortable. Even the three central tenets of Broad and Gates's campaign, for example, are controversial: Make teachers' salary hikes dependent on students' test scores; expand learning time, keeping kids in class longer hours and more days of the year; and build federal curriculum standards created in part by business leaders.
Bottom line. To educators who pride themselves on teaching not just times tables but creativity, on producing not just future middle managers but well-rounded, paradigm-challenging citizens, the business vision might not be so easy to swallow. Maybe it is best for Budweiser's bottom line, they think, but is it best for Lawrenesha?
The corporation/classroom connection goes as far back as late 1800s Chicago, when the city's Commercial Club, an elite group of business leaders in the region, started to get anxious about Austria and Germany's productivity booms. Led by the "Chicago trinity"-department store magnate Marshall Field, meatpacker and grocer Philip Armour, and inventor George Pullman-the club decided it was those countries' public schools that gave their industry a boost. Unlike American schools, German classrooms divided kids into two tracks: one for those destined to become managers and the other for those destined to be their employees. If American workers could get that preparation, the Chicago leaders thought, the boost in productivity could be as high as 10 cents per worker per day.
An ambitious plan, but it never happened. Though the tycoons were sure that a vocational system was just the thing America needed, others-like philosopher John Dewey-were skeptical. "Education would then become an instrument of perpetuating unchanged the existing industrial order of society," he wrote. "Who, then, shall conduct education so that humanity may improve?"
American CEOs insist that this time there is an important difference: Their vision no longer requires a two-track system. Indeed, in the new industrial order, even entry-level employees have to be smarter. So all schools will have to get better; all children may even have to go to college.
Take paper mills. Fifty years ago, Mobile's International Paper would have been happy to take on Lawrenesha and her peers with just a basic high school education. Today, the global Kimberly-Clark team that has replaced it would think twice. "If you visit a paper mill today here in Mobile, the ones that survived," says Bill Sisson, the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president for economic development, "you're most likely to see people walking around with laptops." Other industries there now also demand higher skills. A list of Alabama's fastest-growing careers is topped by jobs like medical scientist (No. 1) and network systems and data communications analyst (No. 7).
Not bad job prospects-if only anyone there were qualified to fill them. In Mobile, just 25 percent of residents have college degrees. Perhaps as a result, despite a 3.7 percent unemployment rate in Mobile, businesses face serious shortages-hundreds of open spots that could be filled "in a heartbeat" if only the companies could find the résumés to match. "The simple fact is, taking high school graduates today is a high risk," says Art Ryan, CEO of Prudential. "They can't do many of the things you would like them to do. But have high schools changed to reflect that economy? I would argue not enough."