Grade School Goes Corporate
Businesses want to build better employees, but will that really mean a better education for your child?
It took less than a year for Algene Patrick to learn all she needed to know about William H. Brazier Elementary School: rock-bottom test scores, spoiled milk in the cafeteria, and teachers who logged more absences than their students. These were the lessons her granddaughter, Lawrenesha Williams, brought home from kindergarten. When Patrick, who is Lawrenesha's custodial guardian, asked the principal about the 50 absences Lawrenesha's teacher had logged, he just cited the teacher's personal problems. The grandmother decided enough was enough, and she put Lawrenesha in parochial school.
For Trinity Gardens, a poor neighborhood in Mobile County, Ala., that sends children to Brazier Elementary, the neglect wasn't a huge surprise. In 1965, a nearby Air Force base closed-taking away 10,000 jobs-and a series of paper mills shut down in the 1990s, stealing at least 3,000 more. Most of the Gardens' residents live below the poverty line, holding two jobs to get by. Who had time to care how many fifth graders passed a state writing test? (In 2003, only 7 percent.)
But in 2004, Brazier Elementary suddenly began to change. In just one year, workers cleaned up the halls, new teachers poured in, and test scores shot up. Noting the change, parents like Patrick sent their kids back to Brazier. Patrick thanks Brazier's new principal, Merrier Jackson, for the turnaround, calling her "a godsend." But it was actually a less heavenly group that sent Jackson to Trinity Gardens: CEOs.
Four times a year, Everage Thomas, a supervisor at the nearby Budweiser Busch Distributing Co., squeezes into the school's miniature plastic chairs for a meeting with Principal Jackson on student performance. Budweiser has invested capital in her school, and it wants to see results. So Jackson, a former businesswoman, brings PowerPoint presentations, graphs, and charts to prove her students are learning. She calls Budweiser a "stakeholder." That terminology fits a district-ordered reorganization three years ago intended to use a business mind-set (and accountability) to improve Mobile's worst-performing schools. The overhaul followed a reform campaign bankrolled in part by local business groups and the Chamber of Commerce.
Businessmen and women across the country are investing in the schooling of children like Lawrenesha more than ever before, developing executive-style training programs for superintendents in places ranging from Las Vegas to Philadelphia, financing scholarships for kids who pursue math and science in Maryland, and scheduling power lunches with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who has entertained leaders from Siemens's George Nolen to the Burnsville, Minn., Chamber of Commerce. Last week, two billionaires upped the ante, announcing a campaign to make education the top issue in the 2008 presidential race, bankrolled with a historic sum of $60 million, more money than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama combined raised in the first quarter of their presidential campaigns and more than double the $22.4 million spent on the 2004 "swift boat" campaign. The education campaign's sponsors, Bill Gates and Eli Broad, plan to plaster their slogan, "Ed in '08," on bumper stickers, billboards, and television screens across the country.
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."
In Mobile, CEOs' calls for change first started gaining headway in the spring of 2001, when voters, facing $15 million cuts in state funding, chose to raise taxes that pay for schools for the first time since 1945. As part of the raise's promises of equity, the system's five worst-performing schools, Brazier Elementary among them, became the $25 million hike's first beneficiaries. And, in line with the desires of state businesses, certain policies-like salary bonuses tied to test scores, more frequent standardized testing, and less time on social studies and science-were the first reforms.
At Brazier, changes began with human resources. Merrier Jackson was the first new hire. A tall woman with neatly polished fingernails and carefully cropped black hair, Jackson seems born for the job. After attending the University of South Alabama in Mobile on a basketball scholarship, she'd built a 10-year career in human resources, working for a healthcare nonprofit, a Target store, and the Internal Revenue Service. She has a businesswoman's approach, but her bottom line is not a dollar value. "I'm a servant here," she says.
In addition to improving the school's facilities, Jackson wants to transform her students' expectations about the types of jobs they can pursue. Earlier this year, when she saw a boy marching quietly in line behind his classmates, perfectly in order except for a rogue corner of his polo shirt, she excused herself from a conversation with visitors to pull him aside. "I've always thought of you as a little attorney," she said, peering way down into the boy's face, "but I don't know if I would trust my freedoms or my rights on someone whose shirt is untucked." Her message of aspiration is literally plastered on Brazier's walls, where students' handprints sit beneath the title "When I Grow Up These Hands Will Become." Entries include teacher, doctor, and nurse (as well as queen).
But because Jackson (and those Mobile businessmen) can never know for sure what the little hands will become, she obsesses over the next best stand-in: test scores. Because the two most important subjects-the ones that determine whether Brazier meets federal adequate yearly progress standards-are reading and math, Jackson overhauled her curriculum around them, shoving science and social studies into one period to allow 2 ½ hours each day for reading drills and 1 ½ for math. Each week, students take an assessment test in each subject to track their progress.
So far, at least one half of her goals have been accomplished. Test scores have never been higher. In 2003, 7 percent of Brazier fifth graders passed a state writing test; in 2005, 74 percent did. That pleases not just Budweiser but Brazier's other designated stakeholders, who include church leaders, youth mentors, and a local housing activist. According to Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust, it's no wonder both sets are happy. "What's morally right," she says, "is also economically right."
A more pressing question for Lawrenesha Williams's family is: What comes next? "Brazier test scores have changed overnight," says Leevones Dubose, the local housing activist who is one of Brazier's stakeholders. "But the older brothers and sisters are in middle school and high school-why can't theirs change as well?"
Policymakers across the country have also picked the upper grades as their next project. In Mobile, the business retention and expansion task force brings industry and civic leaders to the same long oak table to tackle the question. Looking out a boardroom window at an extravagant fountain and two looping willow trees, they plot the future of the Mobile education system.
A favorite program matches up public high schools and the Enterprise-Ozark Community College, an aviation school 3½ miles down the bay. High school seniors can take classes at the aviation college-and get transportation, books, and tuition all free. If they do well, they'll get some credits toward the two kinds of aviation certifications the school offers, and in some cases a two-year associate's degree. They could also get a job. ST Mobile Aerospace Engineering, a third partner, selects about 20 students as "apprentices" each year, promising to pay 70 percent tuition if they commit to accepting a job offer after graduation.
The aviation example has become a model for other nearby businesses. Saunders Engine Co., a Mobile boat repair business, is working on a training center vision of its own, a "basic technology program" that would teach students subjects like properties of metals, properties of fuels and lubricants, properties of gaskets and sealing materials, and methods of cooling engines and machinery. "The kid who gets an A in this class would be a top candidate for industry," Andrew Saunders, chairman of the company, wrote to his CEO in a brainstorming E-mail last October. "The kid who gets a D would be considerably better than the graduates we have endured from the local trade schools for years."
Fast track. Healthcare industry officials nearly achieved a similar dream, winning Mobile school district Superintendent Harold Dodge's support for a high school to produce "employable" healthcare-adept high school graduates, no college degree necessary. Disagreements over how to pay for the school (local hospitals offered to pay teacher salaries, but they would not fund the whole $32 million project) killed the idea. At least for now. "It's still on the drawing board," says chamber spokeswoman Leigh Perry Herndon.
The health careers academy's vocational nature might also have kept it from leaving the drawing board. While the chamber and its members want to build "employable" job applicants fast, teachers and activists want to make sure the students are getting other kinds of education, too-and they want to make sure nobody's getting zipped into a career track too fast. New vocational schools may fill short-term needs, but they also sacrifice meritocracy, says Carolyn Akers, executive director of the nonprofit Mobile Area Education Foundation.
Plans like that could shake education activist Haycock's confidence that what's economically right and what's morally right really are the same. But Akers says she'd rather work hard to fill both long- and short-term needs than give up on either.
Others say that a choice is necessary. "The ugly truth is that we cannot do everything," Frederick Hess and Andrew Rotherham-of the American Enterprise Institute and Education Sector, respectively-write in a recent paper. For instance, while the No Child Left Behind law preaches equity, focusing on helping children like Lawrenesha and her peers, another set of bills, called the American Competitiveness Initiative, would focus on more immediate needs, like training more engineers. Congress, Hess and Rotherham write, most likely will only find the money to back one-not both-and so far, NCLB appears to be winning.
Indeed, even the CEOs who sign on to the excellence bandwagon start to sound different when they get into immediate needs. Prudential's Ryan, for instance, doesn't really need a surge in the number of doctors and lawyers. He needs smarter call-center workers.
Admittedly, answering phones is not the future Jackson imagines for her Brazier students, even though, as Ryan points out, working at a call center requires more brains than ever. Whether the long- or short-term vision prevails, this business-driven momentum for public education reform seems unlikely to yield soon. There is, however, one data point those CEOs may not be able to control: what Lawrenesha wants to be. And she wants to be a teacher.
This story appears in the May 7, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.