"Some of My Best Friends Are PR Folks, But..." By William L. Bainbridge. School and College. March 1993.


By William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
President & CEO, SchoolMatch

Education change agents from Maine to Hawaii were genuinely excited when government and business leaders began to show an interest in elementary and secondary education a few years ago. The Business Roundtable, National Alliance for Business, Conference Board, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Federal Administration and Governors in nearly every state vowed to roll up their sleeves and get to work on school reform.

The Conference Board boldly published a research report entitled, "Business Leadership: The Third Wave of Education Reform". The Bush Administration announced its "America 2000" plan with companion state level programs in an unusually bipartisan effort with state level politicians including then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced its "Center for Workforce Preparation and Quality Education". Under the leadership of IBM Chairman John Akers, the Business Roundtable recruited President Bush (in June of 1989) to address its first annual meeting on a single topic. The President challenged the assembled CEOs to move beyond traditional philanthropic activities on behalf of schools and to start working for basic structural changes in American public education.

National education goals were developed, distributed and initiated at considerable expense. The New American Schools Development Corporation was formed, and I was pleased to serve as a panel leader in judging proposals submitted by educators and private sector consultants nationwide. An "historic change" was announced in the development of voluntary "world-class standards" for what all students should learn.

Early warning signs that reform was not going to move productively and substantively began appearing shortly after the launch:

When the current reform process began, my colleague Steve Sundre and I were invited to speak at or attend meetings of various groups. Soon in the process we recognized the majority of participants had something in common - a background in journalism or public relations. While we have a great deal of respect for people in these fields, we were frustrated that both the corporate and school leaders presumed assignments in the school/business partnership arena should be delegated to the community relations function. In a nutshell, we saw focus on "fluff & puff" rather than operational improvement.

Turf issues between the corporate groups surfaced early. Corporations represented on the board of the New American Schools Development Corporation were principally of the "Fortune 100" type. Noticeably absent were successful firms started recently by entrepreneurial geniuses. Where were the folks from Microsoft, The Limited, Nike, and other cutting-edge and successful businesses? Does anyone know more about successful business than Bill Gates, Les Wexner or Phil Knight? These individuals obviously know how to build a workforce that produces innovation as the basis of sustained success.

Our work with corporate human resource departments led to another surprising discovery. Although the CEOs profess to be concerned about workforce issues, we found that most corporate employment managers were not even consulted in a process which would have logically tied strategic staffing objectives of the company to school/ business partnership. In general, there seems to be a large void of information regarding what schools can do to help with specific future employment needs.

When corporations are faced with performance problems they frequently tackle sticky employee relations and job security issues. Our American public school system remains one of the world's largest socialistic enterprises. Professionals are employed on the same salary schedule regardless of the market for their specialty. Compensation is based upon seniority and education level alone - not productivity. Few or no opportunities for advancement are provided. Jobs are created with little diversity from year to year. Incompetent and ineffective employees are granted tenure which translates to lifetime security. The business leaders and politicians seem unwilling to even make recommendations about structural change. The focus seems to be upon changing the curriculum or equipment needs with little thought given to human resource issues.

The most prominent business contribution to date seems to be a plethora of "adopt-a-school" programs, a concept which often violates the basic premise of equal educational opportunity. In most cases, young people are at the mercy of their assigned schools "adopted" business partner for program enhancements. If students are fortunate enough to attend a school with a business partner in their area of interest, the partnership can work very well. Opportunities are frequently denied to students by an emerging network of inequality relating school assignment to one business focus. Efforts to link student interests to business partners appear to be overridden by geographic convenience rather than related to student needs or career goals.

Moreover, the vast majority of school/business partnerships lack an effective evaluation component. Regretfully, when all is said and done, more is said than done. If businesses really want to bring their know-how and resources to bear upon improving the schools, many changes in the approach are in order. The public relations focus is destined to produce little in the way of substantive change. A "business plan" including accountability and measurement of results is sorely needed.


Dr. Bainbridge heads SchoolMatch, a Columbus, OH, research firm assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.