Education for Work
©2000 David Lapinsky

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Tracking: preparation for the world of work?

What business does business have in public education? This paper will explore one facet of this question as it looks at the controversy that has surfaced over the influence of business on what is taught in the public schools. Recent trends have seen a dramatic increase in the number of business-education partnerships that have been heightened by the private sector's concern that educational systems, in isolation, cannot produce a motivated, skilled and self-directed workforce. Faced with a shortage of workers who can function in an increasingly technical workforce, businesses have joined forces with educators to develop partnerships to help prepare students for the transition from school to work. Many of these partnerships have resulted in business influencing what is taught in the schools. While some welcome the involvement of the private sector in public education, others see it as an unnecessary intrusion that infringes on local control of the schools and is an attempt by employers to train workers for jobs in the local labor market. This paper will examine the controversy caused by the school-to-work educational reform movement that requires business and industry involvement in public education.

Background of the Controversy

Businesses and public schools have been involved with each other since the late 1800's. For over 100 years, education has been shaped to fit the needs of business. For example, during the industrial revolution, public education was designed to produce a factory ready, disciplined workforce (Spring, 1972). The most powerful criticism of public education often came from businessmen and industrialists who contended that the instructional programs taught in the schools were not useful in daily life nor did they contribute to success in further occupations (Law, Knuth, and Bergman, 1992). The rift between business and education continues today. When asked whether our nation's public schools do a good job preparing students for the world of work, only 4 percent of business leaders in a 1995 survey said yes, compared with 44 percent of high school teachers and 68 percent of school superintendents (Olson, 1997). Educators, meanwhile, resent being blamed for problems beyond their control and point to the fact employers pay little attention to measurements of school performance when making hiring decisions (EQW Report, 1995).

Although there appears to be a continuing disconnect between the nation's schools and its businesses, partnerships between the two have been formed. Initially, educational partnerships were created by the school system to foster school-community cooperation, provide incentives for students, and supplement curriculum and staff (Clark, 1992). Business gains from these relationships were primarily in improved public relations and enhanced community image. However, economic conditions beginning in the 1970's and continuing through the 1990's changed the type and nature of business/education partnerships.

During the 1970's America's business and industry lost major market share of U. S. products to Asian and European companies. As a result, many high wage jobs were lost to foreign competition. U. S. companies were forced to restructure. During the 1980's, industry downsizing continued. It became very apparent during this period of restructuring that the future success of America's business and industry would ultimately depend upon the competitiveness of its workforce.

At the same time that seismic changes were taking place in the U. S. economy, several national reports were released that chronicled a crisis in public education (Perkinson, 1995). Reports such as The Forgotten Half. Non-College Youth in America; A Nation at Ris ; and America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages compared U. S. schools to the efforts of other industrialized nations. The reports concluded that U. S. public schools were not doing a good job preparing young people for careers and adulthood. By the early 1990's, no fewer than 20 reports had been published that also brought to light the fact that the United States was the only advanced nation that did not have a comprehensive formal system designed to help students prepare for and enter the workforce (Olson, 1997).

Faced with a dearth of discouraging reports about our nation's schools, in the late 80's and early 90's Congress passed several pieces of legislation that made workforce development a priority. The School-To-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 was perhaps the most far-reaching piece of legislation as it established a national framework for states to create a school to work system. This Act, which built upon earlier workforce development legislation, provided federal funds to encourage partnerships between parents, secondary and post-secondary education, business and industry, and other "stakeholders" of the public schools to collaborate on a local level to develop a comprehensive (K-12) school-to-work transition system.

Motivated by the national reports and various pieces of workforce development legislation, business/education partnerships increased in numbers. For example, between 1983-1984 and 1990-91, the number of business/education partnerships rose from 42,200 to 140,800 (Lankard, 1995) The type and nature of the partnerships varied depending upon the need the partnership was created to serve. Traditionally, business was the benefactor and the school the beneficiary. Business' involvement in such traditional partnerships was typically philanthropically inspired, but was at times attached to long term goals that reflected self-interest - a better prepared entry-level workforce (Lankard, 1995).

Business/Education partnerships, as mentioned previously, vary from community to community. In some communities they involve multiple partners, while in others these are one-to-one partnerships. These one-to-one partnerships are typically created to resolve the more immediate, and long term, needs of a given business or company. For example, this author is aware of a one-to-one partnership between the largest employer in the "Northern Tier" of Northeastern Pennsylvania (Proctor & Gamble) and the local school district. One of the main objectives of this partnership is to provide Proctor & Gamble with entry level workers who are better prepared to work in their company. The intent of the company is to have a better-prepared workforce which would reduce training costs, increase productivity, and improve products and services.

Whether the business/education partnership involves multiple partners or is a one-to-one partnership, the end result is that the business community will have some influence on what is being taught in the public schools. When businesses engage in collaborative partnerships, the possibility exists that they are involved in the partnership for benefits that affect their operation, productivity and profit line. The controversy this paper will explore is the question of what role, if any, should business play in determining what is taught in public schools.

Definition of Terms

School-To-Work programs, also known as School-To-Career programs, require local partnerships between the stakeholders of the community to collaborate in developing and implementing a school-to-work transition system. The stakeholders of the community include parents, secondary and post-secondary education, business and industry, labor and trade associations, community-based organizations and government. For the purpose of this paper, this author will deal specifically with business/education partnerships. The terms business and business community in this paper will include those businesses and industries in the private sector who are engaged in commercial ventures.

Although there are many different school-to-work strategies and programs in existence, for the purpose of this paper school-to-work programs include three basic components: school based learning; work-based learning and activities connecting the two. School-based learning structures the educational experience so that students learn how academic subjects relate to the world of work. For example, teachers could work together with employers to develop curriculum that help students understand the skills needed in the workplace. Work-based learning strategies include, for example, a planned program for students to investigate through job shadowing local businesses and industries to familiarize themselves with jobs and work environments. Connecting activities form the linkage between education and the business community. For example, a connecting activity could be a summer internship for teachers at a local business.

The school-to-work movement is a national educational reform initiative that is sanctioned by the federal government. The U. S. Departments of Education and Labor jointly run the National School-To-Work Office. As of January 1997, over $700 million has been awarded to help states implement school-to-work programs (Chuong-Dia 1997).

Analysis of the Controversy

According to Clabaugh and Rozycki (1997), the first question to ask when analyzing a controversy is to determine whether or not the dispute is ftindamental. That is, when faced with the yes or no question would the partners in disagreement take opposite sides? The involvement and influence of the business community in public education is a topic that produces much debate between two opposing parties. There is one group that believes the productivity of American businesses is intrinsically linked to the success of the nation's schools and the educational attaininent of its students and workers. Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker wrote in their book "Thinking for a Living" that if the U. S. is to compete economically with other industrialized nations, the country's educational system must be reformed by developing a program to prepare students to take on tasks in the restructured workplace (Marshall and Tucker, 1992). And the way to prepare students for the workplace, according to Marshall and Tucker, is to involve business in the educational process.

The group that opposes business involvement in education criticizes those who wish to reform education in order to improve national economic competitiveness. This approach, according to Peter Shaw who wrote an article published in the January 18, 1993 edition of the National Review, ignores the "civilizing mission" of education. Shaw contends that rather than teaching students skills specifically for the workplace, the education system should focus on the basics - reading, writing and arithmetic - which would contribute to a civilized society by producing "citizens capable of thinking on their own." The obvious differences between the two aforementioned groups make this issue a ftindamental controversy.

The controversy regarding the influence of business in public education as the result of the School-To-Work movement involves both a social policy issue and a moral issue. As mentioned previously, the social policy issue relates to the involvement of business in determining what is taught to students, which is somewhat sanctioned by the passage of the School-To-Work Opportunities Act. The moral issue involves the principle of benefit maximization. That is, can we justify business influencing what is taught to students in public education so long as the results benefit the American economy?

The School-To-Work Opportunities Act was developed in response to several national reports that reported too many students leave high school without the occupational and academic skills to succeed in the workplace or in post-secondary education. Federal funding was provided to encourage the development of educational programs that made the transition to work easier. The assumption behind this policy is that business and industry will benefit from a more educated workforce and this in turn will benefit the American society by allowing us to compete in the global economy. The functionalist theory supports the involvement of business in education due to the need created by a changing economic and social world (Feinberg, 1992). The argument expressed by the functionalist in this controversy is that business influence in education is justified because it is necessary to make systemic change in education policies. If the survival needs of our society, from an economical standpoint, require business involvement in the educational process, so be it. Critics of school-to-work programs would argue that business influence in education would force schools to cater to an industry's needs for workers, thereby limiting student's educational options too early. Proponents of this argument would disagree with the functionalist theory in that the national policies adopted that sanction business influence in education reflect dangerous and potentially expensive state and federal intrusion into education.

Proponents of school-to-work programs contend that business involvement in what is taught in the schools will result in a better-educated student who will become intrinsically motivated to succeed in the workplace. There are several concerns related to this assumption. First, it is assumed that the educational system bears the sole responsibility for providing the individual with the skills necessary to succeed in the workforce. As Rozycki indicates in his diagram "From School To Work: A Tenuous Relationship" (Rozycki, 2000), there are a number of external factors that impact on the journey ftom school to work. By addressing only the educational influence on the individual, the school-to-work program does not take into account other factors that play a role in this scenario.

The conflict theorist would argue that business influence on what is taught in public schools is an example of the struggle between different groups to hold power and status. From the point of view of the conflict theorist, the school-to-work movement is a smoke screen being used by the dominant privileged class (business and industry) to control education for their own selfish interest. To examine this argument in greater detail, one could ask the question for who is school-to-work for? Initially the focus was on the non-college bound student - students who did not intend to continue their education after high school. Based on this fact the conflict theorist would argue that a certain class of students are being identified and trained in the public schools to work for the elite class in routine and monotonous jobs in business and industry.

Robert Holland (1997), a critic of the school-to-work movement, writes that this movement "attempts to steer children into slots deemed in the interest of regional labor market and economic development needs and deprives students of a chance to realize their dreams and achieve their highest potential." Holland further states that School-To-Work will have the "most severe impact on minority youngsters who will be taught that they should not aspire to loftier goals than cleaning tables or toting luggage for the elite." Holland's views on School-To-Work would be supported by the conflict theorist.

Concerns about business influence on the curriculum have also surfaced at the university level. Elizabeth Greene, a sociologist, writes that "universities have become glorified employment agencies, churning out people who can meet the immediate needs of corporate America but are poorly equipped to think for themselves."

It appears to this author that one of the critical issues of the controversy is what kind of education best prepares a person for the world of work? Feinberg and Soltis (1998) use the case "Education for Work" (pages 124-145) to shed some light on this issue. "A" argues that a good liberal arts college education prepares individuals to think and articulate ideas -just what businesses want. "B" on the other hand, argues that it isn't necessary to have a four-year college degree in order to think and be an articulate person. A college education, according to "B" is just another social-class barrier for those who come from a low socioeconomic background and can't afford college. The functionalist would agree with "A"; the conflict theorist would agree with "B".

The moral controversy that arises in permitting businesses to influence education through their involvement in school-to-work programs questions whether we can arbitrarily assign "all" students a curriculum to study. In this case, the proponents of School-To-Work programs support teaching skills to students that will enhance their readiness for the workforce. Examples of these "skills" would include teaching applied academics, which integrates academic and occupational learning, integrating employability skills across the curriculum, and providing work site experiences that would include job shadowing and mentoring activities. A principle to be used in justifying arbitrarily assigning the aforementioned skills as part of the high school curriculum is the principle of benefit maximization. This principle of maximization requires that we look at the controversy in terms of the maximization of some good (Strike, Haller, Soltis, 1988). In this case by requiring all students to receive compulsory training that would better prepare them for the workforce, would in turn provide an even larger benefit to society because business and industry would prosper in the global economy. In effect the rights of some (the students) would be traded for the welfare of the others (business and industry).

One could argue, however, that school-to-work programs drastically narrow the curriculum, making it less likely that schools will produce literate, well-rounded generalists who can cope with rapid change in civil life as well as the workforce (Holland, 1997). Mandating that "all" students be exposed to an education that is influenced by the skills needed by the workplace is contradictory to the principle of equal respect. In this case, there is no consideration for the dignity and worth of the students. Shouldn't the decision to participate in a school-to-work program be optional and not a condition of universal education? Will some students suffer because participation in school-to-work programs will take them away from time utilized in school to learn the "basics"? When discussing the principle of equal respect in The Ethics of School Administration (1995), Strike, Haller, and Soltis indicate "we must attach a high priority to enabling people to decide responsibility and we should not treat people as ends rather than means." Is the school-to-work initiative a means for the business community to influence curriculum for its own selfish purposes?


In the research conducted for this paper the author was surprised at the number of organizations that were established to promote and encourage, in one way or another, business involvement in the educational system. Many of these organizations used slogans to express their position on what goal they wanted to accomplish as a result of their business/education partnership. Slogans are vague statements that typically are used to express positions or goals, which potentially conceal conflict while promoting broad but only shallow consensus (Clabaugh and Rozycki, 1997). An example of a slogan related to this paper is one from the National Employer Leadership Council (hU:// On their "home page" it states that "highachieving, well-educated, dependable, motivated students are more likely to become the professionals that employers need to meet business challenges". Who could disagree with that statement? However, on closer inspection, what does it mean? What is their definition of a high-achieving or well-educated student? Does the slogan infer that educators should train students to become "professionals" because only they can help employers to meet business challenges?

At the beginning of this paper this author asked the question what business does business have in education. There appears to be no clear cut answer to this question because business influence on what is taught in the public schools varies from one school district to the next. The amount of influence business has in one district compared to another is usually based upon political, socioeconomic and other factors that lead to a strong or weak business/education partnership.

It will be interesting to see if the school-to-work movement will continue to pick up steam or fizzle out like many previous educational reform initiatives. No doubt, business and industry have a genuine concern about their need to have an educated workforce. Local school boards will be faced with difficult decisions related to how much influence business should have on what is taught in the public schools. These decisions need to take into consideration the mission of the school and how the curriculum changes advocated by proponents of school-towork will benefit the students.


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