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Critical Issue: Working in Partnership with Business, Labor, and the Community

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ISSUE: Effective school-to-work programs are based on strong partnerships between local schools and businesses. These partnerships are essential to broadening and enriching the learning community for both students and instructors. Schools must do all they can to prepare all students for successful and rewarding employment after they complete their education.

Picture of Joe D'AmicoJoe D'Amico, associate director of the Center for Scaling Up, NCREL, and one of the hosts of NCREL's Rural Audio Journal, defines the term school-to-work. [315k QuickTime slide show] Excerpted from NCREL's Rural Audio Journal (Vol. 2, No. 3), From School to Work--and Back Again: Apprenticeships for Rural Students (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994). A text version is available.

OVERVIEW: During the past decade, the emergence of a global marketplace and the use of new technologies in the workplace have dramatically changed the skills needed to make U.S. businesses competitive and productive (see Carnevale, 1992; Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills [SCANS], 1991). In addition, research in the cognitive sciences has produced new insights into how people learn most effectively both in school and at work (Berryman & Bailey, 1992; Resnick, 1987). School programs--including school-to-work programs--that reflect indicators of meaningful, engaged learning have great potential for preparing all youth with the competencies they will need in pursuing their careers.

As Berryman and Bailey (1992) state:

"Economic and educational institutions face virtually the same challenge. That challenge is to organize their activities, whether learning or production, to capture the power of the fact that human beings are naturally sense-making, problem-solving, and environmentally interactive. This means that educators and employers have to reconceptualize human potential, thought, and action." (p. 12)

These developments have fundamentally altered how schools and businesses interact. School curricula must be adjusted to reflect the skills that every student will need to enjoy satisfying, productive employment experiences and to face the challenges in the workplace. Schools need to have real-world settings through which students can develop and pursue meaningful career and education plans after high school. Teachers are finding that school-to-work transition programs are transforming K-12 classrooms; teachers must now integrate academic skills with those required for successful employment.

By working closely with schools, businesses can ensure that future members of the workforce are well-prepared to function in high-performance workplaces--environments that demand teamwork, problem-solving, and complex reasoning skills. Gone are the days when educators relied on local businesses merely to donate funds for school needs or to participate on an occasional advisory committee. Some of the ways businesses work directly with students are career talks, job shadowing, mentoring and apprenticeship programs. Through such activities, elementary and secondary students are exposed to a variety of careers and the education and training required to pursue them. Employers also are supporting the work of teachers through advisement in a variety of areas, such as technology and industry standards, curriculum development efforts, and working directly with teachers as mentors and consultants. The project-based learning and entrepreneurial projects made available through business-education partnerships are wonderful examples of meaningful, engaged learning.

Picture of Linda CateLinda Cate, director of the Bureau for Vocational Education at the Wisconsin Department of Instruction, talks about the importance of building relationships between business and education. [120k audio file] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #7, Preparing Students for Work in the 21st Century (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text version is available.

Goal six of the National Education Goals underscores the importance of this new business-education relationship for today's workplace: "By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy" (Goals 2000, Sec. 102[6]). One of the major objectives of this goal is that "every major American business will be involved in strengthening the connection between education and work" (Goals 2000, Sec. 102[6][B][i]). The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 reinforces and extends the commitment to collaboration and partnerships between schools and businesses. The Act makes funds available to local partnerships of employers and educators to undertake the development of systems involving school-based learningactivities and work-based learning activities as well as connecting activities. Viable connecting activities, such as developing industry-based career pathways for students, are among the many essential efforts that must be led by partnerships. A number of major companies were active in developing the employer participation model, a useful tool for defining roles and opportunities for educational partnerships.

The National Alliance of Business (1987) suggests that effective and comprehensive partnerships should be formed at local and state levels. This organization recommends that education-business-community partnerships take place in several areas: (1) policy, (2) systemic educational improvement, (3) management, (4) professional development, (5) the classroom, and (6) special services. The National Alliance of Business is involved in a number of school-to-work projects with varying focuses. Some involve training business leaders to develop school-to-work programs; others involve recruiting businesses for programs to meet the needs of students.

Successful school-business partnerships require planning and monitoring to meet the specific goals decided on for the partnership program. Recruitment of interested businesses is a key part of the process. Many educators have found that it is necessary to interact and work with the business community outside of the school setting to develop relationships conducive to business partnerships. Working with local service groups and chambers of commerce are two examples of this outreach. Initiating activities in East San Gabriel Valley, California, are an example of what can be done with this approach to recruitment. Partnership-specific questions were included in a community survey sent by local chambers of commerce to 12,000 companies. The result was 25 to 30 new partnerships and thousands of contacts for the schools. More than 300 students participated in the first phase of this partnership program; of these students, 175 went on to continue their academic education and 105 others were placed in jobs with partner organizations.

Whatever the focus of the program, the members of an educational partnership must agree on the project's goals and expectations. A committee comprising representatives from the community, education, and business working together to develop projects will help ensure the project's success. The inclusion of women and minority entrepreneurs, business leaders, and organized labor is essential in achieving diversity and equity in education-business partnerships. After committee membership is decided, the next step might be conducting a needs assessment. The assessment is valuable in identifying areas needing improvement, building a relationship and deeper understanding of the issues among those involved, and developing a commitment to the success of the project. This commitment and shared vision will lead to the growth and strengthening of the partnership.

Once partnerships are established, they require ongoing monitoring and support to ensure the success of the program. Some important considerations based on promising practices in educational partnerships are: ensuring all participants understand their roles and responsibilities, providing ongoing support for participants involved in the partnership, integrating goals with the responsibilities of the administering organization, and addressing issues identified as real problems. Staff development, for both teachers and community partners, is important in the implementation of project activities. It can be a time for the entire group to learn together, develop collegial strategies, determine project services, and develop plans to meet students needs. This mutual understanding of roles and expertise can help strengthen the partnership. Providing continual support is one of the most important contributing factors in ensuring the success of the partnership program.

In addition to providing support, evaluating the success of the program also is important. As the partnership develops, it should be assessed at predetermined intervals to ensure it is meeting its goals and defuse any problems that may arise. The benefits to the school, to the community, and most important to the students make business-education partnerships a valuable and increasingly important part of the educational process.

GOALS: School districts increasingly are characterizing their mission as a partnership with businesses and the community, with the goal of preparing students to live in a technology-rich, rapidly changing world. An effective school-to-work partnership is a continuing collaborative arrangement that serves the mutual needs of educators, business leaders, and students.

These partnerships strengthen teaching and learning through the following ways:

Picture of Charles Law, Jr.Charles Law, Jr., education and work consultant in Raleigh, North Carolina, talks about how business and education partnerships are beneficial for all involved. [284k audio file] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #7, Preparing Students for Work in the 21st Century (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text version is available.

ACTION OPTIONS: Beginning with exploratory and awareness-building activities, teams of educators (including administrators, teachers, and counselors) can take the following steps to establish and manage successful school-business-community partnerships:

Audio Item: No Photo AvailableAlan Phelps, director of the Center on Education and Work and professor of educational administration and vocational education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, talks about the importance of bringing education and business leaders together to discuss the knowledge and skills that students will need when they enter the workforce. [386k audio file] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #7, Preparing Students for Work in the 21st Century (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text version is available.

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: The recent experiences of several communities point to the complex problems encountered in building partnerships. For education-business partnerships to be effective and enduring, participants must have a shared understanding of critical problems (e.g., the need to produce graduates with new skills) as well as a shared vision of the future and a strong belief that problems can be resolved by working together. It is essential to develop a charter that outlines these understandings and to establish a viable intermediary organization that provides neutral ground on which education and business leaders can build trust and work as full partners.

Some teachers, counselors, and parents think that college is the best and only "track" for students. This attitude may place unrealistic demands on partnerships from the business point of view. Schools may assume that businesses are wholly self-serving and may be skeptical about the motives of each business. Such attitudes and assumptions point to the necessity of having not only a shared vision of the future but also an operational understanding of the roles and responsibilities of schools and businesses in regard to learning for students in school-to-work programs.

Educators who have not had extensive experience outside of education may have difficulty understanding the changes taking place in the workplace and the implications for education. For example, as computing technologies become more widely used, all students need to learn keyboarding and information-processing skills. Business representatives, on the other hand, often fail to understand what schools can realistically accomplish with limited budgets and the increasing diversity of students (e.g., those considered at-risk).

In some communities, educators from various schools and postsecondary institutions have deluged certain businesses with requests for involvement, thereby creating confusion and fragmented efforts. Business leaders appreciate a coordinated exchange of information with local educators. Resource directories, for example, can greatly enhance communications between schools and businesses.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some educators believe the business community should not be involved heavily in the educational enterprise. Much of their opposition can be traced to some long-standing suspicions regarding the objectives they surmise underlie businesses' interest in this involvement. They are fearful that if too involved, businesses will begin pushing education to become focused exclusively on labor-force training, thus driving it to de-emphasize or eliminate many of its broad liberal arts objectives. To some extent, this can be a valid concern: For example, there are few school-to-work programs that include arts education, foreign language education, or the humanities.

To add to these educators' discomfort is the fact that school-to-work programs traditionally have focused their objectives on the acquisition of a fairly specific set of workplace skills. These skills, of course, vary depending on the occupational focus of the school-to-work program; but, for the most part, the school-to-work skills largely were derived from lists generated by the business community. Moreover, these skills often were ones associated with nonmanagerial, assembly-line type jobs. Despite the fact that many of these jobs called for high levels of very specialized skills and carried with them fairly high hourly wages, they were narrow in focus. More important, they tended to stress only occupational skills immediately needed by the businesses--not necessarily ones that students could use for career advancement.

From the private-sector perspective, many in the business community believe that schools have not accomplished one of their primary goals: to help develop a skilled American workforce. They point to declining test scores, accelerating illiteracy rates, and large numbers of dropouts even as they see local taxes rise year after year. More significant, they count up the millions of dollars they spend each year training their entry-level workers--most of whom hold valid high school diplomas--on the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and interpersonal relations in order to make them minimally functional as employees.

Many in the business community look with alarm at the statistics of public school failures. They view the world in terms of a bottom line--both their own and the schools--and do not see much of a return on investment. They focus on efficiency and effectiveness and conclude there are two logical ways to ensure they get out of public education what they put in, in terms of taxes: Either discontinue support (which many have done by moving operations out of the country), or play a strong hand in running the local schools (which they really are not geared up to do because they lack the skills, experience, organizational will, and personnel to do so properly).

Finally, the reviews truly are mixed where businesses have joined forces with the schools. In some cases the relationship proves of value to both parties, but in many cases it simply does not work. Expectations are too high, the level of partnership is unequal, the political environment in which schools must operate burns out the business partner, mutual mistrust of motives surfaces, and so forth. These partnership failures are not as frequent as they once were, but they still happen. And each time a school-business partnership falters, it tends to reinforce both the business community's and the educators' negative biases toward forging links with each other.



Center for Workforce Preparation
U.S. Chamber of Commerce
1615 H St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20062-2000
(202) 463-5525; fax (202) 463-5730
Contact: Michelle Griffin

Center on Education and Work
University of Wisconsin-Madison
964 Educational Sciences Building
1025 W. Johnson St.
Madison, WI 53706-1796
(608) 263-2714; fax (608) 262-9197

National Association of Industry-Education Cooperation
235 Hendricks Blvd.
Buffalo, NY 14226-3304
(716) 834-7047; fax (716) 834-7047
Contact: Donald M. Clark, President

Training Technology Resource Center (TTRC)
U.S. Department of Labor
Employment and Training Administration
200 Constitution Ave., Room N6507
Washington, DC 20210
(202) 219-5600 or (800) 488-0901; fax (202) 219-4858
Contact: Brian F. Shea, Director

References ButtonReferences

This Critical Issue was researched and written by Kathleen Paris, director of the Leadership Institute for School-to-Work Transition, Center on Education and Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Date posted: 1997
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