A New Business Agenda for Improving U.S. Schools
A decade of business involvement in public education has produced some sobering lessons-and a renewed commitment to change.
For more than a decade, since the report A Nation at Risk warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in our public schools, members of the U.S business community have been actively engaged in multiple efforts to improve public education. We have served on blue-ribbon policy commissions; hosted summits with political leaders; and convened national, state, and local task forces. We have advocated higher academic standards and more challenging tests. We are funding New American Schools, a multiyear effort that has developed seven innovative approaches for transforming local education systems. We have participated in hundreds of business-education partnerships, mentored thousands of students, and served as teachers and principals for a day. We have donated computers, volunteered in classrooms, and given parents time off to attend teacher conferences. Many of us have opened our companies to give teachers and principals a firsthand look at the new world of work.
The good news from all these efforts is that we have seen some progress. More students are doing better than they were a decade or two ago. The bad news is that they-and we-are not performing nearly well enough to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
During the past decade of increased involvement with the schools, we have learned some lessons about what works and what does not, and about how we can work more effectively in the future. Primarily, we have learned three lessons:
- Improvements must be comprehensive and address all parts of the education system, from public policies to classroom practices.
- Improvement must start with the development of challenging, rigorous standards, coupled with a system of testing that gives insight into how well we are doing and how we can improve, and that holds students, educators, and the community at large accountable for results.
- Better public policies are not enough. Companies and other institutions outside the schools need to provide real-world incentives for students to work hard and do well in class.
It has become commonplace to bemoan the failures of the U.S. K-12 education system, and there is ample data to support this view. Fewer than half of U.S. adults have the literacy skills to "compete successfully in the global economy or exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship," according to the 1994 National Education Goals Report. Only 25 percent of fourth-graders, 28 percent of eighth-graders, and 37 percent of 12th-graders reach or exceed a proficient level in reading. Further, only 18 percent of fourth-graders, 25 percent of eighth-graders, and 16 percent of 12th-graders reach or exceed a proficient level in math. Only 71 percent of all students entering ninth grade graduate four years later, and less than half of students in urban schools graduate in four years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
So how can the United States have the finest college-level education system in the world and at the same time have a K-12 system that is often mediocre or worse? The answer is the same as the answer to the question, "How can you drown in a stream with an average depth of six inches?"
Our best still rank with the very best on Earth, with world-class abilities in subjects ranging from computer science to calculus and from ethics to microbiology. Such is the pace of the advancement of knowledge that it is not unusual to walk through a high-school science fair today and find a project that demonstrates a scientific principle Noble Prize winners struggled with only a few years earlier.
The problem is that most U.S. schools are not good enough to prepare students for the new challenges that await them when they graduate from high school. Many of the graduates we see today fall far short of world-class level. More and more are simply ill-prepared, not just for jobs and careers but also for the basics of survival in the 21st century. We see less consistency and more polarization across the spectrum, with ominous implications for the future of our country and its citizenry as America's great strength-its middle class-becomes bifurcated.
Perhaps these examples would be less disconcerting if the economy of the United States were still based on an early industrial model, where hard work, a strong back, and common sense could secure a decent job for even an illiterate person. But today's economy is unforgiving. As Peter Lynch, the prominent Wall Street money manager, recently observed, "Twenty years ago, you could get a job if you were a dropout. You could work a lathe, or you could work a press. Those jobs are gone now."
Unfortunately, many of those who do graduate from high school arrive at the doors of industry unable to write a proper business letter, fill out simple forms, read instruction manuals, do essential mathematical calculations, or understand basic scientific concepts. Given that today's economy is defined by constantly evolving technology, falling behind is a recipe for disaster. Countries that do not lead will be more than economically disadvantaged; they will be economically irrelevant, just as many underdeveloped countries are today.
A new strategy for business
In trying to help educators deal with this crisis, business has used numerous strategies. They are aptly described in a recent Conference Board report, which discusses four waves of business involvement in school reform. First came individual school partnerships, adopt-a-school programs, and similar stand-alone efforts. Next came the transfer of management principles such as total quality management to schools. Then came a period when business advocated a range of solutions, including school choice and higher academic standards, but these were often seen as quick-fix, silver bullets that were not connected to the larger issue of changing whole systems. Finally, the fourth wave, where we are now, involves abandoning ad hoc programs and addressing all the many interrelated aspects of the education system, from public policies to classroom practices.
In pursuit of comprehensive reform, the Business Roundtable published a nine-point agenda in 1990 that committed our more than 200 corporate members to a 10-year state-by-state transformation of our schools. This agenda was updated in May 1995. The revised agenda, called Continuing the Commitment: Essential Components of a Successful Education System, is the equivalent of a business improving its products and services through a process of continuous quality improvement. It is an agenda for change based on the fundamental belief that all children can and must learn at ever-higher levels.
The nine components are:
- Standards. A successful system expects high academic standards that prepare students for success in school, in the workplace, and in life.
- Performance and assessment. A successful system focuses on results, measuring and reporting student and system performance so that students, teachers, parents, and the public can understand and act on the information.
- School accountability. A successful system assists schools that are struggling to improve, rewards exemplary schools, and penalizes schools that persistently fail to educate their students.
- School autonomy. A successful system gives individual schools the freedom of action and resources necessary for high performance and true accountability.
- Professional development. A successful system insists on continuous learning for teachers and administrators that is focused on improving teaching, learning, and school management.
- Parent involvement. A successful system enables parents to support the learning process, influence schools, and make choices about their children's education.
- Learning readiness. A successful system provides high-quality pre-kindergarten education for disadvantaged children. It also seeks the help of other public and private agencies to overcome learning barriers caused by poverty, neglect, violence, or ill-health for students of all ages.
- Technology. A successful system uses technology to broaden access to knowledge and to improve learning and productivity.
- Safety and discipline. A successful system provides a safe, well-disciplined, and caring environment for student learning.
This is not an a la carte menu, but nine interacting components that are a comprehensive and integrated whole. Leaving any one of them out of a reform agenda will sharply reduce the chances of success.
Focus on standards
The second lesson we have learned is that high academic standards must be the starting place and centerpiece of our comprehensive approach. Standards set the expectations for performance against which progress can be measured. They are the equivalent of corporate goals. Lou Gerstner, chairman and chief executive officer of IBM and a Business Roundtable member, recently observed, ""Standards are the sine qua non of virtually every human endeavor. I have to confess I find the whole [issue of K-12 standards] baffling. In virtually everything else we do, we set high standards and strive to be No. 1. Why not in education? In basketball, you score when the ball goes in the hoop, not when it hits the rim. In track and field, you must jump over the bar, not go under or around it." The only way we can ensure that the skills of our young people will keep pace with the rapidly advancing, technology-based world marketplace is by setting standards for our schools, putting in place the processes to meet those standards, and then testing to ensure that the standards are in fact being met.
The recent release of a study of classroom practices and student achievement in 41 countries, including the United States, underscores the central importance of raising our expectations about what U.S. students must know and be able do. The Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) found that U.S. eighth-graders perform slightly above average in science and below average in math. No surprises there; these results are consistent with the performance of U.S. students in previous international comparisons. The significance of the new TIMSS report is its finding that foreign students complete a much more demanding course of studies than U.S. students. The U.S. science and math curriculum tends to be an inch deep and a mile wide; students are expected to know a little bit about a lot of topics. By contrast, their peers in countries such as Japan and England are expected to know a lot about a handful of academic areas deemed essential for success in the 21st century. Perhaps anticipating the TIMSS research, one observer noted a few years ago that "The American K-12 curriculum is overstuffed but undernourished."
Even though our performance in science was better than our performance in math, neither result is good enough to compete in today's high-performance, technology-driven workplace. The study provides ample evidence that our curricula and our expectations for young people are not demanding enough. The encouraging implication of this study is that this is something we can fix, by raising the level of expectations for U.S. academic achievement. Setting higher standards is the mechanism for making this happen.
To date, there is mixed news on the effort to set more rigorous standards. On the positive side, all but two states-Iowa and Wyoming-have taken steps to put in place more challenging standards. Although the standards-setting effort has been advanced through business advocacy at the national level and seeded with some federal funds through the Goals 2000 initiative, the primary work has occurred in the states, which establish regulations and provide a significant share of local school funding.
Less encouraging, however, is that few states have made the simultaneous commitment to develop and put in place high-stakes tests that tie students' performance on these tests to their promotion from grade to grade and to graduation from high school. Maryland, where Lockheed Martin is headquartered, is one fortunate exception to this rule. Already we have seen the benefits of tougher standards and challenging tests that hold students accountable for meeting these new performance goals. In 1996, a few years after the new standards and assessments were introduced, the state reported that 19 of 24 school districts were performing better overall on state tests than in 1995, and that all school districts had improved their scores since 1993. In addition, since 1993, the percentage of students who met one or more standards in grades three, five, and eight has climbed from 31.7 percent to 40.7 percent. Also in 1996, 16 of 24 schools had 40 percent of students at the satisfactory level in the state tests; in 1993, only four did.
Other communities, including New York; Charlotte, N.C.; Milwaukee; Edmonds, Wash., and Beaufort, S.C., also have had encouraging success in using tougher standards as the lever for improved student achievement. The United States, however, has more than 15,000 largely autonomous school districts. The challenge now is to make these successes more the norm and less the exception.
The third important lesson of the recent past is that improved state and local policies are not enough to turn the tide of educational mediocrity. Policies must be coupled with sustained efforts by companies, colleges, and other major institutions in order to send a strong and consistent message to students that their efforts will have a tangible payoff: admission to a quality college or university or the chance to compete for entry-level jobs that could lead to a prosperous future.
To that end, U.S. business leaders made an unprecedented commitment during the March 1996 Education Summit with the nation's governors. "As business leaders, we commit to actively support the work of the Governors to improve student performance and to develop coalitions of other business leaders in our states to expand this support, " according to one statement. "As such we clearly communicate to students, parents, schools, and the community the types and levels of skills necessary to meet the workforce needs of the next century and implement hiring practices within one year that will require applicants to demonstrate academic achievement through school-based records, such as academic transcripts, diplomas, portfolios, certificates of initial mastery, or others as appropriate. We commit to considering the quality of a state's academic standards and student achievement levels as a high priority factor in determining business location decisions."
To follow up on that commitment, in September 1996 The Business Roundtable, the National Alliance of Business, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced a common agenda to help educators and policymakers set tough academic standards that apply to every student in every school; assess student and school-system performance against those standards; and use that information to improve schools and create accountability, including rewards for success and consequences for failure.
In addition, the three organizations agreed to mobilize employers to request information on student achievement in hiring decisions; consider a state's commitment to achieving high academic standards when making business location decisions; and direct their education-related philanthropy toward raising academic standards and improving student achievement.
Employers who make it a regular practice to ask for job candidates' high-school transcripts or other records gain important benefits. When students learn that employers in their areas want employees who can read and write well, solve problems and reason-and want proof of those skills-they begin working harder in school. Employers, as a result, gain access to a larger supply of skilled, capable workers.
Employers can also benefit because transcripts can provide valuable information for hiring decisions. Most transcripts, for example, include the courses students have taken, the grades they received, and their attendance history. Some school records also include participation in school activities and selected standardized test scores.
Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical Company, with 12,000 employees, has been asking applicants for their most recent academic record and spreading the word to schools that they want evidence that entry-level candidates have satisfactorily completed difficult courses in math, science, and English. As a result, the company reports, enrollment in higher-level math and science courses at area schools has increased dramatically in recent years; the failure rate of entry-level employees has hit an industry low; and new employees move through apprenticeship programs with less need for remediation.
Efforts such as these are making a difference. By a number of measures, the state of education is better than it was a decade ago: The country is moving in the right direction. Consider these data from the U.S. Department of Education's Condition of Education 1995:
More students are taking rigorous academic classes. Between 1982 and 1992, the number of high-school graduates who took the recommended core academic courses-four units of English; three of math, science, and social studies; and half a unit of computer science-increased from 13 to 47 percent. Although there is still much room for improvement, there is solid evidence that schools are steering students away from the watered-down courses condemned in A Nation at Risk. Many schools, in fact, are eliminating these classes altogether.
Math and science achievement is up. Between 1982 and 1992, math and science scores for 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress increased 9 and 11 points, respectively, which translates into a one grade-level improvement in achievement.
Achievement on college entrance exams is up slightly. Bit by bit, scores on SAT and ACT exams seem to be inching up. Between 1975 and 1995, verbal scores on the SAT rose from 423 to 428 and math scores increased from 479 to 482. Average composite scores on the ACT test went from 20.6 in 1991 to 20.8 in 1995.
Dropout rates are down. Between 1982 and 1992, the dropout rate declined from 13.9 to 11 percent. For whites, the rate dropped from 11.4 to 7.9 percent; for blacks, from 18.4 to 13.6 percent; and for Hispanics, from 31.7 to 27.5 percent.
But formidable challenges remain. Significant turnover among governors, state legislators, corporate CEOs, and chief state school officers since 1990 requires recruitment of new business and political leadership.
The Rand Corporation's 1994 assessment for the Business Roundtable remains accurate today: "In all states, implementation has just begun. States still need to learn how to establish standards that have concrete meaning in the classroom, develop and fund testing programs that are true to the standards and do not disrupt instruction, align staff development and other school improvement efforts, and assist or develop alternatives to schools that cannot raise their levels of performance. State reform coalitions also have to engage teachers and administrators, especially in the big city school systems that frequently disregard state initiatives."
In addition, our foreign competitors are not standing still. Like us, they know that competition in the marketplace is increasingly "a battle of the classrooms." They are improving their systems as well. As Will Rogers once observed, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." Hence, we need to redouble our commitment to systemic change and accelerate our efforts.
The reform infrastructure is in place. Thanks to efforts by the Business Roundtable and others in the past several years, almost every state now has a broad-based coalition of reform advocates: business, civic, religious, and educational leaders who are keeping the pressure on local school systems to change and, in many cases, providing resources to help them do so. Groups such as the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, the Washington Business Roundtable, the Partnership for Learning in Washington, and the Partnership for Kentucky Reform provide essential continuity in an environment where governors, state legislators, and chief executive officers change regularly.
Our agenda emphasizes the values of hard work and personal responsibility-character, in other words. Persistent effort, combined with initiative and imagination, must guide the lives of students, teachers, and administrators. The business community must demand this level of effort, but we also must support it. We recognize the need to improve the entire system of education. We have no choice but to insist that widespread change occur. And we know that this will take years to accomplish.
U.S. corporations are too often accused of looking at the short-term bottom line. In education, that is demonstrably not the case; we are concerned with the long haul. Educational improvement is not just a high priority for the nation. We see it as nothing less than an issue of our economic, political, and social survival, for with each passing year another class of America's schoolchildren may have been denied the opportunity for a quality life.
Norman R. Augustine is chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corp. and chairman of the Business Roundtable's Education Task Force.