Building Partnerships with Business

by Thomas Furtado


Back in the mid­eighties, I served on a National Commission on Vocational Education created by the U.S. Department of Education. It was a follow­up on the group that had produced A Nation at Risk. We were tasked to look at how vocational education was serving the large numbers of young people who do not go on to college, and how education could improve its efforts in this field. As part of our work we visited many different vocational programs across the country.

One of the most memorable moments of that experience for me was a visit to the Skyline Center in Dallas. At that time it had a national reputation as a high school of the highest quality that required every student to take vocational education. A very high percentage of its graduates went on to the best colleges and universities in the country, but all students had to immerse themselves in projects that taught them the value of creative manual skills.

I remember having lunch with a group of such students during our visit. One of them, a boy with combined SAT's of l550 and an acceptance at Harvard, was telling me about his project. He and several others had spent the past year building a full­size, two­ passenger plane. I will never forget how he summed up that experience: "It was the most exciting and the most stimulating thing that ever happened to me, and it brought together everything I've ever learned at school. I now know what learning is all about."

I have often thought about that meeting and those words. Maybe the reason they had so much meaning for me is how they echoed what I have long believed about education. We have been so obsessed with content instead of process, and we have so often isolated the content in the classroom from the context of adult life, especially the life of work. One of the most important tools needed in adult life is the ability to solve problems. Not the least of the subsets of that skill is relating what we know to a larger context that gives it meaning and relevance.

Most children begin searching for academic relevance to their lives as they move into the middle­school years. That is when many of them begin to question the value of the educational experience. The lucky ones, who love learning for its own sake, aren't deterred when the curriculum doesn't seem relevant. They excel in school anyway, because values and support systems at home have given them the motivation to succeed. Two groups, however, frequently have problems in schools where memorizing and regurgitating data is the norm and ultimately a serious turn­off.

The first group is the obvious one­children who begin to demonstrate deteriorating performance and skills, and become marginal students as they enter middle school. For whatever reasons­home environment, health, poverty­they have fallen behind. Trying to relate what happens in the classroom to what is happening outside the school, they see no connection, no relevance. Why bother?

The second group of affected children may be less obvious to some observers. I'm referring to gifted children. For all the success stories about them, there are equally compelling stories about school failures, marked by isolation, belligerence and boredom. The literature suggests that the boredom is usually the cause of the other two. Schools with programs for these children manage to minimize the problem, but in Connecticut this year we have seen budget cuts in several school districts that closed down these programs.

I have two very vivid memories about these groups. The first goes back twenty years and it happened at Pratt & Whitney. We hired a young man to work on our jet engine assembly floor. His task was to work at the bench, putting together a small sub­assembly for the product. The instructions for the process were portrayed on a light board in front of him. The instructions required eighth grade reading level and he came to us with a high school diploma from a good suburban school. It looked like a great fit, but it wasn't. Within a day his foreman realized that this young man could not read the instructions.

We arranged to have his reading tested by a consultant at the local high school. He tested at a fourth grade level. We moved him out of the department into a lesser job, arranged for private tutoring, and in four months he was back to the original job, fully competent to read the instructions. Now obviously a private tutor was a big help in getting our friend up to speed, but I suggest that the connection between learning to read and a job was another big factor. I understand that it's much harder to establish that kind of relevance in the school, but we need to make some sort of cooperative effort to do so.

That leads me to the second recollection on this issue. Several years ago, over lunch with a superintendent of schools, we got on the subject of gifted children. He talked about how hard it was to structure meaningful experiences for them. As he went on, we began to explore how business could help. We saw many connections, but both of us agreed that we didn't want a haphazard kind of program. We wanted a structured approach that would be built into the curriculum, grade by grade.

He arranged for me to meet with the math and science coordinators in the school system. Would they be willing to let us have outlines of the science and math curricula in the middle and high schools? We would then try to find work experiences in our labs and shops that would match the curricula. We would also free up scientists and engineers to come to the schools to speak on relevant subjects. Bus trips could take the gifted students to laser labs, sound and wind tunnels, jet engine testing cells, etc.

Both coordinators agreed to talk to faculty and get us the curricula outlines we needed. The meeting ended on a high note. It never regained that lofty position of collaboration. After several calls to the coordinators over four months time, with very little concrete answers, I asked the superintendent what was happening. When he got back to me a few days later, he said, "The faculty have rejected the idea. They don't want business messing with curricula."

What a lost opportunity. How have we gotten to a situation where there is so little trust? How can we improve things? It seems to me that in the Yale­New Haven experience, there may be a kernel of hope. Perhaps what we need to do first is bring individuals from business and the schools together in a common project. For years we have brought vocational education teachers into our shops for the summer. Why not do the same for middle­ and high­school teachers, not simply to give them a job, but rather to explore experiences that could be woven into high school curricula?

My last thought is that college faculty could be facilitators in this process, perhaps visiting the industrial setting with the teachers, and working with them to create lesson plans.

As adults, most of us spend over half our waking hours at work. Somehow we need to let our youngsters in school know that work is a very valuable part of our life and that what they learn in school has relevance to their future lives. We don't have to do this in an exploitative way. With the right kind of planning and collaboration, we can make it a creative learning experience.


Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1994 Issue of On Common Ground

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