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School-to-Work? Businessmen Should Know Better

by Tony Maggio

(Mr. Maggio is a technology management consultant in Oklahoma City, and former senior vice president and Corporate Chief Technical Officer of Seagate Technology and a former vice-president of engineering for Control Data Corp)

Would a thinking businessman in charge of a successful business, but now faced with a serious and deteriorating problem, consider throwing out all of the company's proven processes, procedures, and methods and starting over with a radical new and untried system? Recklessly abandoning past successful practices and replacing them with a utopian, pie-in-the sky solution -- without considering the potential consequences or evaluating alternatives -- would be quickly recognized as a disastrous business practice, unacceptable in the business world. Why then should businessmen glibly sign on to a similar radical education approach when asked to join a School-to-Work "partnership"?

To comprehend how this striking contradiction could happen, we should first understand what is meant by a business "becoming a partner" in this program. Inviting business to become a "partner" in a School-to-Work program is not an invitation for business to participate in the development of a solution to the education problem. It isn't even an opportunity for businessmen to express what they see as academic deficiencies, or basic skill requirements for high school graduates, or to provide suggestions as to how the current system can be modified or improved. Businessmen are especially qualified to do all of these, because of their expertise in problem solving and their firsthand experience, familiarity and dependence on the product output of the current education system; however, their inputs in these areas are neither requested nor accepted. The solution, in this case as in the past, has already been determined by the government, and all that is necessary now is for it to be quickly implemented.

Make no mistake, what both parties expect from this business "partnership" is simply a charitable and benign relationship where business leaders provide their stamp of approval, their name and influence, and a benevolent blessing to a new government-mandated education plan already developed and being implemented. Business' input is limited to providing some of the grunt work and resources to implement the School-to-Work plan as it has been designed by social-engineering "experts," exhaustively specified by state and federal government bureaucrats, and administered by the political/education establishment.

In fact, business leaders are commonly assured their personal participation will require very little of their own time; maybe some minimal time from one or two of their "interested" underlings, perhaps a small amount of money, periodic student business tours, and maybe a few "on-the-job training" slots for deserving students. For this seemingly small investment, the company and the business leader will discharge their civic responsibility and be publicly recognized in the community and among their peers as being an active partner in solving the "nation's education crisis." So, why shouldn't businessmen enthusiastically endorse this effort?

Businessmen have a responsibility not only to their company but to the community and the nation. The first maxim, like the Hippocratic oath, should be to "do no harm." Lending their support and endorsement to a program that appears contrary to good business practices -- and which they neither fully understand nor have time to question -- can be dangerous, injurious and expensive to their company, as well as the community. It can, and usually does, result in solutions that are counter to fixing the real problem, and can exacerbate the problem itself. This is especially true when the program involves government restrictions on training and hiring of employees, child labor laws, workman's compensation, legal liabilities and potential tax increases on business. In the case of education, the results can be disastrous, destroying the opportunities of a generation or more of children and endangering the national competitiveness of our country, while wasting tax money that could be applied to fixing the real problem.

So what's a conscientious, well-meaning businessman to do? Simply do what you would do when faced with solving problems in your business. Be as hard-nosed about asking questions and accepting answers as you would if this were one of your critical business problems. The solution will in fact affect your money, your business practices and your employees. Realize however, the people proposing the solution, in this case, are the same ones who were in charge when the problem began. Understand that the education system worked well before they instituted random, untested and uncontrolled changes into the system, as they are proposing to do again. Remember these "experts" have a miserable track record of continuously ignoring and abandoning systems and methods with established records of success, and substituting in their place unproven radical programs resulting in the current chaos. Keep in mind that you, and most of your valuable employees, were successfully educated using the same methods and processes these people, and their new program, intend to scrap and replace.

The following are typical questions a successful businessman would ask of those proposing to implement "systemic" changes into his business to resolve a business problem. They are equally valid in questioning those who ask for your support for a new radical education program.

1. Are there prior systems and methods which previously produced successful results? 2. Are others in your industry (public or private school systems) currently using those prior time- tested systems and methods successfully? 3. Have you recently tried implementing those prior systems and methods to fix the problem? Show me the results. 4. What are the potential risks in your proposed fix? How will they be minimized? 5. What actual evidence exists to indicate the new change will work better than the prior systems and methods that worked before? Show me the prototype results. 6. What evidence exists to ensure the new fix will not create new problems? 7. What other alternatives are being considered and what are their consequences and risks? Will any alternatives also be tried and their results compared? 8. What is the back-up plan if the proposed change doesn't work, or do we "bet the farm"? 9. Will the changes be carefully introduced into selected environments and results monitored, or will they be implemented system-wide across the board and hope for the best? 10. Will our customers (parents) be provided a choice or an alternative to this change? Last but not least: How much will this change cost and how might business be affected, both positively and negatively? Insist on getting factual, non-self-serving answers to these and other questions you would normally ask in your business. Don't be surprised, however, if the educrats, bureaucrats and politicians can't, or won't, answer these questions and their eyes glaze over. Don't get discouraged though -- this is your chance to do some real "School-to-Work" training in problem-solving. Invite them to do some "homework" (God forbid) and return the answers before you commit your support.

Our children and our future cannot tolerate another "education fix" program, designed by the same authors of previous proven failures, selling unsubstantiated promises with great PR, slogans and arm-waving. Like losers in business, these architects of failure return, time after time, with new unproven plans to fix the problems they continue to create, and with the same pathetic perpetual promises of success, if only they were given more money and one more chance.

It's time businessmen act like businessmen. They must insist on the same approach to education as they practice in business, where competition develops and selects the best ideas and products. They must advocate and encourage serious trial, exploration and comparison of potential alternatives (vouchers, school choice, charter schools, return to basics, etc.) rather than committing their support and endorsement to any single unproven universal system which excludes all other alternatives. To do otherwise is to act irresponsibly and to have business abrogate its social obligations, deny its competitive heritage, and become an active partner in the continued demise of our education system.

Considering their self interest and past record, we shouldn't expect educrats or politicians to understand or accept this seemingly unusual and radical approach to solving the education problem. However, businessmen should know better and require it.