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Partnerships: what is our contribution?

Much self-satisfied clucking was recently heard in Washington over the success of educational partnerships between the schools and the private sector. A November 16, 1988, press release from the Department of Education, accompanying a report to the President on partnerships (America's Schools: Everybody's Business), quotes Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos to the effect that partnerships "are truly a national movement permeating the entire education system. " "Permeating" may be putting it a bit too positively, but the report offers some reasonably impressive numbers to back up the Secretary's assertion (all drawn from 1987-88 school year statistics): There are some 140,800 partnerships out there, involving about 17% of the nation's schools and nearly a quarter of the nation's students (some 9 million students), about 52% of which are sponsored by business concerns. (Civic service clubs, individuals, colleges and universities, business organizations, and others sponsor the rest.) More than half the partnership sponsors provide goods and services, as opposed to one or the other.

While not overwhelming, these figures outline a development that is, in fact, all to the good. But there is no reason to get overly rhapsodic about it. These numbers do, indeed, reflect the fact that the private sector has seen the value of supporting public education and has responded with energy and conviction. Corporate initiatives such as the "Invent America Program," MATHCOUNTS, and Book It!, as well as scholarship programs sponsored by professional athletes and teams, provide high visibility for educational aims and much needed support for disadvantaged youth. But not all partnerships work, too few work well, and many are superficial, both in their conception and execution. All too many, like the plant of the biblical prophet Jonah, "come into being in a night and perish in a night." We do well to ask if there are any distinguishing characteristics for those that have staying power and that do seem able to produce educational results that last longer than the enthusiastic article in last Sunday's paper. As it turns out, there are. A closer examination of successful and unsuccessful partnerships reveals that the single factor most likely to ensure a partnership's success is that the private sector entity involved gain some business or community relations advantage from it. That may not be very comforting (1, too, would have preferred a closer correlation with some pedagogical principle, but that seems not to be the case). In fact, private sector support for educational efforts seems to be "pedagogically neutral"; the concerns of teaching and learning, other than they be done under recognized and publicized auspices, are not paramount. Success in partnership programs does correlate very highly with the extent to which the private sector partner can attract widespread community support (political, parent, civic, and other community groups) to the idea of the program itself. What happens by way of teaching and learning is, by and large, a spin-off of the program, not necessarily its justification. Many educators turn their nose up at this kind of motivation as a kind of contaminating commercialism that is unworthy of our schools and ultimately dangerous to our children. A case in point happened several years ago when I was involved in a large-scale partnership effort involving the largest corporate entity in the community, a major soft drink corporation. The company had invested a lot of money in developing a science kit that was offered for use-free-throughout the schools, and I wanted it for my special education program. When the kit came out, however, it was discovered that the two pencils accompanying each kit had the name of the company stamped on them. The superintendent said "No," and dug in his heels. A great brouhaha ensued, and he was finally prevailed upon to allow the kits to make their way to the students, but only after all the pencils had been removed and the offending corporate logo blacked out. This struck me as silly then and it strikes me as silly now. As educational aids, the kits were good material. We needed them and would be able to make good use of them, not just in special ed classrooms but throughout the system. The danger that our children, many of whose households were supported entirely by that soft drink company, would be corrupted by the rank commercialization embossed on those pencils seemed slight. This incident has made me think that we in education lack a realistic assessment of what educational partnerships-indeed what partnerships themselves-are all about. If businesses are to expend their valuable time, money, and personnel on our schools and children, is it realistic to expect they get nothing in return? We must remember that both partners expect to gain from a partnership. And both partners do gain from a business/education partnership: The students get an educational resource and the private sector partner gains the good will and approbation of the community that comes from helping its children. An example many of you are perhaps familiar with is a local community resource committee set up between special educators and local businesses. The business agrees to place special education students preparing to make the transition from school to the work force into jobs and train them for the skills needed in those and similar jobs. In a well run program of this type, the benefits to the students are obvious. The benefits to the businesses, besides a source of labor, may seem less obvious but are nonetheless real. The business is seen as supporting all elements of the community, certainly a desirable PR goal. The bottom line, to borrow a phrase that belongs as much in the classroom as in the boardroom, is that all partnerships are self-serving- but is that so bad? The need for partnerships to serve truly relevant (i.e., correctly focused) "educational" purposes is one that teachers, principals, and superintendents can help private sector partners fulfill. My experience is that they will address that task eagerly. At the same time, however, we educators also must, without cynicism, look realistically at the needs of our private sector partners. Helping education does not add to profit, but it does something no marketing campaign can accomplish: It makes folks feel good about the product and the people who make it. In fact I think once educators realize that they too bring something of value to these partnerships, it will be more beneficial to all concerned. Especially in special education where our students' gains are frequently smaller and it would seem that corporate America has even less to gain, the public relations value is still there, and in fact, can be even greater. Just ask a member of a community resource committee. Therefore, we need not approach the business community with a "hat-in-hand" attitude but with a full awareness of our true "partnership status." We need to recognize that whatever the level of skills of our students and whatever the level of involvement of the business entity, partnerships work for private sector partners and help them achieve their own purposes. The fact that educators can make that achievement easier is what we have to offer. The good will we have in the community, and the fact that the pieces to be tom from that loaf are limitless, are our contribution-and a valuable one at that. There are, of course, many other partnerships in education-interagency, intergovernmental, teaming within the school, and, especially important, the school/home partnership. In fact, we form many partnerships as we go about our daily living and working lives. Perhaps it is wise to remember our contributions in all these partnerships. Certainly, arrogance is not called for but neither is the hat-in-hand approach. Partners must realize what each side has to contribute to, and what each side must be able to take out of, a partnership. Only then does a partnership become a team.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:private contribution to public schools
Author:Greer, Jeptha V.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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