Business group is force in education Md. coalition works behind the scenes to influence reform

January 31, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

When Maryland's business leaders held out their hands to the state's education leaders six years ago, the educators grabbed hold, forming a partnership that grows stronger and more powerful as both try to change what and how Maryland's students learn.

Bent on raising standards and improving instruction, the business leaders have backed the state's testing program in rocky times and thrown their considerable weight behind the state's proposed high school tests.

Generally considered a happy twosome, the partnership has generated little controversy, although a few critics have charged that business encourages schools to train future employees -- with more regard to workplace needs than students' needs.

The behind-the-scenes force that is wielding the influence in school reform is the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a coalition of 88 of Maryland's largest employers.

Besides shaping high school improvement, the roundtable has been a strong supporter -- and lobbyist -- for taking technology into all schools and making teacher training more relevant.

With strong leadership and the expertise of its members, the roundtable has established itself as a "critical friend" to schools, and a national leader among business-education coalitions.

"The business community is the principal customer of the products of the educational system," said Norman R. Augustine, chairman of the board at Lockheed Martin Corp., and the roundtable's founding force. "That does carry some weight."

Over the last two years, the roundtable has played major supporting roles in the proposed high school graduation tests, which will bring revisions in both the content and skills students are expected to master, beginning with the Class of 2004.

Members developed a program of "skills for success" that are being built into the new high school curricula, and are helping to sell the tests in meetings around the state.

"Our goal is employees who can think critically, who can communicate, who can work in teams, and I think these are goals that people would want for most everyone in the state," said Raymond V. "Buzz" Bartlett, director of corporate affairs for Lockheed Martin and a member of the Maryland State Board of Education.

The roundtable has stood behind early reforms, especially the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, which have come under attack repeatedly since they were instituted in 1990.

"When MSPAP was most under fire and scores were wallowing, I'm not sure that the state board and the state legislature would have hung tough if the business community wasn't behind it," said Sharon Norman, the manager of business, community and parent relations for Baltimore County Public Schools.

The roundtable has continued to lobby against legislation that would eliminate or modify these annual tests for all third- ,fifth- and eighth-graders.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said that when Maryland's "CEOs talk, people listen."

"Their support of something is not viewed as the inbred support of other educators," Grasmick said. "They have been a wonderful partner for the state board and for me."

Though Maryland PTA president Carmela Veit upholds the general work of the roundtable, she would like its leaders to consider parents as equal partners in education.

'Accept parents'

"Public education reforms are being driven by the public, and that includes parents," Veit said. "I'd like the roundtable to accept parents as professionals.

"Business doesn't necessarily have a corner on what is good for public schools."

Veit has been an outspoken critic of the tests.

"We are there in our own self-interest, because we do want a work force we can count on," said June E. Streckfus, the roundtable's executive director. "But that's so intimately linked with the success children will have in life."

In October, the roundtable issued a report on the skills and preparedness of the state's work force. Based on surveys of nearly 1,000 businesses, the roundtable found that employers have difficulty finding qualified workers for manufacturing and high technology jobs in the state, and cannot hire high school graduates with sufficient reading, writing and communications skills.

Bartlett saw this survey as "a crucial piece of information at a critical time" -- just before the state board voted on whether to require the proposed tests for graduation.

Augustine said the roundtable has enjoyed unusual support from business and general goodwill, with few vocal critics. But that might not last, he said.

"When people start not getting diplomas, then we'll hear from the critics," he said. "That's the moment of truth."

Although part of the roundtable's work involves individual partnerships with needy schools in the metropolitan area, these differ from the traditional adopt-a-school arrangements.

"We don't want you to open your wallets, and we don't want you to buy orange drink," Streckfus tells these partners. "What we want is your mind."

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