The Education/Business Connection

By Dr. Eugene Maier

It was a bit fortuitous, I thought. Ironic, too.

On the front page was a story concerning the Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM), the centerpiece of Oregon's high school reform movement. Intended to dethrone the high school diploma, the CIM requires passing extensive state-administered tests and completing work assignments in core courses. However, most schools don't require it for graduation and only a fifth of last year's seniors earned one.

A handful of schools do require it and the chair of the English department of one of these schools commented on how the curriculum had been adjusted so that students could meet CIM requirements: "Now, maybe students read only two novels in the class, instead of four. But I can be confident every student who has the CIM can write a coherent paragraph when he needs to on the job."

And right there in the business section—would you believe it?—was an example of one of those paragraphs written on the job. The author was Kenneth Lay, Enron ex-chairman and the paragraph was a note sent to Donald Sanders, John Olson's boss. John Olson, a stock analyst who for years questioned the value of Enron stock. The note: "Don-- John Olson has been wrong about Enron for over 10 years and is still wrong. But he is consistent. (sic). Ken"

Perhaps if Ken had a CIM he would have been a better speller. But it wasn't the misspelling I found ironic but rather that the paragraph was entwined in one of the greatest instances of culpability we've witnessed in this country, sullying not only the business world but all those who abet it: politicians, government agencies, accounting firms and, I wonder, our educational system, too?

I don't know how, if at all, the educational system fed the scheming avariciousness of the Enron gang, but it does seem that education is in danger of becoming the pawn of business and industry. Increasingly, our educational institutions are primarily viewed as the training ground of our nation's workforce. Education initiatives are passed with the avowed purpose of developing the world's most highly skilled workers. We cater to the interests of business in allocating resources and establishing programs. We entice students to stay in school by dangling glamorous high-tech jobs in front of them, despite the fact that most jobs out there are in service industries—many of them at poverty-level wages that don't really require much formal education.

Perhaps its time that education—especially at the pre-college level—maintain an arm's length relationship with the business world. Let educators use their knowledge of children's abilities and interests, and how they learn, to establish the school curriculum, independently of business interests and influence. The curriculum may look much the same as it now does, but the rhetoric of education would be quite different. Rather than being led to believe that school was preparing them for some job that may never materialize, children would hear that school was designed to develop all the capabilities they possess as human beings—including their sense of morality—to enrich their lives and that of those around them.

In the process, the world of business and industry, and all other worlds of human enterprise, would find a cadre of well-educated, principled young people to assimilate into their workforce. If the world of business would entrust education to the educators and the world of education would delegate job training to business, both worlds would win.