BOSTON — 'BUSINESS means business about education."That clever line served as the title of a 1989 report outlining corporate involvement in education, but today it may be more true than ever. As an unsatisfied customer with growing clout, corporate America is rethinking its strategy for promoting change in the United States school system. "There's been a changing sense in the business community across the country," says Denis P. Doyle, a senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis. "The Paul Revere phase is over. The alarms that everyone has been trumpeting for about eight years have got to give way to major changes." In the '80s, "adopt-a-school" programs and other school/business partnerships began to crop up throughout the US. Companies donated funds, equipment or materials, and personnel. A study released last week by the National Association of Partners in Education (NAPE) found that more than half of all US school districts have some type of school/business partnership. But partnerships alone have proved largely disappointing to the business community. More than half of all corporate executives involved in school/business partnerships said their efforts had made little, if any, impact, according to a 1990 Fortune magazine poll. Many companies are redefining their involvement with local schools. "There's been a move away from the feel-good, do-good one-to-one relationships," says Daniel W. Merenda, executive director of NAPE. "There is an increase in activity with respect to accountability. As the economy tightens for corporations, the amount of effort that they can put behind something needs to be closely tied to what it's producing." During the 1980s, business learned a great deal about the complicated process of school reform. Chief executive officers (CEOs) of many major corporations have invested time and effort to understand school reform and have come to some realizations about their role in the process. "They now understand that this is a long-term effort - that you don't turn around a battleship in a bathtub overnight," says Fritz Edelstein, a senior fellow at the National Alliance of Business in Washington. In an effort to bring system-wide change, business is getting more involved at the policymaking level. "It's a complex systemic approach and not a piecemeal approach that's required," says John L. Anderson, an International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation executive who coordinates the company's school-reform efforts. President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander have welcomed business leaders into the school-reform process, consulting them extensively before announcing "America 2000," the president's education plan, in April. Bush created the New American Schools Development Corporation with the aim of raising $150 to $200 million from the business community to fund the development of "break-the-mold" schools. In May, the president further solidified the link to business by naming David T. Kearns, former CEO of Xerox Corporation, to the No. 2 position at the Department of Education. Although many educators realize that they need help in revamping the education system, some express concern about the private sector's growing clout in the school-reform movement. "For business leaders who have no knowledge of how our public schools work, or the problems that kids face as they come to school today, to try to write a prescription to solve those problems is ridiculous," says Garrett Harbron, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. "Teachers expect help in getting schools restructured. We do not like to be treated like tall children, which is the current system," says Brice A. Tressler, president of the Indianapolis Education Association. Some business groups are sensitive to educators' skepticism. "If we go in with the answer and try to impose it on the education establishment, we're doomed to fail," says Mr. Anderson, who assists John F. Akers, chairman of IBM, in his capacity as chairman of the Business Roundtable. The Roundtable, a group of 200 chief executive officers of the largest US corporations, has publicized nine "essential components" for school reform. "The Roundtable's particular strategy, being a CEO organization, is public-policy leverage. State-by-state you have to have a favorable public-policy framework for schools to change," Anderson says. Mr. Harbron praises the group for being willing to work with educators instead of against them. "Educators and business can accomplish more together than they can working separately, particularly if when working separately they're going in different directions," he says. One way the Business Roundtable has avoided conflict with educators is by stressing "outcome-based" education and other well-accepted reform ideas. More important, the group has distanced itself from the controversial issue of parental choice. While some business groups stress the free-market elements of choice as essential for school reform, the Business Roundtable has only vaguely endorsed choice as one element within a broader effort. This strategy wins friends in the education establishment, but some observers criticize business leaders for not being tough enough on educators. "There's still an element of the business community which wants to be liked by educators more than it wants to change the education system and therefore tends to be very kindly and accommodating," says Chester E. Finn Jr., executive director of the Educational Excellence Network. Business has a problem of "going native," according to Mr. Finn. "When business people step into educator land, they tend to begin to think like educators." But as frustration with the lack of progress builds and concern about American economic competitiveness rises, more and more of corporate America seems willing to play hardball with the education establishment. "We are seeing more courageous or radical forms of involvement at the programmatic level and more willingness to roll up their sleeves and get politically involved, even where that brings them into sharp conflict with the education establishment," Finn says. (See story on Page 12.) "The schools by and large have been a mountain of adamant. They have refused to make the kinds of changes they need to enter the next century, and it's now time to do something much more dramatic," says Mr. Doyle of the Hudson Institute. "They aren't simply going to be the banker anymore," he says. "They are going to make demands on the schools... . If business doesn't do it, no one will."