School Reform With a Corporate Twist

American business leaders take a higher-profile role in reshaping the nation's education system

WHEN the nation's governors gather today for an education summit in wooded Palisades, N.Y., there will be more corporate executives in attendance than educators.

Just one teacher has been invited to the conference while all the governors are bringing a corporate representative from their home states.

The presence of more briefcases than grade books underscores the growing involvement of the corporate community in American education.

For businesses, the tighter ties reflect concern about the level of education being provided to future workers. But the governors stand to gain too: They get the involvement of an important constituency - and possible financial support - for whatever education reforms they can agree on.

''It's going to be a different kind of summit,'' predicts Jack Jennings, director of the Center on National Education Policy in Washington.

State mood swing

At the first summit, held six years ago in Charlottesville, Va., there were more Democratic governors than Republicans. ''Now you have 30 Republican governors,'' Mr. Jennings says, and only six of the 1989 attendees are still in office. ''So the mood out in the states has changed.''

Some of the corporate leaders expected to attend include the chief executive officers of AT&T, Boeing, Eastman Kodak, and Procter & Gamble.

''Historically, education has been approached singularly by government,'' says Gov. Bob Miller (D) of Nevada. ''It's time that we step aside and realize there is some valuable input to be received from business leaders.''

Since the meeting is cosponsored by IBM, the world's largest computermaker, it is not surprising that educational technology is a major focus of the summit. Many of the governors already have committed resources to upgrading technology in schools.

Setting statewide standards for schools - the other main subject - is a bit more complicated. ''Without standards, educational reform is like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic,'' says Louis Gerstner Jr., the chief executive officer of IBM.

These are not new, unexplored topics, however. ''There is already a lot going on out there,'' concedes Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, a co-sponsor of the summit. ''The problem is not so much to start as to get momentum behind these things.''

The idea of setting national standards for what students should learn, proposed in 1989, fizzled in the face of concern about federal intrusion and gave way to state and local efforts. A new poll by U.S. News & World Report found that 39 percent of Americans think standards should be set by local education authorities, 27 percent say state authorities should design standards, and 24 percent opt for national standards.

In fact, nearly all 50 states have already started developing standards for what students should learn, according to a recent report by the American Federation of Teachers. But only a quarter of the states have created standards clear enough to help create a core curriculum for all students.

Need teacher training

Support for educational technology is at an all-time high nationwide. But what is needed, some educators say, is more investment in technical support and computer training for teachers. Without such support, provided by either tax dollars or corporate sponsorship, the potential of computers in classrooms will be left untapped.

When the summit concludes tomorrow, the governors plan to release a statement pledging their commitment to define vigorous academic standards within two years and improve the use of technology in classrooms. ''But more important than that,'' Mr. Newman says, ''we expect to have a set of governors and CEOs that really know and understand the subject, are committed to bringing about change, and recognize the difficulties in bringing about change. One of the things that I hope the summit will bring across is that this is not something that you can get a nice, quick silver bullet about.''

But some educators are skeptical that such a high-powered summit will make much difference in the classroom. Andrew Dunn, a teacher in Allendale, N.J., predicts little tangible outcome from the summit. While the bigwigs attend workshops and draft proposals, teachers and students ''will just keep plugging away, doing the best they know how,'' he says.

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