Front Page
  Back Issues
  About National CrossTalk

National CrossTalk Spring 2000
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

3 of 4 Stories

A Mandate for Change
Business and university leaders seek to work together

Milton Goldberg  
By Milton Goldberg

IN RECENT YEARS a national debate has centered on improvements to K-12 education. In this new millennium, our treasured system of colleges and universities deserves similar attention.

The business community, in particular, has a special interest in the quality of higher education. According to "Spanning the Chasm," (a study conducted by the Business-Higher Education Forum, which is co-sponsored by the National Alliance of Business and the American Council on Education) American college graduates are entering the workplace ill-equipped to effectively contribute in a fast-paced world economy.

In fact, serious gaps now exist between the skills possessed by graduates and those required by today's high-performance jobs. The majority of students are severely lacking in flexible skills and attributes such as leadership, teamwork, problem solving, time management, adaptability, analytical thinking, global consciousness, and basic communications, including listening, speaking, reading and writing.

This is forcing both businesses and educators to re-examine traditional methods of learning while seeking new methods of linking the dynamics of external growth and change to the established structures of higher education.

The National Alliance of Business (NAB) is the preeminent business organization concerned solely with the quality of education and training through a lifetime. In one of NAB's recent Work America publications we described what business and university leaders seek to accomplish together:

  • better equipping college and university students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the changing world of work;
  • strengthening the role of higher education in improving K—16 student achievement;
  • providing support at colleges and universities for basic and applied research that is critical to the ground-breaking, fundamental advances that fuel long-term economic growth; and
  • better preparing all students and workers to understand and work productively with people of diverse cultures, languages, religions and ethnicities.
Today at NAB we speak of a knowledge supply chain where companies get employees with appropriate knowledge and skills, at the right time and in the right place–where and when they are needed for innovation, improved productivity and competitive advantage.

Leading companies are propelling the adoption of knowledge supply chains. These chains will have a considerable influence on college and university education which seeks to be responsive to the needs of students and the larger society.
A Nation at Risk

Business concern about the quality of education is not new, of course. But it is fair to say that K-12 education has over the last two decades received far more direct attention than has higher education, particularly following the issuance of the 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform," which had an explosive impact.

In 1984, President Reagan told former members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education assembled on the South Lawn of the White House, "It's not overstating things at all to say that your report changed our history by changing the way we look at education and putting it back on the American agenda." The report helped create a huge and growing public mandate for change.

At the time, Reagan released another report from the Department of Education, "The Nation Responds," documenting a "tidal wave of reform" in the schools. Among the elements of this reform movement which continue to this day are:
    • raising of high school graduation requirements;
    • the standards movement–creating assessments aligned with standards;
    • consideration of longer school days and a longer school year, and efforts to make better use of time in school;
    • improving teacher certification procedures, performance incentives and teacher status;
    • providing report cards to the public about education progress, school by school; and
    • increased public interest in quality education, as represented by PTA membership and corporate involvement with schools.
What generated all this fuss? A deceptively thin little "Open Letter to the American People," in which a panel of distinguished Americans, most of them professional educators, warned in April 1983 that the "educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people," sparked a national debate on education–and on what we need to do about it–which has been sustained to this day.

This debate was quite consciously sought by members of the Commission under the leadership of David Pierpont Gardner, then president of the University of Utah and later president of the University of California. It was Mr. Gardner's idea that the report be a "clarion call" to the American public, to remind the nation of the importance of education as the foundation of leadership in change and technical invention.
Essential Messages
The Commission intended that three essential messages be heard by the American people.

First, that our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation was being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. Although the Commission conceded that education was only one of many causes and dimensions of the problem, they may have been the first national body to insist that inattention to the schools puts the very well-being of the nation at risk.

The second essential message was that mediocrity, not excellence, had become the norm in American education. Although the Commission cited "heroic" examples of dedicated individuals excelling throughout American education, they argued that "a rising tide of mediocrity" threatened to overwhelm the educational foundations of American society.

The third essential message was simple: We don't have to put up with it; we can, and must, do better. In a report section entitled "America Can Do It," the Commission cited the remarkable success of the American educational system in responding to past challenges as evidence of its optimism that the current challenges could be met.

Higher education played a significant but somewhat overlooked role in shaping the Commission report. In the end, however, the Commission chose to focus its report on K-12 education. The business community which has played a central role in furthering K-12 reforms now leads in emphasizing the links between these reforms and the standards, quality and efficiency of post-secondary education.

The pressures and opportunities of global commerce and new technologies are creating new definitions of change cycles in business. But, it's not just change that characterizes business today. It's the rate of change. A key response to this acceleration is an adaptable, skilled and knowledge-rich workforce. The people who work in our businesses are key to American economic progress which in turn is vital to the well-being of these individuals and their families.

But, contrary to some popular opinion, it is not just the need for better educated workers that causes business to care about improving American education at all levels. Business recognizes that a solid well-rounded education is the thread that knits the intellectual and moral quilt of our nation. This has been so throughout our history. The ill educated and ill rewarded will not be intelligent consumers and surely will not create the leadership essential to all parts of our social, civic and economic life. u

Milton Goldberg is executive vice president of the National Alliance of Business, and former executive director of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Photo by Dennis Drenner for CrossTalk

E-Mail this link to a friend.
Enter your friend's e-mail address:



National Center logo
© 2000 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

HOME | about us | center news | reports & papers | national crosstalk | search | links | contact

site managed by NETView Communications