Canada: Business-Education Partnerships a Troubling Trend

Partnerships between the business and education sectors are a growing phenomenon in Canada. Although there are no precise figures available, the Conference Board of Canada estimates that there are as many as 15,000 to 20,000 such initiatives. In Ottawa alone, their number has mushroomed from five to 50 since 1990.

The Vancouver Board of Education's "Partners in Education" program includes over 80 businesses and government organizations. At the Etobicoke Board
of Education in Ontario, partnerships with business and the local community have increased from 25 in 1992 to their current level of over 500.

Provincial and territorial governments have also made partnerships a priority. A recent Council of Ministers of Education report on information technologies in
elementary and secondary schools lists the formation of partnerships "to share equipment acquisition, networking, and resource development costs" as
one of the key themes running through government vision statements on technology in education.

Ian Barrett, who coordinates education-community projects for the Etobicoke Board, describes the situation with regard to partnerships as being in "explosion mode... at the beginning of the wave and not close to the crest.Partnerships can take on diverse forms, running the gamut from school-to-work programs to private companies running schools on a for-profit basis. Other types of arrangements include the "matching" of specific businesses and schools; commercial ventures within schools, a notable example being the Toronto Board of Education's contract with soft drink vendor Pepsi-Cola; workplace schools such as the school approved by the Calgary Board of Education which operates out
of a telephone company building for the children of company employees; education-related foundations; school-related fundraising; school sponsorships of charities and other non-profit organizations which have commercial implications;
business-related curricula and business involvement in the development of curricula; and privatized management of publicly- funded schools and school divisions/boards.

"Some of the questions and problems [raised by these sorts of arrangements] are easier to answer than others," says the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation
in a discussion paper pointing out the increasing role such partnerships play in education and the need for carefully considered guidelines. "Teachers have
a special interest in ensuring that these linkages to the business community are rooted in sound educational principles, goals, and objectives."

Gordon Graydon Memorial Secondary School in Mississauga provides an interesting, albeit perhaps extreme, case study of business involvement in education, highlighting in particular the relationship between such involvement and technology. To date, this high school has partnerships with no less than 78 corporations, among them Apple Canada Inc., Canon Canada Inc., Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal, Nesbitt Burns Inc., and a number of Bell Canada companies. These "mentors" donate time and equipment to the school's new and experimental International Business and Technology (IBT) program. At Graydon, corporate sponsors have representatives on the selection committee for admission to the IBT program.

The program turned away over half of the 600-plus applicants in the 1996-97 school year. According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail, successful applicants must have an inordinate amount of drive coming out of Grade 8. Russ White, director of the program, says "You have to be positive, a risk taker". Interest in the program is so high that a special busing program, at a cost to some families of close to $1,000, was put in place to bring students in from across the region. In keeping with its entrepreneurial nature, the IBT program offers tours at $25 per person and prospective students must pay an application fee of $10 for "cost recovery" purposes.

In a recent issue of Canadian Business Technology, Emerson describes a current IBT project involving a team of students who are making use of technology to dispense health-related information to high school students from multimedia kiosks. According to school principal Ray Beyer, the idea grew out of the context of cutbacks to public health and the resultant shortage of school nurses.

"So we thought, 'How can we take advantage of that?' says Beyer. He also notes that, while the school must meet curriculum requirements set by the provincial government, "When we do something by Shakespeare, we explain why it's relevant today, then how it applies to a business venue."

One of the factors driving Gordon Graydon's headlong plunge into technology, and the increasing interest in school-business partnerships generally, is the current
contention that schools should focus on preparing students for the world of work. The teaching of technological skills holds a high priority on this agenda. As it
gains momentum, so does the reliance on private sector partnerships. Contributing factors include:

  • The continuing decline in government funding for education

  • Adequate and ongoing funding to buy, much less to upgrade, costly technological resources in the schools is not an option for the foreseeable future. The Canadian Teachers' Federation reports that cuts to education funding in Canada in 1996-97 will remove $928 million or 2.9% from education at all levels. Schools will increasingly turn to (or be wooed by) the private sector to obtain the necessary funds and equipment. Prospective partners will be drawn to school locations where their investment in time and resources will be maximized. Expected benefits to corporate partners include positive public relations, market building and the creation of a customized workforce. At Gordon Graydon, for example, an expensive printing press donated by Cryovac Ltd. for a course to teach a new printing process called flexography can be expected to provide the company with workers trained in Cryovac's own system.

  • The increasing focus on computer/student ratios

  • The number of computers in schools appears, for some, to be an overriding objective. John Snobelen, Ontario's minister of education, has said that he would like to see a computer on every Ontario student's desk.

    Various provinces have set ambitious targets for computer/student ratios at different grade levels. B.C.'s education technology plan states that "the minimum student-to-computer ratio in elementary schools should be 6:1 (3:1 or better is the ideal), and 3:1 or better at the secondary level within five years." Quebec and New Brunswick are working towards a 10:1 ratio, while Nova Scotia's goal is one computer for every five students by the year 2005.

    At the same time, school boards are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain high levels of services. In its analysis of staffing and class size issues in British Columbia, the B.C. Teachers' Federation found that the student/educator ratio has increased in the 1990s. In addition, teacher librarian services in the province have declined despite the important role teacher librarians play in assisting schools to adapt to information technology.

    A report released in September 1996 by the Atlantic Provinces Education Foundation, Education Indicators for Atlantic Canada, notes that student/educator ratios have increased for almost all Atlantic provinces since
    1989-90, and class sizes for kindergarten to Grade 9 have gone up for all Atlantic provinces in the past two years.

  • The high costs associated with educational technology

  • The costs for hardware such as computers, printers and modems are "merely the tip of the iceberg," say educational researchers Westbrook and Kerr in an essay on the costs of educational technology in Technology and the Future of Schooling, published by the National Society for the Study of Education in the U.S.

    "More expensive ... is likely to be the infrastructure required to support it--the software, the installation of networks to provide access to the Internet, the subscriptions to a variety of electronic information services (and perhaps special software or devices to control access to those deemed inappropriate for children), the electrical upgrades and rewiring of rooms, and the reconfiguration of classrooms to accommodate new patterns of instruction."

    At the same time, cutbacks in government funding have left schools, particularly the poorest schools and school boards, extremely vulnerable. Canadian Schoolhouse in the Red, a 1993 national study of Canadian school facilities, notes that two out of three school buildings have exceeded their predicted useful life. About 53% of these were constructed in the 1950's and early '60s, 14% were built before 1950, and certainly not with the needs of the "information age" in mind.

    Heather-jane Robertson, in the Fall 1996 issue of the Education Monitor, describes the conditions for corporate curricula and business-education partnerships as being ideal, given a situation of "exhausted teachers and exhausted budgets". In a thought-provoking piece entitled "Ethics and the Corporate Classroom" (in the Winter 1993 issue of Education Forum), Ekelund cautions educators that "history is strewn with lessons detailing the consequences of negotiations between a party that knows what it wants and a second
    party driven by need. Disaster for the need-driven party is a common result." Clearly, the potential for exacerbating inequities in the education system
    is very real.

    Ekelund also notes that developing "citizens capable of being full participants in a democratic society" is the mandate of our current public school system, one which "encompasses the goals of the business community" but goes well beyond that.

    Is the introduction of technology into schools really about providing new learning opportunities for students? Or is it about providing new market opportunities for business, and churning out productive, highly skilled "human capital" and good consumers?

    To date, there is no research to show that computers in the classroom will lead to smarter, happier, healthier students, or result in a less costly and more effective school system. But once incorporated into the system, their insatiable appetite for resources could create such a dependency on private sector funding that it would be impossible for any school to break away from the marriages of convenience currently being solemnized by promoters of business and education partnerships.

Gift horses or Trojan horses? At what point will it be too late to decide?

Bernie Froese-Germain is a research assistant with the Research and Technology Department of the Canadian Teachers' Federation. Marita Moll is the CTF's Head of Research and Technology.

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