(The following article appeared in the 4 January 1999 edition of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and is copyrighted by them. It is reproduced here only as a temporary measure for educational discussion purposes and will be removed as soon as the Post-Dispatch indexes it electronically for free public retrieval via the Internet.
Business Can Help Schools Do Their Job
By Ray Holman
With its hopeful message of reconciliation and redemption, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" has become a timeless holiday classic. However, the story is more than a Christmas reverie. It is also a serious lesson in social responsibility that rings true a century-and-a-half later.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I still shudder when the Ghost of Christmas Present unveils two frightful children from within the folds of his robe and warns: "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."
Unfortunately, despite the vast intellectual, technological, and financial resources available in this country, the writing has not been erased. We are still confronting the human and economic hardship created when people suffer from a lack of education and training. During 1998, the media reported frequently on the "education gap" that exists between the kind of employees businesses need and those who are available in the local work force.
It's a disturbing story that tells of intolerable numbers of high school dropouts, unsatisfactory test scores and the region's damaging low national rankings in the areas of adult literacy.
As an employer, I see the negative impact these conditions have on business. I currently serve as the chairman of the Greater St. Louis Economic Development Council, aligned with the Regional Commerce & Growth Association and charged with creating 100,000 net new jobs in our region by the year 2000.
We are making good progress. In the three years since we took on the challenge, net employment has increased by 69,300 jobs. However, it will be difficult to reach the ultimate goal, and the reason has been well documented: We do not have a large enough pool of qualified workers to perform the jobs we are capable of creating, with the key word being "qualified." The only way to get the people we need is to develop them locally and to educate them. And we are not doing that well enough, or in large enough numbers, especially in St. Louis, to meet demand.
Although I am concerned that too many of our young people are not benefiting from the promise of education, I am encouraged by the attention this problem is receiving throughout the community. In July, the Greater St. Louis Economic Development Council formed a task force made up of representatives of local school districts, higher education and business to develop a regional "K-12 Initiative" to address the problems in our schools. The task force is committed to identifying solutions to tangible problems and putting them into action.
This is a pragmatic approach that is providing immediate results. For example, the St. Louis City School District has a serious shortage of math and science teachers. The task force learned there is an overabundance of qualified black math and science instructors in South Africa. Team members are helping six of those teachers come to St. Louis, where they will meet a critical educational need.
Solutions like this require a cooperative approach. And one of the key participants must be the local business community. Since we are among the major beneficiaries of an educated work force - the most important beneficiary being, of course, the individual who gains the ability to realize his of her potential - we should expect to be involved in the learning process.
I am not suggesting corporate intrusion or intervention in the business of teaching. However, I do think we need to be among the active partners who can lend resources, assistance and inspiration through school/business partnerships, work-study programs and mentoring.
More than 50 school/business partnership programs are at work in the region, and I think we can expect to see more. They can work to the advantage of all those involved. My company conducts considerable research in health care, and I know that every well-intentioned experiment does not yield a viable end product. Finding remedies to difficult problems can be a tedious and often discouraging process. Still, when the eventual outcome can improve the quality of life for others, you persist despite the frustrations.
Much of what is happening in education today is experimental in nature. We are facing new kinds of problems that require a new set of solutions. We need new ideas, and a heightened resolve to make them work. Parties on all sides need to be open-minded and willing to try new approaches, even when they may not be totally convenient.
If we sincerely want parents to help their children become good students, good citizens and good employees, shouldn't we be looking to mak e that possible in creative ways that balance the best interests of our stockholders and our communities?
We need to face the fact that business-as-usual solutions will not work in a world where the unusual is quickly becoming the rule. This is the sea son of miracles, but we can't wait for a miracle to solve the problems in our education system. Positive change will happen only through a conscientious, cooperative approach among parents, educators and business.
We have a formidable supply of resources that we can direct toward this destructive and lingering problem. Many people will be given a chance to help in the months to come, and I hope they will accept the challenge.