Accounting giant Deloitte LLP and other corporations are reaching out to classrooms — drafting curricula while conveying the benefits of working for the sponsor companies. Hoping to create a pipeline of workers far into the future, these corporations furnish free lesson plans and may also underwrite classroom materials, computers or training seminars for teachers.
The programs represent a new dimension of the business world's influence in public schools. Companies such as McDonald's Corp. and Yum Brands Inc.'s Pizza Hut have long attempted to use school promotions to turn students into customers. The latest initiatives would turn them into employees.
Companies that employ engineers, fearful of a coming labor shortage, are at the movement's forefront. Lockheed Martin Corp. began funding engineering courses two years ago at schools near its aircraft testing and development site in Palmdale, Calif., saying it hopes to replenish its local work force. Starting in 2004, British engine-maker Rolls-Royce PLC has helped fund high-school courses in topics such as engine propulsion. Intel Corp. supports curricula in school districts where engineering concepts are taught as early as the elementary level.
Schools have embraced corporate support as state education funding has remained flat for a decade and declining housing values threaten to eat into property-tax revenues. Teachers, meanwhile, often welcome the lesson plans, classroom equipment and the corporate-sponsored professional development sessions.
But however well-intentioned, such corporate input may blur the line between pure academics and a commercial agenda, critics say.
"When you have a corporation or any special interest offering an incentive, you are distorting the educational purpose of the schools," says Alex Molnar, an education-policy professor at Arizona State University who directs the school's Commercialism in Education Research Unit.
The hiring priorities of a company or industry, Molnar says, can change quickly. On the other hand, he says, schools should provide a broad and consistent foundation of knowledge and skills. Deciding what to teach is "first and foremost, a series of choices," he says. Historically, those choices have been made by school officials and professional educators, based on the interests of their community's children, not on the shifting needs of industry.
Nonetheless, many school officials are receptive. Tamika Bauknight, director of curriculum and instruction for the Roselle, N.J., school district, concedes that corporate self-interest is at work in the curriculum provided by Deloitte, whose career-choice materials include profiles of the company's chairman and an audit manager. But she believes students benefit.
"If through the curriculum they consider becoming an accountant and thinking about Deloitte," she says, "that isn't a bad thing."
One of corporate-sponsored curricula's largest conduits into U.S. classrooms is Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit organization that develops engineering coursework used in more than 2,000 schools nationwide. For high schools, it offers eight full-year engineering courses, including digital electronics and civil engineering. It also provides five 10-week units for middle schools on topics such as robotics.
"What these companies bring is contemporary expertise that can sometimes be insulated in a purely academic environment," says Niel Tebbano, Lead the Way's vice president of operations. With a traditional, theoretical approach to math or sciences, he says, "you get the young people asking, 'Why do I need to learn this?' " The lack of real-world application for this knowledge, he says, "has been the albatross around public education's neck."