Business has long recognized the connection between an effective school system and a qualified workforce—by some estimates, the private sector invests $4 billion annually in efforts intended to improve public education.
So why isn't that investment paying off?
"Business leaders today are engaged in education in ways that are generous, well-intended, effective at alleviating the symptoms of a weak education system, and thoroughly inadequate to help strengthen the system," says Harvard Business School Professor Jan W. Rivkin, a leader with University Professor Michael Porter of the School's U.S. Competitiveness Project. Rivkin is the Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Business Administration.
“Study after study has shown that a country's long-term prosperity depends on the quality of its human capital”
Rivkin and fellow HBS faculty Allen S. Grossman and Kevin W. Sharer have joined forces with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group to determine how business leaders can partner more effectively with educators to support America's students and schools.
"Study after study has shown that a country's long-term prosperity depends on the quality of its human capital," says Rivkin. "So if we're really falling down in that arena, we have an economic problem so important that business leaders can't sit on the sidelines."
On the positive side, this could be a promising moment for American education. Rivkin points to developments such as improved teaching and leadership talent, the use of technology in personalized learning, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, wider school choice, and a dramatic upgrade in the quality and use of data analytics to determine what is working in education and what isn't.
So where do business leaders fit in? The group's recently published work identifies three areas that capitalize on business's strengths and result in the greatest returns:
- Influencing policy. "We know that policy often stands in the way of innovation and education," says Rivkin. "Business leaders can wield a great deal of influence in policy—especially local policy—and local policy is where all the action is in education." In Denver, for example, business leaders partnered with educators to lobby for an increase in taxes to support education.
- Building on proven innovation. "There's no shortage of success stories in particular schools and districts," Rivkin says. "The problem is that they tend to get bottled up in individual localities." Since business leaders are often adept at scaling up innovations that work, why not leverage that expertise? ExxonMobil, a founding sponsor of the National Math and Science Initiative, helped to scale two projects: one focusing on improved training for science, technology, and math teachers, the other on improving advanced placement test results in the same areas.
- Reinventing the local education ecosystem. Many communities have programs to support children and education—but they're often not coordinated, resulting in gaps and redundancies in service. This a fertile area for collaboration. "What you see in some places are business, civic, and education leaders partnering to create a strategy to support kids from cradle to career," says Rivkin. In Cincinnati, the Strive Partnership serves as a central clearing house for aligning goals with the metrics and decisions to meet those goals. "This fosters a sense of collective responsibility but individual accountability," says Rivkin. As another example, the GE Foundation sponsors Developing Futures, a program that partners with seven school districts where GE has major operations to upgrade management talent and processes at the district level.
Obstacles To Overcome
So what's the likelihood that these sorts of partnerships will become more prevalent? The private sector's $4 billion per year investment in education is a drop in the bucket when you consider the $600 billion total spent annually on US K-12 education. But it is still a significant sum with high-impact potential. Unfortunately, no clear, aggregate data exist to indicate how that money is spent, or its effectiveness.
The U.S. Competitiveness Project and its partners surveyed business leaders and school superintendents to gain a clearer understanding of the two groups' interactions.
The picture that emerges is a mixed one. On the plus side, 95 percent of superintendents could point to some form of business engagement in their districts. But on closer examination, much of that engagement can be characterized as "checkbook philanthropy" in the form of donated money, goods, and scholarships.
"These are noble efforts that are effective in their own way," says Rivkin, "but they don't result in positive, lasting improvements to the system."
Superintendents are happy with this sort of interaction, the survey showed, and 80 percent would welcome more collaboration, with a majority indicating openness to new types of engagement.
The two groups had very different perceptions of the effectiveness of K-12 education, however: Business leaders characterized the system as "poor and deteriorating" compared to other advanced nations' while superintendents saw it as "strong and keeping pace."
Another potential barrier to productive partnership: Business leaders tend to give themselves more credit for being informed about education than superintendents do.
Rivkin notes that in the survey of superintendents, the qualitative comments section also showed a clear undercurrent of distrust and lack of respect. "The gist was that a business leader would come in and say, 'I know how to run my business so I know how to run your school.'" The attitude that superintendents desired of business leaders was quite different: "I'm going to learn first, you're the professionals when it comes to education," Rivkin summarizes. "I'll have my ideas, but we're going to do this together."
The group's ongoing efforts currently include several publications available for download at the U.S. Competitiveness Project's website, including Lasting Impact: A Business Leader's Playbook for Supporting America's Schools and Partial Credit: How America's School Superintendents See Business as a Partner.
"There are some good, evidence-based programs that business leaders can start getting behind," Rivkin says, "but there's no question that we need a better understanding of what actually works."
The partnership between business and education must be long term, he adds. "The problems that we've seen in the education system and in our approach to human capital have been a generation in the making, and it will take a generation to set them right. Most businesses have an approach to partnering with educators that made sense in the past but is not adequate for the needs or the opportunities of the future."