The Business of Education

Job one, when it comes to national competiveness, is dramatically boosting the quality of America's schools. That's something upon which everyone can agree. President Obama. U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue. President Bush. Intel CEO Craig Barrett. The trick is how to get there.

Business and civic leaders have long been key players in the push to improve America's schools. Whether it was Horace Mann leading the Common School charge in the 19th century, or Bill Gates deeming the American high school "obsolete" in the 21st, they've been essential to making change happen. For all the energy and concern, though, the frustrating reality is that many well-meaning business efforts--scholarships, supplies, and mentoring, for example--seem to yield little meaningful change. This is because the problem is the system itself.

The happier news is that some state and local business communities have found ways to play a catalytic role, helping to transform the quality of schools and schooling in a community or region. What kind of business involvement does it take to truly make a difference in the education arena? For our recent report, "Partnership Is a Two-Way Street: What It Takes for Business to Help Drive School Reform," we examined three locales--Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; and Massachusetts--to see what we could learn. We found that there are three crucial roles business can play when it comes to improving K-12 education: critical customer, partner, and policy advocate.

In Austin, being a critical customer involves raising the sense of urgency, tracking metrics, and providing opportunities for educational leaders to connect and problem-solve across district lines. The Austin Chamber exceeded its five-year goal to enroll 20,000 more central Texas residents in higher education by 2010, an overall increase of more than 30 percent, while building a new data system to help counselors track students' college-enrollment status, publish rankings on enrollment every two weeks, and release report cards on achievement once a year.

While the Austin Chamber's approach seems especially well-suited to a city with many districts, Nashville's coalition of businesses has partnered with the countywide school system of 76,000 students. Nashville's academy model--featuring over 116 business-school partnerships--ensures that every high-school student is in an industry-themed academy they've chosen. Nashville's graduation rate rose from 68.8 percent at the beginning of the effort in 2006 to 82.9 percent in 2010. Mayor Karl Dean said business support has been crucial: "We're in a period . . . where you have to make painful choices. . . . The idea that Nashville as a city has accepted education as a top priority--it helps people get it."

The Massachusetts business community, working through the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), has played the role of policy advocate for more than two decades, helping sort through tough policy decisions and craft legislative solutions that meet the needs of business. The MBAE commissioned and disseminated a pivotal evaluation of the Common Core standards as the Massachusetts Board of Education wavered on adoption, with the MBAE's positive determination ultimately playing a key role in the board's unanimous vote to adopt. "The fact that the report emerged from MBAE, which is seen as the guardian of education and a mainstream business group, [made it] . . . more effective," said Massachusetts secretary of education Paul Reville.

Across all three locales, and despite variations in strategy, five key elements of bold business leadership were consistently evident.

First, business leaders should be partners, not pawns. Working with school districts or policymakers doesn't mean carrying their water; it means settling on shared objectives and pursuing them jointly.

Second, when business leaders work with state and school-district officials on K-12 schooling, they need to keep in mind that they are negotiating not as claimants but as valued partners. They can leverage unique assets such as their political muscle, continuity, and ability to deploy resources quickly and efficiently.

Third, businesses often have other priorities besides K-12 education, so it is vital to structure a role that allows business to sustain its involvement and not permit the effort to be an enthusiasm that comes and goes.

Fourth, effective engagement requires that business leaders invest time and energy to become acquainted with the issues and the local stakeholders. They should hire an expert who knows the ins and outs of education policy and can leverage the strengths of business to drive improvement.

Lastly, and maybe most crucially, business leaders seeking to drive reform should not shy away from policy and politics. There is a natural inclination to stay out of heated education debates, but school systems are public agencies spending public dollars to serve the public's children. Serious reform requires changing policy, and that means political debate.

In an era where over-caffeinated reformers are making over-the-top claims and status-quo defenders are screaming that it's a terrible idea to pay great teachers more than bad teachers, businesses' staying power and practical approach to educational challenges are much-needed assets. It is clearly possible to chart a new course toward transformational change. Business leaders serious about school reform need to roll up their sleeves, pull on some work boots, and get to it.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI. Whitney Downs is a research assistant at AEI.

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