Partnership Is a Two-Way Street: What It Takes for Business to Help Drive School Reform

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American K-12 schooling is in need of transformative improvement, and business can play a valuable role in retooling school systems for the new century. Business can provide the leverage, expertise, and leadership that will help educators and public officials make tough decisions and take hard steps they may not take on their own.

Too often, business has put its good intentions to work in the service of ineffectual systems. While volunteer tutoring and college scholarships are beneficial, this kind of involvement will not power the transformative change needed to significantly increase student achievement. If business leaders are serious about school improvement, they must play a more forceful role and drive harder bargains with state officials and school district educators.They must insist that in return for their support, educators will use new resources and tools to transform--not merely subsidize--public education in the United States.

What kind of business involvement does it take to truly make a difference in the education arena? Business can function as a critical customer, a partner, or a policy advocate. Leaders in Austin, Nashville, and Massachusetts adopted each of these roles, thus stepping up to make a big difference in K-12 schooling. In each case, business leaders talked seriously and bluntly with educators. They recruited respected experts to lead the reform efforts. They built sustainable structures, brought top-level executives to the table, and stayed engaged. They tackled tough questions, understood that some steps would be political and unpopular, and took the heat when there was pushback.

In communities across America, business leaders recognize that K-12 schooling can and must do better. With the right approach, transformational change is possible. It's time for business leaders to roll up their sleeves 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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