The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, April 07, 2006

How can business make an impact?

I’ve been going through some recent announcements by businesses highlighting their involvement in education. There’s some pretty remarkable stuff going on:

  • Cisco’s 21st Century Schools program, through which they’re committing $40 million to help with Louisiana rebuilding activities
  • Intel awarding over half a million dollars in scholoarships to the winners of its annual Intel Science Talent Search (just one component of the company’s annual $100 million worldwide commitment to science/math education)
  • Ford and AAA are awarding $6 million in prizes and scholarships to teens participating in an auto tech challenge designed to highlight auto technician work as a career path
  • IBM’s plan to place its employees into the classroom as full-time teachers is going forward, with 65 of the first group of 100 (their pilot group) already selected and working towards their certifications
  • Dell, Microsoft, and Intel just awarded $250,000 each in products and services to three schools who competed with plans for using technology to improve education
  • Best Buy announced $8 million in gifts – including $5 million in computers and $3 million in awards – to “reboot and rebuild” schools in Mississippi and Louisiana
  • The Lucas Group, a professional recruiting firm in Atlanta, is again running its Dreambuilder program, which connects inner city graduating seniors to summer internships with prestigious employers around the city.
  • General Mills’ Box Tops for Education, which has given $175 million to education over the past 10 years, has opened up a new front with its Box Tops for Education Kids’ Caucus, bringing 10 elementary/middle school children (selected from more than 2,000 entries) to Washington to meet with congresspeople to talk about parental involvement in education
  • ExxonMobil has awarded $250,000 in scholarships through its Texas Science and Engineering Fair
  • Adobe announced its Education Leader program, through which 100 educators will be given free software, curriculum, training, and a forum to share best practices. These teachers will act as technology advocates, creating new resources and training additional educators.

These are just some of the programs I’ve come across in the past month – and really only a small fraction of the activity out there. In addition to the hundreds of other national programs out there, there are hundreds of thousands of business/school partnerships occurring at the local level, including volunteer programs, cash or product contributions, and other likeminded efforts.

I’m in awe of these people: the time and money they contribute to education is staggering. While workforce development and community relations/CSR considerations undoubtedly play a part in their decision and help to justify the expenditure, the fact is that they could contribute their resources to almost any social issue – or even better, give it to their shareholders (as Milton Friedman would argue).

So it’s almost ingrateful to ask the question – what impact are we realizing from that tremendous investment?

Since “A Nation At Risk” came out in 1983, businesses have re-engaged in education at a quick pace. According to a report by the National Association of Partners in Education (now defunct) comparing data from 1990 and 2000, districts reported that partnerships with large corporations increased during that time from 29% to 42%; partnerships with medium corporations rose from 34% to 61%; and partnerships with small corporations rose from 41% to 76%. They further report that the value of goods and services from such partnerships rose from $924 million to $2.42 billion in that same time span.

Yet at the same time, accepted education metrics have barely budged. NAEP scores have been stagnant since 1973, when the first longitudinal test was administered. We’re continuing to fall in international comparisons (although to be fair, most people believe that this is more a matter of other countries improving while we stand still, not that we’re doing worse while everyone else stays the same).

So what’s going on?

I don’t know the answer, but I can think of a few possible explanations:

  • The level of investment isn’t enough to move the needle. Education is a $600 billion juggernaut; putting $2.4 billion into it (0.4% of the total budget, for those of you without a calculator handy) barely makes a ripple.
  • This investment actually is making a difference – if it weren’t for this investment, we’d actually be in steep decline, and maintaining the status quo with this limited investment is actually an achievement.
  • The money isn’t being invested strategically. We’re supplementing an existing structure that is not performing, and not taking a seat at the table to redefine desired outcomes and rethinking the ways that we can get there. Using the Titanic as a metaphor (how’s that for leading the reader?), we’re painting the ship as it sinks, not turning the wheel to avoid the icebergs.
  • We’re wasting a lot of that money through duplicated efforts. There’s no national forum or clearinghouse on business/education partnerships, so we’re all making the same mistakes and not learning from one another’s successes. (This is a personal priority – if anyone wants to talk about changing this, call me.)

As I said, I almost hate asking the question – feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But the fact is, we’re not moving forward, and the people who dedicate their time and money to education deserve to see results – not just the inevitable anecdotal impact at a school or two, but a meaningful, systemic change that improves the experience and the outcomes of public education.

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