How can business help education?
What, specifically, should business do to improve education? Five suggestions:
First, business has expertise in areas like performance evaluation, human resources, information technology, and data systems. Tom Donahue of the U.S. Chamber noted that in a study earlier this year, “Not a single state could provide systematic data on teacher performance or return on investment. No responsible publicly or privately held firm could operate successfully with such a lack of data. While education policymakers have invested great energy in gathering student achievement data, they have paid inadequate attention to developing the kind of information essential to driving organizational improvement.” These are areas where business has decades of hard-won experience. Companies can pass on the lessons to schools.
One development is the benchmarking initiative launched by the American Product Quality Center. APQC is working with districts across the nation to bring to school systems the attention to process and quality control that characterizes high-performing public and private organizations. Another promising venture is the work by the New York–based New Teacher Project to analyze school district personnel policies and human resource departments, devise improvements, and provide solutions.
Second, any vibrant sector requires that strong new ventures have access to venture capital, be able to secure expertise and talent, and have the opportunity to grow. K–12 education directs the vast majority of funds to school systems on a per-pupil basis. As a result, there is little support for new entrants. Even the best new ventures, such as the highly regarded KIPP academies, have had to search hard for minuscule support. As a result, such innovative schools have grown too slowly.
Business leaders should know better. They appreciate the risks in making organizations work and the bracing discipline of accountability and competition. This knowledge should not be left on the shelf when business tackles education. Not just the lack of resources, but also the lack of networks, mentoring, and a straightforward way to locate potential investors, all deter potential entrepreneurs. One attractive model is the San Francisco–based NewSchools Venture Fund, co-founded by venture capitalist John Doerr and staffed, in part, with former high-tech executives and consultants from McKinsey and Accenture. NewSchools offers funding to new providers while tapping its own network to give strategic planning, financial modeling, and fundraising help.
Third, business can get out in front on contentious education reform issues when education innovators themselves can’t. Unfortunately, organizations like Teach for America (TFA) and Edison Schools need to advance cautiously with education authorities in order to preserve relationships and develop new markets. Just consider how multinationals trying to enter China are unlikely to criticize Chinese policy on free speech, and you will get an idea of how difficult it is for TFA to be aggressive with local school boards. Critical leadership—of the sort offered by Jobs, Gates, and Gerstner—is what outsiders often are best equipped to provide.
Fourth, business needs to get tough with school boards, superintendents, and state officials. As it is, too many corporate leaders prefer to avoid conflict that can spark bad feelings or negative publicity. They want education reform, but they want it quiet, collaborative, and calm. However, fixing dysfunctional organizations is always messy, and taking back prerogatives from unions is inevitably a bruising struggle.
The business community is a key player in local bond drives and other efforts to provide more dollars for schooling. Business leaders have too often given money, muscle, and support without demanding substantial reform in exchange. It’s time to strike a savvier bargain. The price of support should be serious movement on fronts such as merit pay, deregulation, expansion of school choice, and transparency.
Finally, business leaders have experience and credibility on issues like accountability, compensation, and management that can allow them to serve as the voice of reason when would-be reformers champion ill-conceived notions. For instance, one popular reform idea is a dubious proposal known as the “65 percent solution,” which has won support from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and other politicians who usually know better. The proposal appears unexceptional, mandating that school districts commit at least 65 percent of their budgets to classroom expenditures, apparently as an alternative to overspending on administration.
The measure, however, is troubling because, in an era when successful schools are finding new ways to deliver education—whether through virtual schooling, supplemental tutoring, or hybrid high school–college programs—it embraces a bookkeeping gimmick that could stifle creative staffing or use of technology. Business needs to take the lead in educating the public and policymakers about the promise and the pitfalls of such measures that claim to advance businesslike virtues.