Note to Business Leaders

Related Expertise: Public Sector, Education

Note to Business Leaders: Partner with Educators to Achieve Lasting Impact

By J. Puckett

You wouldn't know it from the statistics, but the U.S. educational system is on the brink of renewal.

For decades, educational performance in America has lagged behind its potential and has been slipping in world rankings. The U.S. spends more per student on its public schools than any other industrialized nation, but American students still perform at or below average on many international measures. Beyond slow progress, large achievement gaps persist along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. In addition, too many U.S. high-school graduates are simply unprepared to do college-level work, and only about half of those who start college graduate. Even with a rising number of college graduates, most employers report difficulty in finding workers qualified to fill today’s much more demanding positions.

The U.S. business community has endeavored mightily to help improve the situation, investing as much as $4 billion per year in education. And yet much of that investment has not been used as strategically as it could have been.

Business leaders typically invest in schools not to help educators transform long-term performance but rather to make a short-term difference in the lives of specific students, to boost employee morale, and to improve public relations. Consequently, they write checks, donate computers, sponsor student scholarships, encourage employees to volunteer time, and take other steps that have a small and immediate effect—but often have no enduring, systemic impact.

Despite such a problematic outlook, we see a meaningful path forward to renewing the U.S. educational system. A recent partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Boston Consulting Group, and Harvard Business School has found that effective business investments in education have a few key characteristics: they are sustained, focused on making a fundamental impact on student achievement, and executed in partnership with educators.

Each of these factors may sound simple, but the devil lies in the details. In Memphis, Tennessee, business leaders have been partnering with education and civic leaders to holistically change their education system. Most notably, they have updated state-level policies, shifted money from the central office to the classroom, encouraged new school models, and invested in improving teacher effectiveness. Large-scale changes are taking place and progress is beginning to show, with Tennessee students posting among the highest gains on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Another example of the role corporations can play nationally is ExxonMobil’s involvement with the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). NMSI was launched in 2007 with the idea that proven, evidence-based programs could be taken to a national scale with the right level of leadership, resources, and commitment. ExxonMobil donated $125 million to launch the effort, and NMSI raised an equal amount over time from other key partners. NMSI brought together businesses, foundations, governments, and educators to take two pilot programs to scale. The results have been terrific, including significant gains in the number of high-quality math and science teachers and dramatic improvements in the number of students taking and passing AP exams across all demographics.

Ultimately, leaders must take the long view. They need to develop a sustainable plan and inspire people to change. And as the work advances, they must be willing to stay the course in the face of inevitable opposition and setbacks.

Businesspeople are uniquely positioned to play a major role in this educational transformation. Many business leaders are accustomed to innovating and taking a long-term perspective. Many know how to think systemically. Many have long experience in operational best practices that can help educators manage large systems. And as employers, they often wield significant influence at the local level.

Conditions are ripe for partnerships between business and educators that truly create greatly improved and sustainable outcomes. At its best, the business community can play a positive, catalytic role in education. Together, business and education leaders can help chart a course that supports hard-working teachers and administrators to benefit children and, ultimately, improve U.S. competitiveness.