The Brink of Renewal: A Business Leader’s Guide to Progress in America’s Schools

Major cities in the U.S. are committed to improving education, and their resolve is beginning to bear fruit. Cities such as Boston, New York, New Orleans, Dallas, and Denver have made measurable progress in student achievement and graduation rates. Denver, for example, boosted on-time graduation rates from 38.7 percent to 61.3 percent over a recent six-year period.

However, while individual examples of progress are heartening (and worth celebrating), the big picture isn’t nearly as bright.

On the whole, the nation’s preK-12 education system continues to be plagued by low overall achievement, wide achievement gaps, and uncertain prospects for the future. Consider just one indicator: the U.S. spends more on its schools than almost all other industrialized nations, and yet its students still lag behind their global peers—performing at or below average on many international measures.

It’s no surprise that pessimism prevails. In a recent Harvard Business School survey on U.S. competitiveness, the nearly 7,000 business leaders who responded named preK-12 education among the greatest weaknesses in the U.S. business environment. A significant majority also said they believe the U.S. is falling behind in preK-12 education compared with other nations.

Despite the troubling data, we believe that today can represent a historic turning point for U.S. schools. Promising trends, some decades in the making, are converging to make a transformation of the U.S. education system possible. Three decades ago, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform—a landmark report on U.S. education—sparked a movement toward clear and higher standards and unleashed a wave of school reform. Since then, U.S. educators have been reorganizing, restructuring, and rethinking each piece of the system. Changes have touched everything from how teachers are trained to how students are tested to how schools collect data. The once-frozen system is freeing up.

These changes are now converging in a way that has the potential to promote transformational change in the preK-12 system—change that fundamentally alters how local ecosystems function and what results they produce. Three underlying processes are at work:

  • Experimentation. It has become easier to innovate in schools.
  • Detection. We increasingly have the data and information to tell which innovations are working.
  • Scaling. The forces that allow successful innovations to spread have strengthened.

The various elements that make these processes possible—from sophisticated data and rigorous standards to effective teachers and quality curriculum—are detailed in our report.

The stage is set for a reshaping of the U.S. education system, but education leaders cannot do it alone. They need the support and partnership of leaders throughout the community. Businesspeople are uniquely positioned to play a major role. Many are accustomed to innovating and taking a long-term perspective; they know how to think systemically; and they’re well-versed in the kinds of operational best practices that can help educators manage large systems. Moreover, as employers, they often wield considerable influence at the local level.

Our companion report, Lasting Impact: A Business Leader’s Playbook for Supporting America’s Schools, describes how business executives can best partner with educators to help improve schools.