01 Jun 2014


School Ties

America must improve its PK–12 system, says HBS's US Competitiveness Project—and business has a key role to play
by Garry Emmons

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Photo by Thinkstock

When Jan Rivkin talks about what the US educational system must deliver, he lays out the challenge in stark terms. "For young Americans to succeed in today's workforce, they must out-innovate and out-produce the world's best," declares Rivkin, the Bruce V. Rauner Professor at HBS and cochair of the School's US Competitiveness Project. Because business leaders have a profound economic and moral stake in making that happen, Rivkin adds, "the most progressive of them are moving into hands-on, long-term partnerships with educators. That's what's really needed if America is going to
lead in public education and business competitiveness."

Balancing the Books

Four ways that business is partnering with PK-12

Enabling innovation. Companies in San Antonio, Texas, worked to gain voter approval for a tax increase to fund quality prekindergarten programs.

Scaling innovation. ExxonMobil is helping the National Math and Science Initiative to share its successful teacher development and advanced placement initiatives with hundreds of partners across the country.

Formulating strategy. Concerned about the quality of his state's schools, the chairman of a local Delaware bank organized a committee from a cross-section of society. The group issued a plan that became the foundation for Delaware's winning entry for the Race to the Top program.

Strategy implementation. Local business executives are lending their expertise to help educators complete a huge merger of districts in Tennessee.

In 2013, Rivkin and faculty colleagues Allen Grossman, Kevin Sharer, and Michael Porter partnered with the Boston Consulting Group and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to research how business could best help improve America's education system. After a November conference of more than 100 business and education leaders, a report was issued that highlighted three kinds of actions where business "champions," working alongside educators, could most add value: advocating policies that enable education innovation; scaling up innovations with positive, proven results; and implementing comprehensive strategies that upgrade education in specific cities or towns.

A second report released in February of this year examined the results of the first-ever nationwide survey of school superintendents on the role of business in America's education system. Completed by more than 1,100 superintendents of the largest school districts in the country, the survey found that business is involved in 95 percent of America's school districts, but mostly in a fragmented array of efforts that focus on short-term benefits for students (e.g., donating money and materials) rather than on long-term improvement of the education system (e.g., jointly studying and implementing global best practices). Though some superintendents are frustrated by how business has approached education in the past, more than 80 percent of superintendents would welcome new and deeper business engagement in the future. There are, however, important barriers to greater engagement, including significant differences between education and business leaders in their assessments of America's schools. Notes Rivkin, "Compared to the typical superintendent, HBS alumni are far more likely to see America's education system as lagging and falling behind the systems in other advanced economies."

Nonetheless, Rivkin believes the survey's findings show that conditions are ripe for business leaders and educators to come together and create improved, sustainable outcomes. In the coming months, he says, the goal of the HBS, BCG, and the Gates Foundation alliance is to encourage and enable business leaders, with their educator partners, to find innovative ways to do that. "In addition to identifying issues, getting ideas out, and convening stakeholders," says Rivkin, "the Competitiveness Project aims to help spur business leaders and educators to take action. They're the ones who must take the steps to build mutual understanding and trust, to create the partnerships that can improve student outcomes, city by city and town by town."

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