Jun 14, 2011

The Role Business Can Play In Improving Our Schools

Frederick M. Hess is resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He has authored influential books on education including "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels," and writes the Education Week blog "Rick Hess Straight Up." A former high school social studies teacher, he has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, and Harvard University.

Whitney Downs is a research assistant in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy, where she focuses on school cost-cutting practices, the role of private enterprise and business engagement in public education, and the legal and structural barriers faced by education leaders.

Have businesses always worked with American schools, and are these partnerships now on the rise? Why?

Whether it was Horace Mann leading the Common School charge in the 19th century, or Bill Gates deeming the American high school "obsolete" in the 21st, business leaders have recognized that they have a vital role to play in American education. While there's no good data to tell or quantify if these partnerships have grown, business leaders know that the quality of new workers is crucial to their success. As a result, they have a practical interest-- as well as a civic one-- in helping to improve school quality.

Are the most successful partnerships between business leaders and school officials occurring at the state, district or local-school levels?
In the report, we focus on terrific efforts at the city and at the state level. It's less where you do it than how well you do it. And what we try to show in the report is what it looks like to do it well while the same time providing some practical guidance on how to get there.

What are the benefits that result from partnerships between the businesses community and schools?

Effective business involvement can lend political muscle and credibility to reform efforts. It can also provide ballast and staying power in a system where district leadership can change and flavor of the week reforms often rule the day. Business can also bring practical expertise to thorny educational issues like evaluation and data systems – issues business leaders have been wrestling with for a half-century or more.

What are the obstacles to achieving such partnerships and ensuring they last
It can be politically perilous. Taking tough stances with school leaders can attract criticism, and supporting policy changes often draws political opposition. Business leaders have a lot on their plate. It's easy to get distracted, and it requires a concerted effort to acquire expertise, figure out how to focus, and to stay the course.

What is some advice business leaders can use to help overcome these obstacles?

It's easier to fend off political backlash when the business community as a whole steps up on issues, as opposed to an individual firm or CEO. Business leaders have community-wide credibility, and when they speak out as a collective, it's harder to ignore their advice or demonize their motives. In regards to the limited attention span of business when it comes to education, we saw that structures to organize business involvement – as well as staff devoted to hammering out logistics and ensuring meetings happen – can be hugely helpful in ensuring a sustained, long-term and consistent involvement.

In which communities do you think the business community has had the most impact on education?

In the report, we profile enormously successful business communities in Austin, Nashville, and Massachusetts. While these locales certainly aren't the only examples of business successfully making an impact on education, the depth and sustained level of business involvement in these communities is relatively unique in a country where business leaders have often been told to simply write checks and let educators do the rest.

What about the criticism that schools are different from businesses, and therefore shouldn't be run like them or, maybe, even influenced by them?
The first is a red herring. There is no one way a "business" is run, and, in any event, no one is suggesting that business leaders tell schools how they should operate or serve kids. Rather, there's a need for support, expertise, and tough-minded pressure that business can provide. On the second, we often hear that schools are democratic, civic entities. Well, business is an important part of a given community. Business leaders have a responsibility and a right, as does any other citizen, to help promote school improvement. And given the practical concerns and political clout of business, there's an enormous upside to having business leaders actively engaged.

To read the full Chamber of Commerce report, please click here: Chamber of Commerce report.

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