School–Business Partnerships: Learning New Lessons

by Andrea Gabor

from the Autumn 2012/Issue 68

In the midst of a great unemployment crisis, there is also a yawning talent gap. For the marketing function or the factory floor, recruiters seek applicants with the scientific knowledge, communication skills, and technological acumen that many high school graduates (and even some college graduates) lack. That’s why business leaders are pushing for school reform with such urgency; they see public schools as both suppliers of talent and incubators of the future, and they want to help education leaders become more effective.

Unfortunately, most business–education partnerships have been formed around a core set of school reform ideas that can be appealing in theory but don’t seem to work in practice. These include competition-based reforms, including most voucher and charter school systems, incentive pay for teachers, some management training programs for education leaders, and the intensive use of digital educational technology.

One basic attitude underlying these reforms is that schools need to be run more like businesses. In practice, that means adopting a competitive management style that imposes numerical goals, rewards high performers disproportionately, blames labor unions for poor performance, and forces each individual to prove his or her value every day. In other words, school reformers are promoting top-down, carrot-and-stick, compliance-driven management ideas that (as quality-movement leader W. Edwards Deming and others have pointed out) are unreliable and, in many cases, counterproductive — even in business.

Moreover, virtually all the studies on key reform initiatives, including the charter movement and merit pay for teachers, suggest that these measures have failed to improve education outcomes. Two of many examples: A 2009 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent of charter schools earned better test scores than traditional schools, and 37 percent did significantly worse. A major 2010 study by Vanderbilt University found that teachers who were offered a US$15,000 bonus for improving student test scores over a three-year period performed no differently than teachers who weren’t included in the offer.

“[The effort] to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy: Measure, then punish or reward,” writes Diane Ravitch in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2011). “The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education.”

How, then, should businesspeople who are genuinely interested in school reform take on the challenge? Start by recognizing that you have a great deal to offer education — if you can draw on the most collaborative, generative aspects of business thinking and action, following the examples of companies that promote transparency, engagement, shared accountability, continuous improvement, and organizational learning. For example, a recent study by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, “Collaborating on School Reform,” shows that contrary to popular practice and the dictates of many corporate education reformers, the secret to long-term improvement for teachers, schools, and students is “substantive collaboration” at all levels — the classroom, the school, the district, the community; in short, collaboration among all key stakeholders.

Many educators appreciate the value of participative management and leadership training. “If you are trying to run a system as large as a small city, you need a diverse set of skills,” says Shael Polakow-Suransky, senior deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education, noting that when the city’s education system was controlled almost entirely by educators, it was “incredibly poorly run.” When the district began to draw talent from the private sector in the 1990s, he adds, there were some false starts in which businesspeople clashed with educators. “We learned that we need both [forms of expertise],” he says.

On the ground, the most effective business–education partnerships are those that foster innovative education opportunities in which both students and parents can participate, and those that create bridges between schools and the outside world, including potential employers. The following stories demonstrate some of the principles that help these partnerships work. What distinguishes them from many outright failures is the quality of collaboration. In these examples, business leaders did more than donate funds and technology; rather, schools and businesses sought to learn from one another.


Fostering Tech Experiments

Many education reformers have applauded the potential of technology: netbooks, video learning, and electronic educational games. But in practice, technology designed for consumers and homeschooling is not well suited to the needs of inner-city kids or to use within the public school classroom. Computer infrastructure hardware company Cisco Systems began to experiment in the mid-2000s, in partnership with schools, to find more effective ways to introduce technology to classrooms. Its experiments demonstrate the promise and value of these projects, and the difficulties involved in maintaining them.

In Louisiana, the challenge came with assessing the value of the partnership. One report, by the Center for Children and Technology, found that Cisco’s partnership with the local school district had helped “launch a dramatic educational transformation.” At the same time, progress has lagged expectations. Although Jefferson Parish ranks sixth out of 60 Louisiana school districts in percentage performance gains between 2008 and 2011, the district still received a “D” on its state evaluation, based on 2011 student test scores. Lessons learned from Cisco’s experience indicate that business–education partnerships should:

• Be set up so that all aspects of the project are transparent to outsiders, even if corporations profit from the R&D

• Foster experimentation, because it is not always clear in advance which ideas and projects will work best

• Establish in-depth training for every new technology, with businesspeople and educators learning from each other


At their best, partnerships like Cisco’s in Jefferson Parish, LA and New York City represent a virtuous circle in which a company helps school districts develop priorities, strategies, and expertise while educators help the business understand how technology is used on the ground, enabling the business to develop more useful products.

The most realistic road to school reform starts with recognition that business has a tremendous — and growing — stake in the success of public schools. That is why business–education partnerships are likely to proliferate, especially as schools and school districts struggle. In the most successful experiments innovation becomes, almost literally, everyone’s job. Just as school administrators, teachers, and students can learn from business executives, companies interested in education reform would do well to learn from the schools they want to help. The challenges they face, as well as the remedies that work best, might surprise them. Reprint No. 00126