Notes from the 2005 Business Education Network Summit
by Brett Pawlowski - October 2005
Businesses have taken an increasingly active role in public education ever since the 1983 release of “A Nation at Risk,” an alarming report on the state of education published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. While business involvement in K-12 education has grown to become a common phenomenon, with companies contributing the equivalent of $2.5 billion in resources each year, so far no one has brought these businesses together to identify priorities, coordinate efforts, and share best practices.
After identifying a need for this type of coordination among its members and other interested parties, the US Chamber of Commerce launched the Business Education Network (BEN) as an initiative of its nonprofit Center for Corporate Citizenship. This initiative was officially launched during its first official gathering—the Business Education Network Summit—held October 5-7, 2005 in Washington DC. More than 400 people came together to hear from federal and state officials, Fortune 500 CEOs, and other prominent individuals, all of whom focused on identifying and addressing the critical needs of our K-12 education system.
For those unable to attend the summit, this paper will serve as an overview of topics discussed there. It should also act as an invitation to get involved in both the Business Education Network and in the fight to revitalize America’s schools.
A Clear Look at the Issue
There is clear evidence that American students are not keeping pace with those in other countries, and summit presenters repeatedly referred to the result of the recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey as proof.
For example, OECD reported that the US ranks 16 of 21 surveyed countries in terms of its current upper secondary graduation rate, with a reported rate of 71%. Further, 15-year old students in America came in 24th of 29 countries in both mathematical performance and cross-curricular problem-solving capabilities. These poor results coincide with a rather large investment: America ranks second of 30 countries in terms of per-student expenditures as well as educational expenditures relative to Gross Domestic Product (close to 7% of GDP).
Tom Houlihan, Executive Director of the Council for Chief State School Officers, further highlighted the strong focus on math and science in other countries as he talked about the Intel Challenge, a competition in which 64,000 American students competed, compared with 6 million Chinese students who participated.
Even without comparing ourselves to other countries, the need for quantum change is clear. JW Marriott, CEO of Marriott Hotels, noted that only 18% of our ninth graders will end up making it through college on time, given dropout and delayed graduation rates in both high school and college years. He also noted that 60% of newly-created jobs will require advanced math skills, while only 20% of our students possess those skills. These two simple facts point to a domestic workforce that will simply not be qualified for the jobs of the future.
According to various speakers, Americans are also hamstrung by the way in which we’ve built our education system, both in terms of local/state/federal funding and control and in terms of school structure as it has developed over the past 200 years. Hedrick Smith, Executive Producer of the current PBS prime-time program Making Schools Work noted that the lack of a single national education system (like those of India, China, and others) makes change slow and uneven, and that local school systems do not have the resources needed to gain international perspective or benchmarking capabilities in this era of global competition.
Further, schools in the US still reflect models that have long since passed, such as the continuation of summer breaks (a remnant of an agrarian society that no longer exists). Smith noted that the US school year contains 20 days/year fewer than the international average, and 40 days/year fewer than Japan. Michael Barone, Senior Writer for US News and World Report, highlighted the fact that US schools are built on an industrial/manufacturing model, and that as American society has changed to an information age, its schools have not kept pace, maintaining a command and control approach as opposed to a discovery and networking approach.
The problems faced by public education are indisputable; while daunting, they were countered by a surprising, sincere, and strong sense of optimism on the part of all presenters as they addressed the three themes highlighted below.
Theme 1: Assessment and Accountability
There was clear consensus among the speakers that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law in January 2002, is forcing positive changes into public education. Passed with strong bipartisan support, NCLB requires schools to test children on their math and reading skills in grades 3-8, then once more in high schools. Data are disaggregated, meaning that average scores can no longer hide poor performance among any student subgroups, and there are consequences for schools that do not show progress being made by every subgroup present at the school.
This new accountability has caused a tremendous shift in focus among US schools, perhaps best captured by a statement from Margery Mayer, President of Scholastic Education: “Ten years ago, when our salespeople visited a school, they were being asked what kind of free materials would accompany their purchases. Today, they’re being asked what impact our products will have on student achievement.”
School administrators and government officials have started collecting and using data to gauge the success of schools. This new practice is already fueling both public and professional discussions on the quality of our schools and, more importantly, how we can use data to identify proven practices and adopt them to increase performance. Websites such as www.just4kids.org provide access to information including not only an individual school’s test scores, but also the trends in that school’s scores over time, along with comparisons between that school and a group of similar schools to see whether the school is performing as well as one can expect.
As Dana Egreczky of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s Business Coalition for Educational Excellence points out, “Just For the Kids (www.just4kids.org) allows parents or community members to go to a principal and say, ‘Look at the test scores from other schools like ours. Here are their best practices—why can’t we do this?’”
Of course, while this focus on measurability is positive, NCLB is far from flawless as it is currently being implemented. Among the major challenges:
- Statistics can lie. Dana Egreczky highlighted as one example the New Jersey Department of Education’s release of annual data, which showed a graduation rate around 85% (compared to 67% nationally). Further research determined that the state was calculating this based on the population present for the first day of 12th grade classes, which is different from the way others measure it.
- Michael Cohen, President of Achieve Inc., pointed out that many sets of state standards do not result in a child being prepared for college. In other words, if assessments align to state standards, and a child passes every assessment, that child will still not be college-ready. Educators must ensure that standards reflect the level of competence colleges and employers expect from our students.
- Tom Houlihan noted that, while reading and math were important indicators, there must be a national discussion about what people believe to be important outcomes of public education and how those outcomes will be measured. Most people would agree that financial literacy and civic awareness/engagement are both important; however, without ways of assessing them, and making sure they’re tracked, these skills will likely not be taught.
- While schools within a state can be compared, the disparities between standards and assessment tools from state to state make it difficult if not impossible to do cross-state or national comparisons, according to Gene Hickok, who served as Undersecretary of Education for President Bush and was a primary architect of NCLB. To allow national as well as international comparisons, public schools may need to consider national definitions and national measurement models.
For an accountability system instituted in 2002, NCLB has proven to be an invaluable start in improving our education system; however, it is far from perfect, and there must be continual efforts to ensure it reflects the public’s priorities and desired results.
Theme II: Communication
While business can certainly make a strong contribution to public education, several speakers noted that the problem—and solution—is larger than any single stakeholder group. Parents, politicians, businesses, nonprofits, philanthropists, unions, educators, students, and the community at large must all recognize the scale of the problem and work together to address it.
Presenters were in agreement on the need to garner public will in order to effect change; however, there was no clear consensus on how to do that. It seems clear that the scope and immediacy of the problem have not been communicated to the general public. Part of the problem is a general lack of understanding of the education market; as Gene Hickok noted, there has been a strong tradition in this country of treating education as education’s business, although he noted that this is starting to change.
Two speakers also highlighted the fact that a serious response to the problems of education will require more than a classroom response. Carr Thompson of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund noted that children spend only 14% of their time in schools, stating that the value and excitement of education needs to be reinforced during the 86% of the time students are out of school. Tom Vander Ark, Executive Director of Education for The Gates Foundation, also noted that schools are not isolated—they need to be supported by a learning society to drive real change.
But the question remains: how can everyone involved in education be energized to realize this challenge and work together to conquer it? James Whaley, Vice President of Siemens Foundation, noted that if the US Olympic team was 19th in the world, there would certainly be a rapid response. Members of a panel on science and math instruction also discussed how the space race in the 1950s and 60s made science and engineering a national priority, and then asked the question: What is the modern day Sputnik? How can public opinion be coalesced to address this crisis?
Theme III: Business’ Role in Education
Given the focus of the conference, it was natural for business leaders to talk about the ways in which business could contribute to the renewal of public education. And there were many thoughts and suggestions, including:
- Approach education as a partner—Gene Hickok (among others) noted that it’s easy to not be heard when you’re simply demanding better results of schools. By offering support to help schools achieve more—whether that support is in the form of resources, volunteers, communications or political support—businesses will find a much more receptive audience among educators.
- Get involved at any level—Stephen Jordan of the US Chamber noted that more than 90% of corporate involvement is locally based. Companies should not overlook opportunities to join or engage with school boards or work with individual schools (through volunteering, etc.) to raise achievement. The solution will require the involvement of more than a few national companies; it will take thousands and thousands of small and medium-sized companies making any kind of contribution they can within their local communities.
- Make a difference politically—Former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt told of how he raised education funding by more than $1 billion to cover the cost of teacher bonuses based on performance. He brought 12 of the top business leaders in the state to testify before the House and Senate on the need for greater academic performance, and how they wanted to see these bonuses put into effect despite the increased taxes. The measure passed almost unanimously.
- Lend business expertise—The education market is starting to operate more like business, and speakers identified many areas in which business can help educators and administrators grow and adapt. These include:
- Handling change successfully and maintaining change initiatives during inevitable changes at the leadership level
- Taking new programs and initiatives to scale; replicating success
- Focusing on best practices and benchmarking
- Developing capabilities and infrastructure in the area of data collection, analysis, and communication
This first annual BEN Summit was an incredible gathering of people interested in driving change in education; the organization promises to be a pioneer in this area. To learn more about BEN, visit www.businesseducationnetwork.com.
Brett Pawlowski is President of DeHavilland Associates, a consulting firm specializing in campaign design and communications and evaluation strategy in the education outreach market. He has spent several years working with organizations on their education outreach strategy and is a recognized voice in the industry.