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Will Big Employers be the Game Changers?

By Doug Lynch

In a knowledge economy, a lot of learning happens outside schools. Clearly, people who have the resources consume all sorts of supplemental education for their children--private lessons, summer camps, test prep courses, and so forth. But I am going to point to an even odder source: employers.

Most people don't know it, but more people learn at work than in the formal K-16 education system. In terms of dollars, corporate America spends more on learning than the nation spends on higher education, and the scale of corporate education can be immense. One of my students is responsible for the development of almost three million employees. That's three times the size of the New York City public schools. But while we all know Joel Klein, how many of you know the chief learning officer at Wal-Mart?

Corporate education is also often a "last chance" for folks whom we have collectively failed in the formal education system--if you work at one of the Yum! Brands franchises, chances are you didn't go to Princeton. By some estimates, over 60% of learning efforts in corporate America involve remediation. Are they doing it for altruistic purposes? If you're a capitalist, the answer is yes. Still, let's be clear: They are doing it to improve their bottom line. Does that mean corporate education isn't innovative and sophisticated? Absolutely not.

I have been awed and fascinated by what these organizations do to help their folks learn. They seem much more willing to experiment with approaches to learning, largely because the future of their business depends on it. While the public rhetoric around school reform shares the sense of urgency I see in corporate America, the actions of school systems don't align with the rhetoric. My point isn't to blame anyone. It could simply be that the schools are unable to adapt.

The sophistication of corporate learning enterprises has led me to believe that in the not too distant future we may see a radically different kind of education reform. Jack Welch, named by Fortune Magazine manager of the century, hired the country's first chief learning officer at GE. The GE Leadership Development Center in Crotonville, NY, became the center of the corporate learning universe, and GE invested significantly in the education of its people.

We also know that corporate America invests more than the federal government does in things like STEM education through CSR and corporate philanthropic activities. Why? Because they want to grow future employees. GE invests significantly in the school districts where it has facilities.

When companies like GE realize that they have significant resources and expertise internally to develop people, and that they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on remediation of their employees AND concurrently investing millions of dollars in the schools where their employees send their kids to try and grow future workers, they may decide to get into the charter school business. One day soon KIPP's biggest "competitor" might be "GE Schools." Fordism may rise again within our schools, and I'm not sure it will be a bad thing.

Doug Lynch is Vice Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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