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Business Leaders Lack Knowledge About K-12 Education, Superintendents Say

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Most school superintendents in the United States say businesses are positively influencing their districts, but it's usually in a fragmented, "checkbook philanthropy" way, rather than a transformative, systemic approach, concludes a study and a white paper released today by Harvard Business School, The Boston Consulting Group, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Last fall, Harvard Business School and the Boston Consulting Group surveyed the superintendents of the 10,000 largest school districts in the United States, and 1,118 superintendents responded. The researchers found that just 3 percent of school superintendents rate business leaders as "well-informed" about public education, and 14 percent of the survey respondents say corporate leaders are actually misinformed.

Superintendents are "very reasonably demanding that business leaders learn about education, respect what educators are capable of doing, be a partner, and not be imperial, if you will," Jan W. Rivkin, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and lead researcher on the project, said in a phone interview.

On the other side, business leaders are often frustrated, wishing for "more progress in our education system, but also kind of scared; they don't know what to do, so they give generously, but in a way that is fragmented and not necessarily sustained," he said.

"There's a need for an alignment between the two sectors; what we found in our work is a fundamental missed opportunity," observed Rivkin.

Still, 95 percent of superintendents say that businesses are involved in their schools, according to the survey. By nearly 3 to 1, business efforts to donate money and goods and to support individual students outnumbered deeper engagements in curriculum design, teacher development, and district-level management assistance, the researchers found. 

Ninety percent of superintendents believe that business' engagement leads to a positive impact in education—although only 10 percent say the impact of that involvement has actually been evaluated. Rivkin said corporate participation in education tends to be "focused on alleviating immediate needs, and addressing the problems of a weak system, rather than trying to strengthen the system."

Thumbnail image for Superintendent Survey.JPG

The findings, detailed in Partial Credit: How America's School Superintendents See Business as a Partner, show that most administrators (81 percent) want to see even more business participation at their schools. Of those, about one-quarter would like businesses to get involved in new ways, while 74 percent are looking to sustain the same kinds of engagement.

To address that wish, the three collaborators on the research concurrently released Lasting Impact: A Business Leader's Playbook for Supporting America's Schools, which provides ideas for bridging the divide between "what educators need" and "what businesses are providing."

The playbook focuses on three ways businesses can contribute:

  • Laying the policy foundations for innovation, by, for example, becoming involved in supporting the implementation of Common Core State Standards;
  • Partnering with educators to scale up proven innovations, such as ExxonMobil's work with the National Math and Science Initiative, or IBM's work with the Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn; and,
  • Supporting educators to reinvent a local education ecosystem, as is happening in Cincinnati, where business leaders joined nonprofits and educators in the StriveTogether partnership to create an integrated system to support the education of the city's children from cradle to career.

The co-authors acknowledge that these "transformational approaches" have their benefits and challenges. The 30-page booklet explores topics such as charters and school choice, accountability, and reinvention.

"There's a big difference between the business community supporting schools in what the leaders of schools want to do, versus business involvement around a very different vision of what schools should do [when that means] upsetting the status quo, pushing for reforms that may not be agreed upon by teachers' unions and administrators," said Patrick J. McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University in Madison, N.J.

As one superintendent responded for the survey: "Business needs to tell us what they need instead of telling us what we are doing wrong! We are professionals in our field. We want to be their partner. The business community needs to talk to us and not down to us."

Graphic from: "Partial Credit: How America's School Superintendents See Business as a Partner"

CORRECTION: Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group conducted this study. Patrick McGuinn is not associated with it.

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