What’s Big Business Got to Do With Education Reform?

What’s Big Business Got to Do With Education Reform?


“There used to be a promise from businesses to students that if you performed well and behaved, you’d get a solid job with a middle class career. And that was real,” explained Dianne Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools. “That system doesn’t exist anymore, and kids know it.”

Tavenner, along with over 150 other attendees at the “Transforming the Role of Business in Education” conference, hopes that businesses can play a role in changing the broken “pipeline” from schooling to career. On October 29, a range of industry speakers led sessions on how to build an “education highway” where students can enter and exit depending on where they want to go professionally.

Shared Value

The conversations focused on how and why businesses can provide valuable resources in education. Kate Tallant, Director at FSG, which hosted the conference, spoke to the mutually beneficial concept of shared value, further developed in FSG’s paper on “The New Role of Business in Global Education.”

The concept is similar to the “double bottom line” idea in vogue among companies big and small. With 781 million adults lacking basic reading and writing skills at a worldwide cost of $1.19 trillion per year, “companies can create economic value and value for society at the same time,” she explained. “You can help to build a qualified future workforce, rather than wait for the government to do it for you.”

In his keynote, Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, spoke to the importance of creating space for societal impact in a large company. As he sees it, “most attempts at education reform since 1970 are about putting money into the system and trusting that it would improve--like more teachers, smaller classrooms--with small returns.” Barber called for companies to play a role in “designing reform systems that don’t just put in money and hope for the best.” He envisions Pearson, which plans to focus on learning outcomes as much as financial outcomes in end of year reports by 2018, as a pioneer of shared value.

Dr. James Appelgate, Karen Cator, Dean Florez, Eric Nee (photo by Matthew Wilka)

The McDonald’s of Education

Large companies can affect change in ways beyond the scope of a startup or nonprofit. Mark Kramer, Cofounder and Managing Director of FSG, sees it as a differentiation based on scale. “When global companies do things, they have an enormous potential,” he explained in his closing address. “When McDonald’s put apple slices in their meals, they doubled US consumption of apples.” (It made apple suppliers happy, at least.)

In that case, perhaps Pearson is the McDonald’s of education. “Pearson has bigger reach [than a startup],” Barber explained. “Through big data sets and longitudinal data, we can make a public efficacy framework, which can help a startup develop a framework for change.” In exchange for providing the smaller companies with data analysis and frameworks, Pearson can learn from the little guy, too: “Through the product development process, we see what other programs are doing, and can learn and acquire from that.”

James Appelgate, Executive Director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, agreed with the potential for businesses to play an important role in education change by providing meaningful research and frameworks. “We need to present information differently, and tightly connect data to actionable items of improvement through examples,” he explained.

Enabling Pragmatic Reform

Several speakers exemplified what Appelgate described as “the American focus on pragmatism in reform,” exploring how companies can help students develop practical workforce skills. “Business can teach schools about the skills they need from current students and future employees,” voiced panelist Jamie McAuliffe, President and CEO of Education for Employment, which provides job training for young people in North Africa and the Middle East.

As McAuliffe sees it, education providers are responsible for disseminating that information and helping students meet the demands of future employers. He added, “we have to shift the system so that accountability for student job outcomes rest with the academic institutions.”

The focus on employment outcomes led one attendee to ask: Is the emphasis on workforce preparation--popular today in the form of coding bootcamps and micro-credentials--ultimately at odds with a liberal arts education?

Not according to Barber, who advocated for the liberal arts in a modern education. “Liberal arts are a way to demonstrate life skills,” Barber said. “They can inform how individuals work, rather than what they do.” Professor David L. Kirp, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, also reminded attendees of the importance of learning how to think, as well as what to do: “A set of thinking skills, the skills needed for provocative thinkers, shouldn’t need to change every six months.”

Appelgate also spoke to a combination of liberal arts and workforce skills, calling for “embedding ‘learning outcomes’ in any degree,” from communications to philosophy. “We need a more equitable education system,” he explained. For that, “we need advising and clear learning paths for every student.”

Technology’s Role: Stop Fighting, Liberal Arts

Barber also pushed back against what he sees as a “false dichotomy” between the liberal arts and technology. “The liberal arts community needs to be less defensive” about being relevant and embrace technological resources, he explained. Citing the modern advances in studies of the classics, from publicly available digitized manuscripts to interactive open source maps of the ancient world, he said, “There’s no reason why technology shouldn’t be used to improve the liberal arts curriculum.” Perhaps the study of the past can utilize the tools of the future.

Within K-12 instruction, speakers cautiously advocated benefits of technology. “Technology doesn’t improve education, it enables the improvement of education,” said Barber. Tech can open doors for students, but only when used thoughtfully. Otherwise, “tech can accelerate inequity in educational opportunity,” as Appelgate warned.

In his closing keynote, Kirp spoke about the Union City School District in New Jersey, where 93.4% of students receive free or reduced lunch and 89.5% graduate high school. He attributes Union City’s success not to technology--the district was an early adopter of 1:1 initiatives in the 1990s--but to how tech was used. “Technology isn’t what made the system great--a great school system made use of technology,” he said. “It didn’t look for a magic bullet, but instead built a series of supports from preschool all the way up.”

Kirp reinforced the idea that business can play a role in thoughtful, purposeful shifts in education, a vision articulated throughout the conference. Kirp sees this version of shared value--an integration of societal responsibility into a company’s objectives--as a meaningful “evolutionary change.” That may not be as flashy or “as good a buzzword as revolution or disruption,” Kirp concedes, “but it’s actually likely to succeed.”

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