Fast Company

How Businesses Can Improve the Education System

Research consistently finds that there is a large gap between what employees want and what schools teach. As a result, the U.S. Department of Labor ended up commissioning one of the great government education reports of the '90s, predicting dire consequences if schools did not start preparing students for a dynamic workplace.

This year's Summit Series, a conference that convened young industry thought-leaders with influential members of government, dedicated a significant portion of its 3 days to discussing how businesses could help close the gap. Below are three practical suggestions from the conference.

Use Existing Platforms

There already exists an established pathway for industry-school partnerships. Marie Groark, Senior Public Policy Officer at the Gates Foundation, was fond of the Cristo Rey network of private schools. At Cristo Rey, "every student works at a professional setting" in addition to college preparatory coursework.

Jim Shelton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education, tells Fast Company that these so-called "career academies" are an excellent way for interested firms to get involved. To find one in your area, Sheldon recommends doing a simple Google search for something like "youth entrepreneurship in [your area]." Many schools and parent groups are actively looking for internship opportunities.

Finally, businesses may want to check out National Lab Day, the White House supported, Craigslist-like platform for teachers to post industry partnership needs. Businesses can peruse classrooms with needs that match theirs and offer resources.

Start a Program

For those who want to create their own unique project and are looking for the best starting point, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, recommends a two-step process. First, she says, "go visit very high performing schools in an under resourced community." Each school system will have its own idiosyncrasies that can make or break a new education initiative. While there, canvass teachers: don't just pitch your idea; listen to what they need. "You sort of want the help you need, not the help that other people think you need," she says.

The second step is finding a "very committed, very driven principal who's on a mission to turn around a failing school and offer help." Kopp thinks that charter schools may be the most receptive to businesses. For those who want to tackle more than one school, Shelton recommends working at the district level. Specifically, the chief of staff to the superintendent of schools will likely be familiar with all the details of local resources.

Offer Help Through Your Business

Kopp was optimistic that businesses could provide value to underperforming schools since "the same thing it takes to run successful businesses is the same thing it takes to run successful schools and school systems." She thinks that businesses should ask schools, "What's the human capital strategy here? How do you all go about recruiting and developing and retaining your people over time?" Kopp did not have any specific model in mind for businesses that offered managerial expertise, but this seems most appropriate for a charter school: public schools have strict organizational rules and are often subject to constraining government policies. Charter schools, however, can often be more flexible.

In addition to managerial advice, an easier starting point might be internships, after school tutoring, or a simple field trip through the office.

It was made clear at Summit Series that White House staff (and former staff) wanted help from the business community. Shelton maintained that education is the responsibility of every citizen because "It either costs you every day, or it helps you every day." David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle group and former Carter advisor, echoed Sheldon, saying that "businesses have an obligation to help universities or other k-12" schools. With so many needy schools throughout the country, it seems there is ample room for partnership.

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