There is no more common lament in corporate C-suites than the sorry state of the American education system. Our next generation is said to be woefully unprepared for the economy of the future, while other countries steam ahead, producing engineers and scientists. In response, companies from American Express to IBM have been stepping in to try teaching public schools how to teach. Few have been as aggressive as Microsoft. As Elizabeth Svoboda reports in the article beginning here, Microsoft’s role in the School of the Future in West Philadelphia has meant more than Wi-Fi’d laptops for students. It has also meant the end of traditional math, science, and English classes, which have been replaced with interdisciplinary “learning sessions” and online courses.
Controversy looms over the Philly school, as it does over all corporate-education efforts: Whose interests are being served? Is producing mini-Microsofties and Citigroupians an appropriate goal for our schools? Mary Cullinane, director of Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning program, acknowledges that “[our] interest in education is very much a vested interest.” Yet with high-school graduation rates running below 50% in some places, can schools afford not to take whatever help is offered?
But something else is happening, too, among America’s youth: an unprecedented blossoming of entrepreneurship. A few months back, we profiled Mark Zuckerberg, the 23-year-old CEO who founded social-networking site Facebook, turned down a $1 billion takeover bid from Yahoo, and now boasts more than 25 million users–and a valuation, according to an investor, of $8 billion. In this month’s issue, senior writer Chuck Salter takes us deeper into the youth movement with 17-year-old Ashley Qualls. Zuckerberg comes from an affluent New York suburb, and while he dropped out of college as a sophomore, that college was Harvard. Qualls is growing up in a working-class town near Detroit and left high school at 15. Her Web business doesn’t boast the gaudy numbers of Facebook. But she has taken in more than $1 million–enough to buy the house where she lives with her mother and 8-year-old sister–and has turned down takeover offers, including two from MySpace cofounder Brad Greenspan. In the photo here, you’ll notice that her bookshelf is filled with volumes on programming, branding, and design–a 21st-century curriculum that she has constructed herself.
The C-suiters are right: Nothing is more important than the fate of our kids. So how best can we nurture them? Microsoft has one program, Harvard has another, and Qualls has her own. Is that diversity good for our future, or do we need a more unified approach? These may be questions without answers, but they are worth asking. I hope you’ll share your thoughts with us (editor@ fastcompany.com) as we try to advance the dialogue.