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Today, business leaders support schools through efforts that are generous, well-intended, effective at alleviating the symptoms of a weak educational system, but fundamentally inadequate for helping to strengthen the system. Consequently, it’s time for America’s business leaders to reinvent how they partner with educators to support our students and improve our schools. That is the central message emerging from a year-long study by the faculty of Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Boston Consulting Group.

Sitting on the Sidelines Is Not an Option
This call for reinvention begins with a distressing message from recent studies: in terms of education and skills, America’s workers are not keeping pace with rising global standards. Last fall, for example, the OECD released new data on the workplace competencies of adults—in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills—by age and country.

The figure below reports the results for literacy. The blue columns show that younger U.S. workers have better literacy skills than older workers, reflecting an education system that is making progress in absolute terms. The challenge to America, however, is that the green columns, representing the international average, have risen much faster. America’s 55- to 65-year olds are among the most literate in the world, but the same is not true of younger age groups. What was once an American advantage has turned into a disadvantage, and relative performance matters in global competition, where American workers must out-produce and out-innovate the world’s best. America faces similar challenges in numeracy and problem-solving skills.

Literacy PIAAC chart copy

Some would argue (and I would agree) that the figure reveals an ethical issue: our society is not fulfilling its promise to children to educate them. Others would argue (and again I would agree) that the figure points to a political problem: our democracy cannot work well when many citizens are denied the opportunities that come from strong educations. But I would add that the figure highlights a fundamental business problem: companies operating in the U.S. cannot succeed without well-educated, highly skilled employees. The situation does not allow business leaders to sit on the sidelines.

Generous Is Not the Same as Effective
Where are America’s business leaders today when it comes to education—on the field, on the sidelines, in the stands, or outside the stadium? To gauge this, we conducted what we believe to be the first-ever national survey of school superintendents on the role of business in education.

The good news is that business is broadly engaged in supporting K¬12 education in America: 95 percent of superintendents could point to some form of business engagement in their districts. And superintendents judged 80 percent of those efforts to have a positive effect on student outcomes.

There are multiple signs, however, that business engagement—while broad—is not deep. Only 12 percent of superintendents characterized their business communities as deeply involved in their school districts. When asked how business engages, superintendents reported a lot of “checkbook philanthropy”: businesses donate goods, give money, and sponsor scholarships, but they rarely support more substantive efforts to develop teaching talent, improve curricula, or upgrade district management practices.

Actor Karan Brar reads to second graders for the SAG Foundation's Children's Literacy Programs at San Fernando Elementary School in San Fernando, California.  Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images for SAG Foundation

Actor Karan Brar reads to second graders for the SAG Foundation’s Children’s Literacy Programs at San Fernando Elementary School
in San Fernando, California. Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images for SAG Foundation

The vast majority of business efforts are purely local programs, often pet projects, rather than parts of state-wide or national programs that superintendents see as more effective. And only 3 percent of superintendents characterize their local businesspeople as well informed about education, while 14 percent describe local business leaders as misinformed. Overall, business is investing generously in education, but through a fragmented array of subscale efforts that rarely help educators transform the education system.

Lasting Impact Is Possible
Business leaders can do better and fortunately, some are. Across the country, we see progressive business leaders partnering with educators in creative ways that promise to have greater, lasting impact on the nation’s education system and its students. The models fall into three categories:

  • Laying the policy foundations for education innovation. In these efforts, business leaders are working with educators and using their substantial local clout to advocate for policies, such as the Common Core State Standards, that enable innovation in education. In Denver, for instance, business leaders recently lobbied successfully for tax increases that would protect school innovation in the face of budget cuts.
  • Scaling up proven innovations in education. There are plenty of success stories in America’s schools, but successful efforts that emerge in one locale are too rarely replicated elsewhere. A number of business leaders are now using their competence in scaling up operations to expand programs proven to boost student outcomes. For example, ExxonMobil has sponsored the National Math and Science Initiative, enabling it to take two local efforts to improve science and math instruction and move them toward national scale.
  • Reinventing local education ecosystems. Many American cities and towns have a host of programs to support children but lack strategies for aligning those programs, filling gaps between programs, eliminating redundancies, agreeing on goals, measuring success, and investing behind what works. In a growing number of cities, business leaders are partnering with educators and others to bring their strategic skills to bear on this problem. The GE Foundation, for instance, is investing deeply in seven school districts where GE has major operations, in efforts to upgrade the management processes and strategic capacity of local education systems.

We expect to see many more business leaders stepping up to create similar opportunities. Doing so will require foresight, courage, and a willingness to innovate. But nothing is more important to the well-being of the country and, in the long run, the prosperity of America’s enterprises.

Jan W. Rivkin is the Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Business Administration, chair of the Strategy Unit, and co-chair of the U.S. Competitiveness Project at Harvard Business School. This article is adapted from the forthcoming report on the 2013-14 HBS alumni survey on U.S. competitiveness.