Superintendents find new, deeper ways to work with
business beyond a financial gift
BY ALLEN S. GROSSMAN, ANN LOMBARD, and JAN W. RIVKIN
|Students working at 12 For Life, the cooperative education program supported by Southwire Company in Georgia. They are assembling small spools containing tiny wires.
In rural Georgia’s Carroll County, the Southwire
Company long had seemed like a model supporter of the local school district. A
family-owned maker of cables with billions of dollars in revenue, Southwire
generously gave money and donated supplies to nearby schools.
But John Zauner, superintendent in Carroll County from
2003 to 2010, knew he needed more from Southwire. “We had huge issues,” he
said. “Our dropout rate was very high. What could we do together for those
students who might leave us?”
Stu Thorn, chief executive at Southwire, also felt an
urgent need. “We had committed ourselves to hire only high school graduates.
But nearly a third of students in Carroll County weren’t graduating. And many
who did graduate weren’t well prepared for the workplace. We had to do
something different or soon we wouldn’t have the workforce we needed.”
For two years,
district leaders and Southwire executives batted around ideas. The process
The educators’ “first reaction,” recalled Mike
Wiggins, Southwire’s head of human resources, “was ‘You guys don’t know
anything about education. Just give us the money, go away, and we’ll take care
of the education.’ We countered with an idea to give students incentives for
grades. The educators rolled their eyes and countered with another idea. We
went back and forth several times, the beginning of a real partnership.”
In time, Southwire floated a radical proposal: The
company offered to build a dedicated factory, staffed entirely with the most
at-risk students and supervised by Southwire leaders. Students would attend
school, then work a shift for pay at the factory.
Superintendent Zauner loved the idea, but he faced a
struggle within his organization to make it a reality. “People quickly told us
all the reasons not to do this — scheduling problems, transportation issues,
state regulations and so on,” he said. “Ultimately, the senior team had to say
to everyone, ‘Let’s get this done.’ When necessary, we sought forgiveness
instead of permission.”
The resulting 12 For Life program has been a huge
success since its launch in 2007, garnering national attention. The graduation
rate for economically disadvantaged students in Carroll County has soared from
55 percent to 78 percent. Some 40 percent of 12 For Life graduates go on to
postsecondary education. And the well-managed teenagers at the 12 For Life
factory are 35-40 percent more productive than adults at Southwire’s other
plants, which allows the company to invest even more in the program.
Sadly, the Carroll
County schools and Southwire are a rare exception to a rule: School districts
and companies often fail to identify and pursue mutually beneficial
opportunities to help students and improve schools. This is a key finding of a
study that we — researchers at Harvard Business School — began in 2012 in
partnership with the Gates Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group.
When we started our work, we were stunned to learn
that no one knew how, and how well, businesses and schools typically work
together. Even with business philanthropy to public education estimated to be
$3 billion to $4 billion each year, no one tracked where that money goes or
whether it makes a positive difference.
To find out, we
asked the superintendents of the 10,000 largest school districts in America to
complete a survey on the role of business in education. To our delight, more
than 1,100 superintendents from across the nation and from every type of
district — urban, rural and suburban — replied.
The good news is that business is broadly involved in
education. Ninety-five percent of superintendents reported at least one type of
business engagement in their districts. Roughly 80 percent of engagements are
judged by superintendents to have a positive effect on student outcomes, while
almost none are seen as negative.
Unfortunately, the engagements are not deep. Only 12
percent of superintendents described their business community as deeply
involved in their district. And the most common types of involvement by far had
the flavor of “checkbook philanthropy”: businesses give money, support students
through scholarships, donate computers and backpacks, and so on.
More extensive efforts — supporting the professional
development of teachers and principals, helping school districts improve their
systems and management or contributing to curriculum development, for example —
are much rarer. Superintendents were grateful for funding but were eager for
more. As one put it, “anyone can throw money at a problem.”
Moreover, the business engagements are fragmented. By
six to one, small local efforts outnumber initiatives that are part of some
statewide or national program. Overall, business seems to be involved in an
array of well-intended but subscale pet projects that rarely are geared to the
core needs of a school district and do little to strengthen districts for the
Promising New Models
The superintendents who responded to our survey are
open for business. The vast majority of superintendents called on business
leaders to be more involved in schools, and in new ways. The No. 1 item on
superintendents’ wish list: They want business to help them understand and
develop in students the skills that allow young people to succeed in the
workforce, as the 12 For Life program does.
Fortunately, our research has turned up promising
examples of educators and executives who are partnering in new, deeper ways.
The innovations fall into three categories.
First, we see coalitions of business leaders who are
lobbying hard alongside educators for policies that encourage and enable
innovation in school systems. In Denver, for instance, business leaders
recently campaigned for a tax increase in part to sustain education innovation
in the face of local budget cuts.
business leaders are working with educators to take local successes in specific
schools and scale them up to the national level. With support from ExxonMobil,
for example, the National Math and Science Initiative has spread two Texas
innovations, one related to Advanced Placement exams and another focused on
teacher training, to hundreds of districts across the country.
Third, in a number of U.S. cities and towns, civic and
business leaders are partnering with educators to coordinate and align support
systems for students, from cradle to career. In Cincinnati, the Strive
Partnership has led the community to develop a shared vision and measurable
goals for service providers that support improved education outcomes for
students. The initiative helps leaders base decisions on hard evidence, focuses
resources on programs that work and facilitates collaboration among
stakeholders in the community. Business has been at the table from the
beginning, adapting their management expertise to help plan and implement the
Moving more districts and more businesses toward deeper
partnerships holds promise, but it won’t be easy. When educators and business
leaders first meet, they often lack the cornerstones of successful partnerships
— mutual knowledge, respect for each other and a shared view of reality. Of the
superintendents we surveyed, only 3 percent described their business
communities as well-informed about education, while 14 percent saw business as
An important minority of superintendents believe
business people do not respect educators’ expertise. And superintendents had a
far more optimistic view of the state of American education than did business
leaders whom we surveyed in parallel. (See related story, "Memo to CEOs.")
These barriers can be surmounted, but they require
effort, commitment and deliberate action. Kelvin Adams, superintendent in St.
Louis, Mo., emphasized the importance of educators taking the lead. “When
business leaders come to us and offer to pitch in, it can be a hassle or a
help. If they come with their own pet project in mind, it’s likely to wind up a
hassle. But if they listen to our strategy first and figure out how they can
assist with our agenda, business can be a huge help.”
Allen Grossman is a senior fellow at
Harvard Business School in Boston, Mass. E-mail: Grossmanoffice@hbs.edu. Ann Lombard is a
senior researcher for the U.S. Competitiveness Project and Jan Rivkin is the
Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Business Administration, both at Harvard Business