Partners with Purpose

Superintendents find new, deeper ways to work with business beyond a financial gift

Partners with Purpose
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 wasn’t easy.

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.

Checkbook Philanthropy

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 long run.

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.

Second, some 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 partnership.

Tough Barriers

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 misinformed.

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: 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 School.