Memo to CEOs: ‘Don’t Simply Tell Us What To Do’

In a report titled “Partial Credit: How America’s School Superintendents See Business as a Partner,” produced by the Harvard Business School and The Boston Consulting Group, the great majority of the superintendents surveyed and interviewed were eager to see business leaders more engaged with their schools in the future.

But the same report also notes that an important minority who were surveyed by Harvard Business School and The Boston Consulting Group were frustrated with how business people have engaged in the past. Superintendents were especially peeved at executives who publicize the problems of education without trying to be part of the solution or who offer ways to “fix” the education system without first understanding the system deeply.

The mixed experiences of Kevin Brown, superintendent of the Alamo Heights Independent School District in Texas, were typical. On the one hand, he pointed to many business leaders in his district who are thoughtfully engaged and “deeply want public education to be successful.” On the other hand, he recalled some business leaders who “believe that since they went to school once, they understand how schools work. They do not. So often when I hear a business leader speak, it is with a patronizing message about how public schools need to run like businesses. Having spent time in the business world and in public education, I can objectively say that we have a lot to learn from each other.”

Michael Pawlik, superintendent of the East Lycoming School District in central Pennsylvania, describes an innovative, effective way for educators and business people to learn from each other: Take educators into businesses.

In a program organized by the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania, each month Pawlik and other educators tour local businesses, learning how they operate and hearing what they want in future employees. In that context, he says, business leaders are remarkably open to learning about the education system. “It’s opened up a great dialog,” he says.

The result, Pawlik adds, is a set of business partners who “recognize that we have a level of expertise, offer to work collaboratively to reach our goals and don’t simply tell us what to do.”