Business should take education into its own hands

Jan Rivkin is not at all critical of the generous contributions that private businesses make toward improving our educational system. He does point out, though, that “generous is not the same as effective.”

Rivkin is a professor at the Harvard Business School and co-chairman of the U.S. Competitive Project there. Based on research and surveys being conducted by the school in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group, he believes that companies can and should do it better.

There is nothing inherently wrong with contributing money to education, even if it is sometimes referred to as “checkbook philanthropy.” In theory, it all helps — and there is evidence that it does — just not enough, because the money doesn’t get delivered to the right places.

It probably would have been enough some years ago, just as steel mogul Andrew Carnegie’s generosity once fostered a public library system big enough and widely distributed enough to help transform America’s population, and its workforce, into the most literate in the world. But things have changed. Now there is a bureaucracy to deal with.

Rivkin believes that in order to have a lasting effect on education and workforce competitiveness, American businesses “should be partnering with educators” in three areas:

Laying the policy foundations for education innovation;

Scaling up proven innovations in education;

Reinventing local education ecosystems.

There is no doubt that these would be good things. They are, by definition, good things. It is difficult, though, to read the list without thinking “money sponge.” But these are precisely the kinds of activities that appeal to institutional thinking, are written in institutional language, and will preserve the institution, unchanged, after the money arrives in the bureaucracy and is absorbed.

If there were any doubts about action by business being needed, a report by the U.S. Department of Education last autumn documents with painful clarity just how far our country’s workforce competitiveness has fallen.

The report, entitled “Literacy, Numeracy and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments Among U.S. Adults,” compares these basic skill levels in our country compared with countries elsewhere in the world. In short: The competitive advantage of our workforce is long gone.

One of the interesting aspects of the study is the clarity of its depiction of what happened and when. The decision to show the proficiency levels by age groups highlights what many Americans believed had happened to our educational system.

When we look at our top workers, for example, the group that is now 55 to 65 years of age holds a significant advantage in proficiency over the international average. The next younger group, 45-55 years old, is about even with the other countries. The 35-45 group has fallen behind in proficiency compared with the rest of the world and the youngest group, aged 25-35, shows that the proficiency deficit, the gap between us and our competition, is widening at an accelerating rate.

When we convert the age grouping to time-of-schooling it shows that the basic education that results in reading, writing and math proficiency began to fall apart in the early 1970s. There’s no surprise there, at least to some of us, but there is hope — in the sense that the more we learn about how things went wrong the more likely it is that we can fix the system, if we are willing and able to do so.

Rivkin is correct in his ideas for improving educational-business partnerships, but that is only part of what is needed. There is a risk when institutions get together to fix the system and plan a totally reasonable strategy to improve the education and competitiveness of our workforce. It is not the risk of failure but of absorption and insignificance.

What business does best is just the opposite of the institutional approach. It changes things. To be effective, business should do on its own what needs to be done to obtain a globally competitive workforce.

Instead of becoming bogged down in the same problems that hamper today’s school teachers and principals, business needs to focus on what it needs to operate and maintain the machinery of modern enterprise, including “Made in America” manufacturing.

Separate from its contributions to existing school systems, business organizations should establish pre-employment tutoring centers, independent of the educational bureaucracy. There, students could have another chance to learn the basic math and reading skills they need to be productive in America’s workforce.

These centers would not compete with existing educational institutions and could that way escape some of the bureaucracy and political noise level — the enemies of effectiveness. And businesses do have an advantage: they have a direct and tangible interest in effectiveness and results. Their survival depends on it.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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