How Corporations Are Helping To Solve The Education Crisis

It’s not just about giving money anymore (ahem, Mark Zuckerberg). Companies are finding new ways to bake fixing American education into their corporate DNA.

Over the past decade, climate change evidence has triggered thousands of corporations to think and act beyond the boundaries of policy. Today’s education statistics do the very same thing. Looking more closely at the facts, it’s not difficult to comprehend why.

We’re in a situation where a quarter of our children drop out of high school every year. Two-fifths of those who do graduate leave high school unprepared for college or career, while 57% (PDF) lack comprehension of even remedial math. Apparently the national disinterest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) starts early, as over 61% (PDF) of middle schoolers would rather take out the garbage than do their math homework.

This data is particularly troublesome when you consider that in the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs has been three times greater than that of non-STEM jobs. Going forward, this trend is expected to continue. The National Science Foundation estimates that 80% of the jobs created in the next decade will require some mastery of technology, math, and science. A recent McKinsey study shows that two-thirds of those jobs don’t even exist today.

Education is key to keeping kids confident and America competitive. There is a clear business case for solving this crisis, which is why education is fast becoming a front and center issue for talent-hungry corporations, many of whom view the problem as an opportunity. Just as with environmental sustainability, corporate investments in education get deeper all the time.

Intel has to date given $1 billion to support education. Target, Cisco, and IBM are poised to do the same. Goldman Sachs, AT&T, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have each donated $100 million or more in recent years. But how effective are these investments in the grand scheme of things? Where’s the ROI? That depends on the strategies employed.

"Corporations have a role beyond just providing money," says Sandi Everlove, interim CEO at Washington STEM, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to advancing STEM. "There’s this tendency to think that we can throw money at the problem and fix it. That’s simply not true. We need capacity building—companies sharing their unique resources in order to fill critical gaps."

As Everlove indicates, it’s one thing to "education wash," donating to a few choice causes and generating some positive publicity. But it’s quite another thing to strengthen a fledgling education system by lending otherwise proprietary human, technical, and intellectual capital. Smart companies are finding that the more they do so, the more momentum and demand they create for what they provide, and the smarter they get about innovating around what’s truly needed in the education space. It’s a virtuous cycle of self-improvement.

Innovating Education

Together with corporate partner Microsoft, Washington STEM aims to elevate the learning experiences of one million kids, bringing next-generation ideas, technologies, and curriculum to classrooms across the state. The alliance demonstrates what can happen when private and public entities coordinate agendas to drive needed change. "As a partner, Microsoft does a lot more than give us dollars," Everlove says. "They really get into the community, roll up their sleeves and help address education problems that are easy for them to solve, but huge for schools to achieve."

That’s part of a larger social innovation strategy at Microsoft. The company recently shifted all of its corporate citizenship efforts toward closing what it characterizes as the opportunity divide—a chasm that separates those who prosper in our society from those who don’t.

In addition to providing a profitable portfolio of products like Office 2010 and Kinect for Xbox 360 that help bring education alive for kids, the company also partners with hundreds of NGOs around the world to help young people gain access to the tools they need in order to realize their full potential. Thus far Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program has channeled $500 million toward education systems around the world, reaching more than 196 million teachers and students in 114 countries.

"Our goal is to embrace the bigness of the challenge that government and society face in terms of transforming education in a holistic way," says Vice President of Microsoft Worldwide Education Anthony Salcito. "It’s not just about technology. It’s about bringing innovation to schools. How do you personalize the education experience? How do you incorporate new modes of classroom design and curriculum, or think about assessment differently? How do you change a kid’s vision of his future?"

The questions Salcito contemplates are fundamental to the process of reinventing a system that no longer meets the needs of the population it serves. Today’s public schools were designed for 19th-century industrialism, not an era of globalization and interconnectivity. Evidence of this inadequacy abounds: Standards and textbooks have grown outdated. Campuses are becoming dreary and homogenized. Teachers are increasingly disenfranchised. Students remain largely uninspired. And as a result, corporations are hard pressed to recruit new talent. These issues require more than federal funding and moderate reforms.

"This is a large task and it can’t be put off," says Salcito. "We have to acknowledge that learning is shifting away from content memorization to a more relevant, personalized, skill-based foundation. We have to dig deeper, think harder and get more engaged to determine what change is needed and then push the pieces forward. We also have to bring a culture of sustainability to the process of transforming education."'

As part of its sustainable approach to transforming education, Microsoft provides an ecosystem of building blocks that allow great ideas to emerge, grow, and spread. For instance, Microsoft’s Imagine Cup encourages students to utilize technology to solve the world’s toughest problems, many of which revolve around education. The company’s Partners in Learning for Schools and Partners in Learning for Teachers programs challenge educators to innovate within the school system. Grants, social capital investments, and an innovation tool kit help bring winning concepts to scale. An open-source software platform allows people to build new educational content (i.e. apps, tools, and games) that make products like Kinect and Windows Phone all the more valuable.

Aside from making it a smarter and richer company, Microsoft’s "opportunity divide" mission has also revitalized the corporate culture. According to Senior Director of Community Affairs Akhtar Badshah, employees have never been so engaged.

"The new focus on education has really energized our people," says Badshah. "Aside from giving them a common purpose, it has encouraged them to participate in some very creative and enterprising ways."

Badshah says that in addition to volunteering over 383,000 hours and raising over $100.5 million for good causes last year, Microsoft employees are also responsible for the ideas behind some of the company’s signature education programs. One example is TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools), an initiative that brings Microsoft employees to high school computer science classes across the country, giving school’s access highly qualified teachers without incurring training or development costs.

"The idea that as a company, we are helping to fill a massive gap is really a catalyst for us," says Badshah. "We can now better measure, manage, and grow our impact, and feel great about what we are doing at the same time."

We expect to see many more companies invest deeply in education, not simply as a cause du jour, but as a means of innovation and marketplace survival.

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  • R Gary Valiant

    Chris Reich:

    I am not a teacher, but my children attend public school. Please have your civil discussion with your local community and schools; leave mine alone.

    - End the Federal Department of Education.
    - Return public education policy control to local communities.
    - No more money to bureaucrats and profiteers.
    - Dump Duncan.


  • Chris Reich

    I would like to conduct a civil discussion about what needs fixing in our education system. I don't like attacks and I'm sick of defensiveness.  I'd like to get to the bottom of what is wrong that CAN be fixed by our school system and then discuss what the school system CAN actually do. There is little fruit in perpetual discussions about the lack of parental involvement. It won't change.

    Too often the discussion is led by an assault on the failure of schools or the martyrdom of teachers. I personally subscribe to neither---All the fault does not rest on the school system and the teachers are not the victims we constantly hear they are. They get plenty of time off, the pay is adequate and tenure excessively sweetens the deal.

    There is a reality that we have only what we have to work with and that we are not making the best use of it. Sure, the family has dissolved and the schools get little support from home.  True, class sizes are big and funds are low. All true. But we must start by improving the system with what we have, not by ever demanding what we want.

    Chris Reich

    Visit: www.InnisfreeRanch.com if you would like to start the education dialogue. (Contact me)

  • bob_valiant

    This is a pure propaganda piece.  The corporations are not trying to help public education.  They are trying to kill it to get their grubby mitts on the money going to support local public schools.  This is not about boosting the learning of the nation's children, it is about taking over the system for personal profit.  Join more than 5000 parents and other concerned citizens in signing a Letter to Obama at http://dumpduncan.org.

  • Baisasa

    You don't really know what you are talking about do you?  There are some corporations who say they want something for the greater good but they don't do that - it is about creating an environment for them to sell there wares.  But sometimes those wares are needed and we need an educated population to vet what those needed items are.

    Most importantly Microsoft, Intel, Boeing, etc won't exist without an educated workforce.  That is just a fact.  And the majority of these workers will never come from a homeschool, charter or private system.  Corporate America doesn't benefit from stupid anymore - they figured it out.  A hundred years ago they were lobbying to stop public education because they didn't like paying the taxes for it - now a days they beg for it.

    You want to Dump Duncan??  Really - that is political for you isn't it.  Or did you want to Dump Secretary Spelling too??????  

  • nikihayes

    First, I keep hearing the same mantra from those in these programs who are not facing high school students who don't/can't understand basic math operations. In 1997, Education Week reported that "It's the curriculum, stupid!" Lousy, weak, incoherent, ideologically-driven text materials in K-8 (and now moving into grades 9-12) have produced students for 50 years who have increasingly hated math. Teachers, who were taught with the same materials, are then trained to use them on a new generation. Read Beverlee Jobrack's new book, Tyranny of the Textbook, to understand what I'm saying. (Then read my book, John Saxon's Story, a genius of common sense in math education.)

    Second, the same leadership that has controlled math education since the 1960's debacle with its "new math" is seen in the forefront of today's math education fads and failures. Why are they still there? Why aren't teachers from classrooms and parents who are revolting against what is being done to children in the name of "creative" teaching asked to sit at business "roundtables" WITHOUT education leaders present? Listen to the workers in the trenches, starting with high school teachers.

    Yes, I taught high school and middle school math and then became a principal so I could affect math curriculum at the K-5 level (Seattle). Talking over the heads of those in the trenches does not endear your lofty, and quite often inspirational, goals to these people. But somehow, we aren't seen as being able to understand the "big picture." Maybe you guys actually need to see the trees in the forest.

  • Gene Koo

    STEM is no doubt intertwined with the future of our economy, but too many corporate and philanthropic efforts in that field have been myopically focused on that area to the exclusion of other, equally vital subject areas. Take, for example, the area of civics, where my program has been innovating for years. Ask business leaders to rate what matters to them, and you'll hear things like being able to work on a team. Or areas like the arts -- is Apple really a tech company, or a design firm? You can't unlink the two, and neither should investments in education. Yet the exclusive focus on STEM is going to produce unbalanced workers who can't solve problems that require collaboration.

    There's more at stake here than the economy. Not every child will grow up to be Bill Gates, Jr. But every American child will be a citizen with the right to vote and serve on a jury. Public education was founded in the U.S. to inculcate the virtues of our democracy, not to produce factory workers. I'd like to see more (dare I say patriotic?) efforts to support that civic mission of schools.

  • Baisasa

    You are wrong - if you are doing proper STEM Education you are also asking for 21st Century skills that demand creativity, collaborative learning and problem solving.

  • Hal portner

    Along with all the good examples and lofty intentions, I strongly suspect there are some companies out there licking their chops and polishing up their cash registers in anticipation of selling their latest "education reform" product, increase their quarterly profit, then pushing the next one-size-fits-all silver bullet. It behooves us to keep an eye out for potential education-industrial complex minded opportunists.