Business Leaders Lack Knowledge About K-12 Education, Superintendents Say

Associate Editor


Most school superintendents in the United States say businesses are positively influencing their districts, but it’s usually in a fragmented, “checkbook philanthropy” way, rather than a transformative, systemic approach, concludes a study and a white paper released today by Harvard Business School, The Boston Consulting Group, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Last fall, Harvard Business School and the Boston Consulting Group surveyed the superintendents of the 10,000 largest school districts in the United States, and 1,118 superintendents responded. The researchers found that just 3 percent of school superintendents rate business leaders as “well-informed” about public education, and 14 percent of the survey respondents say corporate leaders are actually misinformed.

Superintendents are “very reasonably demanding that business leaders learn about education, respect what educators are capable of doing, be a partner, and not be imperial, if you will,” Jan W. Rivkin, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and lead researcher on the project, said in a phone interview.

On the other side, business leaders are often frustrated, wishing for “more progress in our education system, but also kind of scared; they don’t know what to do, so they give generously, but in a way that is fragmented and not necessarily sustained,” he said.

“There’s a need for an alignment between the two sectors; what we found in our work is a fundamental missed opportunity,” observed Rivkin.

Still, 95 percent of superintendents say that businesses are involved in their schools, according to the survey. By nearly 3 to 1, business efforts to donate money and goods and to support individual students outnumbered deeper engagements in curriculum design, teacher development, and district-level management assistance, the researchers found. 

Ninety percent of superintendents believe that business’ engagement leads to a positive impact in education—although only 10 percent say the impact of that involvement has actually been evaluated. Rivkin said corporate participation in education tends to be “focused on alleviating immediate needs, and addressing the problems of a weak system, rather than trying to strengthen the system.”

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The findings, detailed in Partial Credit: How America’s School Superintendents See Business as a Partner, show that most administrators (81 percent) want to see even more business participation at their schools. Of those, about one-quarter would like businesses to get involved in new ways, while 74 percent are looking to sustain the same kinds of engagement.

To address that wish, the three collaborators on the research concurrently released Lasting Impact: A Business Leader’s Playbook for Supporting America’s Schools, which provides ideas for bridging the divide between “what educators need” and “what businesses are providing.”

The playbook focuses on three ways businesses can contribute:

  • Laying the policy foundations for innovation, by, for example, becoming involved in supporting the implementation of Common Core State Standards;
  • Partnering with educators to scale up proven innovations, such as ExxonMobil’s work with the National Math and Science Initiative, or IBM’s work with the Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn; and,
  • Supporting educators to reinvent a local education ecosystem, as is happening in Cincinnati, where business leaders joined nonprofits and educators in the StriveTogether partnership to create an integrated system to support the education of the city’s children from cradle to career.

The co-authors acknowledge that these “transformational approaches” have their benefits and challenges. The 30-page booklet explores topics such as charters and school choice, accountability, and reinvention.

“There’s a big difference between the business community supporting schools in what the leaders of schools want to do, versus business involvement around a very different vision of what schools should do [when that means] upsetting the status quo, pushing for reforms that may not be agreed upon by teachers’ unions and administrators,” said Patrick J. McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University in Madison, N.J.

As one superintendent responded for the survey: “Business needs to tell us what they need instead of telling us what we are doing wrong! We are professionals in our field. We want to be their partner. The business community needs to talk to us and not down to us.”

Graphic from: “Partial Credit: How America’s School Superintendents See Business as a Partner”

CORRECTION: Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group conducted this study. Patrick McGuinn is not associated with it.

7 thoughts on “Business Leaders Lack Knowledge About K-12 Education, Superintendents Say

  1. Be careful about getting business leaders involved in education. People in business are motivated by profit, and they’ll be likely to outsource instruction to YouTube. Imagine how much we can save just on school buses!

  2. Business leaders need to do what parents do. Visit the schools and ask teachers what they can do to help in the classroom. Attend PTA meetings and follow the role of teachers and parents.

    In short, be informed by being on the front lines with the teachers. Perhaps then, business will see first hand how the destructive initiatives of Duncan et al are harming the public schools.

    And it would certainly help if business would stop out-sourcing jobs to foreign countries, claiming a lack of skills from public school graduate. Nonsense!!!

    It’s all about money. I’ve talked with these alleged skilled foreign workers. They read from scripts, and you can barely understand them.

    Cheap labor; more profit for the stock holders; fewer jobs for U.S. citizens,

  3. Oh, you mean that money doesn’t necessarily make you more intelligent? What a new concept! Most business leaders will stick it to your kid but will not tolerate the same being done to their kid.

  4. This is insidious and completely muddled. Superintendents think business leaders are clueless, but,hey! Let’s let them tell us what they want and then institute reforms accordingly. Much of the problem of creating well-paying jobs is that business has abdicated its responsibility for training workers. Schools need to turn out graduates who are trainable, by having both academic and soft skills. The jobs today’s students will compete for don’t exist yet. They need to be ready to learn them, not responsible for already knowing. Corporate-based ed reform has been a disaster.

    1. What you say can’t be argued against. Schools today are fearful of having high failure rates and in my system this is pushing us to graduate students today with 40 and 50 absences. These same student score a 14 – 20 on our end of year exams and are passed on to graduate and barely know how to function.

  5. If the ‘standards’ of any teaching method is the responsibility of State and Local school boards, then where is the necessity of Federally forced ‘guidance’? Can we not use our own insight to Create standards that are better than the ‘standards’ that the federal government is forcing on us? Do we not have the Right, and the Responsibility, of ‘standards’ that reflect what WE believe, not some socialist in Washington D.C.?

    Our Education system is indeed flawed, though not
    Fatally Flawed.

    Common Core will infect the wounds of the flaws of our educational system and kill it. The Children who are educated under the auspices of Common Core will eventually vote themselves out of Freedom itself.

    That fact bears repeating…The Children educated through Common Core will eventually vote themselves out of Freedom itself.

    Free people find it difficult to comprehend how fellow citizens would ever vote themselves into tyranny. Common Core State Standards were developed by people who believe in State (Centralized) control of Education. These same people believe that all Citizens must be subservient to the state. This means that the current administration, who believes in open borders, gay marriage, a diminished U.S. military, re-distribution of wealth, and any number of ‘transformational’ ideals, will be in charge of Educating the young people in school today. Once taught that Socialist ideas are so much ‘better’ than the ‘oppressive’ ideals of our Heritage, students growing up being taught these flawed ideals will willingly run out and vote for every Socialist policy proposed by the Elitists that will enslave them. Business ‘Leaders’ had better have the foresight to invest in LOCAL education. This is why I am of this opinion:


  6. We applaud this important study on the challenges and potential of business engagement in schools. It gets at the core of the historic pitfalls of such collaborations, such as business falling back on “checkbook philanthropy” rather than committing the assets that can make a real difference to our schools and students, or school systems not embracing the degree of progress that businesses hope for.

    But perhaps even more important, the study points to the potential—and momentum—created by models of collaboration that marry the wealth of business skills, knowledge, and intellectual capital to the challenges our schools and students face.

    The most famous of these is P-Tech, and while the large-scale approaches it takes are bold and impactful, not all school-business collaboration can or has to be at that scale. As the study suggests, honing in on the intersection of business expertise and precise school need is a key to creating positive change for schools and students, and there are many ways to do that.

    Based on research and experiences from active volunteers, there’s proof that business can apply its intellectual capital to critical areas like school leadership, college and career readiness, student and family engagement in a variety of ways.

    Take college and career readiness: businesses can help a student develop these skills from when they enroll in kindergarten to when they graduate from high school. From building awareness in a child’s early school years, to showing them how to plan for their future along the way, to imparting both the hard and soft skills needed in a variety of industries, businesses can close growing skills gaps by grooming the future of their workforce (IBM, which supports the P-Tech program, estimates that 1,800 jobs are currently going unfilled because applicants don’t have the skills they need to excel in the positions).

    When partnerships are created on a foundation of clear expectations, rigorous requirements, a commitment to impact, and comprehensive support, you’ve got a recipe for success. Add flexibility and a tailored approach, and innovation abounds. That leads to new models of collaboration—like those featured in the “Playbook”—that have the potential to create lasting and broad impact in our nation’s schools.

    These types of partnerships are transforming education as we know it, and will equip our schools and prepare our students for the demands of today’s economy.

    Gayle Villani
    Vice President, Programs

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