The New Philanthropy: High-Tech Technical Assistance

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Business interest in education is an old story in America; in both the 19th and 20th centuries, business has played a major role in education reform, beginning with De Witt Clinton's establishment of the Free School Society in the 1830's. In the modern era, business interest in education is highlighted by Investing in Our Children: Business and the Public Schools, released eight years ago by the Committee for Economic Development. What do they have in common? A good deal.

First, business's oldest and most lasting role has been exhortation. Business leaders ask schools to improve (not surprisingly, educators return the favor and implore business to support education-with increased taxes, not just good will). These intertwined traditions are old and honorable. And they are reasonable as well, because just as good schools are essential for a healthy business climate, a healthy business climate is essential to good schools.

In the 19th century, Horace Mann carried his message to the business community unflaggingly; and he never failed to emphasize one other point. Schools do more than train workers; they acculturate and socialize. In his "Annual Report to the Board of Education" in 1848 Mann said: "If all children in the community from the age of 4 to that of 17 could be brought within the reformatory and elevating influence of good schools, crimes ... might ... be banished from the world."

Would that it were so.

Second is philanthropy, literally "love of fellow man." American business has been actively involved in philanthropic gifts to educational and charitable institutions for well over a century. Virtually an American exclusive, the private foundation is today a household word. Founded with vast private fortunes--Ford, Carnegie, Pew, Lilly--foundations are known to educators for their generous and sustained giving programs, many of which are targeted on school improvement.

The most recent major player is the RJR Nabisco Foundation, which has given $30 million to 43 public schools over the past three years a part of its Next Century School program. That program provided "venture" capital for public school entrepreneurs, an opportunity for teachers to think--and act--"outside the box." In scale and scope, it is a program without precedent in the annals of corporate philanthropy.

Third is business as a role model. An old idea, business leaders (and small businesses as well) have offered themselves as examples of sound practice. Historically, these activities were limited to such homespun but eminently sensible things as improving paperwork flow in the payroll department; more recently, they include such things as using computers for scheduling. Prosaic but important nonetheless.

Recently, however, a new and more sophisticated view of "business as role model" has emerged. Most striking is schools' embracing T.Q.M. (total quality management), a process that owes an intellectual debt to W. Edwards Deming, but which has been most fully developed in the corporate world by Xerox. Not surprisingly, the man who brought it to Xerox, the former C.E.O. and chairman, David T. Kearns, later became U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education.

The most recent and intriguing development in corporate philanthropy, however, is business as technical-assistance provider. Not for a fee, but under the umbrella of not-for-profit foundations. One of the best known is the G.E. Foundation's support of the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics. Situated in the old Benjamin Franklin High School at 118th Street, overlooking the East River, the center has transformed what was formerly one of the most distressed high schools in the nation--with fewer than 20 percent of its students graduating--into a K-12 school that boasts a nearly 100 percent graduation rate.

And nearly 100 percent of those kids go on to higher education or good jobs. Although part of G.E.'S role was old-fashioned philanthropy- gifts of money--the more important part was mentoring, "technical assistance" with a human face: a role that really makes a difference. Mentors help with everything from homework to social life. General Electric employees-not just scientists, but managers and clerks as well--connect with each child in the school; for many youngsters this is the first serious contact with an employed, successful adult. For all of them it is a vote of confidence; for mentors it is a source of genuine satisfaction. And they report that they are better employees for it.

One of the most interesting example in the country is provided by the Autodesk Foundation. Outside the worlds of engineering and architecture, few people even know the name, yet Autodesk Inc., the parent corporation, is the sixth largest manufacturer of P.C. software in the world. Its flagship product, AutoCAD, is the industry standard, used for applications ranging from archaeology to automobile manufacturing. Its commercial success is based on the fact that it is "open architecture" software; the software code is openly shared with other software designers, encouraging rather than discouraging them from designing products which enhance its power and capabilities.

The foundation is run on an "open architecture" approach as well. It considers its most valuable resource to be networking people, not money. The foundation has a staff of four providing technical assistance to a broad array of school districts In California (their home state) and now the nation as a whole. The foundation is committed to the proposition that a mall not-for-profit can have a major impact on school reform by building collaborations between educators, business, other not-for-profits, government agencies, and community organizations.

Rejecting the concept of proprietary projects in favor of collaborative activities, the Autodesk Foundation provide significant support to Sir Francis Drake High School (an RJR Nabisco Next Century School) in San Anselmo, Calif. In addition to donating personal computers--with software--and printers to Drake, the foundation staff has helped the school's staff with strategic planning and the introduction of project-based education. Today, kids in civics classes write and shoot their own political commercials to better understand the issues; biology students use computer animation programs to illustrate mitosis, cell division.

This "high tech" approach is based on a low-tech truism: Students should learn technology by using technology, just the way kids have always learned. ''That's how Apache kids learned how to use bows and arrows, how farm kids learned to use tractors, and how people in business today learn to take advantage of new tools," notes the foundation president. "Project based" education brings a powerful fact of adult life to the elementary and secondary school classroom: hands-on, collaborative learning. Almost without exception, successful practitioners in any field, from kindergarten teachers to brain surgeons, report that they learned more from their "clinical" experiences than from lecture and theories.

The idea, of course, is not new. For most of us, practice precedes theory, "hands-on" experience is the introduction to the abstract. High school students who build balsa-wood models before studying geometry understand the subject more readily and thoroughly.

Or, as Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers puts it, scouts earning merit badge is an example of first-rate education Scouts have a clearly defined goal; most of the process is self-directed, from choosing the badge to earning it; cooperative effort is encouraged; scouts work with each other and knowledgeable adults; standards for earning the badge are clear; and when scouts earn a badge they are both smarter for it and justifiably proud. Most important, they got their badge the old-fashioned way: They earned it.

In the 90's, of course, bird watching and fire building share the stage with computers and moderns, and, thanks to Vice President Al Gore, the capital buzzes with high-tech talk about "information highways," fiber optics, and the impending telecommunications revolution. One "information highway" already exists, however: Internet. Inexpensive and massive, it links universities, research facilities, corporations, and individuals worldwide. Unfortunately, as valuable as the system is, unless you're a serious hacker it's hard to access. As a consequence, a full-time networking expert is on the Autodesk Foundation payroll, and a substantial portion of her time is spent training students and teachers to use Internet, putting them in contact with other students--of all ages--researchers, bench scientists, and like-minded people around the world.

Not surprisingly, the Autodesk Foundation emphasizes technology applications in most of its partnerships. Other firm and business will have special expertise of their own. At one level, of course, the idea of high-tech assistance is simply the extension of an old idea. It was the basis of apprentice hips when professionals worked side-by-side with masters. And it is clear in today's high-tech world that new partnerships are needed to bring schools into the information age. The Autodesk Foundation's insight is to move high-tech assistance from the edge of philanthropy to the center, and by so doing, provide a model of support for education from which the nation as a whole can profit.

Why is technical assistance important? It offers a practical model of business involvement within reach of any firm, no matter how big or small, no matter how profitable or close to the margin. Big firms can put their mouth where their money was (or wasn't, for that matter) and smaller firms, even mom-and-pop operations, can be serious players.

Vol. 12, Issue 39, Page 37

Published in Print: June 23, 1993, as The New Philanthropy: High-Tech Technical Assistance
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