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Charting A Better Course for Business and Education

By Joseph M. Piro — January 11, 2011 5 min read
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It’s opening day at Hedge Fund High, a school founded, funded, built, and run only by hedge-fund managers, which has come up with a curriculum in business and economics that prepares students to master the corporate universe. Here students dream of making it on Wall Street and, along the way, network with plenty of contacts to make this dream possible.

Sounds like an education utopia, doesn’t it ... a place where “experts” can circumvent a public education system, liberated from bureaucratic rules and meddling educators to turn out a new American workforce.

What could be wrong with this picture?

Plenty.

We are in the midst of an astonishing occurrence—the involvement of the private sector in an arena that historically has been publicly funded and delivered, namely education. Business professionals continue to dive into education, headfirst, and along the way, have transformed how American students are becoming educated. For example, an assortment of enterprises have benefited from the largess of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation (along with Gates trustee Warren Buffett) has commissioned reports on topics in education and supported the creation of schools and other projects in cities such as Chicago; San Diego; Nashville, Tenn.; and Houston.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, founded by the former CEO of SunAmerica, awards the annual Broad Prize for Urban Education to urban school districts it determines have made the greatest overall improvement in student achievement (the most recent recipient is the Gwinnett County, Ga., school district). And Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent $100 million challenge grant to the Newark, N.J., public schools has been well publicized and hailed as a model of how corporate America can give something back to education. (“Facebook-Driven Newark Overhaul Lurches Forward,” October 6, 2010.)

But, not only is business on the main stage of education, it’s also behind the scenes. In primary races in New York City and Buffalo, N.Y., it was reported that political candidates who expressed support for creating charter schools were beneficiaries of generous donations by Wall Street financiers whose vision of education reform centers largely on creating more charter schools as alternatives to, in their view, the dismal prospect of attending local public schools. In the eyes of corporate America, it seems there is no worse fate. And, of course, there is another recent example: New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s naming of publishing executive Cathleen P. Black as the city’s schools chancellor, a job previously held by a lawyer.

While this approach of blending the resources of business and education is praiseworthy, it hasn't been a completely perfect match. Instead of establishing business and education dream teams, what has resulted is a business vs. education face-off.

Borrowing a phrase from Shakespeare, we should come to praise these efforts, not to bury them. The support American schools have received from the business sector has been instrumental in encouraging experimentation and reform entrepreneurship, prodding members of the educational establishment to take more risk in what they do. However, while this approach of blending the resources of business and education is praiseworthy, it hasn’t been a completely perfect match. Instead of establishing business and education dream teams, what has resulted is a business vs. education face-off.

Why is this so? Perhaps many education professionals feel they have been erased by the business sector, devalued as credible partners in the reform process, and serve only as continuous targets of teacher-bashing. Educators have been labeled obstacles and, consequently, viewed as having little to add to a newly hatching culture of reform, innovation, and change. These kinds of feelings contribute to the uneasy alliance that has emerged between two sides that do not much trust each other.

The rationale for the business sector to involve itself in education appears to be based on the phenomenon known as knowledge transfer. In this process, skills and training in one knowledge area “transfer” over to another. Since these areas, seemingly, resemble one another, this “near transfer” process is easily accomplished. Because education, at least on the surface, resembles business—both have budgets and customers, and both engage in competition—knowledge in one area can easily transfer to the other. But is this really the case?

Cognitive-science research on transfer has shown one of the critical factors in its success is possessing a threshold of knowledge. In other words, you’ve got to know what you’re doing and be good at it. In research that I’ve conducted with colleagues, we’ve looked at knowledge transfer by asking whether ability in one subject crosses over and makes one equally good at another. As an example, we studied how mathematicians analyze music, hypothesizing that their approach would, for the most part, be the same as musicians’. After all, isn’t music experienced “mathematically,” with its time signatures, note values, and ratios? Well, it turns out that, when it came to music, this really wasn’t the case. We found mathematicians approached music as “holists” rather than “analyzers” largely because they lacked the content-area knowledge and background required to get “inside” the music. Experience with music not only mattered; it was essential.

If the business world continues its interest in public education—and this seems very likely—both fields will be best served if each other’s skill sets and backgrounds are acknowledged, respected, and correctly used. Many educators consider corporate encroachments into their field similar to a hostile takeover by people who deprofessionalize teaching, undermine educators’ authority, and delegitimize public education. Business professionals are equally suspicious of educators they feel enable toxic practices that merely feather their own nests to protect a status quo. However, if public schools are to remain responsive and alert to changing public ideals, educators will have to find ways to make their values coexist with ones compatible with a broader “business” agenda, and business professionals will need to acknowledge they value the know-how of seasoned and dedicated educators.

Introducing any business model to redesign education, however bold and noble the intent, will require more time and testing before total success can be declared. We’ve already seen some results of this blend of professions—recruiting individuals from careers such as law, media, the military, and finance to become educators, introducing new rewards and incentive systems for exemplary classroom performance, and creating a “bottom line/no excuses” culture powered by strategic thinking. If the formidable forces of business can be mustered to mold students into better thinkers and workers and make America a more productive, competitive society, they should be given every opportunity to prove their worth. But remember that, along the way to the opening day of Hedge Fund High, if anyone has any questions about education, to be smart—and brave enough—to ask a teacher.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Charting A Better Course for Business and Education

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