Innovation, Leadership, Management Education

K-12 Education Reform and Business School

By Bob Bruner-

Darden and UVA’s Curry School of Education announced recently the launch of a new joint degree program, the MBA/M.Ed. in Innovation in Education Reform. I support this enthusiastically, which veteran readers of this blog will find unsurprising (see this and this.) You might ask why a business school should get involved with education reform. Here’s my reply.

In 2009, after the nadir of the Global Financial Crisis, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion before a large audience about the causes and remedies of the crisis. The very last question was from a woman in the back row of the large auditorium who asked, “You’ve talked a lot about the global economic system, but what can WE in this room do to respond to the crisis?” My colleagues on the panel responded in lofty and rather patronizing tones about tax policy, federal regulations, and the Fed’s discount rate—their tone was that “this problem is bigger than you, so just let the experts worry about it.”

When it finally came to my turn to speak, I urged the gathering to fix the public kindergarten-through-12th-grade (K-12) education system in their community and generally in the U.S.

This brought an ovation from the audience. Whether or not the experts get it, certainly the people understand the gravity and urgency of the crisis in public education.

I explained that no amount of government regulation or wealth transfers (taxes on the rich, social safety nets, etc.) will bring back prosperity or restore the jobs that the financial crisis destroyed. We must grow our way out of the malaise. We must create value through entrepreneurship, innovation, and new product development. The greatest barrier to growth is the development of entrepreneurial leadership, and that depends on foundational education. Growth derives from disciplined investment, hard work, and a certain amount of luck. But the odds of success are vastly influenced by training: a founder of microbiology, Louis Pasteur, famously said, “fortune favors the prepared mind.” Our ability to rejuvenate the economy depends on educating the rising generation of talent so that they can invent, renew, and reimagine.

The crisis in K-12 education in the U.S. and in many countries of the world is the demon of the hour. The roots of this crisis are numerous and predate the global financial crisis by decades. Some analysts attribute the crisis to underfunding. Others claim that the educational system is adequately funded but underperforming. Either way, the results are not pretty. The United States ranks 14th among nations in K-12 spending as a percent of GDP, yet spends more per capita on K-12 education than all but one or two other countries. For this, we gain mediocre results (see this for an overview of recent reading and math test results for U.S. children.) Thirty percent of American students drop out before completing high school—and for minority students, the dropout rate is fifty percent. The present system performs worst for the most vulnerable segments of society, the poor and disadvantaged. The crisis in education contributes significantly to the widening income gap and worsening social mobility in the U.S. Whether you come from the right or the left of the political spectrum, if you aren’t angry yet, you aren’t paying attention—see this, this, and this, for starters.

The crisis in public education is a business problem. In my meetings with numerous CEOs and human resources executives, I hear their frustration and anxiety with the preparation that job-seekers bring to the hiring halls: usually the absence of a high school diploma; but even those with diplomas show slow reading, poor comprehension, inability to perform simple arithmetic and algebraic functions, poor mastery of digital technology, inattention, poor work ethic, and so on. Executives complain that they are being taxed twice over: once when they pay taxes to the government (in part to support public education) and again when they must pay to instill basic educational preparation for the employees they do hire. The failures of the educational system drag down the economic competitiveness of America relative to its peers. Iconic business leaders such as Andrew Grove, Jeffrey Immelt and Henry Schacht, Bill Gates, and John Akers and the Business Roundtable have bemoaned the state of K-12 education for years.

The crisis in public education is also a moral challenge. The provision of sound K-12 education is vital to our values as a society, particularly regarding equality of opportunity. Education is the cornerstone of the ability to live the American dream of creating a better life for one’s self than one’s parents or grandparents had. And education is crucial for good citizenship; it is the way we socialize our children into the responsibilities and expectations of members of a democratic society. Thomas Jefferson had this in mind when he founded the University of Virginia and advocated universal primary education. He wrote, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of Constitutional power.”

Business schools should rally around the K-12 education crisis because this is a business and social problem. Darden is doing so and with this new joint program, is raising its commitment. Darden and Curry already collaborate in sponsoring the Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE). This joint venture brings teams of public school administrators and teachers to UVA where instructors from Darden and Curry team up to teach best practices in school turnarounds. PLE has served 82 school districts in 12 states. A business school has useful insights to contribute to the development of leaders in K-12 education. These range across a host of topics, such as: management acumen, the turnaround of failing enterprises, leadership development, forming high-performance work teams, measuring success and using metrics to promote investment and development, and promoting entrepreneurship and innovation within large organizations.

The mission of the Darden School is to “improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs.” Our new joint degree program with the Curry School and our Partnership for Leaders in Education are tangible expressions of that mission.

This new joint degree program is the right program at the right time. It marries the capabilities of two prominent schools in an effort to fight one of the largest problems facing contemporary society. The fields of education and business have considerable intellectual capital to offer in response to the crisis. And each field can learn from the other. Complicated social problems tend not to come neatly packaged for easy remedy by any particular professional field. The partnership of Curry and Darden is exactly the kind of collaboration that the public should demand from professional schools within a major research university.