Today I attended a session about the relationships between business and education. The session was put on by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a non-profit group that does really good work in my state to improve education on the policy level. The purpose of the session was to discuss how to get businesses more involved in supporting and helping improve education. There were a couple of consultants there who presented some findings of a Harvard Business School study looking at competitiveness in the global economy. Specifically they addressed recent policies or movements that have been most helpful to improving education and student achievement. What struck me about the six bullet points the consultants shared as being the most important for improving public education was that four of them are incredibly controversial in public schools and politically. They were:
- Common Core State Standards
- Race to the Top
- Third-party, independent teaching movements, like Teach for America
- Charter schools
Nobody in the room protested. No one groaned. No one raised a fuss of any kind. Definitely not a public school crowd. So I spoke up, “You know, four of the six items you mentioned are not universally accepted in public schools” (the other two were use of technology in schools and “dynamic” schools, whatever that means). Everyone in the room agreed that this is true. (I should note that I support all of the efforts mentioned, though I do think all of them have room for improvement and all should be iterated on an ongoing basis with data feedback loops.)
So what accounts for this big divide between the perceptions of public school educators and, not only business, but much of society? The same data are available to all of us. Businesses tell us that they can’t fill the high-skill positions that they have available; that kids are graduating high school and passing standardized tests, but not having the skill competencies they need to help advance our economy. Businesses feel that the skill sets described in the Common Core and the problem solving and reasoning skills that are emphasized are exactly what they need kids to be able to do when hired for jobs. And businesses, in short, are looking at the data. They’re looking at PISA scores and NAEP scores and how much is spent on education in the U.S. compared with other developed countries. And guess what, they’re not liking what they see. Then, to boot, they get first-hand experience when high school graduates show up without the skills they need.
On the other hand, you have some educators (some, certainly not all) trying to explain why PISA, and sometimes even NAEP, are not good, representative measures…but without any recommendations of what measures and metrics ought to be used. And those educators among us who continue to say things like, “well, the really important stuff can’t be measured” are not doing us any favors. Because here’s the thing: society isn’t buying that any more. Society, for the most part, believes that the public education system in our country is weak and getting worse. It seems like the only people who believe it’s good and getting better are educators (for example, in the HBS study, when polled, the only respondents who said K12 education was strong and improving were school superintendents).
How can these two beliefs exist simultaneously? It makes me think that we have a huge gap in our respective languages to describe and define success. From what I heard today, businesses define success in education as the production of citizens who have the skills to contribute meaningfully to the workforce and the economy. That’s it, plain and simple. Content, critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, the ability to collaborate and to adapt. And the expectation of business is that there will be competency monitoring along the way so that by the time each student graduates they’ve mastered the skills they need. It’s a pretty unified definition. Yet I don’t think we, as educators, have a unified definition of success in education. And I certainly don’t think we have a definition that matches that of business.
Which begs the question: as educators, are businesses our customers? Do we have a responsibility to deliver a product (i.e., competent performers) that solves their problems? And by extension, is society our customer? If so, how do we deliver on that? And if not, who is our customer? Interested in your thoughts!