Over the past decade, climate change evidence urged thousands of corporations to think and act beyond the boundaries of policy. Today’s education statistics do the very same thing. Looking more closely at the facts, it’s not difficult to comprehend why.
We’re in a situation where a quarter of our children drop out of high school every year. Two fifths of those who do graduate leave high school unprepared for college or career, while 57 percent lack comprehension of even remedial math. Apparently the national disinterest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) starts early, as over 61 percent of middle schoolers would rather take out the garbage than do their math homework.
This data is particularly troublesome when you consider that in the past ten years, growth in STEM jobs has been three times greater
than that of non-STEM jobs. Going forward this trend is expected to continue. The National Science Foundation estimates that 80 percent of the jobs created in the next decade will require some mastery of technology, math and science. A recent McKinsey study shows that two-thirds of those jobs don’t even exist today.
“There is a huge gap between the skill sets required for the 21st Century economy and the skills sets of students entering the workforce,” says Sandi Everlove, Interim CEO at Washington STEM, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to advancing STEM education across Washington. “This is a challenge that affects every citizen. We all have a vested interest in improving learning outcomes for kids.”
Indeed, education is key to keeping kids confident and America competitive. There is a clear business case for solving this crisis, which is why education is fast becoming the front and center issue for talent-hungry corporations – many of whom view the problem as an opportunity to be seized. Just as with environmental sustainability, corporate investments in education get deeper all the time.
Intel has to date given $1 billion to support education. Target, Cisco and IBM are poised to do the same. And Goldman Sachs, AT&T and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have each donated $100 million or more in recent years. But how effective are these investments in the grand scheme of things? Where’s the ROI? Mainly that depends on the strategies employed.
“Corporations have a role beyond just providing money,” says Everlove. “There’s this tendency to think that we can throw money at the problem and fix it. That’s simply not true. We need capacity building – companies sharing their unique resources in order to fill critical gaps.”
As Everlove indicates, it’s one thing to ‘education-wash,’ donating to a few choice causes and generating some positive publicity. But it’s quite another thing to strengthen a fledgling education system by lending otherwise proprietary human, technical and intellectual capital. Smart companies are finding that the more they do so, the more momentum and demand they create for what they provide, and the smarter they get about innovating around what’s truly needed in the education space. It’s a virtuous cycle of self improvement.
Together with corporate partner Microsoft, Washington STEM aims to elevate the learning experiences of one million kids – bringing next-generation ideas, technologies and curriculum to classrooms across the State. The alliance demonstrates what can happen when private and public entities coordinate agendas to drive needed change. “As a partner, Microsoft does a lot more than give us dollars,” Everlove says. “They really get into the community, roll up their sleeves and help address education problems that are easy for them to solve, but huge for schools to achieve.”
That’s part of a larger social innovation strategy at Microsoft. The company recently shifted all of it’s corporate citizenship efforts toward closing what it characterizes as the opportunity divide – a chasm that separates those who prosper in our society from those who don’t. In addition to providing a profitable portfolio of products like Office 2010 and Kinect for Xbox 360 that help bring education alive for kids, the company also partners with hundreds of NGO’s around the world to help young people gain access to the tools they need in order to realize their full potential. Thus far Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program has channeled $500 million toward education systems around the world, reaching more than 196 million teachers and students in 114 countries.
“Our goal is to embrace the bigness of the challenge that government and society face in terms of transforming education in a holistic way,” says Vice President of Microsoft Worldwide Education Anthony Salcito. “It’s not just about technology. It’s about bringing innovation to schools. How do you personalize the education experience? How do you incorporate new modes of classroom design and curriculum, or think about assessment differently? How do you change a kid’s vision of his future?”
The questions Salcito contemplates are fundamental to the process of reinventing a system that no longer meets the needs of the population it serves. Today’s public schools were designed for 19th century industrialism, not an era of globalization and interconnectivity. Evidence of this inadequacy abounds: Standards and textbooks have grown outdated. Campuses are becoming dreary and homogenized. Teachers are increasingly disenfranchised. Students remain largely uninspired. And as a result, corporations are hard pressed to recruit new talent. These issues require more than federal funding and moderate reforms.
“This is a large task and it can’t be put off,” says Salcito. “We have to acknowledge that learning is shifting away from content memorization to a more relevant, personalized, skill-based foundation. We have to dig deeper, think harder and get more engaged to determine what change is needed and then push the pieces forward. We also have to bring a culture of sustainability to the process of transforming education.”
As part of its sustainable approach to transforming education, Microsoft provides an ecosystem of building blocks that allow great ideas to emerge, grow and spread. For instance, Microsoft’s Imagine Cup encourages students to utilize technology to solve the world’s toughest problems, many of which revolve around education. The company’s Partners in Learning for Schools and Partners in Learning for Teachers programs challenge educators to innovate within the school system. Grants, social capital investments and an innovation tool kit help bring winning concepts to scale. An open source software platform allows people to build new educational content – such as apps, tools and games – that makes products like Kinect and Windows Phone all the more valuable.
“We’re also getting smarter about optimizing our products around what students and teachers really want,” says Salcito. “Their insights help us closely consider how technology can best be used, based on the way people are learning today.”
Aside from making it a smarter and richer company, Microsoft’s ‘opportunity divide’ mission has also revitalized the corporate culture. According to Senior Director of Community Affairs Akhtar Badshah, employees have never been so engaged.
“The new focus on education has really energized our people,” says Badshah. “Aside from giving them a common purpose, it has encouraged them to participate in some very creative and enterprising ways.”
Badshah says that in addition to volunteering over 383,000 hours and raising over $100.5 million for good causes last year, Microsoft employees are also responsible for the ideas behind some of the company’s signature education programs. One example is TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools), an initiative that brings Microsoft employees to high school computer science classes across the country, giving school’s access highly qualified teachers without incurring training or development costs.
“The idea that as a company, we are helping to fill a massive gap is really a catalyst for us,” says Badshah. “We can now better measure, manage and grow our impact, and feel great about what we are doing at the same time.”
We expect to see many more companies invest deeply in education, not simply as a cause-du-jour, but as a means of innovation and marketplace survival.
Christine Arena and Judah Schiller are founders at Aiko, an independent agency dedicated to building brands with purpose.