Today at the White House President Obama is launching Change the Equation (CTEq), a unique and promising partnership coalition of over 100 companies ranging from Facebook and Google to Dow Chemical and Merck, all dedicated to improving science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) education performance in order to solve America's innovation problem.
The announcement comes not a moment too soon. American students rank 21st in science and 25th in math compared with students around the world.
Fittingly, yesterday in D.C. was the red carpet Hollywood-style premiere of "Waiting for 'Superman,'" a powerful new documentary about the public education system directed by Davis Guggenheim, Academy Award winning Director of "An Inconvenient Truth."
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an Op-Ed a few weeks ago applauding "'Waiting for 'Superman'" for demonstrating that Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada's "point is that the only way to fix our schools is not with a Superman or a super-theory. No, it's with supermen and superwomen pushing super-hard to assemble what we know works: better-trained teachers working with the best methods under the best principals supported by more involved parents."
As the film clearly points out, this is an issue that is far from foreign to residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In fact, one of the most powerful moments for me was watching the montage of Presidents who have tried in vain to tackle the challenges of education reform in this country. While Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr. all tried to address education shortcomings, here we are years and decades later still talking about it while our country continues to fall farther behind other nations in science and math performance metrics.
Without looking at any data at all, you probably intuitively know this. While almost no American would casually say, "I can't read," many folks (even myself on more than one occasion) have comfortably admitted, "I'm terrible at math" or "I don't do science."
That's the equation we need to change, and there is no time like the present.
I admit that I am no expert in education, but if it weren't for my second grade teacher Mrs. Dollase -- whose cursive 'D's I still try to emulate but haven't quite mastered -- who helped me to believe I could do whatever I put my mind to, I wouldn't be where I am today. Almost everything I have achieved is because of a teacher's extra nudge and tireless dedication. I am continually amazed at the parents, students, administrators, policymakers and community leaders working ridiculously hard every day trying to help children succeed.
Yet many of us have followed this conversation long enough to recognize there is something systemically wrong with the current education system. Real change cannot take hold in this battle without a fresh perspective and new incentives for everyone to get involved in finding solutions.
There's a poignant moment in "Waiting For 'Superman'" -- when President George W. Bush and the late Senator Ted Kennedy came together on the No Child Left Behind Act -- demonstrating that real change seemed within grasp just a few years ago. But for a variety of reasons the promise many once felt has been lost.
Now Bush's successor, President Obama, has shrewdly approached education reform in a unique manner, reaching beyond the U.S. Treasury for help, going straight to the companies that need America's education system to produce qualified candidates for the technologically advanced jobs of the future.
Unlike efforts of past Oval Office residents that have fallen short, President Obama secured the funding first -- $4.3 billion in fact -- and his tireless team at the White House is constantly looking for partners in the private sector, fully aware that the solution doesn't solely rest in government's hands.
Another promising sign that suggests things might turn out differently this time around is that the President has been successful in inspiring the corporate community to step up in a highly coordinated and strategic fashion.
You can tell something big is happening when top companies -- including Facebook, DreamWorks, Viacom, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, E-Line, Ogilvy, Tesla, Activision and Epic Games to name just a few -- are all united around the single objective of improving the STEM performance and overall innovation prowess of our country's children.
The business community is coming together in an unprecedented manner to form partnerships for purpose, not simply because it feels good or is the right thing to do, but because they know it is the only way to ensure the future workforce is prepared for the types of STEM jobs increasingly in demand in the private sector. They also want to inspire America's next generation of innovators.
"Our mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected - and we need to find the best talent to get there," said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO. "I had great classes and teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Everyone should."
Although no one is pleased with how everything is going in Washington at the moment, there is a need to step back and recognize when good things do happen, and the launch of Change the Equation is such an occasion.
Change The Equation is a true public-private partnership inspired by President Obama's vision and his ability to convene foundations passionate about STEM, such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and key business leaders like Craig Barrett (former CEO of Intel), Glenn Britt (Time Warner Cable), Ursula Burns (Xerox), Antonio Perez (Kodak), Sally Ride (Sally Ride Science), and Rex Tillerson (ExxonMobil), who all united together after being inspired by the President's "Educate to Innovate" initiative last Fall.
Change the Equation is a 501(c)3 non-profit whose primary purpose is to make sure the corporate sector's role in improving STEM achievement is as coordinated as it possibly can be. The leadership of Change the Equation knows there are many premiere efforts in the STEM space but that more could be done to maximize the dot-connecting and leveraging of corporate resources.
CTEq is positioned to serve at the apex of a bi-partisan CEO-to-CEO peer network engaged in public-private partnerships with the White House, US Department of Education, National Governors Association, Business Roundtable, US Chamber of Commerce, and the philanthropic community with the ultimate goal of improving the STEM achievement of our country.
Of course the proof will be in the pudding. Nobody knows whether this coalition of Fortune 500-type organizations can truly move the dial on STEM and restore America's reputation as a leader in innovation. But it sure feels like they're poised to do just that, especially given the motivation and track records of many of the leaders in the coalition.
With the President's bold announcement today echoed by the enthusiasm from the business community coming together like never before to form partnerships for purpose, none of these leaders are waiting for 'Superman' to do their part in tackling the education crisis.
UPDATE: President Obama issued the following statement about Change The Equation today:
"Our success as a nation depends on strengthening America's role as the world's engine of discovery and innovation," said President Obama. "I applaud Change the Equation for lending their resources, expertise, and their enthusiasm to the task of strengthening America's leadership in the 21st century by improving education in science, technology, engineering and math."
And here is a video featuring Energy Secretary Steven Chu and business leaders explaining the importance of efforts to improve STEM education: