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Why It's Time to Rethink the Role of Business in Education

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Image courtesy of PENCIL

In an elegant 2010 TED talk about transforming education, Sir Ken Robinson said something excruciatingly poignant. He said:

We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it's impoverishing our spirits and our energy as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.

He's right. Most students aren't engaged the way they should be, and their individual talents are not nurtured and celebrated nearly enough. On the contrary, in many schools individuality is shunned, which results in little to no communication skills or desire to collaborate among students.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the country's high school graduation rate has reached 80 percent, the highest in American history. While this number is promising, an estimated 1 million students still will not graduate, meaning 1 million students will not have the same opportunities their graduating peers will have. This is more than a problem; it's a national emergency that needs to be addressed for the sake of America's prosperity and competitive edge.

In 1970, the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were reading, writing and arithmetic. In 1999, the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving and interpersonal communication. We need schools to develop these proficiencies in young people, which is why making business leaders an integral part of our education system is crucial.

The New York City-based nonprofit PENCIL creates and supports school-business collaboration that aligns business expertise to address public school needs. Working with corporations and professional networks to identify experienced volunteers, the organization concentrates in five areas of focus including College and Career Readiness, School Leadership, Family Engagement, Engagement and Infrastructure.

Said Gayle Villani, PENCIL's vice president of programs:

We've seen so many different ways that businesses contribute their skills, insights, resources and passion to help our schools. For more than 10 years, Ogilvy & Mather has worked with PENCIL to bring "The Future Marketers Program" to New York City Schools, showing students how to storyboard advertising ideas, segment their target markets, and work with budgets to determine who to advertise to and how.

Advancing education and helping students fully meet their potential helps cultivate great employees and successful companies. This is just one of the many reasons the level of business-school collaboration needs to go deeper than corporations making donations to schools and sponsoring scholarships. According to the report "Lasting Impact: A Business Leader's Playbook for supporting America's Schools," 90 percent of reported business engagements in schools showed positive results. However, most of the involvements were "fragmented instances of checkbook philanthropy."

In PENCIL's case, the businesses working with the organization are taking a much more hands-on approach.

Villani continued:

In the area of school leadership, JetBlue Airways President and CEO Dave Barger helped then Principal Monica George overhaul her school's entire culture by adding incentive programs for teachers, revamping the school's teacher lounge, putting up a rewards blackboard in a public space, and even playing music when people entered the building.

Harnessing technology for social change, PENCIL is working with companies developing tools to help schools assess their students' academic progress. The international consulting firm A.T. Kearney created an original data system that provides real-time feedback on student outcomes. In Staten Island, Computer Technology Consultant Inc.'s Warren Black brought VR Quest to the students at PS 3. Villani says VR Quest allows students to design and play in educational, virtual reality video games based on themes such as "Life On Mars," Egypt Quest," or "How To Be A Hero."

In the ever-evolving digital age, the aforementioned technology and business-driven collaboration should be paramount across school districts nationwide and in the public and private sectors. Because let's face it, we can wait on the government to establish more effective education reform, but our students and our country don't have time to spare. The next level of power and influence is business. Let's make it count for something beyond capitalism.

This post was originally published on The Toolbox, a new technology and social change platform founded by Peter Gabriel.