12/23/2013 11:10 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

School-Business Collaboration as a Model for Supporting Public Education

As we come to the end of this whirlwind year in education reform, leading education blogger Alexander Russo recently summarized The Most Notable Education Stories of 2013. There was plenty of fodder for the list, including the debates over Common Core, teacher evaluation and standardized testing, urban school closures and budget shortfalls, the sequestration and shuttering of Head Start programs, and the comeback of "soft skills" like persistence, determination and "grit" in our classrooms.

As interesting as Russo's list is, I think there's a trend missing, if only because it hasn't been widely reported on by the media: the business community's growing desire to support our public schools and prepare our students for the demands of the 21st Century, and educators' growing need for business volunteers' support, expertise and insight.

It's no coincidence that as the recently released Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results show that U.S. students continue to lag behind their international counterparts, successful models of school-business collaboration are gaining national attention. Two months ago, President Obama visited Brooklyn's Pathways in Technology Early College High School (PTECH) in Brooklyn, a school he referenced in his State of the Union address last January. Created through a partnership with the New York City Department of Education, IBM and The City University of New York, PTECH enables students to pursue a six-year program that provides them with an Associate's Degree and puts them first-in-line for IBM jobs upon graduation.

That visit had special significance: President Obama recently announced a $100 million program to provide competitive grants to schools that emphasize public-private partnerships like those that laid the foundation at PTECH. Chicago has opened four PTECH-inspired schools, and in N.Y.C., the Department of Education announced plans to open three more schools based on the PTECH model in 2014.

The PTECH model is an intensive one, and while it's inspiring that IBM has invested so heavily in this particular model, not all companies have the resources to create a brand new school. The good news is that there are other models that enable businesses across the spectrum to have a deep impact on schools in their community.

In New York City, PENCIL's partnership model brings together school and business leaders who leverage their collective talent and expertise to meet critical school needs. The most comprehensive evaluation of PENCIL's program to date recently found that school-business collaborations are having a greater impact on improving school and student performance than ever before: 90 percent of participating principals say their work with a business partner improved their school culture and/or student performance.

What does this impact look like? Stronger School Leaders.

A growing body of evidence shows how critical strong school leadership is to student performance. In fact, great principals can effectively add two to seven months of learning time to the school year.

  • More than four out of five principals say that their experience working with business volunteers to master core business skills and refine their leadership skills, helped them hone their strategic decision-making.

  • Three-quarters report that the same training helped them more clearly communicate their school's vision and mission. Not surprisingly, when principals partner with business volunteers, their teachers are more likely to describe them as effective leaders.
  • College and Career-Ready Graduates.

    In addition to core academic skills, it's increasingly clear how important critical thinking, problem-solving and non-academic skills, like persistence and determination, are to success beyond high school.
    • 90 percent of principals report an increase in their students' awareness of the college or career options available to them after learning from business volunteers, while 88 percent say students are better able to connect academic experiences with the professional world after their experiences working with these volunteers.
    • 98 percent of PENCIL Fellows -- student participants in a comprehensive career readiness program that includes a paid six-week summer internship -- say their experience influenced their future academic or career paths.

    What Creates This Type of Impact?

    It takes more than the willingness to volunteer to make a difference. But any school and business can take steps toward helping students reach their potential by following a few basic principles:

    1. Align Business Skills with School Needs: The best way to create positive school change is to begin by assessing the school community and identifying its unique needs and challenges. Then, consider what business skills and energies can be leveraged and put to work to address those specific needs.
    2. Set Clear Expectations and Reasonable Goals: Just as with any personal or professional project, especially where collaboration is involved, both parties need to have a clear understanding of what's expected of them as partners, and they need to agree on what they can achieve together. Imagine the disappointment of everyone involved if one or both parties fail to deliver.
    3. Measure Impact : The old adage "cut once, measure twice" bears repeating: Plan to measure -- and how to measure -- your progress from the outset of your relationship. You'll have greater impact, and those involved will feel more fulfilled when they see what has been achieved.
    4. Foster Communication: Just like any healthy relationship, partners should foster open and ongoing communication. This enables transparency, makes it much easier to recalibrate plans as needed, and avoids hurt feelings or discomfort along the way.

    Schools and businesses are their own unique worlds, with their own particular challenges, skills, resources and solutions. Our experience has demonstrated that incorporating a strong support structure is especially helpful to building successful school-business collaborations, and maximizing impact. But adhering to the above best practices, and relying on existing models of collaboration, will put you on a path to progress.

    As more and more schools and businesses across the country pursue this unique dynamic that combines school and business expertise, we've been reminded of and inspired by the fact that so many leaders outside of education are taking responsibility for and investing their intellectual capital in our students -- and our future.

    Brand new schools like PTECH and ongoing partnerships based on the principles I've outlined above, are just a few models of collaboration that are creating positive outcomes for our schools and students. But there are so many more just waiting to be created. I expect that these models -- and the partners that use them -- will be an even bigger story in 2014.